The Wright brothers, Orville (b. August 19, 1871, Dayton, Ohio, USA – d. January 30, 1948, Dayton, Ohio, USA) and Wilbur (b. April 16, 1867, Millville(d), Henry County, Indiana, USA – d. May 30, 1912, Dayton, Ohio, USA), were two American aviators, engineers, inventors and aviation pioneers, generally credited with the successful invention, construction and piloting of the world”s first airplane. They made the first controlled, sustained, self-propelled flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft on December 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina(d). In 1904-05, the two brothers developed the first practical fixed-wing aircraft from their first flying machine(d). Although they were not the first to build experimental airplanes, it was the Wright brothers who invented the flight control mechanisms that made the first self-propelled flight possible.
The fundamental achievement of the two brothers was the invention of three-axis control(d), which allowed the pilot to manoeuvre the aircraft efficiently and keep it balanced. This method became and still is standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds. From the beginning of their work in aeronautics, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of control for pilots, which they saw as the key to solving the “flying problem”. This approach was very different from other experimenters of the time, who placed more emphasis on developing powerful engines. Using a small wind tunnel they had developed, the Wright brothers also collected more accurate data than anyone before them, allowing them to design and build wings and propellers more efficiently than anything they had ever done before. Their first U.S. patent, number 821,393, did not claim the invention of a flying machine, but rather an aerodynamic control system that handled the surfaces of a flying machine.
They acquired the mechanical skills essential to their success over the years working in their workshop with printing presses, bicycles, engines and other machinery. In particular working on bicycles influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced through exercise. From 1900 until their first self-propelled flight in late 1903, they conducted extensive tests with gliders that also developed their skills as pilots. Charlie Taylor(d), an employee of their bicycle shop, also became an important part of the team, and built the first airplane engine in close collaboration with the two brothers.
The Wright brothers” status as inventors of the airplane has been challenged by several parties. Much controversy persists over competing claims by early aviators(d). Edward Roach, historian at the National Aviation History Park at Dayton(d) argues that the two were excellent self-taught engineers, capable of running a small business, but that they lacked the business skills and temperament to dominate the aviation industry in its heyday.
The Wright brothers were two of seven children of Milton Wright(d) (1828-1917), of English(d) and Dutch(d) descent, and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831-1889), of German(d) and Swiss(d) descent. Milton Wright”s mother, Catherine Reeder, traced her ancestry to the Vanderbilt family(d) and the Huguenot Gano family of New Rochelle(Orville to Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. The two never married. The other Wright siblings were Reuchlin (1861-1920), Lorin (1862-1939), Katharine(d) (1874-1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, and died in infancy). In elementary school, Orville had a penchant for breaking the rules and was expelled once. On the direct paternal line, their ancestry goes back to a Samuel Wright (b. 1606 in Essex, England) who sailed to America and settled in Massachusetts in 1636(d).
In 1878, their father, who traveled extensively in his capacity as a bishop in the United Church of the Brethren in Christ(d), brought home a toy helicopter for his two younger sons. The aircraft was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud(d). Made of paper, bamboo and cork, with a rubber band to turn the rotor, the toy was about 30 cm long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke down, then built another instead. In the years that followed, they referred to their experience with that toy as the spark that ignited their interest in flying.
Both brothers went to high school but did not receive diplomas. The family”s sudden move in 1884 from Richmond, Indiana, where they lived in the 1870s, to Dayton, Ohio, prevented Wilbur from receiving his diploma after completing his four years of high school. The diploma was awarded posthumously to Wilbur on April 16, 1994, the 127th anniversary of his birth.
Orville dropped out of school after his freshman year of high school to start a printing press business in 1889, after designing and building his own printing press with Wilbur. Wilbur also came to work at the printing press, and in March the brothers launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News. In later issues, Orville was credited as publisher and Wilbur as editor on the masthead. In April 1890, they turned the weekly into a daily, under the title The Evening Item, but it lasted only four months. They then turned their attention to commercial printing. One of their customers was Orville”s friend and classmate Paul Laurence Dunbar, who would become world famous as one of the first African-American poets and writers. For a brief time, the Wright brothers printed the Dayton Tattler, a Dunbar-educated weekly.
Taking advantage of the explosion in popularity of bicycles(d) (spurred by the invention of the safety bicycle(d) and its substantial advantages over the penny-farthing model(d)), in December 1892 the brothers opened a repair shop (Wright Cycle Exchange, later Wright Cycle Company(d)), and in 1896 began manufacturing their own brand. They used this venture to finance their growing interest in flying. In the early to mid-1890s, they saw newspaper or magazine articles and probably photographs of Otto Lilienthal”s dramatic glides in Germany.
