Wright brothers, Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 - January 30, 1948)
and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 - May 30, 1912), are generally credited
with the design and construction of the first practical aeroplane, and
making the first controllable, powered heavier-than-air flight along
with many other aviation milestones. However, their accomplishments
have been subject to many counter-claims by some people and nations
at their start, and through to the present day.
Wilbur Wright was
born in Millville, Indiana in 1867, Orville in Dayton, Ohio in 1871.
Both received high school educations but no diplomas.
The Wright brothers
grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where they opened a bicycle repair, design
and manufacturing company (the Wright Cycle Company) in 1892. They used
the occupation to fund their growing interest in flight. Drawing on
the work of Sir George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Otto Lilienthal and Samuel
Pierpont Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation
in 1899. The brothers extended the technology of flight by emphasizing
control of the aircraft (instead of increased power) for taking off
into the air. They developed three-axis control and established principles
of control still used today.
The Wrights had
researched and initially relied upon the aeronautical literature of
the day, including Lilienthal's tables; but finding that the Smeaton
Coefficient (a variable in the formula for lift and the formula for
drag) was wrong, had a wind tunnel built by their employee, Charlie
Taylor, and tested over two hundred different wing shapes in it, eventually
devising their own tables relating air pressure to wing shape. Their
work and projects with bicycles, gears, bicycle motors, and balance
(while riding a bicycle), were critical to their success in creating
the mechanical airplane.
During their research,
the Wrights always worked together, and their contributions to the aeroplane's
development are inseparable.
The Wright Brothers
were noted for placing the emphasis of their aviation research on navigational
control rather than simply lift and propulsion which would make sustained
flight practical. To that end, they first made gliders (beginning in
1899), using an intricate system called “wing warping.”
If one wing bent one way, it would receive more lift, which would make
the plane lift. If they could control how the gliders' wings warped,
then it would make flying much easier. To allow warping in the first
gliders, they had to keep the front and rear posts that hold up the
glider unbraced. The warping was then controlled by wire running through
the wings, which led to sticks the flyer held, and he could pull one
or the other to make it turn left or right.
In 1900 they went
to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to continue their aeronautical work, choosing
Kitty Hawk (specifically a sand dune called Kill Devil Hill) on the
advice of a National Weather Service meterologist because of its strong
and steady winds and because its remote location afforded the brothers
privacy from prying eyes in the highly competitive race to invent a
successful heavier-than-air flying machine. They experimented with gliders
at Kitty Hawk from 1900 through 1902, each year constructing a new glider.
Their last glider applied many important innovations in flight, and
the brothers made over a thousand flights with it. On March 23, 1903
they applied for a patent (granted as U.S. patent number 821,393, "Flying-Machine",
on May 23, 1906) for the novel technique of controlling lateral movement
and turning by "wing warping". By 1903, the Wright Brothers
were perhaps the most skilled glider pilots in the world.
In 1903, they built
the Wright Flyer -- later the Flyer I (today popularly known as the
Kitty Hawk), carved propellers and had an engine built by Taylor in
their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. The propellers had an 80% efficiency
rate. The engine was superior to manufactured ones, having a low enough
weight-to-power ratio to use on an aeroplane. (The chain used in the
engine was a bicycle chain, not surprisingly.)
Then on December
17, 1903, the Wrights took to the air, both of them twice. The first
flight, by Orville, of 39 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds, was recorded
in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day, the only
flight made that day which was actually controlled, Wilbur Wright flew
279 meters (852 ft) in 59 seconds. .
The Flyer I cost
less than a thousand dollars to construct. It had a wingspan of 40 feet
(12 m), weighed 750 pounds (340 kg), and sported a 12 horsepower (9
kW), 170 pound (77 kg) engine.
The Wrights established
a flying field at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, and continued work in
1904, building the Flyer II and using a catapult take-off system to
compensate for the lack of wind in this location. By the end of the
year, the Wright Brothers had sustained 105 flights, some of them of
5 minutes, circling over the prairie, which is now part of Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base. In 1905, they built an improved aeroplane, the Flyer
In 1904 and 1905,
the Wright Brothers conducted over 105 flights from Huffman Prairie
in Dayton, inviting the press and friends and neighbors. Here they completed
the first aerial circle and by October 5, 1905 Wilbur set a record of
over 39 minutes in the air and 24 1/2 miles (39 km), circling over Huffman
When a large contingent
of journalists arrived at the field in 1904, for instance, the Wrights
were experiencing mechanical difficulties, and were unable to correct
them within two days. As a result, the first local report of the flights
appeared in a beekeeping magazine. The news was not widely known outside
of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the
Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS
The brothers became
world famous in 1908 and 1909 when, weary of continuing doubt, they
took their aeroplane on tour. Wilbur toured Europe demonstrating their
aeroplane and organising a company to market it, while Orville demonstrated
the flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia.
