The Wright Story

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A Long Twilight 

            

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"Before the Wright Brothers, no one working in aviation did anything fundamentally correct. Since the Wright Brothers, no one has done anything fundamentally different."

                                                     – Darrel Collins, US Park Service
                                                        Kitty Hawk National Historic Park

o  simply say that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane doesn't begin to describe their many accomplishments. Nor is it especially accurate. The first fixed-wing aircraft -- a kite mounted on a stick -- was conceived and flown almost a century before Orville and Wilbur made their first flights. The Wrights were first to design and build a flying craft that could be controlled while in the air. Every successful aircraft  ever built since, beginning with the 1902 Wright glider, has had controls to roll the wings right or left, pitch the nose up or down, and yaw the nose from side to side. These three controls -- roll, pitch, and yaw -- let a pilot navigate an airplane in all three dimensions, making it possible to fly  from place to place. The entire aerospace business, the largest industry in the world, depends on this simple but brilliant idea. So do spacecraft, submarines, even robots.

What did the Wright brothers invent?

More important, the Wright Brothers changed the way we view our world.  Before flight became commonplace, folks traveled in just two dimensions, north and south, east and west, crossing the lines that separate town from town, nation from nation.  Seen from above, the artificial boundaries that divide us disappear. Distances shrink, the horizon stretches. The world seems grander and more interconnected. This three-dimensional vision has revealed a universe of promises and possibilities. The world economy, our awareness of our environment, and space exploration are all, to some degree, the results of the inventive minds of the Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Here, in brief, is their story. To explore any part of it in greater detail, click on the section titles below or  left. You may also want to check out our illustrated Wright Timeline. For serious scholars who wish to consult a day-to-day chronology on the Wright brothers' lives, we offer George Arnold Renstrom's classic, Wilbur and Orville Wright: A Chronology in PDF format. Renstrom's work also contains a detailed flight log of their glider experiments, test flights at Huffman Prairie, training flights and exhibition flights in Europe and America.
 


Wilbur Wright, 1867 to 1912

Orville Wright, 1871 to 1948
 

An Unusual Childhood

Wilbur and Orville were the sons of Milton and Susan Wright and members of a warm, loving family that encouraged learning and doing.  Milton was a bishop in the United Brethren Church, and was often away from home on church business. But he wrote hundreds of letters home, and often brought back presents from his trips, exposing his children to the world beyond their horizon. In 1878, he brought home a rubber band-powered helicopter, and young Wilbur and Orville immediately began to build copies of it.

In 1884, Bishop Wright moved his family to Dayton, Ohio, the political center of the United Brethren Church. About the same time, his wife Susan fell ill with tuberculosis. Wilbur, just out of high school, put off college and nursed his sick mother. Orville began to lose interest in school and learned the printing business. Susan Wright died in the summer of 1889, the same year that Orville dropped out of high school to open his own print shop.

 


When he was much older, Orville made this sketch of the rubber band-powered helicopters that he and Wilbur built as children.
 

Career Choices

In 1890, Wilbur joined Orville in the printing business, serving as editor for The West Side News, a weekly newspaper for their  west Dayton neighborhood. It was modestly successful, and the Brothers began a daily, the Evening Item, in 1891. However, they couldn't compete with larger, more established daily newspapers, and after a few months they went back to being simple job printers.

In 1894, Wilbur and Orville were caught up in the bicycling craze that swept the nation. To augment the income from their printing trade, they began repairing and selling bicycles. This soon grew into a full-time business, and in 1896 they began to manufacture their own bikes. The Wright Cycle Company returned a handsome profit, but the brothers cared little about the money. They were already thinking about trading their wheels for wings.

 


The Wright home in West Dayton, 1897. Wilbur and Orville built the front porch. Note the bicycle leaning against the fence – they probably built it as well.
 

Inventing the Airplane

In 1896, the newspapers were filled with accounts of flying machines. Wilbur and Orville noticed that all these primitive aircraft lacked suitable controls. They began to wonder how a pilot might balance an aircraft in the air, just as a cyclist balances his bicycle on the road. In 1899, Wilbur devised a simple system that twisted or "warped" the wings of a biplane, causing it to roll right or left. They tested this system in a kite, then a series of gliders.

