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A History of Aviation

Updated on February 11, 2019
James A Watkins profile image

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers were entrepreneurs who built, rented, and sold bicycles in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) possessed the skills to make their own tools and began to make home-made engines. They were avid readers who loved to solve problems. They were ingenious, persistent, and courageous men.

The Wright Brothers focused not only how to build a flying machine, but how to achieve balance and control to fly it. Wilber caught a clue from watching buzzards move the feathers on their wingtips while soaring, and decided the wing of a flying machine must mimic this. Thus, he devised a way to warp wings using cables.

The US Weather Bureau recommended a tiny beach town on the coast of North Carolina, Kitty Hawk, to test out the flying machine created by the Wright Brothers. The 12hp engine had been designed and made by an assistant, Charles Taylor. In December, 1903, the Wright Brothers attained the first powered flights in human history. The "Wright Flyer" flew 852 feet in 59 seconds that first day.

THE FIRST CONTROLLED POWERED FLIGHT BY THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, 1903
THE FIRST CONTROLLED POWERED FLIGHT BY THE WRIGHT BROTHERS, 1903
GLENN CURTISS
GLENN CURTISS
HENRI FARMAN FLIES!
HENRI FARMAN FLIES!

Pioneers of Aviation

The success of the flying machine invented by the Wright Brothers was too incredible to be believed by most people at first. The main newspaper in Paris declared Wilbur Wright "not a flier, but a liar." Upset by this headline, the Wright Brothers traveled to France in August, 1908, to demonstrate that man could fly. Their flying machine flew at Le Mans for 1 minute 45 seconds at a height of 30ft, including a graceful banked turn and a smooth landing.

The Wrights Brothers soon became two of the most famous people in the world. The last day of 1908, Wilbur flew for 2 hours and 20 minutes, soaring to an altitude of 360ft. In 1909, one million people gathered to watch Wilbur fly above the Hudson River in New York.

Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930) of New York created the first aircraft controlled by ailerons—hinged surfaces attached to the wing. Glenn Curtiss had also been in the bicycle business before building and racing motorcycles. He later went on to build the largest airplane factory in the world and produce 6,813 of the most popular airplane in the world for decades: the Curtiss Jenny.

Henri Farman (1874-1958) was the son of a British journalist living in France. He moved from bicycle racing to automobile racing to flying machines. Farman made the first cross-country flight in an airplane, covering 17 miles in 20 minutes, and in 1909 flew a record 112 miles on a single flight.

This made Henri Farman famous and wealthy. With his brother Maurice, he set up an aircraft factory that employed 1,000 workers and would produce 12,000 military aircraft for France during World War One.

JORGE CHAVEZ
JORGE CHAVEZ
HARRIET QUIMBY
HARRIET QUIMBY
BELGIAN AVIATRIX HELENE DUTRIEU
BELGIAN AVIATRIX HELENE DUTRIEU

Records Are Made to Be Broken

Jorge Chavez of Paris astounded the world in 1910 when he flew to an altitude of 8,127ft. Later that year, he accepted a challenge to fly over the Alps from Switzerland to Italy. He made it to the desired destination, but crashed on landing and died.

Henri Fabre designed and built the first seaplane in 1910.

Many flying schools were founded in the 1910s, mostly in France.

In these early days, a serious problem for pilots was getting lost. Most would navigate by following roads, railroad lines, or rivers.

In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first licensed female pilot in the United States.

That same year, Helene Dutrieu, a champion bicyclist from Belgium, set a new world speed record by flying 150 miles in 3 hours.

The most dangerous part of flying has always been landing. During aviation's earliest years there were a multitude of horrendous accidents. Mechanical failures and crash-landings were routine. Death and injury were accepted. In 1910 and 1911, 10 percent of the world's 600 pilots were killed.

Charles Rolls, the English automobile manufacturer, was killed in 1910 when the airplane he was flying suffered mechanical failure.

In 1911, an aircraft plunged into a crowd of dignitaries just outside of Paris, causing death and mayhem. The death toll of pilots and spectators caused the French government to ban flying over crowds and towns.

Still, hundreds of thousands of people continued to attend aircraft races between the "magnificent men in their flying machines."

Pilots were rewarded financially for their skill and bravery. But that was hardly the only motivation: "beautiful women from the theatre and nightclubs hung around the flying field . . . unstinting of their favors to their current heroes."

Aerial Acrobatics

 

Adolphe Pegoud, a young Frenchman, pioneered acrobatic flying in 1912.  He amazed audiences—and other pilots—with his "loop-the-loop" stunt and flying upside down. 

