The Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright were photographed by the French aviator Leon Bollée in May 1909. Their triumphs and travails were as much consequences of their approach to life as of their approach to the problems of flight.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, interest and work in the field of flight had reached a fever pitch. As highly publicized efforts by engineers and scientists to develop an airplane capable of carrying a person were underway in Europe and America, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, were quietly, doggedly, and methodically teaching themselves everything there was to know about flying, and inventing all the rest as the need arose. What exactly drove the Wright brothers to embark on the odyssey that led them to Kitty Hawk is not at all clear, and even definitive biographies like Tom Crouch’s The Bishop’s Boys have trouble penetrating those two inscrutable minds. And that’s just the way they would have wanted it.

This 1900 glider, in a wind from the left, was moored by a wire below and raised or lowered by a wire (not visible in the photo) that pulled the forward elevator up or down.

Wilbur was born in 1867, and Orville four years later the third and sixth of seven children born to Milton and Susan Koerner Wright. Milton was a minister in the United Brethren Church, an evangelical Protestant denomination, and the family moved frequently until Milton was named a bishop in the church and the family settled in Dayton, Ohio. In childhood and throughout their lives, Orville and Wilbur were constant companions (in ‘Wilbur's words, the brothers “lived together, played together; worked together, and, in fact, thought together”) and displayed many of the Yankee characteristics of their parents and forebears: an inner-directed spartan strength and a clear-eyed, determined outlook on the world and on life. Neither brother finished high school. though they were both insatiable readers and tinkerers. The Wright brothers tried their hand at several enterprises, including publishing newspapers and running a printing shop, hut without success.

Wilbur's drawings of the 1899 Kite, the Wright brothers' first aeronautical experiment

In 1892, America was in the midst of a bicycle craze and the brothers established a bicycle shop in Dayton that proved financially successful. They manufactured some bicycles under their own brand name, including one they called the Flyer. During 1896, the Wrights read about the death of Otto Lilienthal and they became intensely interested in the question of flight. They collected all existing information on flight, writing to Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley at the Smithsonian, beginning an active correspondence with these men that was to last for years. Chanute (who regarded himself as a kind of international clearinghouse of information about flight) was particularly generous.

The Wrights designed a glider, strongly influenced by Chanute’s design, and decided that their aircraft would not be as difficult to fly as Lilienthal’s glider, but neither were they going to be passive passengers on a an inherently stable aircraft. They devised a method to control an aircraft in flight that involved twisting a Chanute design in a technique called “wing warping.”

 With a pilot (in this case, Oiville) warping the wing, the glider banked as expected, but would “slip” to the side and invariably crash sideways into the sand.

There are many stories about how the Wrights came upon wing warping, but the fact is that the technique was not new, and at least one American experimenter, E. F. Gallaudet, made use of it in kite tests near New Haven, Connecticut, in 1898. With their customary thoroughness, the Wrights also wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau to find out the best place to test aircraft. On the basis of that information, they selected the Kill Devil Hills sand dunes outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a fishing village on the Outer Banks, a thin peninsula that jutted out into the Atlantic and enjoyed strong and relatively constant winds.

In 1899, they tested a scale model of a glider in Dayton, and by the late summer of 1901 they were ready to test-fly their first full-size glider at Kitty Hawk. The trips to Kitty Hawk were arduous; a great deal of material had to be brought along, some in pieces that would be reassembled on site. The conditions were difficult and the pair’s resolve and fortitude were tested to the limit by heat, mosquitoes, storms, cold gale-force winds, and isolation.

The solution was to place a double rudder in the rear so the glider would “bite” the wind when it banked into a turn, as it does here as Wilbur banks the glider in the 1902 tests. The pilot is still lying down in order to cut down wind resistance (“drag”).

The locals liked the Wrights and the Wrights liked them, but the brothers’ natural reticence caused some people to regard them as secretive—some believed that was why Kitty Hawk was chosen as a test site in the first place. But at this stage, the Wrights were not at all hesitant to share their findings with fellow researchers. In fact, in the midst of their experiments, Wilbur accepted an invitation from Chanute to report on his and his brother’s experiments at a meeting of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, and many of the people Chanute kept bringing to Kitty Hawk to assist them were, the Wrights well knew, doing research of their own. The craft “flew” (it actually glided) well enough, but with thirty percent less lift than the Wrights had calculated.