In July 1899, Wilbur put the twist wing(d) to the test by building and then flying a biplane kite with a wing span of 1.5m. When the wings twisted, one wingtip produced more lift and the other wingtip less. The unequal lift caused the wings to tilt, or bend: the end with more lift rose, while the other end fell, causing a turn in the direction of the lowered end. The deflection was controlled by four cables attached to the kite, leading to two levers held by the kite”s leader, who tilted them in opposite directions to twist the wings.
In 1900, the brothers went to Kitty Hawk(d), North Carolina, to begin their manned gliding experiments. In his reply to the first letter he received from Wilbur, Octave Chanute suggested the mid-Atlantic coast for its steady breezes and soft landing surfaces on sandy beaches. Wilbur also requested and reviewed data from the Weather Bureau(d), and decided to go to Kitty Hawk after receiving information from the government meteorologist stationed there as well. Kitty Hawk, though a remote place, was closer to Dayton than other locations Chanute suggested, such as California and Florida. The location also had the advantage of isolation from reporters, who had turned Chanute”s 1896 experiments on Lake Michigan into something of a circus. Chanute visited their camp each season from 1901 to 1903 and saw the gliding experiments, but not the self-propelled flights.
* (the Wright brothers modified it on the spot.)
The brothers flew the glider for only a few days in the early fall of 1900 at Kitty Hawk. In the first tests, probably on October 3, Wilbur was on board as the glider flew like a kite, not far from the ground, with other men below holding it by the strings. Most of the kite tests were without a pilot on board, with sandbags or chains and even a local boy as ballast.
They tested the twisting wing using ground control ropes. The glider was also tested, unmanned, suspended from a small, purpose-built tower. Wilbur, not Orville, did about a dozen free glides in a single day, October 20. For these tests, the brothers went 4 miles south to the Kill Devil Hills(d), a cluster of sand dunes up to 100 feet high (where they camped each of the next three years). Although the glider”s lift was lower than expected, the two brothers were encouraged because the front downrigger of the aircraft was well worked and there were no accidents. However, the low number of free glides meant that they were not yet able to put the twisty wings to a real test.
The pilot was lying on the lower wing as designed to reduce drag. When the glide was complete, the pilot had to lower himself into an upright position through an opening in the wing and land on his feet, with his arms wrapped around the frame. In a few glides, however, they discovered that the pilot could lie on the wing, head first, without undue danger, and land. Over the next five years, they flew their flights in this position.
Hoping to improve lift, they built a glider with a much larger wing area in 1901 and made dozens of flights in July and August over distances of 15-122m. The glider stalled a few times, but the parachute effect of the front elevator allowed Wilbur to land safely without going into a dive. These incidents brought the two even closer to the canard design, which they did not give up until 1910. The glider, however, produced two great disappointments. It produced only about one-third of the calculated lift and sometimes veered in the opposite direction from the intended turn-a problem later known as adverse gyration(d)-when Wilbur used twisting wing control. On the way home, Wilbur told Orville, deeply disappointed, that the man would not fly n in a thousand years.
To find out if there really are errors in Lilienthal”s data tables, the brothers used a bicycle for a new kind of experiment. They made a mock-up-sized airfoil and a flat plate for counteraction, both to the dimensions specified by Lilienthal, and attached them to a bicycle wheel, which they mounted horizontally in front of the handlebars of a bicycle. Pedaling briskly down a local street to create airflow along the device, they noticed that the third wheel spun against the profile instead of remaining stationary, as Lilienthal”s formula predicted. The experiment confirmed the suspicion that either the standard Smeaton coefficient or Lilienthal”s lift and drag coefficients-all of them-are wrong.
With this information, and a more accurate Smeaton number, the Wright brothers designed the 1902 glider. Using another crucial discovery from the wind tunnel, they made the airfoil flatter, reduced the relative thickness (the thickness of the wing curvature divided by the chord). The 1901 wings had significantly more curvature, an extremely inefficient feature that the Wright brothers had copied directly from Lilienthal. Fully confident in the new wind tunnel results, the Wright brothers discarded Lilienthal”s data and now based their designs on their own calculations.
With characteristic caution, the brothers first flew the 1902 glider as a kite, with no man on board, as they had done with the two previous versions. Work on the wind tunnel paid off, and the glider produced the expected lift. It also had a new structural feature: a fixed vertical rudder at the rear, which the brothers hoped would eliminate turning problems.
