In 1910, A mere seven years after the very first powered airplane flight, someone decided that it would be a good idea to try and launch from, and land on, a ship. As crazy as this setup looks, it actually worked.
Eugene Ely became the first guy to try taking off in an airplane from the deck of a ship on November 14, 1910, in a Curtis pusher. It almost went very very badly: the plane basically fell off the end of the launching ramp and submerged itself up to the lower wings in the water before pulling out, and then barely made it to the beach for an emergency landing.
Undaunted, Ely came back a couple months later to execute the first shipboard landing, using a tailhook and sandbag system designed by a circus performer which worked brilliantly. Modern day Navy pilots don't have it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but... Damn.
Shockingly, the Navy didn't immediately run out and build a bunch of aircraft carriers after this demonstration. For the next five years they sensibly made due with seaplanes that could use water as a runway, and the first flat-top carrier designed for traditional airplanes didn't enter service until about 1920.
This stunt was reenacted (sort of) last November aboard the modern carrier George H.W. Bush to commemorate the occasion:
And no, they did not actually attempt a catapult launch.
More harrowing pics from that first launch and landing are in the gallery below.