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The Wright Brothers
The Inventors of the first Power-driven Flying Machine
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti
Wilbur Wright
Orville Wright


“Before the Wright Brothers, no one in aviation did anything fundamentally right. Since the Wright Brothers, no one has done anything fundamentally different.”

Darrel Collins, US Park Service, Kitty Hawk National Historical Park

“That Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute.”

Maj. Gen. Baden Powell, the then President of the Aeronautical Society of Britain

The power-driven flying machine was one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. The dream to be able to fly like a bird was a collective dream of the entire humankind. And the dream is as old as humankind itself. There is no doubt that the flying machine is one of the greatest technological marvels in human history. This extraordinary feat was accomplished by two young bicycle mechanics, Wilbur and Orville Wright, by inventing and building the world’s first power-driven flying machine. They called it a “Flyer”. For thousands of years the flying of a `heavier-than-air’ machine was considered impossible. Neither of the two Wright brothers had graduated from school. They had neither formal education nor wealth. Yet, they did not hesitate to attack one of the most difficult science-cum-engineering problems of their time. The Wright brothers became the first great public celebrities of the 20th century. The Wright brothers deserve great credit as Darell Collins observed the attempts made by the predecessors of the Wright brothers were inaccurate and those of their successors to be natural developments from the Wright brothers’ work. The Wright brothers solved the fundamental problems of flying and left only the need for refinements. “Indeed one can say that the Wright brothers set the style and method of aircraft design that is followed to this day; only the tools are now vastly more powerful, “ wrote Roddam Narasimha. The other members of the Wright family wholeheartedly supported the unusual activity of Wilbur and Orville. R. Narasimha wrote : “…in many ways the Wright Flyer was a family project. First of all the two brothers were so deeply involved in it that much of the world thinks of them only jointly. Further the project had the blessings of the father, a remarkable bishop and teacher himself; the sum of $ 1000 he gave to Wilbur and Orville was used as a corpus fund by the brothers, who drew on its interest and on their own other resources for their expenditure on the project.

Then there was their very intelligent sister Katherine, the only graduate in the family, who not only tended house after the mother passed away (when only 36) but gave intense and warm support to the brothers and kept worrying herself about their progress.” While the dream of flying is as old as humankind itself but the concept of the airplane has only been around for two centuries. Before the concept of airplane gained ground, humans attempted to fly by imitating the birds. It was thought when birds can fly in the air effortlessly then why not humans. So machines with flapping wings called ‘ornithopters’ were built. But for obvious reasons the plan did not succeed. So other methods were tried. Beginning in 1783, a few daring individuals made uncontrolled flights in ‘lighter-than-air’ balloons. But this was not the practical way to fly. There was no way for going from one place to another unless the wind was blowing in the desired direction. Sir George Cayley conceived the idea of a flying machine in 1799. It was a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. This paved the way of building glider and from these humble gliders eventually evolved the amazing flying machines. The story of the invention of the airplane is one of the most fascinating parts of human culture. So there is no wonder that it is so often repeated. And as it happens, a dozens of ‘myth conceptions’ about the Wright brothers and early aviation have also grown up. One of the best accounts of the process of invention of the airplane is given in the book titled How We Invented the Airplane by Orville Wright. The deposition given on January 13, 1920, as a witness for the United States Government in a law suit forms the main part of the book. Other components of the book are: an article titled “After the

First Flight” written by Orville Wright around 1920 and a concluding essay by Fred C Kelly, the authorised biographer of the Wright brothers. An article jointly written by the Wright brothers that appeared in 1908 issue of the Century Magazine was also reproduced in the book as an appendix. The book had 76 photographs with commentary by Fred Kelly. Wilbur was born on a small farm called Milville near Indiana on April 16, 1867, while Orville was born on August 19, 1871 in Dayton. They had two older brothers (Reuchlin and Lorin) and a younger sister (Catherine). Their father Milton Wright was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. Bishop Wright moved frequently from job to job. And so the Wrights shifted houses frequently. Moreover Bishop Wright was often away from home on church business. He was deeply committed to moral reform. He was a man of independent and strongly held views. He was opposed to then existing slavery, rum traffic, secret societies and other moral ills of the society. Their mother Susan Wright was gifted with a flair for mechanical things. With her mechanical skill, she could build simple household appliances and toys for children. There is no doubt that Wilbur and Orville inherited their mother’s mechanical skill. Both Bishop Wright and Susan Wright were teachers and so their children grew up in an atmosphere, which encouraged learning and doing. Commenting on his childhood Orville wrote: “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 Bishop’s house had two libraries—books on theology were kept in the bishop’s study, while the downstairs library had a large and diverse collection. Wilbur was fond of reading and he read extensively from his father’s library. He wanted to be a teacher and to realize his goal he wanted to go to a college. From his father, Wilbur had imbibed a critical and independent attitude. Whatever he did, he did systematically. He was very careful while writing his letters and papers. He loved doing research. He never lost his cool. On his death, his father Bishop Wright wrote in his dairy: “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.” Orville was not interested in continuing in school. He was inventive and he was quite ingenious in making and fixing things. He was a shrewd businessman and he knew how to make money.