The improved wing design allowed for longer and longer glides, and the rear rudder prevented opposing gybes-so effectively that it introduced a new problem. Sometimes, when the pilot tried to level off after a turn, the glider would not respond to corrective wing twist and would persist in a tighter turn. The glider would slide to the bottom wing side, which would hit the ground, spinning the aircraft. Wrights called this phenomenon “fountain digging”.
In short, the Wright brothers discovered the true purpose of the vertical movable rudder. Its role was not to change direction of flight (like a rudder in navigation), but rather to right or align the aircraft correctly during banked turns and wind disturbances. The actual turning-change of direction-was done by controlling the roll by twisting the wings. The principles remained the same even when the aerofoils replaced the twisting wings.
In 1903, the brothers built the self-propelled Wright Flyer I, using their favorite building material, spruce, a strong, lightweight wood, and Pride of the West muslin for surface covering. They also designed and carved their own wooden propellers, and manufactured a special gasoline engine in their bike shop. They thought propeller design would be a simple matter and intended to adapt data from the shipbuilding industry. However, library research revealed no set formula for either air or ship propellers, and they found themselves at a loss for a starting point. They discussed and debated the issue, sometimes heatedly, until they came to the conclusion that an aeronautical propeller propeller is essentially still a kind of wing that rotates in a vertical plane. On that basis, they used data from other wind tunnel tests to design their propellers as well. The finished blades were about two and a half metres long, and made from three glued spruce planks. The Wright brothers decided to use a pair of pusher propellers(d) (counter-rotating to cancel each other”s kinetic momentum), which would act on a larger amount of air than a single relatively slow propeller and would not disturb the airflow along the edge of the wings.
The Wright brothers approached several engine manufacturers, but none could satisfy their need for a sufficiently light propeller. They turned to their workshop mechanic, Charlie Taylor(r), who built an engine in just six weeks, consulting closely with the brothers. To keep weight down, the engine block was cast from aluminum, a rare practice at the time. The WrightTaylor engine had a primitive carburetor, and no fuel pump(d). Gasoline was gravity-fed from a fuel tank mounted on a spar of the wing into a chamber near the cylinders, where it was mixed with air: the fuel-air mixture was then vaporized by heat from the crankcase, and pushed into the cylinders.
Propeller drive chains(d), similar to bicycle drive chains, were supplied by an automotive chain manufacturer. The flyer cost less than a thousand dollars, in contrast to government funding of more than $50,000 awarded to Samuel Langley(d) for his Great Aerodrome(d) for passenger transport. The Flyer had a wingspan of 12.3 m, weighed 274 kg and had a 12 horsepower (8.9 kW) 82 kg engine.
Modern analyses by Professor Fred E. C. Culick and Henry R. Jex (in 1985) have shown that the 1903 Wright Flyer was so unstable that it was almost impossible to handle by anyone other than the Wright brothers, who had trained on the 1902 glider. In an attempt to recreate the event 100 years later, on December 17, 2003, Kevin Kochersberger, flying an exact replica, failed to repeat the success the Wright brothers had with their piloting expertise.
In 1904, the Wright brothers built Flyer II. They decided to avoid the expense of travel and bringing supplies to the Outer Banks and set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie(d), a cattle pasture eight miles northeast of Dayton. They received permission to use the land free of charge from its owner, Torrance Huffman, a bank executive. They then invited reporters to their first test flight of the year on May 23, on the condition that no photos be taken. Engine problems and light winds prevented any flight, and the two only managed a short hop a few days later, with fewer reporters present. Historian Fred Howard of the Library of Congress has recorded some speculation that the brothers may have intentionally failed to make reporters lose interest in their experiments. It is not known if this is so, but after their poor performance, the local newspapers virtually ignored them for a year and a half.
The Wright Brothers enjoyed the freedom from the distraction produced by reporters. The lack of reporters also reduced the chances of competitors finding out their methods. After the Kitty Hawk-powered flights, the Wright brothers decided to start retiring from the bicycle business to concentrate on creating and marketing a practical airplane. This was a financial risk, as the two were neither wealthy nor government-funded (as were other experimenters such as Ader, Maxim(d), Langley and Alberto Santos-Dumont). The Wright brothers didn”t have the luxury of being able to give their invention to others; they were going to make a living from it. So they stepped up secrecy, at the encouragement of patent attorney Henry Toulmin(d)”s advice not to reveal details of their machine.