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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Quest for Flight

Prior to making their own attempts at flight, Wilbur and Orville Wright carefully studied the work of others. After contacting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1899, the brothers received articles published by the Smithsonian as well as other reference materials on the status of flight experiments. Although most people agreed that human flight was more of a folly than a practical possibility, a few men had made some progress in the quest.

Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, had attracted worldwide attention for making nearly 2,000 manned glider flights in the late 19th century. He studied the flight of birds and designed his glider's wings with a gentle curve to provide lifting power. His only means of controlling the gliders, however, was shifting his weight from side to side as he hung suspended between the wings. Although he was considered successful, his longest time in the air was only 15 seconds. He died in 1896 when his glider plummeted to the ground. Orville and Wilbur Wright read newspaper accounts of Lilienthal's death and began to discuss possible reasons for the fatal accident. Thus began the brothers' serious interest in the mechanics of flight.

In 1894, Octave Chanute, a civil engineer, published Progress in Flying Machines. This history of aviation was among the documents recommended to the Wright brothers by the Smithsonian. In 1896, Chanute had successfully tested a manned glider. Its biplane design would later influence the Wright brothers' work. Between 1896 and 1898 his assistants made hundreds of flights on windy sand dunes near Lake Michigan. The longest glide lasted 14 seconds. In a letter to Chanute dated May 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote: "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 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."¹ Chanute and the Wrights soon became close friends and colleagues in the field of aviation.

Samuel Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, also was a well known flight experimenter in the late 19th century. The Wright brothers studied his book, Experiments in Aerodynamics. In 1896 he flew a steam-powered model called an aerodrome. It was the first large-scale, heavier-than-air machine to fly, but it had no steering capability. Langley's success led the U.S. Government to fund his effort to develop a full-size machine capable of carrying a man. The design consisted of two pairs of curved wings, one behind the other, with a steam engine in between. In the fall of 1903, he made two highly publicized attempts to launch his full-size aerodromes from the roof of a houseboat. Both trials ended in embarrassing failures. The Wrights were aware of Langley's attempts, the second of which took place just nine days before their own successful flight.

Based on what they had read, Wilbur and Orville believed that Lilienthal had been the most successful researcher and had collected the most reliable data, particularly his calculations on air pressure. Ready to attack the problem themselves, they agreed that three things were necessary for a manned machine to fly: wings to lift the machine into the air; power to propel it through the air; and a method of controlling or balancing the machine in flight rather than just hanging on for the ride. The first two had been worked out to some degree by others, but the third component proved much more difficult. Mechanisms would be required to control three kinds of motion in an aircraft: rotation of the wings from side to side (roll); up and down movement of the nose (pitch); and steering right or left (yaw). The Wright brothers' ability to recognize and scientifically solve each of these set them apart from other experimenters.

Based on observing how birds steadied themselves in flight and idly twisting a bicycle inner tube box one day, Wilbur Wright came up with the idea of twisting the kite's wing tips in opposite directions to control lateral movement (roll). In the summer of 1899 the brothers built their first experimental aircraft--a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan and a horizontal tail for stability. The kite had cords attached to each wing tip that allowed the operator to twist or warp one set upward and the other downward. Once they had proven that their revolutionary "wing-warping" theory worked, they built a glider large enough to carry a man. Meanwhile, they attended to their bicycle business and prepared for the 1900 spring and summer season. When business slowed down in the fall, however, the brothers were ready to travel to North Carolina's remote Outer Banks and concentrate exclusively on their experiments.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Briefly describe the work of Lilienthal, Chanute, and Langley. How did each influence the Wright brothers?

2. What word did Wilbur Wright use in his letter to Chanute to refer to his interest in flight? What did this indicate about his growing passion?

3. What three things were required for a manned machine to fly? Which of these was the most difficult to work out?

4. What are the three kinds of motion that needed to be controlled in an aircraft?

5. What is wing warping? How did Wilbur Wright come up with the idea? How did the brothers first test this theory?

Reading 1 was compiled from Harry Combs, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979); Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989); Tom D. Crouch, First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane (Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service Division of Publications); Russell Freedman, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (New York: Holiday House, 1991); and Marvin W. McFarland, ed., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953).

¹ Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, May 13, 1900. In Marvin W. McFarland, ed., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), vol. 1, 15-19.


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