They returned to Dayton and built a larger craft with a front horizontal rudder (called a “canard”), and returned to Kitty Hawk in    July 1901 to test it. The performance was improved and the control bugs were worked out, but the Wrights were perplexed about why their calculations were still off. Their response to this was unique and would he reason enough to regard the Wrights as the first to fly. They constructed a wind tunnel in the rear of their bicycle shop and conducted precise tests of different wing sections. The tunnel was only six feet long by sixteen inches square, with a glass window in the top panel to allow observation. A steady fan driven by a small gas engine blew air through the box at a steady twenty-seven miles per hour ), and inside, balance and spring scales measured lift and pressure on a variety of airfoils. In these experiments, the Wrights raised aviation experimentation to the level of serious engineering (and were thus more firmly in the tradition of Cayley and Langley than anyone else had been for over a century).

These tests were made in November and December 1 901; they collectively represent one of the most important phases in the early history of flight. The Wrights discovered that much of the published data on airfoils was incorrect or had ignored important elements of an airfoil in flight. They arrived at a clear idea of how the centre of pressure moves about an airfoil in relation to the angle of attack and as a function of the camber. And they knew what the control surfaces would need to be able to do if the flight was to be controlled by the pilot. After testing two hundred different wing surfaces, the brothers used their newly gained information to design Glider Number 3. It was equipped with a forward elevator wing and a rear fixed double fin that was later made adjustable, with its controls connected to the wing-warping controls for the main biplane wing section.

They returned to Kitty Hawk in September and tested their new machine in more than one thousand glides. It not only performed well, it performed as predicted. It was only now that the Wrights felt they were on the verge of succeeding in creating a powered airplane. They filed for a patent in March 1903, and turned their attention to the last hurdle: turning their glider into a flier.

The decade from the December 1903 flight of the Flyer at Kitty Hawk to the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 was an extraordinarily busy one in the development of aviation. Looking at the aircraft being built in 1913 and comparing them to those built in 1904, it is difficult to believe that only a decade had passed. Airplanes like Louis Bechereau’s Deperdussin Racer and Geoffrey de Havilland’s B.S.1, both produced in 1913, were built with enclosed, metal fuselages that used “monocoque” design: instead of just the frame, the entire fuselage supported the plane’s load. These planes are recognizable early versions of planes produced thirty and forty years later, while the spindly frames of the Wrights’ airplanes and the early flying machines were by that time only relics.

The Wright brothers had clearly uncorked a torrent of industry and creativity that had simply been waiting for some indication that the prospect of flight was not hopeless. But if the Wrights were the spark that ignited the enterprise, there were other forces at work that drove it to a fever pitch. One was the giddy optimism that characterized the opening of the new century. True, the twentieth century’s ambivalence about technology was born in its very first decade, but in the face of the many advances from 1900 to 1914, it really began to look as if technology could and would make just about anything possible.

The Wrights played a large part in the forming of this attitude: the remoteness of their experiments gave fuel to the claims made by such prestigious publications as The New York Times and Scientific American that their flights were a hoax. One can imagine these publications being much more careful afterward in their scepticism about any scientific and technological claims.

Yet, there was the equally powerful sense that a war was coming, and that one result of the industrialisation of Europe would be an improved ability to conduct armed conflict. What role aviation would play in the theatre of war was not clear even to the most visionary planner but there was no doubt that aircraft (both heavier and lighter than air) would be exploited by combatants to the fullest and that command of the sky could possibly be a decisive factor in any war. Military strategists who prepared for possible invasions across natural barriers such as the English Channel or the Alpine mountains had to rethink their defences in the light of aerial warfare of unknown effectiveness.

Behind all the hoopla of the races, the feats, the records, the stunts, the glamour and derring-do—all the romance of early aviation—were calculating minds fully aware (or aware enough to take anxious notice) of the military potential of flight. In the decade between Kitty Hawk and the outbreak of World War I, one can summarize the history of aviation very simply: while the Wrights and Curtiss were slugging each other senseless in court, the Europeans slowly took the lead in aviation. The Wrights won many of their court battles, but lost the war for supremacy in the air.

