Orville and Wilbur Wright were the sons of Milton and Susan Wright. Milton rose from circuit preacher to bishop of the Church of the United Brethren of Christ. Susan Wright attended Hartesville College in Indiana where she studied literature and science and was the top mathematician in her class. As an adult, she frequently built household appliances for herself and toys for her children. Wilbur was born in 1867 near Millville, Indiana, and Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. Their home had two libraries-the first consisted of books on theology, the second was a large, varied collection. Looking back on his childhood, Orville once commented that he and his brother had "special advantages...we were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused their curiosity."
Both Wilbur and Orville did well in school, although Orville was known for getting into mischief. Orville and Wilbur were the only members of the immediate Wright family who did not receive a high school diploma, attend college, or marry. Because of Milton's position in the church, the Wrights moved frequently-twelve times before finally settling in Dayton, Ohio, in 1870. He traveled widely on church business, but always sent back many letters and often brought presents home. In 1878, he brought Wilbur and Orville a rubber band powered toy helicopter. Wilbur and Orville made several copies of this toy-it was the first powered aircraft they built together. Orville later recalled that the helicopter was based on a design by French inventor Alphonse Pénaud. They later studied his work in aeronautics as grown men.
The year 1889 was a turning point for the family. After many years of convalescing and caring for his mother, Wilbur recovered from his illness and joined Orville in the printing business. As soon as they had mastered the printing process, they moved on to building their own printing presses and briefly published two local newspapers. In 1892, the brothers went into the bicycle business -first selling and repairing bicycles, and then, in 1896, building them. The brothers added a few original improvements to the customary components, including an oil-retaining wheel hub and coaster brakes, which are still used today.
Ever since Milton brought home the helicopter toy, Wilbur and Orville had an interest in aviation. They followed the accounts of the German gliding pioneer, Otto Lilienthal, with great interest. Lilienthal's death in 1896 inspired the brothers to seriously investigate flight.
The Wright Brothers' 1900 Kite and Glider Experiments
In May 1900, when Wilbur was 33 and Orville 29, Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute and introduced Orville and himself. At 68, Chanute was a well-known engineer and leading authority on aviation. He had conducted his own flight experiments and documented the efforts of the many people who had attempted to build flying machines. Chanute would become a good friend and encouraged Wilbur and Orville's efforts for many years.
In 1900, they methodically began designing their first full-size, man-carrying aircraft, which they originally intended to use as a kite and control from the ground. This craft had two sets of wings, one above the other, a framework that allowed wing-warping, and an elevator in front of the wings to control the pitch (or angle) of the aircraft. When their design was nearly complete, they wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau for help in finding the best place to build and test their invention. Based on the information they received, they decided Kitty Hawk, a wind-blown village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, offered them the most suitable wind conditions and plentiful sand dunes to cushion their landings.
Further Gliding and Wind Tunnel Experiments - 1901
Setting out to collect accurate information with a wind tunnel constructed in the back room of their bicycle shop, they designed and operated wind tunnel balances; the instruments placed inside the tunnel to accurately measure the forces operating on small model airfoils. Tom D. Crouch, in his entry on the Wrights in the American National Biography, wrote "Constructed of bicycle spoke wire and hacksaw blades, the balances enabled Wilbur and Orville to gather those precise bits of information required to design the wings of a flying machine."
During late October and early November, Orville and Wilbur conducted tests on some 200 different wing shapes in the tunnel. By mid-December 1901, they had discovered, much to their surprise, that Lilienthal's tables were largely correct. It was Smeaton's coefficient that was wrong. The brothers also found the camber, or curvature, of Lilienthal's wings was inefficient. To remedy this, they designed wings with more of a parabolic curve that placed the high point of the wing about one-fourth of the way back down the chord from the leading edge rather than at its center, as Lilienthal had. There was one other area where they had erroneously relied on Lilienthal's tables. They did not correct for the differences in the aspect ratio between Lilienthal's wing and the wings of their gliders. In other words, the proportion between the wingspan and the wing's chord length was different. This also affected the amount of lift generated.
The brothers returned to Kill Devil Hills on August 27, 1902, and spent their first week there repairing the aircraft hangar and setting up camp. They then began to assemble their new machine. Based on their wind tunnel data, their 1902 glider had a new wing with a shallow camber and high aspect ratio. It was a major departure from their earlier machines. It had roughly the same wing surface area as the 1901 machine, but the similarities ended there. The wingspan was ten feet (three meters) longer and the chord two feet (0.6 meter) shorter than the old machine, making the glider look larger and more graceful. It had an overall length of 16 feet (5 meters) and weighed 112 pounds (51 kilograms). The wing camber followed a shallow parabolic curve, and the elevator was extended farther out in front of the pilot. This gave it more leverage, which allowed better control. The 1902 glider also had a new rudder that consisted of two fixed vertical surfaces located behind the aircraft. Wilbur and Orville calculated that these would help prevent the skidding that had occurred when they warped the wings.
