History pop quiz: Did you know that the Wright Brothers never actually claimed that they invented the airplane, or the first airplane to take flight? It’s true!
What Wilbur and Orville Wright did create, however, was the first successful airplane control system, which allowed for the very first powered and controlled navigation of flight—a three-axis system that all modern aircraft use. This week, December 17 marked the 110th anniversary of their invention. Prior to this, the airplane was not yet a safe or sensible means of transportation because it could not be controlled. But this was not their first innovative creation. Before we look at their contributions to aviation, let’s take a look the brothers’ background and what else they dabbled in that eventually led to far-reaching developments for aeronautics and beyond.
On the porch of their Dayton, Ohio home.
From the beginning, the brothers’ parents emphasized the importance of strong family values, and these notions guided their work and life. This supportive home environment provided the Wrights with a source of confidence to think freely, experiment, and oppose the ideas of other well-known individuals attempting flight around the same time. Wilbur and Orville’s first endeavors began in the 1880s with a small printing business. They then began their own bicycle manufacturing business while residing in Dayton, Ohio in the early 1890s. Their reputation as skilled mechanics and cyclists garnered frequent requests from friends to repair their bicycles. In 1893 they took advantage of this popularity and opened a bicycle rental and repair shop, which later turned into a sales shop.
Wright Cycle Company
In 1896, the brothers introduced their own models of bicycles. The most expensive model was the Van Cleve, selling for $65, and the less-expensive model was the St. Clair, selling for $42.50. From 1896 through 1900 the brothers built around 300 bicycles, but today only five are known to exist. The photo above shows the Wright Cycle Co. shop at its 1127 West Third Street location, which is also where all of their experimental aircraft were to be constructed.
The Wrights’ shift from bicycles to airplanes was a rather natural transition, and Wilbur and Orville’s extensive knowledge about bicycles was helpful in their later experiments. Some links between the two included the importance of balance and control; the need for strong, lightweight structures; chain and sprocket transmission; and aerodynamic concerns. After designing bicycles, which were unstable but able to be controlled by the rider, the Wrights predicted that an airplane could be controllable as well. They were inspired to create designs for kites and gliders that later became manned flyers. The brothers also conducted extensive research, acquired reference materials from the Smithsonian, and closely studied how birds took flight to model their aircraft.
Testing their first glider as a kite in 1900.
The three components of controlled flight that the Wrights incorporated into their system were roll, pitch, and yaw. These types of motion were identified early on by sailors, who realized ships were upset by each; a wave could cause the ship to roll from side to side, make the bow and stern pitch up and down and, with wind cause the vessel to yaw right and left. Similar motions affected aircrafts with wind instead of waves, and Wilbur and Orville experimented with controlling these dynamics. Their unique innovation in 1900 to control roll on an aircraft was an idea called wing warping. The tips of the glider’s wings were twisted by a series of cables that allowed the pilot to bank the aircraft to make turns. To control pitch, the brothers included a movable elevator at the front of the aircraft in 1901. Finally, in 1902, a movable rudder was added to provide yaw control. All of these combined created a three-axis system that allowed for the first powered and controlled flight.
Orville at the controls, December 17, 1903.
In September of 1900, Wilbur headed to the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The location was recommended to the brothers when they wrote to the local weather station, and J. J. Dosher, the station manager, replied with positive things to say about the area. Dosher also encouraged Captain William Tate, a county commissioner, postmaster, and well- educated citizen to write to the brothers. He enthusiastically recommended Kitty Hawk’s strong and steady winds, and the matter was settled. The first flights of their man-carrying aircraft happened that October, and history was officially in the making.
Tests of the first Wright glider revealed that it could not support the weight of a pilot in strong wind, and was later nearly destroyed during a storm. Repairs were made and the brothers continued to conduct tests, which led to their design of the second glider in 1901—the largest glider anyone had tried to fly thus far. That same year the brothers built their own wind tunnels and balances to measure different forces on wing shapes. The data gathered from these experiments was used to design their third glider, and when it was flown they saw a significant improvement. In 1902 the third glider was launched with the addition of a moveable, single-panel rudder on the tail and now had a three-axis aerodynamic control system. The next step was to add an engine to the design and create a powered and controlled aircraft. In 1903, they built their own engine with the assistance of Charley Tailor, and ended up with a 200-pound, four-cylinder, 12-horsepower engine. And thus the “Flyer” was born, built in Dayton and assembled for the first time in Kitty Hawk.
Wright Brothers’ patented control system, granted in 1906.
After an unsuccessful first attempt three days before, the Wrights achieved powered and controlled flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine on December 17, 1903. The photograph above may be one of the most famous in the world—it shows Orville propped up on his elbows at the controls for the first flight, and Wilbur following behind the Flyer after holding the wingtip to assist him. He was airborne for 12 seconds over 120 feet. Four flights were made that day, the last by Wilbur, which lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. The Flyer was then damaged by a violent gust of wind, so the brothers ended the tests and sent a telegraph to their father to tell him of their accomplishment. And in one fell swoop, the era of modern, piloted aviation had taken off.
The years following the first successful flight saw many rapid developments. In 1904, Wilbur and Orville started refining their powered airplane and made test flights near Dayton, Ohio at Huffman Prairie. The design of the Flyer they made here—the Huffman Prairie Flyer—was the first airplane to fly in a complete circle. The next year, they developed the first practical airplane and demonstrated it in front of a small audience. In 1905, they proposed their airplane to the U. S. Army, which was not interested at that time. By 1906, the U.S. Patent Office granted the brothers a patent for the control system on their airplane—the most important contribution they made to aviation. In 1907, they acquired contracts for the sale of their airplanes from French investors and the U.S. Army, as long as they could demonstrate their invention. The following two years they did demonstrate their airplane to the U.S. Army, and one of the demonstrations (in Fort Myer, Virginia) is depicted below. In 1909, the Army purchased their first military plane, the Wright Military Flyer. During the testing Orville and Lieutenant Lahm of the U. S. Signal Corps made a world’s record flight at Fort Myer on July 27—a fifty-mile flight at a speed of about forty miles an hour.
By 1909, the Wrights begin to manufacture airplanes and teach pilots. What was once thought impossible was now proven to be feasible, and the reality of human flight could no longer be denied. Advances were quickly made, and airplanes began to be used more and more frequently. In 1918, the U.S. Post Office established airmail service. The first flight around the world was only six years after that in 1924. In 1933, the Boeing 247 was built; it included an all-metal construction and retractable landing gear.
Explorer 1, the first American satellite, was placed in orbit around Earth in 1958. Then in 1969, the first human exploration of the moon was accomplished. To link the two events symbolically, a sample of wood and fabric from the Wright Flyer was carried to the surface of the Moon by the Apollo 11 crew. Before the Wrights, the idea of flight had perplexed us for centuries—yet only 66 years after their invention, man was on the moon in spacecraft using the same control system they devised.
It is amazing to think that, without the work of these two individuals from just over a century ago, we would not be where we are today. You may remember our very own honorary recognition of the Wrights on the 100th anniversary; Southwest Airlines took the delivery of N448WN at the exact time Orville and Wilbur Wright recorded that 12-second flight on December 17: 10:35 EST. It is easy to see that the value of the Wrights’ contributions is nearly immeasurable and undoubtedly changed the course of history in countless ways. So, take a moment this week to reflect on the history of the industry that we are a part of, and remember that you have a place in that same history that continues to unfold every day.
(Note: Some photos above may be viewed larger in a separate window by clicking the image.)
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