On May 14, 1908
the Wright Brothers made the first two-person aircraft flight with Charlie
Furnas as a passenger. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed
in a powered airplane on September 17, 1908 when a propeller failure
caused the crash of the passenger-carrying plane Orville was piloting
during military tests at Fort Myer in Virginia. Orville broke a leg
and two ribs. (This was the only serious accident the Wrights suffered.)
In late 1908, Madame Hart O. Berg became the first woman to fly when
she flew with Wilbur Wright in Le Mans, France.
The Wright Brothers
brought great attention to flying by Wilbur's flight around the Statue
of Liberty in New York in 1909.
Also in 1909, the
Wrights won the first US military aviation contract when they built
a machine that met the requirements of a two-seater, capable of flights
of an hour's duration, at an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h)
and land undamaged. $30,000 of the federal budget was reserved for military
aviation. That year the Wrights were also building Wright Flyers in
factories in Dayton and in Germany.
On October 25, 1910,
the Wright Brothers were engaged by Max Moorehouse of Columbus, Ohio
to undertake the first commercial air cargo shipment. Moorehouse, owner
of Moorehouse-Marten's Department store in Columbus, asked if the Wright
Brothers could carry a shipment of silk ribbon from a wholesaler in
Dayton to Columbus. The Wright brothers agreed to the proposal, adding
that their pilot and airplane would put on an exhibition once the cargo
was delivered to the Driving Park landing area on the east side of Columbus.
Moorehouse, in turn, agreed to pay the Wrights $5,000 for the service,
which was more an exercise in advertising than a simple delivery. The
actual flight occurred on November 7, 1910, with the Model "B"
Wright Flyer piloted by Phil Parmalee. The 62 mile (100 km) flight took
62 minutes, with Parmalee overtaking the "Big-Four" express
train in London, Ohio. In addition to carrying the first air-freight,
Parmalee's speed of 60 miles an hour (97 km/h) set a world record for
in-flight speed. For the return trip, however, the Wright Flyer was
loaded on a train the night of the world record flight, and Paramalee
returned to Dayton on the same Big Four Express train that he overtook
in the air the day before.
The Wrights were
involved in several patent battles, which they won in 1914. Wilbur died
from typhoid fever in 1912, an event Orville never completely recovered
from. Orville sold his interests in the airplane company in 1915 and
died thirty-three years later from a heart attack while fixing the doorbell
to his home in Oakwood, Ohio. Neither brother married. The Flyer I is
now on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C..
balloons, dirigibles, airships had been taking people into the sky for
much of the 18th century before the Wrights, and several people had
been working on heavier-than-air flying machines as well. Numerous claims
before the Wrights aspire to the title of being the first powered, controlled,
and self-sustaining flight (or minor variations of this classification).
Several claims are actually after the Wrights, and lay claim by discounting
the Wrights' attempt either on the basis of its authenticity (that it's
valid enough), on some technical basis of the flyer in relation to the
technical details to the title, or sometimes both. (Note that claims
earlier than the Wrights are often criticized on similar grounds.)
The Wrights' flights
have what is usually considered to be reasonable proof, including photos
and multiple eyewitnesses. However, some of the strongest claims lie
in the design qualities of the craft itself and the spread of those
features to other pioneers. The ability of the Wrights to demonstrate
the source of, and in many cases explain, the features that they combined
and developed into the first working airplane (aeroplane), along with
the ability to see these same features turn up in later craft is among
the most powerful evidence of what they accomplished.
Many earlier attempts
featured powerful powerplants or very light powerplants. Many had wing
designs of some effectiveness. Many had the ability to glide (translate
forward speed into lift), and some had control mechanisms. The Wright
Brothers' patented three-axis system of control, using wing warping
(later supplanted by other 3-axis control systems), an effective wing
design for the craft's weight, a light enough motor with power to maintain
steady flight, an effective system to turn the engine power into thrust
(the propeller), and some other features allowed it to be significantly
better than any previous manned flying machine. The careful balance
between all these areas are seen in any craft capable of sustained flight,
and they first happened in the flyer.
in the credit for invention of the airplane has been fuelled by the
Wrights' secrecy while their patent was prepared, by the pride of nations,
by the number of firsts made possible by the basic invention, and other
There has also been
much debate about whether the Wright Brothers' early flights (as well
as those of earlier claims) flew high enough to be out of ground effect.
Another source of
attack is that some of the recreations of the Wright Flyer do not fly.