After adjusting the wing trussing to provide more stability in a crosswind, they began their tests on September 19. From the first test flight as a kite, it was evident their new glider was vastly superior to their two previous machines. One problem persisted. The glider still slipped in turns. The tail did little to stop it; in fact, Orville suspected it made the problem worse. When the wings were warped and the airplane began to turn, the set of wings inside the turn was moving slower (and therefore generating less lift) than the wings on the outside. At the same time, the fixed tail-no longer parallel to the air stream-presented a broad surface that dragged in the air, increased the skid, and further slowed the inside wings. The wings dropped as they lost more and more lift, and the glider went into an uncontrolled spiral and struck the ground. The brothers called this "well-digging." Orville determined that they could avoid "well digging" if the fixed tail was changed into a movable rudder with its own separate control. This would allow the pilot to adjust its angle during a turn to overcome the drag from the high wing, keep the inside wing from losing too much lift and prevent the aircraft from skidding. Wilbur accepted the idea but suggested the pilot already had enough to do without the addition of another control. Instead, the brothers coupled the wires that turned the rudder with the wing warping mechanism. On October 6, 1902, they replaced the double rudder with a single movable rudder.
They returned home to Dayton on October 28, ready for the next step, powered flight. The 1902 glider was, for all practical purposes, the first true airplane. It was this machine that would form the basis of there 1906 patent. All that was now needed for powered flight was a propeller and an engine.
Before the First Powered Flight
To eliminate the effect of torque, the two propellers would turn in opposite directions by means of crossing one of the drive chains. When coupled with the motor that the Wright brothers built through the effective chain drive transmission, the propellers provided a combined thrust of 90 pounds, just enough to let their airplane rise under its own power, fly, and land. The propellers had a high efficiency of 66 percent.
This compared to propellers designed in nineteenth century Europe that had an efficiency of only 40 to 50 percent and propellers designed by Samuel Langley with an efficiency of 52 percent. (Propeller efficiency is defined as the power output of the propeller divided by the shaft power input from the engine, expressed as a percentage.) In practical terms, the propellers converted two-thirds of the energy applied to them to thrust.
In the meantime, they had heard from the engine manufacturers. All replies were negative-no one had an engine that met the Wrights' specifications and no one was willing to develop one. They decided to build their own engine with the help of their talented mechanic, Charlie Taylor. After their first effort failed, the four-cylinder engine was finally ready in May 1903. The airplane on which they planned to mount the engine and propellers was their largest so far-40 feet (12.3 meters) from wingtip to wingtip. Orville referred to it as the "whopper flying machine." It was too large to assemble in Dayton, and the brothers packed up the parts to assemble when they arrived at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On September 23, 1903, Wilbur, Orville, the parts of their machine, and a launch system they had constructed, left Dayton for Kitty Hawk.
Thursday, December 17, 1903, dawned, and was to go down in history as a day when a great engineering feat was accomplished. It was a cold day with winds of 22 to 27 miles an hour blowing from the north. The Wrights waited indoors; hoping the winds would diminish. But they continued brisk, and at 10 in the morning the brothers decided to attempt a flight, fully realizing the difficulties and dangers of flying a relatively untried machine in so high a wind.
In strong winds, hills were not needed to launch the machine, since the force of the winds would enable the machine to take off on the short starting track from level ground. Indeed, the winds were almost too gusty to launch the machine at all that day, but the brothers estimated that the added dangers while in flight would be compensated in part by the slower speed in landing caused by flying into stiff winds. As a safety precaution, they decided to fly as close to the ground as possible.
A signal was again displayed to notify the men at the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station that further trials were intended. They took the machine out of the hanger, and laid the 60-foot starting track in a south-to-north direction on a smooth stretch of level ground less than 100 feet west of the hanger and more than 1,000 feet north of Kill Devil Hill. They chose this location for the trials because the ground had recently been covered with water, and because it was so level that little preparation was necessary to lay the track. Both the starting track and the machine resting on the truck faced directly into the north wind. The restraining wire was attached from the truck to the south end of the track.