They made their first test flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the shores of the Atlantic where the strong winds helped to launch the gliders and the soft sands helped to cushion the fall when they crashed. Their first two gliders, flown in 1900 and 1901, failed to perform as the Wrights had hoped. The gliders did not provide enough lift nor were they fully controllable. So during the winter of 1901-1902 Wilbur and Orville built a wind tunnel and conducted experiments to determine the best wing shape for an airplane. This enabled them to build a glider with sufficient lift, and concentrate on the problem of control. Toward the end of the 1902 flying season, their third glider became the first fully controllable aircraft, with roll, pitch, and yaw controls.

During the winter of 1902-1903, with the help of their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, the Wrights designed and built a gasoline engine light enough and powerful enough to propel an airplane. They also designed the first true airplane propellers and built a new, powered aircraft. Back in Kitty Hawk, they suddenly found themselves in a race. Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had also built a powered aircraft, patterned after a small, unmanned "aerodrome" he had flown successfully in 1896. To add to their frustrations, the Wrights were delayed by problems with their propeller shafts and the weather, giving Langley time to test his aircraft twice in late 1903. Both attempts failed miserably, however, and Langley left the field to the Wrights. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft.

Back in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers found they had much to do to perfect their invention. While the 1903 Wright Flyer did indeed fly, it was underpowered and difficult to control. They established the world's first test flight facilities at Huffman Prairie, northeast of Dayton (today, the site of Wright Patterson Air Force Base). For two years they made flight after flight, fine tuning the controls, engine, propellers, and configuration of their airplane. At first, they could only fly in a straight line for less than a minute. But by the end of 1905, they were flying figure-eight's over Huffman Prairie, staying aloft for over half an hour, or until their fuel ran out. The 1905 Wright Flyer was the world's first practical airplane.

 


The invention of the airplane did not occur in 1903. In actuality, it was a 6-year-long program lasting from 1899 to 1905. It began with this simple model glider, which Wilbur Wright flew as a kite...

...and ended with the development of the first practical airplane, the Wright Flyer III. It's seen here over Huffman Prairie near Dayton, OH with Orville at the controls.

The Wright Patent – the "grandfather" patent of the airplane – was granted in 1906. Note that the drawing does not show a powered airplane. The Wrights patented their control system – this was the focus of their inventive efforts.

Showing the World

After the 1905 flying season, the Wrights contacted the United States War Department, as well as governments and individuals in England, France, Germany, and Russia, offering to sell a flying machine. They were turned down time and time again -- government bureaucrats thought they were crackpots; others thought that if two bicycle mechanics could build a successful airplane, they could do it themselves.  But the Wright persisted, and in late 1907,  the U.S. Army Signal Corps asked for an aircraft. Just a few months later, in early 1908, a French syndicate of businessmen agreed to purchase another.

Both the U.S. Army and the French asked for an airplane capable of carrying a passenger. The Wright brothers hastily adapted their 1905 Flyer with two seats and a more powerful engine. They tested these modifications in secret, back at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for the first time in several years. Then the brothers parted temporarily -- Wilbur to France and Orville to Virginia. 

In 1908 and 1909, Wilbur demonstrated Wright aircraft in Europe, and Orville flew in Fort Meyer, Virginia. The flights went well until Orville lost a propeller and crashed, breaking his leg and killing his passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge. While Orville recuperated, Wilbur kept flying in France, breaking record after record. Orville and his sister Kate eventually joined Wilbur in France,  and the three returned home to Dayton to a elaborate homecoming celebration. Together, Orville and Wilbur returned to Fort Meyer with a new Military Flyer and completed the U.S. Army trials. A few months later, Wilbur flew before over a million spectators in New York Harbor -- his first public flight in his native land. All of these flights stunned and captivated the world. The Wright Brothers became the first great celebrities of the twentieth century.

 


The Wright "Model A" ready for launch on its track in Pau, France in early 1909.

The Wright Military Flyer banks over a crown at Fort Myer, Virginia in the summer of 1909.

