The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were great technological innovators and were the first to perform a controlled flight with a heavier-than-air plane. They are also the most famous residents of the very proud city of Dayton, Ohio.
Orville Wright was the younger brother and the youngest boy in the family. He was the inventor. Orville invented a bread slicer and a crank just for his own use among other things. He was genuinely interested in invention as well as aviation.
Wilbur was the older, more pessimistic brother. He did not share Orville's enthusiasm towards invention, but was just as interested and determined in flight. Wilbur still worked hard and was very capable and inventive.
Both brothers travelled a lot in their early years, as their father, Milton Wright was a minister. They only really settled down in Dayton, Ohio when their father decided to edit a church newspaper from Dayton. When he was elected Bishop, Milton Wright would take the family to Idaho, but eventually return them to Dayton.
When they became old enough, the brothers started two businesses. They were printers who published their own newspaper and they started a bicycle shop to build and repair bicycles.
An Interest in Flight
As children, Orville and Wilbur were very well-educated. Their father supplied them with plenty of books with a large library. Their mother taught them about invention and machines. The most significant event on their development, though, was the purchase of a toy. One day, Milton Wright came home from a Church-related journey and brought the brothers a gift. It was a helicopter toy.
The toy was designed so that a person could make it fly with only a little palm motion. This had a profound effect on the brothers and they began to think about flight. They studied birds and noticed their motion. Leonardo Di Vinci's idea of an ornithopter, which would flap like a bird in order to attain flight, exposed itself as a very bad idea to them. They realised that they could achieve flight with a thrusted glide.
They searched their local library and read everything to do with flight. On 30 May 1899, Wilbur wrote to request information on flight from the American National Museum1. His letter read:
I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley's and Penaud's machines. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. It is only a question of knowledge and skill just as in all acrobatic feats. Birds are the most perfectly trained gymnasts in the world and are specially well fitted for their work, and it may be that man will never equal them, but no one who has watched a bird chasing an insect or another bird can doubt that feats are performed which require three or four times the effort required in ordinary flight. I believe that simple flight at least is possible to man and that the experiments and investigations of a large number of independent workers will result in the accumulation of information and knowledge and skill which will finally lead to accomplished flight.
The works on the subject to which I have access are Marey's and Jamieson's books published by Appleton's and various magazines and cyclopaedic articles. I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future workers who will attain final success. I do not know the terms on which you send out your publications but if you will inform me of the cost I will remit the price.
As this was a growing interest of the time and dozens were working to invent the aeroplane, the museum didn't take the request seriously, but sent Wilbur publications and information anyway. Interestingly, Samuel Langley, who was the Secretary of the museum was doing a great deal of research before the brothers became interested. He wanted to make a successful aeroplane himself (but was beaten to it).
The remarkable thing about this research was the brothers' ability to do it accurately and relatively quickly. They read everything they could and distinguished between what was factual and what were myths. They did a very thorough job of understanding the theories and ideas of the past.
The Wrights began developing advanced theories of aeronautics. They started out flying kites and studying them. The kites worked pretty well, and they kept thinking that If this kite works, then why wouldn't a kite on a larger scale work? and then built larger-scale kites.
After the brothers had carefully prepared, they designed a glider in 1900. They started with a glider so that they could tackle the problems in gliding before dealing with the problems of powered flight. After some frustration, they designed a biplane glider with a wingspan of 20 feet. They began to build it in the back of their bicycle shop. Their sister Katharine assisted by sewing the canvas required.
Their design called for 18-feet-long spars for the wings. On their travel to Kitty Hawk, they expected to pick up the spars along the way. Unfortunately, they could only find 16-feet-long spars and had to add them.
When the Wrights decided to test the gliders, they wanted a secluded, sandy area so that they wouldn't attract attention and wouldn't be injured if they fell because of the sandy ground. They consulted the National Weather Service and found Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to be their ideal place.
So they tested it and ran into a couple of problems. Their first problem was controlling lateral axis of the aeroplane - the problem of one tip of the wing dipping down while the other went up. The plane simply wasn't flexible enough to do this.
Their contribution to the control of an aeroplane is a very significant invention. They had a hard time working at attaining control, and were annoyed that they couldn't solve the problem. One day back in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Orville was speaking with someone and was absent-mindedly twisting a box for a bicycle tube. This box was flexible and could be in a position where opposite vertices were one was dipped down and one was sticking up.