Air show acrobatics greatly advanced flying techniques and understanding of controlled flight.  Dangerous daredevil maneuvers to entertain crowds would soon be used in World War One dogfights. 

In 1912, American Albert Berry became the first person to ever jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute.  He landed safely in St. Louis, Missouri, from a height of 1500ft.  Skydiving was born. 

THE DEPERDUSSIN MONOPLANE
THE DEPERDUSSIN MONOPLANE

The Deperdussin

 

In 1912, the Deperdussin Aviation Company of France unveiled the revolutionary Monocoque Racer.  It was designed by a gifted young engineer named Louis Bechereau.  It was the fastest airplane yet built, and set a new speed record of 108mph.

The Deperdussin was made with a hollow wooden skin and no framework, quite similar to modern fuselages.  Before this, airplanes were made by covering a frame with varnished cloth. 

Another remarkable innovation in the Deperdussin was a new flight control system utilizing a wheel on top of the control stick—common still today in many aircraft.  Nonetheless, biplanes became the most common flying machines of the 1910s. 

ALCOCK AND BROWN FLY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
ALCOCK AND BROWN FLY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

Flying Across the Atlantic Ocean

 

In 1919, a US Navy NC-4 Curtiss flying boat became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean, as it flew from Newfoundland to Portugal with a fuel stop in the Azores.  That flight was soon followed by the first non-stop crossing by Brits John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in a Vickers Vimy bomber. 

Alcock and Brown performed their feat to win a $50,000 prize offered by a newspaper.  They had few instruments, and those they had were unreliable.  Alcock and Brown were battered by hail and heavy snow.  The nearly frozen Brown actually climbed out onto the wings to cut away ice that formed on the engines with a pocketknife.  The engine roar was deafening.  They were buffeted by turbulence and blinded by lightning.  Alcock and Brown flew from Newfoundland to Ireland—1,890 miles in an open cockpit—sometimes only 100ft above the waves. 

TWO MEN PLAY TENNIS ON AN AIRCRAFT WING HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH
TWO MEN PLAY TENNIS ON AN AIRCRAFT WING HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH
THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO JUMP FROM ONE AIRPLANE TO ANOTHER
THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO JUMP FROM ONE AIRPLANE TO ANOTHER

BARNSTORMERS

The majority of aircraft manufacturers went bankrupt or began making other products after WWI. Nevertheless, the 1920s and 1930s are considered the Golden Age of Aviation. Pilots were widely celebrated as heroes.

Jack Savage of Britain pioneered skywriting in 1922. Airplanes were soon put to work in crop dusting and aerial photography. Hollywood hired many ex-military pilots for stunt work in motion pictures.

Aerial daredevils "barnstormed" America in the 1920s, performing acrobatics and wing-walking for circuses and at fairs. Some wild and crazy guys even leapt from one airplane to another up in the sky. "Gypsy fliers" traveled to the remote parts of the country and offered airplane rides for one dollar.

A black woman, Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), became a famous novelty on the barnstorming circuit. "Queen Bess" grew up in the cotton fields of Texas. She moved to Chicago and became a beautician before attaining her pilot's license in 1921. She died in a crash while practicing in Jacksonville, Florida.

ROSS AND KEITH SMITH, AWESOME AUSTRALIAN AVIATORS
ROSS AND KEITH SMITH, AWESOME AUSTRALIAN AVIATORS

Long Distance Flight

Australian aviator brothers Ross and Keith Smith set a world record when they flew a Vickers Vimy from England to Australia—12,000 miles—in less than 28 days.

John Macready and Oakley Kelly made the first non-stop flight across the United States in a Fokker T-2 with a 420hp Liberty engine in 1923. In 27 hours, they had flown the 2,650 miles that separates Long Island, New York from San Diego, California.

Two US Army Douglass World Cruisers circumnavigated the globe in 1924. The 26,345 mile journey took five months.

In 1926, two German Junker G 24s flew from Berlin to Peking and back—via Moscow—covering 12,000 miles of mostly empty land with no maps, airfields, weather reports, or spare parts.

The sight of airplanes flying across the sky astonished primitive peoples. Natives with spears and shields were awestruck by machines overhead and many thought it must be the gods.

AEROPOSTALE ADVERTISING POSTER
AEROPOSTALE ADVERTISING POSTER

AEROPOSTALE

Airplanes were first used to carry the mail by Earle Ovington in 1911. The US Army used airmail in 1918, and the first civilian routes were established a year later. US Airmail pilots were tough customers and well armed to protect the mail against thieves. They flew without maps or reliable compasses, using landmarks to navigate such as water towers and church steeples. One of those mail pilots was a former military flyer and barnstormer—Charles Lindbergh.

