brothers --Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948)--invented and built the
first successful airplane. On Dec. 17, 1903, they made the world's first flight in a
power-driven, heavier-than-air machine near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. With Orville at
the controls, the plane flew 120 feet (37 meters) and was in the air 12 seconds. The
brothers made three more flights that day. The longest, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260
meters) in 59 seconds.
Besides the Wrights, four men and one boy
witnessed the flights. One of the men snapped a picture of the plane just as Orville
piloted it into the air. Only a few newspapers mentioned the event, and their stories were
inaccurate. The Wrights continued to fly from a pasture near their hometown of Dayton,
Ohio, but local newspapers remained uninterested. The Wrights issued a statement about
their achievement to the press in January 1904. It received little attention. Octave
Chanute, an American civil engineer, reported their success in an article appearing in the
March 1904 issue of Popular Science Monthly. The first eyewitness report of a flight by
the Wrights appeared in a magazine called Gleanings in Bee Culture in January 1905.
Despite some factual and accurate stories, the Wrights' achievement was practically
unknown for five years. Most people at that time remained doubtful about flying machines.
In any case, the Wrights preferred to work quietly, perfecting their airplane and
developing flight technique. They believed that airplanes would eventually be used to
transport passengers and mail. They also hoped airplanes might serve to prevent war.
Early life. Wilbur Wright was born April 16, 1867, on a farm 8 miles (13 kilometers) from
New Castle, Indiana, and Orville Wright was born Aug. 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio. Their
father was a bishop of the United Brethren Church. The boys went through high school, but
neither received a diploma. Wilbur did not bother to go to the commencement exercises, and
Orville took special subjects rather than a prescribed course in his final year. Mechanics
fascinated them even in childhood. To earn pocket money they sold homemade mechanical
toys. Orville started a printing business, building his own press. They later launched a
weekly paper, the West Side News, with Wilbur as editor. Wilbur was 25 and Orville 21 when
they began to rent and sell bicycles. Then they began to manufacture them, assembling the
machines in a room above their shop.
Flying experiments. After reading about the death of pioneer glider Otto Lilienthal in
1896, the brothers became interested in flying. They began serious reading on the subject
in 1899, and soon obtained all the scientific knowledge of aeronautics then available.
On the advice of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) in Washington,
D.C., the Wrights selected for their experiments a narrow strip of sand called Kill Devil
Hill, near the settlement of Kitty Hawk, N.C. In 1900, they tested their first glider that
could carry a person. The glider measured 16 feet (5 meters) from wing tip to wing tip.
They returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 with a larger glider. They showed that they could
control sidewise balance by presenting the tips of the right and left wings at different
angles to the wind. But neither the 1900 nor the 1901 glider had the lifting power they
had counted on.
The Wrights concluded that all published tables of air pressures on curved surfaces must
be wrong. They set up a 6-foot (1.8-meter) wind tunnel in their shop and began experiments
with model wings. They tested more than 200 wing models in the tunnel. From the results of
their tests, the brothers made the first reliable tables of air pressures on curved
surfaces. These tables made it possible for them to design a machine that could fly.
The brothers built a third glider and took it to Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1902. This
glider, based on their new figures, had aerodynamic qualities far in advance of any tried
before. With it, they solved most of the problems of balance in flight. They made nearly
1,000 glides in this model, and, on some, covered distances of more than 600 feet (180
meters). Their basic patent, applied for in 1903, relates to the 1902 glider.
First airplane. Before leaving Kitty Hawk in 1902, the brothers started planning a power
airplane. By the fall of 1903, they completed building the machine at a cost of less than
$1,000. It had wings 401/2 feet (12 meters) long and weighed about 750 pounds (340
kilograms) with the pilot. They designed and built their own lightweight gasoline engine
for the airplane.
The Wrights went to Kitty Hawk in September 1903, but a succession of bad storms and minor
defects delayed their experiment at Kill Devil Hill until December 17. They had reason to
be sure of their eventual success because their gliders had proven their airplane's design
and control system to be sound. The brothers had also become skilled pilots. Their
understanding of aerodynamics and ability as pilots set them apart from most others who
tried and failed to fly powered airplanes.
The Wrights continued their experiments at a field near Dayton in 1904 and 1905. In 1904,
they made 105 flights, but totaled only 45 minutes in the air. Two flights lasted five
minutes each. On Oct. 5, 1905, the machine flew 24.2 miles (38.9 kilometers) in 38 minutes
3 seconds. When the Wrights first offered their machine to the U.S. government, they were
not taken seriously. But by 1908 they closed a contract with the U.S. Department of War
for the first military airplane. Meanwhile, they resumed experimental flights near Kitty
Hawk that newspapers reported at great length.
Immediately after these trials, Wilbur went to France, where he aroused the admiration and
enthusiasm of thousands. He made flights to altitudes of 300 feet (91 meters) and more. He
arranged with a French company for the construction of his machine in France. When he
returned to the United States, he made demonstration flights from Governors Island, N.Y.,
around the Statue of Liberty, up to Grant's Tomb, and back.
While Wilbur was in France, Orville made successful flights in the United States. On the
morning of Sept. 9, 1908, he made 57 complete circles at an altitude of 120 feet (37
meters) over the drill field at Fort Myer, Va. He remained in the air 1 hour 2 minutes and
set several records the same day. On September 17, however, while he was flying at 75 feet
(23 meters), a blade of the right-hand propeller struck and loosened a wire of the rear
rudder. The wire coiled about the blade and snapped it across the middle. The machine
became difficult to manage and plunged to the earth. Orville suffered a broken thigh and
two broken ribs. His passenger, Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, died within three hours of
a fractured skull. This accident was the most serious in the Wright brothers' career.
Orville reappeared at Fort Myer the next year, fully recovered. He completed official
tests with no evidence of nervousness.
In August 1909, the Wrights closed a contract with some wealthy men in Germany for the
formation of a German-Wright Company. Later that year, they formed the Wright Company in
New York City to manufacture airplanes. They earned some money but were troubled with
imitators, infringements on their patents, conflicting claims, and lawsuits. From 1910 to
1912, the Wrights gave flying lessons to several people who later became aviation leaders
and famous exhibition pilots.
After Wilbur's death. Wilbur died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912, just as the airplane
was beginning to make great advances. Orville worked on alone, and in 1913 won the Collier
Trophy for a device to balance airplanes automatically. He sold his interest in the Wright
Company and retired in 1915.
Orville continued work on the development of aviation in his own shop, the Wright
Aeronautical Laboratory. In 1929, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his
and Wilbur's contributions to the advancement of aeronautics. He died on Jan. 30, 1948.
Wilbur was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City in 1955, and
Orville in 1965.
Orville sent the original plane flown near Kitty Hawk to the Science Museum in London in
1928. The Science Museum sent the plane to the United States in 1948, and it is now in the
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Basic principles of that plane are used
in every airplane. The Kill Devil Hill Monument National Memorial in North Carolina became
the Wright Brothers National Memorial in 1953.