Most of us have heard of the Wright brothers. We know they were the first men to 'fly' and we've all seen that iconic photograph taken at Kitty Hawk beach in 1903 at the moment mankind took to the air for the first time. Yet great moments often lodge briefly in our minds then we forget about them. We don't think that behind every great achievement history records might lie years of tortuous work and effort. That was certainly the case with the Wright brothers and their flight at Kitty Hawk. When we examine that work and the two men who carried it out we discover not just the origins of an extraordinary event but the story of two truly remarkable yet modest men.
Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana on April 16th 1867, the son of church minister (later bishop), Milton Wright, and carriage maker's daughter, Susan Catherine Koerner. When Wilbur was two years old the family moved to Dayton, Ohio where Milton edited a church paper. Orville Wright was born in Dayton on August 19th 1871.
The Wright household was a happy one and both boys were encouraged by their parents to develop their intellectual curiosity and their practical skills. Milton Wright traveled frequently and was in the habit of bringing toys back for his sons. One of those toys was a small wooden 'helicopter' powered by a rubber band, and years later Wilbur Wright said it was this toy that stimulated his interest in flight.
When he was eighteen, Wilbur was accidentally struck in the face by a hockey stick and this accident had a marked effect on him. He gave up any thought of going to university and retired instead into the seclusion of the family home where he remained for three years, withdrawn and depressed. He spent his time reading and caring for his dying mother (she died of tuberculosis in 1889).
Orville Wright, on the other hand, was an energetic child and at the age of eighteen built his own printing press (helped by Wilbur) and set up a fledgling business. Wilbur, now recovered, soon joined him and together they published a weekly newspaper, West Side News. In 1892, partly as a response to the new craze of cycling, the brothers set up their own cycle business where they built and repaired bicycles.
In the mid 1890's Wilbur Wright developed his interest in flight after reading about the exploits of German glider builder, Otto Lillienthal. In 1899 he contacted the Smithsonian Institution to request as much aeronautical information as they could give him and through his studies he became familiar with 'Progress in Flying Machines', a work by retired railroad engineer, Octave Chanute. Chanute was conducting his own glider experiments near Chicago and had pioneered the use of biplanes to increase lift. The two men soon became friends and Chanute would become an advocate and publicist of the Wright brothers' experiments.
The brothers decided that most other prospective aeronauts were ignoring one key question: How would a successful flying machine be controlled once it was in the air? To this end Wilbur came up with a groundbreaking idea, wing-warping. He noticed that others tended to regard flying machines in the same way they would terrestrial machines, in other words, that they should change direction only on the horizontal plane by means of a rudder. He thought that a flying machine would be far more versatile and controllable if it could bank to the left and right like a bird and this is what his wing-warping idea (twisting the wings with pilot-controlled wires) would allow. He built a box kite to test his theory and it worked.
The brothers set about finding a location that was windy enough to allow them to repeatedly test the gliders they were planning to build, and with some help from the US Meteorological Bureau decided upon the beaches of North Carolina. In 1900 they built a glider based loosely on the designs of Octave Chanute and traveled south to test it.
'Glider No 1' was designed to carry a man aboard but it proved too small and had insufficient lift. It was largely tested with ballast alone (on one occasion the ballast was a small boy). The brothers were pleased that the front elevator worked well but their opportunities to test the wing-warp mechanism were limited and they decided to build a larger glider that they would test the following year.
'Glider No 2' was another disappointment. Although it made numerous flights it was difficult to control and again the lift was poor. Wilbur Wright began to question the established figures on lift and decided that back in Dayton they would build their very own wind tunnel to test wing designs and arrive at their own figures. The work they did throughout the Winter of 01/02 was crucial in ensuring the success of their flying machine.
'Glider No 3' was a breakthrough. It had a longer and narrower wing design based on the brothers' new calculations and it featured the rear vertical rudder that, once linked to the wing-warping mechanism, would ensure smooth, controllable flight. The linkage between the vertical rudder and the horizontal wing control was arguably the Wright Brothers' most crucial discovery. Modern aircraft still utilize this principle. The brothers were delighted with 'No 3' and they were so confident it would fly under its own power that in the Spring of the following year they applied for a patent for their 'Flying Machine'.