The reasons for failures of recreations usually stem from an inability
to know exactly the Wrights' design and to duplicate the conditions
of the flight. Things that even the Wrights do not know about the Flyer
I that enabled it to fly are lost to history, such as things like the
octane of the fuels used, and the small details of aerodynamics that
can have disproportionate effect on the ability of planes to fly. The
Wrights' initial troubles with their own recreation, the Flyer II, makes
the matter even harder. Regardless, some recreations do fly, and the
Flyer II's impressive performance and flights largely vindicate the
After their Kitty
Hawk flights, which used a rail but no mechanical assistance in windy
conditions, the Wrights developed a weight-powered catapult in Ohio
to aid initial acceleration. This method of launching has been the source
of controversy for some attacks on the Wrights' claim. Some consider
that a plane incapable of taking off using its own power could not be
a true aircraft, but choosing a non-standard definition does not necessarily
exclude the Wrights.
Just as many aircraft
do not have enough power to take off in certain conditions, the Flyer's
trouble with achieving its take off speed on land is not a real issue.
The Flyer did manage to get off the ground under its own power in some
instances, and its powered and controlled flights after it was aided
in achieving its take-off speed by the catapult largely redeem it. Furthermore,
if an aircraft does not have enough peak power to overcome the extra
drag from being in contact with the ground, some other means must be
found to overcome it. This is done in a number of ways. In modern aircraft
a landing gear and long runways enable them to build up to take-off
speed. This important advancement would have to wait till Alberto Santos-Dumont
and the flight of the 14-Bis to be implemented in aircraft. This machine
used the Wright's essential developments. Catapults do remain in use
on aircraft carriers where planes cannot build enough speed to take
off, and these still make use of landing gear.
to having the 'first plane' often have some truth to them. Many heavier-than-air
aircraft became airborne before the Wrights, but lacked control. Endlessly
more advanced machines came after. But the Wright Flyer stands out as
the first practical flying machine (airplane/aeroplane) with a combination
of features not used before, but included in all that came later, to
this day (effective wings, 3-axis control, an effective system to generate
power and turn into thrust, and an effective takeoff system).
In the early 1900s
professor Samuel P. Langley was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
He had a claim to being "father of flight" as he had for many
years worked on gliders and successful powered models, and his assistant
C. M. Manley was actually employed by the US government to construct
aircraft for military use. His full-sized planes, however, were complete
failures at flight. When the Smithsonian proposed a display that would
not have made this clear, Orville Wright responded by loaning the Flyer
I to the London Science Museum. Orville stated it wouldn't be returned
until he and his brother were acknowledged as the "Fathers of Powered
Flight". The Smithsonian eventually agreed, but the Flyer remained
at Kensington in London until 1948. On November 23, 1948 the executors
of the estate of Orville Wright wrote a contract with the Smithsonian
Institute regarding the display of the aircraft, stating that "Neither
the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other
agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America
by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit
to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect
of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane
of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying
a man under its own power in controlled flight." If this wasn't
fulfilled the Flyer would be returned to the heir of the Wright brothers.
The Wrights' contributions
to the city of Dayton were and remain immeasurable. From their use of
local materials, when Requarth Lumber Company wood was used to construct
the Flyer I and other airplanes, to the encouragement of local arts
and sciences, as with Paul Laurence Dunbar, to their financial and political
contributions, as with the massive Air Force base and museum, the Wright
Brothers changed the city's history.
The states of Ohio
and North Carolina both take credit for the Wright Brothers and their
world-changing invention - Ohio because the brothers developed and built
their design in Dayton, and North Carolina because Kitty Hawk was the
site of the first flight. With a spirit of friendly rivalry, Ohio has
adopted the informal slogan "Birthplace of Aviation" (later
"Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers", with a tip of the hat to
not only the Wrights, but also John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, both Ohio
natives.) North Carolina has also adopted the slogan "First In
Flight" and includes the theme on state license plates.
As the positions
of both states can be factually defended, and both states play an significant
role in the history of flight, neither state truly has a complete claim
to the Wrights' accomplishment. It was in Ohio, however, where the Wright
Brothers' many inventions were made, and where the 1903 Wright Flyer
was manufactured prior to its partial disassembly and shipment to North
and intellect, there was none like him. He systemized every thing. His
wit was quick and keen. He could say or write anything he wanted to.
He was not very talkative. His temper could hardly be stirred. He wrote
much. He could deliver a fine speech, but was modest(ref)."
Wilbur Wright, along
with his brother Orville, launched into both history books and legend
with the first ever manned powered flight.
Wilbur Wright was
born on April 16, 1867 in Millville, Indiana. He was the third child
of Bishop Milton Wright and Susan Catharine Wright. The family moved
to Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio.