For their living, the Wright brothers operated a printing press and a bicycle shop in succession in Dayton. In 1890, Wilbur joined Orville in the printing business as an editor for The West Side News, a weekly newspaper for their west Dayton neighbourhood. It was a modestly successful venture. In 1891, the brothers started a daily, the Evening Item. However, they could not compete with the established newspapers and eventually they had to abandon it and remain satisfied as simple job printers. In 1894, the Wright brothers started repairing and selling bicycles. The idea was to augment their income from the printing business. Initially they repaired bicycles for other boys. Soon they had their own bicycles shop. They even started manufacturing their own bicycle in 1896. The Wright Bicycle Company started making good profit. However, they were not satisfied with earning money from the bicycle business. They were looking for new challenges. They decided to build flying machines and to fly them. The Wright Brothers’ interest in flying machines began in their childhood. It was a toy helicopter driven by rubber band set the Wright brothers thinking about flight. The toy was a gift from their father. This kind of toy still may be seen in the market. It was first made by Alphonse Penaud, a French engineer. However, its principle goes back to Leonardo da Vinci. While describing the impression of this little toy in their mind they wrote in an article written for the 1908 issue of The Century Magazine: “Our personal interest in it dates from our childhood days. Late in the autumn of 1878, our father came into the house one evening with some object partly concealed in his hands, and before we could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor. It was a little toy, known to scientists as a “helicoptere”, but which we, with sublime disregard for science, at once dubbed a “bat”. It was a light frame of cork and bamboo, covered with paper, which formed two screws, driven in opposite directions by rubber bands under torsion. A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding.” They made a number of copies of the toy. However, they failed to scale up it. They were experts in kite flying. In 1895 after reading about the gliding experiments of Otto Lilienthal (1849-96) in Germany, their interest in flying machine were revived. Lilienthal, who may be called the world’s first true aviator, studied bird-flight in order to build `heavier-than-air’ flying machines resembling the birdman designs of Leonardo da Vinci. Lilienthal himself built eighteen different hang glider models over a period of five years. And he flew or glided over 2500 times. Lilienthal believed that human is capable of flying truly like a bird. He spent most of his life to make a hang glider fly. This idea did not die with him. Today, hang gliding is a thriving industry. He crashed to his death near Berlin in 1896. After reading the news of Lilienthal’s death, the Wright brothers wondered whether they could start from where Lilienthal had left. They decided to collect all the available articles written on the problem of flying. After collecting whatever they could get from the Public Library in Dayton, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington requesting them for more information. The Smithsonian Institution not only sent them many reprints but also a list of titles on the subject. One of the titles in this list was Progress in Flying Machines by Octave Chanute (1832-1910). This book published in 1894 was a collection of articles written by Chanute in The Railroad and Engineering Journal. The book provided an excellent account on the state of the art on flying machines developed till then. The Wright brothers procured a copy of Chanute’s book and studied it. Wilbur also started corresponding with Chanute. Wilbur made an exhaustive study of the work of Lilienthal and of the pioneering British civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-94), who won the Copley Medal for his researches into the mechanics of waterwheels and windmills. As a first step after their study, the Wright brothers concluded that Lilienthal’s control system was faulty. Lilienthal shifted his own body weight to achieve side-to-side balance of the glider. Commenting on Lilienthal’s work, Wilbur wrote to Chanute: “Assuming then that Lilienthal was correct in his ideas of the principles on which man should proceed, I conceive that his failure was due chiefly to the inadequacy of his method, and of his apparatus. As to his method, the fact that in five years’ time he spent only about five hours, altogether, in actual flight is sufficient to show that his method was inadequate. Even the simplest intellectual or acrobatic facts could never be learned with so short practice, and even Methuselah could never have become an expert stenographer with one hour per year for practice. I also conceive Lilienthal’s apparatus to be inadequate not only from the fact that he failed, but my observations of the flight of birds convince me that birds use more positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium than that of shifting center of gravity.” After critically going through the available literature, Wilbur concluded that achieving human flight was only ‘a question of energy and skill.’ Wilbur found that 90 per cent of the available literature was unreliable. The Wright brothers decided to make their own tests. That the Wright brothers were very passionate for flying is obvious from following excerpt of Wlbur’s letter to Chanute: “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field. My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailors is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill, and the partial needlessness of motors. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge & skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge, than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.” One important step in realising their goal was their study of buzzards in 1899. This made it clear to them that three-axis control was needed – to bank, turn and elevate or descend. They also realised that the bird achieved control over roll by twisting its wings. Kitty Hawk, a non-descript village in North Carolina, was chosen by the Wright brothers to play host to one of the most momentous events in the history of aviation and science. There were reasons for choosing this place. Wilbur had anticipated that they needed a steady wind of about 15 miles per hour for a smooth flight. Keeping this fact in view they started exploring various locations for conducting their experiments. They had obtained a list of windy places from the US weather bureau. Kitty Hawk was sixth in this list. Besides being a windy place, Kitty Hawk had other advantages. It had vast stretches of sand and water and thus the place was ideal to cushion the impact in case of a crash. It had few trees (which meant less obstruction) and reasonably good weather. They started their field experiments in Kitty Hawk in 1900 (September-October) and they continued their experiments over the next three years—1901 (July-August), 1902 (September-October) and 1903 (October-December). The Wright brothers did not succeed in their first manned glider flight. The wings did not provide the lift that Lilienthal’s tables predicted. The Wright brothers concluded that Lilienthal’s table must be wrong. The Wright brothers were very much disappointed with their early results. Wilbur wrote: “When we left Kitty Hawk at the end of 1901, we doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding, and although Mr. Chatune, who was present at that time, assured us that our results were better than had ever before been attained, yet when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure. At this time I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime.” Though, they were disappointed but they continued to pursue their interest in flying. They built their own wind tunnels to test systematically wings of different shapes for the pressures and forces acting on them. After making careful analysis of their data they could find out where the earlier experimenters went wrong. By using their own aerodynamic data, the Wright brothers built new gliders. In 1902, the Wright brothers tested their new gliders and broke all earlier records on gliding. The 1902 glider developed by the Wright brothers was the first aircraft that solved the fundamental problems of flight—lift and three-axis control. After their successful tests with their new glider at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers built a new wind tunnel for making more tests. They designed new propellers, which significantly outperformed the previous designs. They made their first application for patent on March 23, 1903. In 1903 they also made a larger version of their 1902 glider. They added a power plant to it. As usual they took it to Kitty Hawk for testing. At this stage the Wright brothers suddenly found themselves in a race. Samuel P Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution had also built a powered aircraft. This he had patterned after a small, unmanned “aerodrome”, built and flown by him in 1896. They were also delayed by problems with their propeller shafts and bad weather. Langley tested his aircraft twice in late 1903. However, on both occasions Langley failed miserably and he left the field to the Wright brothers. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft. Thus an ageless dream of humankind was realised. Both the brothers flew alternately. The last flight made on that day by Wilbur covered a distance of 852 feet and lasted for 59 seconds. After their successful experiments on December 17, Orville sent a telegram to his 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 Christmass.” It has been reported that on being shown the message by the father, an Associated Press Reporter remarked: “fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have an news item.” Although the Wright brothers succeeded in flying on December 17, 1903, the flying machine was underpowered and difficult to control. The Wright brothers realised that they had much to do to perfect their invention. To conduct sustained experiments, the Wright brothers established the world’s first test flight facilities at Huffman Prairie. They made flight after flight for two years. They fine tuned the controls, engine, propellers and configuration of their airplane. Initially they could fly only about a minute and that too in a straight line. However, by the end of 1905, they were able to fly for over half an hour or until their fuel ran out. The 1905 Wright Flyer is considered as the world’s first practical airplane. After their successful flying sessions in 1905 they decided to sell their flying machines. For this they contacted the United States War Department, as well as governments and individuals in England, France, Germany and Russia. Everywhere their offer was turned down. As it happens, the government bureaucrats thought the Wright brothers were simply crackpots. Perhaps some also thought that if two bicycle mechanics could build a successful airplane, they could do it themselves. But the Wright brothers continued their efforts to convince prospective buyers. Finally in late1907, the US Signal Corps ordered for an aircraft and a few months later in early 1908, a French Syndicate of businessmen offered to purchase another. Subsequently both the buyers asked for an airplane capable of carrying a passenger. To meet these orders, the Wright brothers quickly adapted their 1905 Flyer with two seats and a more powerful engine and tested these modifications in secret at Kitty Hawk. To demonstrate their products Wilbur went to France and Orville to Virginia. Their flights went well until Orville lost a propeller and crashed. Orville’s leg was broken and his passenger got killed in this accident. Wilbur did not meet any accident. He kept flying in France breaking record after record. To meet the growing demands, which increased as their fame grew, the Wright brothers set up airplane factories and flight schools on both in Europe and the USA. However, it was not a smooth sailing for the Wright brothers. After the public demonstration of their aircraft it was not very difficult for other to copy their invention. In fact many did. The Wright brothers were dragged into timeconsuming, energy-draining patent fights both in Europe and