For a powered flight they would need propellers and an engine. The propellers proved problematic but with typical patience and attention to detail, and after much testing in their wind tunnel, they came up with a design. After looking around unsuccessfully for a commercial engine that was light enough to power their machine they decided to design their own. The 12 hp engine was built by their assistant, Charlie Taylor, in six weeks. The 'Wright Flyer I' was assembled and taken to North Carolina where, on December 17th 1903, it would make history.
On that chilly morning on Kitty Hawk beach, Flyer I traveled along a 60 ft wooden rail and took to the air with Orville Wright at the controls. The machine flew for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 ft. That moment was captured in an iconic photograph. The brothers took turns to fly and by the end of the day had made four flights. The last, with Wilbur at the controls, covered almost 800 ft and lasted almost a minute.
Then nothing happened. What followed were three years of disbelief and skepticism. The brothers were not unduly worried. They needed time to perfect their machine and make it practical and, more importantly, sale-able. They were also sensitive to the possibility of their designs being copied. Their original patent application had been turned down and in 1904 the brothers set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie, north of Dayton, to test their new machine, 'Wright Flyer II'. A few local people saw Flyer II and its successor, Flyer III, in the air but still the world was ambivalent.
By the end of 1905 the Wright brothers were confident that Flyer III was a stable and practical machine (it would be successfully patented in the following year) and they informed the US Secretary of War that they possessed the 'world's first practical fixed-wing aircraft'. Neither brother would fly again for over two years.
They attempted to interest the major powers in Flyer III but because of their (wise) insistence on signing contracts before demonstration flights the brothers found no deals forthcoming. Deals eventually WERE signed with the US Army and a company in France.
In the meantime another flyer took to the air. In 1906, the Paris-based Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, took off in his ungainly and primitive machine, the 14 bis. His flights were little more than hops - nothing compared to the capabilities of Flyer III - but France was delighted and the Wright brothers now had a rival.
The contracts they had signed were dependant on successful demonstrations and so in 1908 the brothers divided their efforts: Wilbur would take a machine to Europe and Orville would remain in the US to demonstrate another to the US Army.
In France, Wilbur Wright quickly won the heart of a once skeptical nation with his impressive and elegant flights. He could now carry a passenger and almost overnight he became the most admired man in France. Flyer III was a sensation. Its capabilities surpassed any other machine then in existence. In the US, Orville demonstrated successfully for the US Army at Fort Myers although on one flight, while carrying a passenger (an army officer), the Flyer III crashed, killing the passenger and badly injuring the pilot. It was the first powered-flight fatality. Orville suffered a broken leg and ribs but the sale went through regardless. The US Army was just as impressed as the French public with the Flyer III.
Early in 1909, Orville, together with his sister Katherine, joined Wilbur in Europe. They were feted wherever they went, even by the crowned heads. Everyone was eager to meet the Wright brothers. On their return to the US they were received at the White House by President Taft and to cap a sensational 18 months, Wilbur Wright flew up and down the Hudson river and round the Statue of Liberty watched by over a million people. The Wright brothers were now the most famous men on Earth.
The brothers set up The Wright Company that year to sell a modified version of the Flyer III. They improved control surfaces, added wheels and marketed it as the 'Model B'. They also realized that more pilots meant more sales so they set about training pilots both to demonstrate their airplanes and simply to make money. In 1910, the Wright company became the first company to transport freight (some bales of silk strapped to the passenger seat). Then tragedy struck.
In 1912, Wilbur Wright contracted typhoid fever and on May 30th he died. He was just 45 years old. His father wrote a fitting epitaph for his son:
A short life, full of consequences.
An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper,
great self-reliance and as great modesty,
seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily,
he lived and died.
Orville Wright became disillusioned with the aircraft business and sold The Wright Company in 1916. He returned to what he loved best, inventing, and to that end he set up his own aeronautics laboratory. He was a founding member of NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and in 1930 he received the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for "great achievements in aeronautics". In 1936 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was, until his death, a tireless promoter of aeronautical science. He died of a heart attack in Dayton on January 30th 1948 at the age of 76. He was buried beside his brother. Ten years after his death, NACA became NASA, an organization that engineered America's journey into space. That journey began on Kitty Hawk beach, North Carolina.
The Wright brothers were, quite simply, remarkable. Largely self taught, they confounded and bested the the greatest scientific minds of their time to conceive, build and fly the worlds first powered airplane. Their achievements were the result of quiet determination, systematic experimentation and, above all, endless patience. Wilbur and Orville Wright were truly great men and truly great Americans.