The 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.
Early career and research
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, 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.
Toward first flight
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, the Wright Glider of 1902, 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 flights were witnessed by 4 lifesavers and a boy from the village,
making it arguably the first public flight. A local newspaper reported
the event, inaccurately. Only one other newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer,
printed the story the next day.
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.
Trouble establishing legitimacy
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 III.
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 Prairie.
The press was not sympathetic to the Wright Brothers. 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 OR LIARS?"
This was reinforced by the fact that the Wright Brothers, wary of
the competition stealing their plans, refused to make public demonstrations
of their machines or take part in air shows before signing firm contracts
with the military. They attempted to sign contracts with the US army,
the French army, the English army, and even the German army, but all
refused as they had not been shown the flying machine in operation.
Thus, ridiculed by the press, the Wright brothers continued their work
in semi-obscurity, while other pilot pioneers like Brazilian pioneer
Alberto Santos-Dumont or US pioneer Glenn Curtiss were occupying the
Santos-Dumont received a world triumph after succeeding with the first
public take-off, flight, and landing in the history of aviation, flying
60 meters with his Oiseau de proie aircraft during a public demonstration
at Bagatelle, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 23, 1906. On November
12 he flew 220 meters. It was a very pale performance compared to the
39 kilometers flown by the Wright Brothers the year before, but at
the time the October 23, 1906 flight in Paris was thought to be the
first flight of an airplane in human history, as people were unaware
or doubtful of the previous flights of the Wright Brothers. As for
Glenn Curtiss, he succeeded with America's first public and official
airplane flight on July 4, 1908.
It is only after they signed a contract with the US Army and a French
company that the Wright Brothers accepted to take part in public demonstrations
and flying contests. Their first public demonstration was held on August
8, 1908, on the racing track of Le Mans, Sarthe département,
France, where Wilbur Wright took the command of the Wright Flyer model
A and made a series of technically challenging flights, demonstrating
to the world his skills as a pilot as well as the potential of his
flying machine, far surpassing all other pilot pioneers. The Wright
Brothers became world famous overnight.
Orville Wright followed his brother's success by demonstrating the
flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia on September
17, 1908. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed in a powered
airplane on that day (Charlie Furnas had become the first air passenger
on May 14), when a propeller failure caused the crash of the passenger-carrying
plane Orville was piloting. 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 French public was thrilled by the feat of Wilbur Wright, and the
Wright Brothers were offered the direction of a flying school in the
Sarthe département, and later in Pau, southern France, which
they accepted. Later, they returned to the United States. On September
29, 1909, one million New-Yorkers witnessed the extraordinary flight
of Wilbur Wright above the Hudson River and around the Statue of Liberty,
which solidly established the fame of the Wright Brothers in America.
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 Parmalee returned to Dayton on the same Big Four Express
train that he overtook in the air the day before.
The Wrights took over 300 photographs of flights and many other events
of those pioneer days of aviation.
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, Hawthorn Hill, in Oakwood, Ohio.
Both brothers are buried at a family plot at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.
Neither brother married.
The Flyer I is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum,
a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C..
The Flyer III, the only airplane designated a [National Historic Landmark],
was dismantled after the 1905 flights, but rebuilt and flown in 1908
at Kitty Hawk, and was restored in the late 1940s with the help of
Orville. It is on display at Dayton, Ohio in the John W. Berry Sr.,
Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park. The display
space for the aircraft was designed by Orville Wright.
Earlier and later flying craft
There are many claims of earlier flights made by other flying machines
in various categories and qualifications. See First flying machine.
Lighter-than-air 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
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
Still, controversy 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 assorted issues.
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 design.
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.
Most counter-claims 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).
The Smithsonian issue
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.
Effect on Dayton
See Dayton for city history. 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.
Ohio/North Carolina dispute
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 a 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 Carolina.
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