"As youngsters, Wilbur and Orville looked to their mother for mechanical
expertise and their father for intellectual challenge. Milton brought
the boys various souvenirs and trinkets he found during his travels
for the church. One such trinket, a toy helicopter-like top, sparked
the boys' interest in flying. In school, Wilbur excelled, and would
have graduated from high school if his family had not moved during his
senior year. A skating accident and his mother's illness and subsequent
death kept him from attending college(ref)."
Wilbur, a strong-willed
individual, was able to repeatedly bounce back from physical and academic
setbacks. As he entered adulthood, he teamed with his brother Orville
to develop new and unusual schemes.
Among the Wright
Brothers' various enterprises were a Printing firm and a Bicycle shop.
Both of these ventures showcased their mechanical aptitude, business
sense, and originality.
This was a continuation
of their lifelong partnerships: even as youngsters, Wilbur submitted
a journalistic report on a circus production managed by Orville. These
complementary traits would serve them as they journeyed down the path
They were inspired
by German glider Otto Lilienthal , and paid close attention to his success
and eventual fatal error. His innovation inspired them, as their innovation
now inspires us. The spark of interest spread into a genuine desire
to fly. "For many years, he once said, he had been 'afflicted with
the belief that flight is possible (ref)."
Wilbur began to
voraciously read everything he could about aviation, from the Smithsonian's
to newspapers articles. As all independent thinkers and inventors do,
he imagined something completely novel to solve the problem that had
plagued other would-be flyers: "a simple system that twisted, or
warped the wings of a biplane, causing it to roll right and left(ref)."
As they say, the "rest is history."
This is how the
Wright Brothers lived when they camped out at Kill Devil Hills, North
Carolina as they tried to make that first historical flight. It was
a simple, functional existence. They were settlers of a different kind:
pioneering into the frontiers of science.
would again be put to the test, even after making history with the first
ever heavier than air, manned, powered flight in 1903. Their achievement
was doubted and undermined.
bureaucrats thought they were crackpots; others thought that if two
bicycle mechanics could build a successful airplane, they could do it
themselves (ref). "
persistence, Wilbur and Orville were able to win over both the public
and the bureaucrats.
Wilbur shocks the
French with the flying machine.
In 1908 and 1909
Wilbur became quite the celebrity, wowing both audiences abroad and
at home. He set records in Le Mans , France.
As one Frenchman
put it: "I would have waited 10 ten times as long to see what I
have seen today...Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands.
This morning at
3:15, Wilbur passed away, aged 45 years, 1 month, and 14 days.
A short life, full
An unfailing intellect,
temper, great self-reliance and as
great modesty, seeing the right clearly,
pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.
- Bishop Milton
In 1912 Wilbur died after suffering from typhoid fever. In 1965 he was
selected for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (ref).
Bishop Milton Wright
and Susan Catharine Wright had four sons, Reuchlin, Lorin, Wilbur, and
Orville, and one daughter Katharine. Wilbur, their third son, was born
on a small farm near Millville, Indiana April 16, 1867, while Orville
(1871-1948) and later Katharine were born at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton.
Bishop Wright moved frequently from job to job, so the Wrights shifted
houses frequently, though the house on 7 Hawthorn Street remained long
in the family's possession.
The Wright household
was a stimulating place for the children. Orville wrote of his childhood:
"We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there
was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests;
to investigate whatever aroused curiosity." The house had two libraries:
Books on theology were kept in the bishop's study, while the downstairs
library had a large and diverse collection. Although Bishop Wright was
a firm disciplinarian, both parents were loving and the family was a
The family moved
from Richmond, Indiana back to Dayton in June of 1884, the month Wilbur
was to have graduated from high school. Wilbur left Richmond without
receiving his diploma, and returned to Central High School the next
year for further studies in Greek and trigonometry.
the winter of 1885-1886, Wilbur was hit with in the face with a bat
while playing an ice-skating game. The injury at first did not seem
serious. In the Bishop's words, "In his nineteenth year when playing
a game on skates at an artificial lake at the Soldier's Home near Dayton,
Ohio, a bat accidentally flew out of the hand of a young man... and
struck Wilbur, knocking him down, but not injuring him much. A few weeks
later, he began to be affected with nervous palpitations of the heart
which precluded the realization of the former idea of his parents, of
giving him a course in Yale College." For the next four years,
Wilbur remained homebound, suffering perhaps as much from depression
as from his vaguely-defined heart disorder. During this period, Wilbur
cared for his mother Susan, who was dying from tuberculosis.
During the years
1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903, the two brothers developed the first effective
While I'm preparing
additional material on the Wrights, you can read about them in their
own words. The Wright articles page has links to articles prepared by
the brothers describing their invention of the airplane.