USA. Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930) argued that Langley’s Aerodrome could have flown before the Wright Flyer. To prove his point, Curtiss borrowed Langley’s unsuccessful aircraft from the Smithsonian Institution and rebuilt it. However, as Curtiss had made too many modifications to get Langley’s aircraft in the air, the court ruled in favour of the Wright brothers. It may be noted here that Curtiss was an aviation pioneer and inventor in his own right. He was awarded the Scientific American award in 1908 for the first public flight (1 km) in the USA with his third aeroplane, the June Bug, flying at 64.4 kilometre per hour. He also won the James Gordon Bennet Cup in France in 1909 for flying his Golden Arrow at 75.1 kilometre per hour. He had invented the aileron (1911), and also flew the first practical seaplane, as well as the flying boat. Curtiss, jointly with Alexander Graham Bell, formed the Aerial Experiment Association. Litigations were not the only woes of the Wright brothers. In those days the aircraft business was not only uncertain but also dangerous. Most of the money came from the exhibition flying. But then the audience had to be satisfied by performing death-defying feats or airmanship. And by carrying out such daring flights the pilots began to die in accidents. These incidents increased the mental stress of the Wright brothers. Legal troubles and other business problems distracted the Wright brothers from invention and research. As a result by 1911, Wright aircraft were no longer the best flying machines. All these developments had a negative effect on Wilbur’s health. He died of typhoid on May 30, 1912. After Wilbur’s death Orville also lost interest in the airplane business. The Wright patent was to expire in 1917. Orville sold his interest in aircraft business in 1916. He went back to inventing. He built a small laboratory in his old West Dayton neighbourhood. He worked there on anything that interested him. He helped to develop a racing airplane, guided missile and ‘split flaps’ to help slow an aircraft in a dive. He did many other things. For example he worked on an automatic record changer, a toaster and toys. Though, Orville virtually retired from the aircraft business, he continued to be honoured widely by the world for his role in inventing the first practical airplane. On January 20, 1920, the US president Woodrow Wilson appointed Orville on the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Orville remained on the Committee for twenty years. The NACA is the predecessor of today’s NASA (National Air and Space Administration). He was also given responsibility for overseeing the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion for Aeronautics. He also worked for bringing the ideas of unknown inventors to the Market. Orville also continued a long-drawn battle with Smithsonian Institution over the priority issue. This had started when the Smithsonian Institution supported Curtiss in his battle against the Wright brothers over priority. They lent Curtiss Langley’s aircraft for this purpose. Though, Curtiss was defeated in court, the matter did not end there. After the First World War, the Smithsonian exaggerated Langley’s contributions. The Smithsonian Institution refused to recognise that the first powered flight was made by the Wright brothers. They claimed that it was Langley, who had shown the capability of flight though he could not demonstrate it. Being disgusted by the development Orville sent the original Wright Flyer to the Science Museum in Kensington, London. This created a public uproar in the USA. In the1930s, Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902- 74), the first aviator to fly from New York to Paris, tried to mediate between the two parties to end the dispute. His efforts did not succeed. In 1942, Fred Kelly, a friend of the Wright brothers and also their authorised biographer prevailed over the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution to make appropriate amendments and publish the truth. Once the dispute was over, Orville decided to bring back the original Wright Flyer to the USA. However, the Second World War delayed its return. It was finally returned in 1948. Presently it is kept at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Orville’s last big project was the rebuilding of their 1905 Flyer III, the first practical airplane that was perfected by the Wright brothers at Huffman Praire. Orville died on January 30, 1948.

For Further Reading

  1. Crouch, T. D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York : W W Norton, 1989.
  2. Howard, F. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Alfred A Knoff, 1987.
  3. Gibbs-Smith, C. H. The Invention of the Aeroplane, 1799-1909. London: Faber &Faber, 1966.
  4. Gopalakrishnan, K. V. Inventors Who Revolutionised Our Lives. New Delhi:National Book Trust India.
  5. Hallion, R. P. (Ed). The Wright Brothers: Heirs of Prometheus. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1978.
  6. Jakab, P. L. Visions of a Flying Machine. Washington, D.c: The Smithsonian Institution, 1990.
  7. Kelly, F. C. (Ed). How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1989.
  8. Magoun, F. A & Hodgins, E. A History of Aircraft. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1931.
  9. McFarland, M.W. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wight: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1953.
  10. Narasimha, Roddam. “How Two Bicycle Mechanics Achieved World’s First Powered Flight” in Resonance (A journal of science education published by Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore), December 2003, pp.61-73. (See also Narasimha’s article-in-a-box, “The Wright Family”, in this issue of Resonance.)
  11. Wolko, H.S. The Wright Flyer: An Engineering Perspective. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1987.