The crowd that met the Wright brothers when they returned home from Europe. The brothers are in the carriage being drawn by four white horses.

The Airplane Business

As their fame grew, orders for aircraft poured in. The Wrights set up airplane factories and flight schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, once they had demonstrated their aircraft in public, it was easy for others to copy them -- and many did. The Wrights were dragged into time-consuming, energy-draining patent fights in Europe and America. The most bitter legal battle was with Glenn Curtiss, who, as part of his defense, borrowed Langley's unsuccessful aircraft from the Smithsonian Institution and rebuilt it to prove that the Aerodrome could have flown before the Wright Flyer. The ruse didn't work -- Curtiss made too many modifications to get Langley's aircraft in the air and the courts ruled in favor of the Wrights. Yet although the case resolved the Wright/Curtiss dispute, it left an enduring  resentment between the Wrights and the Smithsonian.

Outside the courtroom, the world seemed no friendlier to Wilbur and Orville. The aircraft business was uncertain and dangerous. Most of the money to be made was in exhibition flying, where the audiences wanted to see death-defying feats or airmanship. The Wrights sent out teams of pilots who had to fly increasingly higher, faster, and more recklessly to satisfy the crowds. Inevitably, the pilots began to die in accidents and the stress began to tell on the Wrights. Additionally, their legal troubles distracted them from what they were best at -- invention and innovation. By 1911, Wright aircraft were no longer the best machines flying.

In 1912, Wilbur Wright, worn out from legal and business problems, contracted typhoid and died. Orville, his heart no longer in the airplane business, sold the Wright Company in 1916 and went back to inventing.

 


Orville and his students at the Wright Flying School in Montgomery, AL in 1910. Most of these young men became exhibition pilots for the Wright Company.

Testing the Wright Model F in 1914 at Huffman Prairie. The Model F was the first Wright airplane to have a fuselage.

A Long Twilight

Patent fights and business troubles behind him, Orville Wright built a small laboratory in his old West Dayton neighborhood. Here, he contracted out as a consultant on a wide variety of engineering problems. He also took up a number of projects that caught his imagination. He did much aeronautical work, helping to develop a racing airplane, guided missile, and "split flaps" to help slow an aircraft in a dive. But he also worked on aerodynamic automobile designs, toy designs and manufacture, even a cipher machine for encoding communications.

His fame as the co-inventor of the airplane endured and he put it to good use. He was on the original board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and served longer than any board member since. (NACA later became the National Air and Space Administration, or NASA.) He helped oversee the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, an effort that helped America recapture the technological lead in aviation during the late 1920s. He also worked tirelessly to help unknown inventors bring their ideas to market.

And he continued a long, running battle with the Smithsonian that had begun with  their duplicity in the Curtis patent suit. After the First World War, the Smithsonian exaggerated Langley's contributions to aeronautics while seeming to belittle the Wrights. Friends of Orville set the record straight, but the Smithsonian kept on. In retaliation, Orville sent the 1903 Wright Flyer, the airplane in which he and Wilbur had made the first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, to the Kensington Science Museum of London in England.  In the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh, the first aviator to fly from New York to Paris nonstop, attempted to mediate the feud, but to no avail. It wasn't until 1942 that Orville Wright's friend and biographer, Fred Kelly, convinced the Smithsonian to back down and publish the truth. That done, Orville sent word to England that the Flyer was to be brought home to America. Its return was delayed by the Second World War, but it was finally returned in 1948.

Orville's Wright last big project was, fittingly, an aircraft. He helped to rebuild the 1905 Flyer III, the first practical airplane,  which he and Wilbur had perfected at Huffman Prairie. This was put on display at Deeds Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio in 1950, but Orville did not live to see the ceremony. He suffered a heart attack in 1948 after fixing the doorbell at his home and died a few days later.

 


Orville in flying togs after making his last flight as a pilot in 1918.

An FIA license, granted in 1929 and signed by Orville. Orville rarely gave autographs, but he would always sign a pilot's license.

Orville inspecting a huge Curtiss-Wright "Wasp" engine in 1941.

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