No college – Wilbur and Orville were the only members of the Wright family who didn’t attend college. Orville spent the years learning the printing trade, while Wilbur helped at the local church.
Lifelong bachelors – Neither of the Wright brothers married throughout their lives. Wilbur is recorded as once saying that he “did not have time for both a wife and an airplane.”
Child’s play – In their later lives, the Wright brothers attributed their fascination with flying machines to a small toy helicopter which their father had brought home one day from his travels.
Luminaries – Both of the brothers extensively catalogued their aviation experiments, leading to Wilbur Wright delivering a talk at the prestigious Western Society of Engineers in Chicago in 1901. The speech was entitled ‘Some Aeronautical Experiments’.
Hobby to business – In 1909 the Wright Company was incorporated with Wilbur as president and Orville as one of two vice-presidents. The company’s factory was based in Dayton and their flying field at the nearby Huffman Prairie.
The Wright brothers role
Wilbur and Orville Wright are two of history’s most famous aviation pioneers who, through a series of experiments in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, created the first controllable, powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. Named the Wright Flyer, the plane was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of research and trials that saw the brothers progress from custom-built kites, through to gliders and finally on to engine-powered aeroplanes. Together these talented siblings are generally credited with launching the age of powered flight.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of Milton Wright, an ordained minister of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, and Susan Catherine Koerner Wright. The family lived in various locations including Richmond, IN; Cedar Rapids, IA; and Dayton, OH – the latter for the majority of the brothers’ lives. Orville later explained that his father had encouraged both of them from an early age “to pursue intellectual interests and to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.”
This encouragement led Orville and Wilbur into a diverse range of interests and expertise including printing, bicycles – which the pair sold and repaired for several years – and the construction of various machines from wood and metal. Both engineers and inventors, the brothers became well known for their academic and practical application of modern engineering, with Wilbur especially spending much time in his father’s and public libraries.
One of their heroes was German gliding pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who up until his death in 1896 had built and flown a series of aircraft to varying degrees of success. His death, however – which was the result of a glider crash – oddly spurred the brothers’ interest in flight, with them writing to the Smithsonian Institution for suggestions on other aeronautical manuscripts. One of the museum’s recommendations was the engineer Octave Chanute, a leading authority on aviation and civil engineering at the time.
With Chanute’s help the brothers began conducting a number of aeronautical experiments. Crucial to their approach was the focus on control of the aircraft, advancing previous designs that could only fly in a straight line by introducing a helical twist across the wings in either direction. The brothers tested this configuration in 1899 and, after discovering that it allowed the acute control of a kite, began working on a full-scale model: the first Wright Glider. It was tested in October 1900 at Kitty Hawk, NC, where although lifting off the ground, it produced disappointing results.
The Wright brothers refined their glider and tested it in 1901, then again in October 1902 after spending the summer undertaking a vast series of tests into more efficient wing designs. This third model was the breakthrough, with the glider performing exactly as predicted. The pair – who each piloted the glider in turn – racked up almost 1,000 flights between them over a two-month period, covering distances at Kitty Hawk of up to 190 metres (622 feet).
Realizing they had cracked both the aerodynamic and control issues that all of their predecessors had struggled with, the two brothers turned their attention to a powerplant for the glider. In 1903 they built their own four-cylinder internal combustion engine and returned to Kitty Hawk to trial it. Unfortunately the first attempt ended in the engine stalling during takeoff and the front of the plane getting damaged, but after a couple of repairs, the second flight ended in resounding success.
Lifting off at 10.35am on 17 December 1903, the Wright Flyer flew 36 metres (120 feet), then 53 metres (175 feet), followed by 60 metres (200 feet) and finally 259.7 metres (852 feet). This series of flights heralded a new era of aviation and propelled the Wright brothers and their aeroplane to worldwide fame.
The big idea
Prior to the Wright brothers’ successful flight, many other scientists and engineers had dreamed about and, to varying degrees of failure, attempted to build machines that could not only defy gravity, but do so in a controlled manner. Their failures left the idea of a non-dirigible method of flight as mere fancy, with materials, aerodynamics and energy supplies all seeming insurmountable obstacles.
What is testament to the Wright brothers’ expertise is that they addressed each one of these issues with their aircraft in turn, solving in years what countless minds had failed to address in centuries. Examples include the testing of hundreds of wing designs in a custom-built wind tunnel to determine which shape best granted lift, designing and building their own four-cylinder internal combustion engine that was adapted for air travel and recognizing that propeller blades could be understood as rotary wings.