Aeropostale was the French firm that founded the first international airmail service in 1919, from France to Morocco. By 1928, it had developed a route across the Atlantic Ocean of sorts—by plane from France to Dakar, Africa; by ship to Natal, Brazil; then by plane to Rio de Janeiro. Aeropostale was based in Toulouse.

Airmail pilots were an elite group of adventurers that began to fly regular routes across some of the earth's most inhospitable terrains. The development of airmail led directly to the establishment of airfields and weather forecasting services.

 

CHARLES LINDBERGH
CHARLES LINDBERGH
CHARLES LINDBERGH MOBBED BY A CROWD OF 100,000 IN PARIS AFTER FLYING SOLO ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
CHARLES LINDBERGH MOBBED BY A CROWD OF 100,000 IN PARIS AFTER FLYING SOLO ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh was the 25-year-old son of a Minnesota Congressman in 1927 when he became the latest pilot to attempt a solo flight from New York to Paris—3,600 miles. Six airmen had died trying.

Lindbergh had no radio and no sextant—only two compasses and an airspeed indicator. Flying over the ocean he had no visual references but he had plenty of storm clouds, freezing cold that iced his wings, and toward the end, dense fog.

Lindbergh packed five sandwiches and two canteens of water. Staying awake for 33 1/2 hours straight would be the most daunting obstacle to overcome. He fought off hallucinations and mirages and made it safely. Charles Lindbergh was the most famous man on the planet. Four million people attended the ensuing parade through New York City.

After Lindbergh's flight, enthusiasm for aviation amongst business investors and the public at large surged. Investment capital was poured into makers of engines, propellers, and airplanes. Companies sprang up to train pilots and others to provide air transport. City governments nationwide began a mass building of airports.

Advances in Navigation

 

The US Army created the first lighted airfield in the world in 1923 by using flashing markers and rotating beacons.  Before long, lines of beacons—50ft towers with a rotating lamp and mirror on top that produced a beam similar to that of a lighthouse—were installed across the United States, ten miles apart, to aid in nighttime navigation.  By 1930, a pilot was never out of visual range of a beacon (in clear weather). By 1933, there were 18,000 miles of lighted airways in the United States. 

To solve the remaining problem of flying in inclement weather, radio navigation stations were established at 200-mile intervals along the airways to transmit radio beams, which were "visible" to a receiver in an airplane cockpit.  This would let pilots know if they were "on the beam."  And by the 1930s most airplanes were equipped with two-way radios for air-to-ground communications. 

JIMMY DOOLITTLE
JIMMY DOOLITTLE

Jimmy Doolittle

Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993) was from California. He flew for the Army in WWI; became the first man to fly across the United States in less than 24 hours in 1922; achieved fame as a stunt pilot, barnstormer, test pilot, and aircraft racer; and led the Tokyo bombing raids in 1942 as a senior commander in the US Air Force.

A serious hindrance to the advancement of aviation was that pilots became disoriented when they lost visual feedback while in clouds or fog, and over water. In 1929, Jimmy Doolittle taxied out, took off, flew 15 miles through an irregular course, and landed—all while wearing a light-proof hood that cut him off from outside vision. He had made the first flight by instruments in history.

ELMER SPERRY
ELMER SPERRY

Elmer Sperry

Elmer Sperry was yet another of the thousands of European-American men who were fantastic inventors. The first "blind flight" ever by Jimmy Doolittle was made possible because Sperry had invented an altimeter 20 times more accurate than any previously made.

Elmer Sperry invented the "artificial horizon" and the gyrocompass for aircraft. When Wiley Post, a one-eyed American, flew around the planet by himself in 1933—the first man to ever do so—his Lockheed Vega was equipped with a prototype of the autopilot invented by Elmer Sperry.

The Lockheed Vega was briefly a state-of-the-art machine. It was designed after the initial experiments conducted using wind tunnels to study aerodynamics. However, the Vega had a fixed undercarriage and was made of wood (spruce) and thus was quickly out-of-date.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL, BERLIN, 1925
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL, BERLIN, 1925

Air Traffic Control

In 1926, the Air Commerce Act was passed by the US Congress. Under this law, all pilots and mechanics had to apply for a license, with the former required to undergo a physical examination by a qualified doctor, a fight test observed by a government bureaucrat, and witnesses brought forth who would attest to his "good moral character." All commercial aircraft and engines also had to be inspected by the Department of Commerce.

