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Setting the Stage

"It is…incontestably the Wright brothers alone who resolved, in its entirety, the problem of human mechanical flight…Men of genius--erudite, exact experimenters, and unselfish--the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright have, more than anyone else, deserved the success which they achieved. They changed the face of the globe."¹

Since the dawn of history, humankind has been fascinated with the idea of human flight, and although many attempts were made, it was not until Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane that man truly conquered the sky. In classical Greek mythology, Daedalus made wings for his son Icarus to fly away from Crete. Icarus, disobeying his father's warnings, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, which had glued together his wings, causing Icarus to plummet into the sea. From the Middle Ages, there are references to both lighter and heavier-than-air flying from the Franciscan Monk, Roger Bacon, whose work contained speculative references to hollow globes filled with "aetherial" air which could float in the atmosphere, to a flying machine in which a man could sit and propel himself. Even the great Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci, was obsessed with the idea of human flight and created several interesting sketches of man-powered ornithopters. So how is it that two printers turned bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio were able to solve the mystery that so many others had failed to do? They were able to adapt and build on their earlier experiences to create something that had only been dreamed of.

The brothers' first joint business venture, a small print shop established in 1889, proved influential in the development of the brothers' mechanical, writing, and business skills. Each of these skills would become essential later in their careers. Then Wilbur and Orville entered the bicycle business in 1892, when American journalists were already touting the bicycle as a "boom to all mankind," a "national necessity," and a "force that has within it almost the power of social revolution."² Little did they know that this bicycle boom would help the Wright brothers' succeed in their quest to achieve heavier-than-air mechanical flight through the invention of the airplane. This would be their crowning achievement, ushering in a new age for mankind--the age of air power and the shrinking globe.

¹ Charles Dolfus, quoted in Charles Gibbs-Smith, Aviation: An Historical Survey from its Origins to the End of World War II (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970), front piece.
² Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing,"
American Heritage of Invention & Technology (n.d.), p. 11.



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