They enjoyed two crowning moments in the decade following Kitty Hawk: their exhibition in France and their test for the Army at Ft. Myer. But they allowed many opportunities to slip by: while Curtiss was winning prizes for aviation feats he was performing years after the Wrights had passed that level of technology, the brothers were too proud or secretive to claim any prize; while Curtiss was winning races that the Wrights could have won handily, the brothers would not consent to enter any contests; while Curtiss was gaining fame participating in aerial exhibitions and air shows, the Wrights regarded them as circuses unworthy of their talents; while Curtiss was forming productive and useful alliances with a wide range of people—from Bell and the Smithsonian to August Herring, Octave Chanute’s old assistant to Henry Ford and his high-priced patent lawyers—the Wrights steadfastly rebuffed any offer of collegiality (including from Curtiss) and preferred to go it alone; while Curtiss developed new technology as quickly as it became available—he abandoned wing warping when it became clear ailerons were a superior means of lateral control; he developed wheeled undercarriages when they were shown to be preferable to skids; and he experimented with different engines and configurations

The Wrights never strayed far from the basic design configuration they inherited from Chanute; and while Curtiss developed the entire field of naval aviation, developing seaplanes that could consider attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the Wrights entered the field belatedly and half-heartedly.

But for a moment, the Wrights were alone at the pinnacle of the mountain, and their country and the world paid them homage. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, but Orville lived until 1947. Orville was honoured late in his life for the contribution he and his brother had made to flight, but he certainly must have wondered what might have been had Wilbur lived. Publicly he blamed Curtiss and the Smithsonian for everything (even Wilbur’s death), but Curtiss retired from active involvement in aviation in 1921 and turned to real estate speculation in Florida until his death after an appendectomy in 1930. So it was hardly the case that it was all Curtiss’ fault. Typically, Orville never voiced any regrets for letting the dominion of flight slip through his fingers. Still, one wonders.

Kill Devil Hill, December 17, 1903

After the Wright brothers’ successful glides in the summer of 1902, it was time to add an engine and propellers to the machine. Typically, however, the Wrights did not simply add a power plant to their glider; they redesigned the entire machine and integrated the propulsion system in a technically well-designed machine. The added weight of an engine meant they could increase the camber (which would result in the centre of pressure behaving about the same as it did for the glider), and enlarge the wing to a forty-foot wingspan and a surface area of 510 square feet for the two wings combined.

Wright wind tunnel

The machine—which they called the Flyer I (only later was its name changed to the Kitty Hawk)—retained the glider’s front canard-design elevator and the movable rear rudder. The plan was to place the engine on the lower wing, next to the pilot who would, as was the case with the gliders, lie prone on the lower wing. The propellers would be “pusher” (meaning, pushing the machine from behind the wing, as opposed to “tractor,” which means pulling the machine in front of the wing) and would turn in counter-directions. As they had done with the wings, the Wrights had tested and perfected the propellers in their wind tunnel and greatly improved their efficiency. Unlike the gliders, the Flyer could not be launched by leaping from a dune or by running down a hill; it would then be only a powered glide and not a real flight. They designed a launch mechanism that consisted of a single track on which ran a simple flat car that the aircraft was placed upon.

The car would be propelled by the aircraft’s propellers, and when take-off speed was attained, the airplane would simply lift off. The Wrights calculated that they would need sixty feet of track (and that is what they brought). The Wrights had put off the question of the engine, hoping that the strides being made in the automotive industry would produce a light and powerful engine they could use. But no such engine was forthcoming and finally they attacked the problem head-on and designed their own engine with the help of their machinist, Charles Taylor. The engine just barely met their specifications, but they decided not to postpone testing it. They did not arrive at Kitty Hawk that year until September 26 and were not ready to test their machine until winter was  already setting in.

It was too cold even for Chanute, who had waited patiently as long as he could. After many delays and repairs, on December 14 the Flyer seemed ready. The brothers, aware that they were about to make history, tossed a coin to see who would have the honour of the first flight. Wilbur won. On the first attempt, however, the elevator was set low and the craft ploughed into the sand at the end of the track, damaging the aircraft. After three days of frantic repairs and threatening weather, the Wrights were ready for a second try. They raised a flag signalling the crew of the lifesaving station that they were ready, and when a small group arrived, Orville took his turn on the lower wing. At 10:35 A.M. on December 17, before several witnesses from the weather station, the Flyer took off into a twenty-one-mile-per-hour (34kph) wind. Wilbur ran alongside the aircraft, keeping the right wing from dragging in the sand but being careful not to assist the plane down the track; they wanted this to be an unassisted take-off.