The first air-traffic control tower was built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1930. By 1935, 20 other cities had adopted the same concept. At first, the controller was high in a tower at the airport where pilots could see him waving a green flag—meaning it is safe to land or takeoff—or a red flag meaning it is not safe yet. These were soon replaced with a light gun that fired a red or green flare.

After 1936, pilots who would be flying aircraft on instruments were required to file a flight plan prior to departure with federal airway-traffic controllers. Pilots did not always accept these new disciplines with good grace. A certain edginess developed between pilots and air traffic controllers that remains to this day.

AMERLIA EARHART WITH HER LOCKHEED VEGA
AMERLIA EARHART WITH HER LOCKHEED VEGA
AMELIA EARHART AND HER LOCKHEED ELECTRA BEFORE LAST FLIGHT
AMELIA EARHART AND HER LOCKHEED ELECTRA BEFORE LAST FLIGHT

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was an average amateur pilot when she was invited to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Her publicist—later her husband—had been looking for a female Charles Lindberg to promote, and thought Earhart had the good looks and personality perfectly suited for it.

In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, in her Lockheed Vega.

Two years earlier, an English woman named Amy Johnson had flown alone from England to Australia in a de Havilland Moth.

In 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The brave exploits of these pilots fired the public imagination.

In 1937, Amelia Earhart set out in her Lockheed Electra along with navigator Fred Noonan to fly around the world. They flew eastward from Oakland, California, and within two months (and 22,000 miles) reached New Guinea. From there Earhart, visibly exhausted, took off for the next-to-the last-leg of the journey and was never seen again.

EARLY WIND TUNNEL, LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER IN VIRGINIA
EARLY WIND TUNNEL, LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER IN VIRGINIA

The Golden Age of Aviation

 

Airplanes had advanced by leaps and bounds technologically by the 1930s.  The biplanes were no longer manufactured by the end of the decade.  Monoplanes with all-metal stressed-skin construction were produced on assembly lines utilizing new aluminum alloys.  The power-to-weight ratio of engines increased dramatically, with some producing over 1000hp.   

Wind tunnels had led to the discovery that fixed undercarriages caused 40 percent of the drag on an airplane, which led to retractable undercarriages.  Flaps came into vogue, used to change the shape of the wing at various speeds. 

Aircraft racing peaked in popularity in the 1930s.  Famous racing pilots such as Roscoe Turner were also consummate showman.  In 1934, the longest air race ever was held—from England to Melbourne, Australia.  The winning team traversed the 11,300 miles in barely over two days—a distance that had taken the Smith brothers nearly 28 days fifteen years earlier.  

Howard Hughes (1905-1976) began racing airplanes in 1934.  The following year, he founded Hughes Aircraft to design his own racing aircraft, the H-1.  In 1935, Hughes flew it to a new world speed record of 352mph.  In 1938, Howard Hughes flew around the world in a Lockheed Super Electra in record time: 91 hours.

In 1909, the top speed of an aircraft had been 48mph.  By 1939, it was 469mph.  Seaplanes—not hampered by runway length for takeoff and landing—were some of the fastest flying machines. 

Attainment of these incredible speeds and the conquering of such awesome distances by airplanes were not without cost.  Hundreds of great young pilots, including Wiley Post, Harry Hawker, and Amelia Earhart, lost their lives.  

THE PIPER CUB
THE PIPER CUB

Piper Aircraft

 

Piper Aircraft was formed in 1937 by Pennsylvania oilman William Piper.  He is called "the Henry Ford of Aviation" because his concept was to mass-produce a low-cost, simple-to-operate airplane for private pilots.  Piper Aircraft has sold over 144,000 airplanes, of which more than 90,000 are still flying. 

Piper first scored enormous success with the Piper Cub, which came on the scene in 1937. During its eleven year run, approximately 20,000 were sold.  This made the Piper Cub the best know, most popular aircraft in the world.  Thousands more later variants of the Piper Cub were built before production ended in 1981.

Piper long dominated the small aircraft market.  When Piper sold its 100,000th bird in 1977, it had produced one-tenth of all aircraft ever built in the world.  Because Piper Comanches and Cherokees were ubiquitous, commercial pilots were known to call low-altitude airspace "Indian Territory." 

V-TAIL BEECHCRAFT BONANZA
V-TAIL BEECHCRAFT BONANZA

BEECHCRAFT

Walter Beech founded Beechcraft in 1932.

Beech scored a huge hit with the Beechcraft Bonanza, the aircraft model that has had the longest production run of any airplane in the history of the world—from 1947 and still in production today.

