15 November 2008
The first heavier-than-air craft to fly, the airplane
revolutionized transportation and symbolized the technological
advances of the twentieth century.
The people behind the invention:
Wilbur Wright (1867-1912), an American inventor
Orville Wright (1871-1948), an American inventor
Octave Chanute (1832-1910), a French-born American civil
A Careful Search
Although people have dreamed about flying since the time of the
ancient Greeks, it was not until the late eighteenth century that hotair
balloons and gliders made human flight possible. It was not until
the late nineteenth century that enough experiments had been done
with kites and gliders that people could begin to think seriously
about powered, heavier-than-air flight. Two of these people were
Wilbur and Orville Wright.
TheWright brothers were more than just tinkerers who accidentally
found out how to build a flying machine. In 1899,Wilbur wrote
the Smithsonian Institution for a list of books to help them learn
about flying. They used the research of people such as George
Cayley, Octave Chanute, Samuel Langley, and Otto Lilienthal to
help them plan their own experiments with birds, kites, and gliders.
They even built their own wind tunnel. They never fully trusted the
results of other people’s research, so they repeated the experiments
of others and drew their own conclusions. They shared these results
with Octave Chanute, who was able to offer them lots of good advice.
They were continuing a tradition of excellence in engineering
that began with careful research and avoided dangerous trial and
Before the brothers had set their minds to flying, they had built
and repaired bicycles. This was a great help to them when they put
their research into practice and actually built an airplane. From
building bicycles, they knew how to work with wood and metal to
make a lightweight but sturdy machine. Just as important, from riding
bicycles, they got ideas about how an airplane needed to work.
They could see that both bicycles and airplanes needed to be fast
and light. They could also see that airplanes, like bicycles, needed to
be kept under constant control to stay balanced, and that this control
would probably take practice. This was a unique idea. Instead
of building something solid that was controlled by levers and wheels
like a car, theWright brothers built a flexible airplane that was controlled
partly by the movement of the pilot, like a bicycle.
The result was the 1903 Wright Flyer. The Flyer had two sets of
wings, one above the other, which were about 12 meters from tip to
tip. They made their own 12-horsepower engine, as well as the two
propellers the engine spun. The craft had skids instead of wheels.
On December 14, 1903, theWright brothers took the Wright Flyer to
the shores of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where Wilbur Wright
made the first attempt to fly the airplane.
The first thingWilbur found was that flying an airplane was not
as easy as riding a bicycle. One wrong move sent him tumbling into
the sand only moments after takeoff.Wilbur was not seriously hurt,
but a few more days were needed to repair the Wright Flyer.
On December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., after eight years of research
and planning, OrvilleWright took to the air for a historic twelve sec-
onds. He covered 37 meters of ground and 152 meters of air space.
Both brothers took two flights that morning. On the fourth flight,
Wilbur flew for fifty-nine seconds over 260 meters of ground and
through more than 800 meters of air space. After he had landed, a
sudden gust of wind struck the plane, damaging it beyond repair.
Yet no one was able to beat their record for three years.
Those first flights in 1903 got little publicity. Only a few people,
such as Octave Chanute, understood the significance of the Wright
brothers’ achievement. For the next two years, they continued to
work on their design, and by 1905 they had built theWright Flyer III.
Although Chanute tried to get them to enter flying contests, the
brothers decided to be cautious and try to get their machine patented
first, so that no one would be able to steal their ideas.
News of their success spread slowly through the United States
and Europe, giving hope to others who were working on airplanes
of their own. When theWright brothers finally went public with the
Wright Flyer III, they inspired many new advances. By 1910, when
the brothers started flying in air shows and contests, their feats were
matched by another American, Glen Hammond Curtiss. The age of
the airplane had arrived.
Later in the decade, the Wright brothers began to think of military
uses for their airplanes. They signed a contract with the U.S.
Army Signal Corps and agreed to train military pilots.
Aside from these achievements, the brothers from Dayton, Ohio,
set the standard for careful research and practical experimentation.
They taught the world not only how to fly but also how to design
airplanes. Indeed, their methods of purposeful, meaningful, and
highly organized research had an impact not only on airplane design
but also on the field of aviation science in general.
The Wright Brothers
Orville and his older brother Wilbur first got interested in
aircraft when their father gave them a toy helicopter in 1878.
Theirs was a large, supportive family. Their father, a minister,
and their mother, a college graduate and inventor of household
gadgets, encouraged all five of the children to be creative. AlthoughWilbur,
born in 1867, was four years older than Orville,
they were close as children. While in high school, they put out a
weekly newspaper together, West Side News, and they opened
their bicycle shop in 1892. Orville was the mechanically adept
member of the team, the tinkerer; Wilbur was the deliberative
one, the planner and designer.
Since the bicycle business was seasonal, they had time to
pursue their interest in aircraft, puzzling out the technical problems
and studying the successes and failures of others. They
started with gliders, flying their first, which had a five-foot
wing span, in 1899. They developed their own technique to control
the gliders, the “wing-warping technique,” after watching
how birds fly. They attached wires to the trailing edges of the
wings and pulled the wires to deform the wings’ shape. They
built a sixteen-foot glider in 1900 and spent a vacation in North
Carolina gaining flying experience. Further designs and many
more tests followed, including more than two hundred shapes
of wing studied in their home-built wind tunnel, before their
first successful engine-powered flight in 1903.
Neither man ever married. After Wilbur died of typhoid in
1912, Orville was stricken by the loss of his brother but continued
to run their business until 1915. He last piloted an airplane
himself in 1918 and died thirty years later.
Their first powered airplane, theWright Flyer, lives on at the
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Small
parts from the aircraft were taken to the Moon by Neil Armstrong
and Edwin Aldrin when they made the first landing
there in 1969.
See also here !