Sensing that they would be successful on this day, they had set up their cumbersome glass-plate camera and aimed it at the end of the track. They instructed one of the witnesses, John T. Daniels, to snap the shutter as the plane left the end of the track. Daniels took one of the most famous photographs in the history of aviation, possibly in the history of all of technology. It shows the Flyer lifting off with Orville aboard, and Wilbur off to the side having just run down the track alongside. The Flyer flew for twelve seconds and landed in the sand 120 feet away.

The first flight by man with a motor driven, heavier-than-air machine, at Kitty Hawk, NC, December 17, 1903.

The brothers quickly placed the Flyer on the launching car for another flight. This time Wilbur piloted the craft and it flew almost two hundred feet before landing gently in the sand. In all, they conducted four flights, alternating as pilots, with the best flight the fourth: 852 feet in fifty-nine seconds. After the fourth flight, a gust of wind overturned the aircraft and damaged it beyond quick repair. The brothers knew they would be returning to Dayton. They ate a leisurely lunch, then went into Kitty Hawk, called a few friends to report on their success, and sent a telegram to their father: “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas. (signed) Orville.”

Contrary to legend, the reaction of the press to the historic flight was not a deafening silence. The Dayton Evening Herald reported the flight the next day on the front page, and the Virginian-Pilot was careful to point out in a sub-headline that no balloon had been attached to the aircraft. Garbled accounts appeared on the front page of the New York Herald, but there was little follow-up and many of the sporadic reports that appeared during the first two years after Kitty Hawk ridiculed the Wrights’ claim by adding facetious exaggerations to the account. The first full, serious, and accurate account of the Wrights in flight appeared in the January 1, 1905, issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, an apiary journal, written by the publisher, Amos I. Root. But the Wrights were not people to waste time. On their return to Dayton, they immediately set to work on the Flyer 2. incorporating all that they had learned in the Carolina dunes. It looked like the first machine, but had a smaller wing surface and a gentler camber. Most importantly, it had a more powerful engine.

The Wright brothers and the Wright Flyer 2 at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio in 1904

The brothers rented a ninety-acre (36ha) farm outside of Dayton that became known as “Huffman Prairie” (after the owner) and tested their new machine there. On September 20, 1904, Wilbur flew the Flyer 2 in a complete circle and returned to his starting point and landed. This was the flight Root witnessed and described, and in the minds of some aviation historians, this flight and the others conducted at Huffman (and not the four Kitty Hawk flights) deserve to be considered the beginning of the age of flight. (Others point out, however, that these take-offs were not unassisted: to compensate for the lighter winds, the Wrights launched their aircraft at Huffman with a weight-and-derrick launcher.) The best flight of the season, four circles of the field, lasted over five minutes.

In the summer of 1905, the Wrights tested an even more improved machine, Flyer 3, as always, in full view of onlookers and inviting the press to important tests, which they rarely attended. The aircraft had an even smaller wing surface but the same camber as the 1903 machine. This time the machine flew beautifully, and many of the more than forty flights conducted were limited only by the amount of fuel the aircraft could carry. The plane could take off and land with minimal adjustment, and the elevator and rear rudder, pushed out farther from the wings, gave the pilot almost complete control of the aircraft in flight. The longest flight of that summer was over a half hour, and the aircraft could circle and fly figure eights easily. This aircraft, the Flyer 3, is often referred to as the first practical aircraft in history.

Wright Model "A", rear view on ground, Montgomery, AL 1910

In 1905, the brothers sensed trouble when their patent application of two years earlier was delayed. The U.S. War Department was unenthusiastic about their proposal to build airplanes for the Signal Corps, and they kept hearing rumours that competitors were copying their designs. The patent (for wing warping) was granted eventually in 1906, and the U.S. government eventually came around, but the challenge from rivals—one in particular: Glenn Curtiss—proved to be one hurdle too many.