The History of the Aircraft Carrier

How were aircraft carriers first developed, and which countries made them? Find out here.

The History of the Aircraft Carrier

What do you know about the history of the aircraft carrier? A lot of people are curious about how aircraft carriers function and how they were developed, so let’s find out more about them.

Aircraft carriers were invented during the tail end of World War I, but they weren’t utilized until later. The first aircraft to take off from the deck of a ship was likely one flown by Eugene Ely, an American. This happened in 1910. The first ship to have a flat deck for takeoff was a British one, the HMS Argus.

We are going to find out more about the history of the aircraft carrier, including how it developed after WWI, which countries were involved in making these ships, and who made the first flight from a deck.

When Were Aircraft Carriers First Developed?

Aircraft carriers as we know them today started their development in the early 1900s. The first plane to take flight from an aircraft carrier was flown by Eugene Ely, from the deck of the US’s Birmingham. The ship had been adapted, with an 83 foot wooden platform rigged up over it to provide room for takeoff.

Ely made this flight in 1910, and the flight was considered a success, although the plane’s propeller was damaged. In 1911, he managed to reverse the feat by landing on the deck of the Birmingham. Neither of these operations went perfectly smoothly, but both were successful.

However, it was Britain that first converted a ship for the purposes of carrying and launching aircraft, arguably creating the first aircraft carrier. They converted the HMS Argus into a ship with a full length deck for the craft to launch and land on. This was achieved in 1918. This ship:

  • Was adapted from an Italian liner called Conte Rosso
  • Was purchased by the navy in 1916 with the intention of converting her into an aircraft carrier
  • Was carrying around 15 aircraft by the 1920s
  • Was used in WWII
  • Frequently provided air cover in naval battles and was repeatedly redesigned and refitted to help with the World War II effort
  • Was often used in training exercises
  • Was finally scrapped in 1946

Although the Argus may have been the first aircraft carrier, it was by no means the only one, and other countries were not far behind in their development of these vessels. It quickly became clear how vital they would be to naval warfare, and other countries swiftly started developing their own aircraft carriers in the early 1920s.

How Did The Early Flights Go?

Both of Eugene Ely’s early flights were successful, although not perfect. The pilot took off in a 50 hp Curtiss plane, using a wooden platform on top of the ship as a runway. He dipped too low and broke the propeller in the spray, but landed successfully on a nearby beach.

In 1911, he managed to make a landing on an improvised wooden deck (from a coastal start). Again, there were some hiccups in the flight, but it was considered a success, and he flew back to shore only an hour later.

This spectacular display and proof that it was possible may have been what inspired the development of the aircraft carrier. Ely’s success demonstrated the concept, but proved that ship design was lacking, and may therefore have prompted the development of aircraft carriers as we know them today.

Certainly, without Ely, there is a chance that aircraft carriers would have been in development for significantly longer, with less urgency to drive them forward.

What Did The US Development Of Early Aircraft Carriers Look Like?

The first countries to develop early aircraft carriers, besides Britain, were the US and Japan. The US converted the USS Langley in 1920, and also developed some “flying off” platforms on some of its battleships. None of these offered the same functionality as the fully converted flight carriers, however.

The 1922 Washington Naval Treaty may have slowed the development of aircraft carriers to a degree. The treaty limited the amount of tonnage permitted by Britain, Japan, and America, as well as Italy and France. This meant that several nations had to scrap their current construction projects, and over 60 major warship projects were halted.

However, conversions were still permitted under the treaty, so the US went on to create two huge ships into fighting flattops. The Saratoga and the USS Lexington were developed. These were immensely powerful and fast ships.

As time went on, the US continued developing aircraft carriers, and had added another 5 to its fleet by the middle of the 1930s. Some of the more famous ships include the Enterprise, the Yorktown Sisters, and the Ranger. The US’s development of them shaped the course of aircraft carriers.

What Aircraft Carriers Did Japan Build?

Japan was also involved in the unofficial arms race to create aircraft carriers that could hold their own. In 1922, they developed Hosho. With the help of British naval architects, they went on to build multiple carriers – and one famous one, Kongo, was built in Britain. There were strong links between the Japanese navy and the British navy, so this is not surprising.

Japan also created the Kaga, a formidable and fast aircraft carrier that could carry 90 planes, and sail at speeds of around 33 knots. This was the only ship capable of matching the US’s Lexington and Saratoga. Development continued, with a methodical approach to landing and testing, but it was slower in Japan than in Britain or the US.

What Are Balloon Carriers?

Balloon carriers are considered the very first aircraft carriers, although they were very different from today’s version of this vessel. Balloon carriers were used as far back as the 19th century, and they were ships to which you could anchor hot air balloons. This allowed naval presences to take to the air, albeit in balloons, not planes.

As early as 1849, the Austrian navy was using hot air balloons to try to bomb Venice (which failed) and in America, the US government used balloons for observation of the Confederate armies. Being able to anchor these balloons to ships made them more versatile and increased their functionality considerably.

What Do Aircraft Carriers Look Like Today?

Today, aircraft carriers are bigger and more powerful than ever before. Several countries are currently operating “Supercarriers,” which are particularly large vessels designed to carry many planes. Some of these ships can launch a plane every 25 seconds, and may stand more than 20 stories above the surface of the water.

It's obvious that a lot has changed. For comparison, the Argus was able to launch and land 3 aircraft in 40 minutes by 1921, and could carry only around 13 planes. Aircraft carriers today massively increase the power of a water-based force by permitting aerial observation and warfare, and can make the difference between victory and defeat.


Hopefully, you now know everything you wanted to about the history of the aircraft carrier. It was first developed around the early twentieth century, and major players included Britain, America, and Japan. Britain created the first aircraft carrier, but it was an American citizen who first launched and landed a plane on a modified ship, proving the concept and fueling the interest in building these crafts.