Orville stared at this and continued twisting it2. He realised that he could apply this to the aeroplane. If the wings were flexible enough, they could dip and rise at the control of the pilot. This was called wing-warping. They tested it with a five-feet-high kite that proved it was an effective way to control flight.
They secured a patent for it on 22 May, 1906, — this patent is still in effect.
On their first test, their glider didn't produce as much lift as they expected. One small hope was that their results were inconclusive because their predictions for the lift were based on a plane with a longer wingspan.
They were devastated and nearly gave up entirely. With some encouragement, they went back to their processes and clearly demonstrated that the equations they had to calculate lift were wrong. Later on in 1901, the brothers realised that they couldn't keep building machines in Dayton and testing them in Kitty Hawk. So they devised the popular idea of testing parts in a wind-tunnel.
Their wind-tunnels were much more advanced than others of the time. They were able to simulate lift and drag conditions with over 80 wings.
Through these experiments, they discovered an error in their calculations. They had still been using the tables of Otto Lilienthal, and under some examination, they realised that the 'Smeaton Coefficient' (a variable in the formula for lift) was wrong. Also, they developed an advanced wing shape from their experiments that would be applied in tests later on.
The 1902 Glider
With control problems and lift problems solved, the Wrights decided to test their new information with a heavier-than-air glider known as the 1902 Glider in Kitty Hawk. It was a great accomplishment, although the best distance it ever covered was 662 feet. It should also be noted that the Wrights didn't bother to include the wing-warping system in this design. They knew it would work, so they didn't bother adding it.
Although it was only a glider, it was a milestone for the brothers and flight in general. Since it was already a heavier-than-air craft, the only thing that needed to be added was a system of thrust.
The 1903 Wright Flyer
The 1903 Flyer was the biggest milestone for aviation at the time, and perhaps of all time. The brothers built their own four-cylinder gasoline engine to the essential design of 1902 Glider and a tester propeller.
By the time the Wrights tested it in Kitty Hawk, they knew that they were making history. They also knew that their flying machine would work. Nothing had been left to chance. The parts had been individually tested in the wind tunnels and had proven to be effective.
On the morning of 17 December, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, the brothers were ready. The conditions were ideal with heavy winds and a clear sky. They flipped a coin to see who would be the first to fly. Orville won and prepared. About five men were present here, including their friend and fellow aviation enthusiast Octave Chanute.
At around 10.35am, Wilbur made the first flight. It was a success, lasting about 12 seconds and measuring 120 feet. It flew forward without losing speed and landed at a spot as high as where it started from. That day, Orville and Wilbur took turns and flew three times more. Wilbur made an incredible flight lasting about 59 seconds and measuring 852 feet.
The flyer was damaged in a bad wind gust and the Wrights returned to Dayton, Ohio for most of 1904.
The 1904 Wright Flyer
The Wrights remained in Dayton to create the Wright Flyer II. It was different in a few minor ways from its predecessor - the brothers just moved parts around and put in a better motor. The 1904 Flyer was arguably worse than the first. They had more trouble starting it, turning it and stopping the turning of it.
Since they weren't returning to Kitty Hawk for a while, they decided to fly in Dayton. After some search, they decided on a 100-acre plot of land called Huffman Prarie. They set up a hangar and cut the tall grass. This prarie has been called the world's first airport. There they conducted some important experiments.
The Wrights wanted to dispel bad rumours in the press about their work. So on 23 May, 1905 the Wrights invited members of the press to see the flight, without bringing cameras. They couldn't get it started and tried again on 26 May when the members of the press witnessed a rather short flight, probably because of the light wind in Dayton.
This aeroplane doesn't exist anymore. Most of its parts were used to create the next model.
1905 Wright Flyer
The Wrights couldn't use the 1904 Flyer practically, so they built a new model, which at first wasn't much more advanced. It had a slightly updated frame but the same engine. Orville first flew the plane on June 23 1905 and had a terrible crash on 14 July. When they were rebuilding the craft, they decided to make great changes, including a 40.5 foot wingspan, and effectively built a new aeroplane.