Before the brothers were quite ready to fly the machine, John T. Daniels, Willie S. Dough, and Adam D. Etheridge, personnel from the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, arrived to see the trials; with them came William C. Brinkley of Manteo, and John T. Moore, a boy from Nags Head. The right to the first trial belonged to Orville; Wilbur had used his turn in the unsuccessful attempt on December 14.
Orville sought to fly a level flight course, though buffeted by the strong headwind. However, when turning the rudder up or down, the airplane turned too far either way and flew an erratic up-and-down course, first quickly rising about 10 feet, then suddenly darting close to the ground. The first successful flight ended with a sudden dart to the ground after having flown 120 feet from the takeoff point in 12 seconds time at a ground speed of 6.8 miles an hour and an airspeed of 30 miles an hour. In the words of Orville Wright:
This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.
Orville found that the new, almost untried, controlling mechanisms operated more powerfully than the previous controls he had used in gliders. He also learned that the front rudder was balanced too near the center. Because of its tendency to turn itself when started, the unfamiliar powered machine's front rudder turned more than was necessary.
The airplane had been slightly damaged on landing. Quick repairs were made. With the help of the onlookers, the machine was brought back to the track and prepared for a second flight. Wilbur took his turn at 11:20 a.m., and flew about 175 feet in about 12 seconds. He also flew an up-and-down course, similar to the first flight, while operating the unfamiliar controls. The speed over the ground during the second flight was slightly faster than that of the first flight because the winds were diminishing. The airplane was carried back to the starting track and prepared for a third flight.
Wilbur started on the fourth flight at noon. He flew the first few hundred feet on an up-and-down course similar to the first two flights. But after flying 300 feet from the take-off point, the airplane was brought under control. The airplane flew a fairly even course for an additional 500 feet, with little undulation to disturb its level flight. While in flight about 800 feet from the take-off point, the airplane commenced pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The fourth flight measured 852 feet over the ground; the time in the air was 59 seconds.
The four successful flights made on December 17 were short because the Wrights, not desiring to fly a new machine at much height in strong winds, sometimes found it impossible to correct the up-and-down motion of the airplane before it struck the ground. They carried the airplane back to camp and set it up a few feet west of the hangar. While the Wrights and onlookers were discussing the flights, a sudden gust of wind struck the airplane and turned it over a number of times, damaging it badly. The airplane could not be repaired in time for any more flights that year; indeed, it was never flown again. Daniels gained the dubious honor of becoming the first airplane casualty when he was slightly scratched and bruised while caught inside the machine between the wings in an attempt to stop the airplane as it rolled over.
Orville made this matter-of-fact entry in his diary: "After dinner we went to Kitty Hawk to send off telegram to M. W. While there we called on Capt. and Mrs. Hobbs, Dr. Cogswell and the station men." Toward evening that day Bishop Milton Wright in Dayton received the telegram from his sons:
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. Orevelle Wright.
Their father gave out a biographical note: Wilbur is 36, Orville 32, and they are as inseparable as twins. For several years they have read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books, and they have studied, discussed, and experimented together. Natural workmen, they have invented, constructed, and operated their gliders, and finally their 'Wright Flyer,' jointly, all at their own personal expense. About equal credit is due each.
The world took little note of the Wrights' tremendous achievement and years passed before its full significance was realized.
After 1903, the Wrights carved brilliant careers in aeronautics and helped found the aviation industry. The successful flights made at Kill Devil Hills in December 1903 encouraged them to make improvements on a new airplane called Flyer No. 2. About 100 flights were flown near Dayton in 1904. These totaled only 45 minutes in the air, although they made two 5-minute flights. Experimenting chiefly with control and maneuver, many complete circuits of the small flying field were made.
A new and improved plane, Flyer No. 3, was built in 1905. On October 5 they made a record flight of 24 1/5 miles, while the airplane was in the air 38 minutes and 3 seconds. The era of the airplane was well on the way. The lessons and successes at Kill Devil Hills in December 1903 were fast making the crowded skies of the Air Age possible.
Believing their invention was now perfected for practical use, the Wrights wanted the United States Government to have a world monopoly on their patents, and more important, on all the aerodynamic, design, and pilotage secrets they knew relating to the airplane. As early as 1905 they had received overtures from representatives of foreign governments. The United States Army turned down their first offers without making an effort to investigate whether the airplane had been brought to a stage of practical operation. But disbelief was on the wane. In February 1908 the United States War Department made a contract with the brothers for an airplane. Only 3 weeks later the Wrights closed a contract with a Frenchman to form a syndicate for the rights to manufacture, sell, or license the use of the Wright airplane in France.