Over 17,000 Beechcraft Bonanzas have been sold.

The original Bonanza featured a distinctive V-shaped tail, of which 6,000 are still flying.

The other especially noteworthy Beechcraft is the turboprop King Air, in continuous production since 1964.

7,000 King Airs have been built.

 

THE BEST-SELLING AIRCRAFT OF ALL TIME: THE CESSNA 172
THE BEST-SELLING AIRCRAFT OF ALL TIME: THE CESSNA 172

Cessna Aircraft

 

Clyde Cessna was a farmer from Kansas when he became the first person between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains to build and fly an aircraft in 1911.  Cessna Aircraft was founded in 1927.

Cessna Aircraft has sold more airplanes than any other manufacturer in the world—190,000.  It also produced the best-selling airplane ever, the 172.  Well over 40,000 172s have been sold.  It has been in continuous production since 1956. 

Since 1969, Cessna has also been a leader in the production of jet aircraft with its family of Cessna Citations. 

BILL LEAR: GENIUS INVENTOR
BILL LEAR: GENIUS INVENTOR
LEARJET MODEL 35A
LEARJET MODEL 35A

Enter the Learjet

Bill Lear (1902-1978) was a genius. Like Mark Twain, he hailed from Hannibal, Missouri.

Bill Lear came from an unsettled family background and never finished the eighth grade in school. He invented the first practical automobile radio in 1932, and then began a career inventing cockpit instruments for airplanes.

In 1947, Bill Lear invented the first autopilot for jets—becoming rich in the process. In the 1960s, he invented the stereo 8 track tape player, designed for automobiles.

Bill Lear developed the first business jet, the eponymously named Learjet. The original Learjet Model 23 entered service in 1964. The Learjet became so famous that still today many people call any small jet a Learjet in the same way the name brands "Coke" and "Kleenex" came to be used.

In 1965, a Learjet flew from Los Angeles to New York and back in 11 hours. In 1966, a Learjet flew around the world in 50 hours. The Learjet is superfast, due to its sweptback military style "delta" wing. And it is the highest altitude private aircraft, authorized up to 51,000 feet above the earth.

The Learjet became widely used for business, as well as for personal use by the wealthy. By the mid-1970s, 500 were in operation.

GULFSTREAM V
GULFSTREAM V

GULFSTREAM

While Dassault Falcon is a serious competitor to the Learjet and the Cessna Citation, the granddaddy of all luxury liners for business and private use is the Gulfstream.

The Gulfstream I was a turboprop—200 sold from 1958 to 1969. The Gulfstream II was launched in 1967 to provide a business-class long-range jet aircraft with a large cabin. 256 were built when production ended in 1977. The Gulfstream III (1980-1986) was followed by the fantastic flying machine: the Gulfstream IV.

535 of the Gulfstream IVs were sold during its run from 1987 to 2003. It was superseded by the Gulfstream V, but not before it had set 22 world records, including one for flying around the world in 45 hours.

The G-V was launched in 1998 as the longest range business jet ever made. 191 have been sold to date of this magnificent aircraft that can carry 16 passengers 6,500 miles without refueling. For fifty million dollars, you can have one too.

AIRPORT RUNWAY
AIRPORT RUNWAY
GLASS COCKPIT OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS
GLASS COCKPIT OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS
THE MIGHTY STEARMAN
THE MIGHTY STEARMAN

Aviation in the 21st Century


Technological progress has made flying fast, safe, and affordable. Tens of thousands of private pilots fly their own aircraft today, or lease one to fly.

Great progress has been made in avionics and navigation systems. Inertia navigation systems (INS) are able to plot the movements of an aircraft with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Airports have VHF omnidirectional range transmitters (VOR) and with distance measuring equipment (DME) pilots can easily track their position relative to their destination.

Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) are in place at most airports, which involves a transmitter emitting signals from the runway to the aircraft ILS to keep the pilot on the correct approach path. The ILS will let the pilot know if he is too high or low, or too far left or right off the runway. ILS combined with autopilot can land a plane in poor visibility. And, of course, GPS (global positioning system) has tremendously enhanced the accuracy of navigation.

This is by no means the entire story of aviation. Next we will take a look at the History of Commercial Airliners, and then the History of Military Aircraft. Perhaps in the future, I will also write about Balloons and Zeppelins; Helicopters; Seaplanes and Flying Boats; and Experimental Aircraft.

This article is dedicated to Captain Estan Fuller and his Stearman 75.

My primary source of information used to research this article is Flight: The Complete History by R.G. Grant.


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