The changes made a huge difference and would be used as a model for many future designs. On 5 October, 1905 Orville flew it a remarkable 24 miles in only 34 minutes. This was the longest flight to date and was longer than all of their previous flights combined. This was the world's first practical aeroplane. On 9 October, they wrote to the Secretary of War (the equivalent of modern day Secretary of Defence) offering to sell it.
Not everyone was happy with the Wrights succeeding in these fields. The flight industry in America tried to minimise the contributions of the Wrights to build their aeroplanes, in the hope they could build their own without paying a licence fee. Germany and France didn't acknowledge the brothers as the inventors and they were able to build the Wright's designs without paying royalties. The Wrights would never receive any patent money from those countries.
The reputation of the brothers was tarnished greatly with several others claiming to be the creators of the real aeroplane. Notably, Samuel Langley rebuilt an aeroplane that had been accidentally destroyed in launch years before the Wrights. It worked, but the public were largely unaware that Langley had reconstructed the aeroplane with many design modifications. The Smithsonian Institute was also involved with this, as Langley used a great deal of their money to construct his aeroplane when he was the museum's director. They used their influence to try to trivialise their achievement.
Then a long patent battle with an aviator and aeroplane distributor called Glen Curtiss ensued. He had made and sold aeroplanes without giving them any royalties. He also set the air-speed record, making the Wrights look rather unimportant.
When the Wrights were granted a patent for a flying machine in 1906, they finally felt comfortable displaying their flyers publicly. The Wrights were normally very secretive, even painting parts of their plane to match the sky so that photographs couldn't be taken to steal their designs.
Showing the World
In 1908, Wilbur went to France and Orville went to Virginia for a while.
In France, Wilbur flew the 1905 Flyer at Le Mans, France on 8 August. There, he did so fantastically well that European aviators were belittled. He became a hero in France. That month, they received medals from the French Aéro-Club.
Orville went to Virginia in order to convince the government of the need for aeroplanes. He made his first public flight over Fort Meyer on 3 September. He began making great long flights and took passengers. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a person sent to review the aeroplane, would become his passenger on 17 September. It went well until a propeller split and Orville crashed violently, nose first. The crash broke Orville's leg and several ribs and injured his back. It killed Selfridge, making him the first fatality from an aeroplane crash. Orville's sister Katharine helped him recouperate.
At the time, Orville also wrote several articles for scientific magazines. He sent a famous article to Century Magazine explaining much of their history with aviation. It is a great first-hand account of their work and their life leading up to then.
Meanwhile, Wilbur was still in France breaking many flight records. Orville and Katharine joined him there and then came home to Dayton, Ohio to a celebration in their honour. The Wrights would then build the 1909 Military Flyer. They sold it for $30,000 on 30 July, 1908.
Near the end of the battles with Curtiss, the Wrights made their first public flight in America. Wilbur was able to finish a flight in New York Harbour (and around the Statue of Liberty) that Curtiss wasn't able to even attempt. This signalled that they truly were the kings of flight.
The Aeroplane Business
In 1909, the Wrights started manufacturing and selling aeroplanes regularly. They formed the Wright Aeroplane Company.
In 1911, a Wright Brothers plane called the Vin Fiz (named for a soft drink) made the first transcontinental flight trip. It took 84 days (being in the air for 82 hours of the time), stopping 70 times. It was repaired and reconstructed from so many crashes that the frame of the aeroplane had barely any of the original materials when it reached California.
The Loose Ends
In 1912, Wilbur, who had undergone a great deal of stress from the patent suits and pilot fatalities, died from typhoid fever. Katharine, who was very familiar with the business, took his place in the company.
In 1914, the patent courts finally concluded the case against Curtiss, ruling for the Wright, but only awarding a small sum of money.
In 1916, Orville sold the company for about $1.5 million. He retired as an inventor in Oakwood, Ohio, at a house on Hawthorn Hill. He would help to invent several interesting things, including a guided missile, spit flaps (which slowed an aeroplane in dives) and a racing aeroplane. He sat on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (or NACA, which was similar to NASA).
His last big project was fitting the 1905 Wright Flyer for display in Carrilon Park, Dayton. He envisioned a pit that people could walk around and see all of the inner workings of the craft. Today, it is still there and in a pit. It is the only aeroplane to have National Landmark Status. Orville died of a heart attack in 1948 making a repair to his house.