The Wright Brothers - How They Almost Quit Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Wright Brothers - How They Almost Quit

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In 1901, the Wright brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, depressed, withdrawn and unhappy about the results of some of their experiments. According to their journals, neither of them spoke very much on the long trip back to Dayton. Their intention of their visit to Kitty Hawk was to achieve flight, which they'd believed was very probable, at least theoretically. According to Wilbur's recollection:

We doubted that we would ever resume our experiments... At this time I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime.

Wilbur was usually the more pessimistic of the brothers, but on this occasion Orville's thoughts were much more bleak:

Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!

They had been assured by a man named Mr Chanute, who saw the flights, that their gliding was a record for the longest distance. But with all the effort, money and physical work that they put in, they expected to be able to fly a plane that was heavier than air. When they were ready to give up, their sister Katharine convinced Wilbur to present a paper on flight1 in Chicago to the prestigious Western Society of Engineers. Of course, Wilbur, ready to give up, didn't want to, but Katharine nagged him into going and eventually Wilbur conceded.

Mr Chanute made the arrangements for the presentation. Wilbur had expected a small audience, but when he presented the paper, he was greeted by around 70 members of the society. It was well written and demonstrated the brothers' progress and knowledge of flight. The paper was later printed throughout the world, bringing considerable attention to the Wrights. It was included in the Western Society of Engineer's journal, under the title of 'Some Aeronautical Experiments'. Mr Chanute, who was a member of the Society, distributed it to flight correspondents and it was reprinted in Engineering Magazine, Fielden's Magazine, Scientific American and Britain's Automoter Journal. The Smithsonian Museum included it in its annual report2.

Because of this speech and this paper, the Wrights' interest in flight was rejuvenated. Throughout their earlier experiments, the men had relied upon the calculations and equations of one Otto Lilienthal. Re-examining Lilienthal's work, they identified a number of previously unnoticed mistakes. They realised, for example, that the Smeaton Coefficient3 in the equations was wrong and because of this, they decided to develop their own data and not rely on past calculations. They admitted that 'The calculations upon which all flying machines had been based were unreliable...' and began work with new enthusiasm and ideas.

All of this was possible because of the encouragement of their sister and the help from the rarely acknowledged Mr Chanute. The world benefited from this, and within two years, the Wrights would achieve their first heavier-than-air flight.

1Although they had yet to make a heavier-than-air flight, their accomplishments in gliding were still a milestone.2Coincidentally, the Wrights had sent for an earlier Smithsonian Museum report when they first became interested in flight.3A variable in the equations for lift drag.

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