During their Dayton experiments, the Wrights had continued to pilot their airplanes while lying prone with hips in the cradle on the lower wing. Now they adopted a different arrangement of the control levers to be used in a sitting position and added a seat for a passenger. The brothers brought their airplane to Kill Devil Hills in April 1908 to practice handling the new arrangement of the control levers. They wanted to be prepared for the public trials to be made for the United States Government, near Washington, and for the company in France.
Byron R. Newton, a newspaper reporter, was concealed in the woods with other newsmen near camp to watch the Wrights fly. Newton predicted in his diary just after seeing his first flight: "Some day Congress will erect a monument here to these Wrights." Nineteen years later the Congress established the area as a National Memorial.
Wilbur journeyed to France after completing the tests at Kill Devil Hills, while Orville returned home to complete the construction of an airplane for the United States Government. As Wilbur set about methodically to assemble his airplane at Le Mans, some 125 miles from Paris, skeptics greeted the delay by accusing him of bluffing. But Wilbur refused to hurry. "Le bluff continue," cried a Paris newspaper. However, when Wilbur took off on August 8, circling the field to come in for a perfect landing, the crowd could scarcely believe its eyes. Skeptics were confounded, and enthusiasm was uproarious.
Wilbur's complete lack of conceit, together with his decency and intelligence, won a hero-worship attitude from the French people, while the press was unsparing in its praise and lamented having called him a bluffer. The Figaro commented, "It was not merely a success but a triumph; a conclusive trial and a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world." It was a statement to the press by a witness, Maj. B. F. S. Baden-Powell, president of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, that is most often quoted: "That Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute."
Orville's first public flight was on September 3, 1908 at Fort Myer , in Virginia. He circled the field one and one-half times on the first test. "When the airplane first rose," Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., recorded "the crowd's gasp of astonishment was not alone at the wonder of it, but because it was so unexpected." Orville's final flight at Fort Myer in 1908 ended in tragedy. The airplane crashed, killing Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a passenger flying with Orville. Orville suffered broken ribs, a fractured leg, and hip injuries.
Commercial companies were formed in France and Germany to manufacture Wright planes before the Wright Company was organized in the United States with Wilbur as president and Orville vice president. In financial affairs the Wrights were remarkably shrewd-- a match for American and European businessmen. They grew wealthy as well as famous, but they were not happy as businessmen and looked forward to the time when they could retire to devote themselves again to scientific research. While the Wright brothers finally obtained a patent for their aircraft, they became involved in legal battles with Glenn Curtiss. The lawsuit dragged on.
Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills in October 1911 to experiment with an automatic control device and to make soaring flights with a glider. The new device was not tested because of the presence of newspapermen at the camp each day. Orville set a new world's soaring record of 9 minutes and 45 seconds on October 24. On May 30, 1912, Wilbur Wright, aged 45, died of typhoid fever. Orville survived him by 36 years, dying on January 30, 1948.
The Original Airplane Exhibited
After Orville Wright's death, on January 30, l948, his executors deposited the original 1903 airplane in the National Air Museum. It was formally placed on exhibition on December 17, 1948, in Washington, D.C., the 45th anniversary of the first flights. The priceless original 1903 Wright airplane now occupies the highest place of honor among other interesting aeronautical exhibits in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
On March 2, 1927, the Congress authorized the establishment of Kill Devil Hills Monument National Memorial to commemorate the Wrights' achievement of the first successful flight of a man-carrying, power-driven, heavier-than-air machine. The area was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, on August 10, 1933, and on December 1, 1953, the name was changed to Wright Brothers National Memorial. The memorial contains about 425 acres. It embraces the actual site of the first four flights and the sites of most of the glider experiments. A 60-foot granite monument dedicated in 1932 is perched atop 90-foot high Kill Devil Hill commemorating the achievement of these two visionaries from Dayton, Ohio. A visit should include touring the museum exhibits, participating in a ranger conducted program, touring the reconstructed camp buildings and first flight trail area, and a climb up Kill Devil Hill to view the memorial pylon. The visitor center houses exhibits which are available year-round. Adjacent to the camp buildings are granite markers which designate the lengths of the four successful powered flights. Learn more about The Wright Brothers National Memorial at the park's website.
The preflight section of this essay was exerpted, in abridged form, from Judy Rumerman's essays on the the Wright Brothers found on the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission's website, with additional information taken from Tom D. Crouch's book The Bishop Boys: a Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1989) and his essay on Wilbur and Orville Wright in American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). The section of the first flight onwards, slightly abridged, was taken from U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service pamphlet Wright Brothers National Memorial by Omega G. East. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1961. (National Parks Service Historic Handbook Series No. 34) (129.58:34).
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