In the second post in our “Learning from InvENtors” series we’re focusing on an inventor team close to home (well, our home here at EN) – The Wright Brothers.
On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.
Taking a step back, how on Earth did two men, working alone with little formal scientific training, solve a problem so complex as flight?
Let’s take a look back at their history…
The Wright family was no strangers to change. In fact, Wilbur and Orville’s parents and grandparents were active in the major social reform movements of the 19th century: the abolition of slavery, temperance and women’s rights.
Growing up, the importance of family was central to the Wright brothers’ lives and a very powerful influence in everything they did in their lives. Their father, Milton, and mother, Susan, instilled strong core values in their children, which guided them in their attitudes and actions.
Milton Wright was a social reformer who believed in equal opportunity for all. Both Milton and Susan benefited from parents who encouraged broad intellectual pursuits. They carried on this tradition with their own children. Unlike Milton, Susan was skilled in mechanics. As a girl she spent many hours with her father in his carriage shop on a family farm learning how to use tools. Once she had her own family and household, she designed and built simple appliances for herself and made toys for her children. As young boys, Wilbur and Orville would consult their mother whenever they needed mechanical assistance or advice.
“From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together. We usually owned all of our toys in the common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussion between us.“
-Wilbur Wright, 1912
The Wrights’ supportive home life provided Wilbur and Orville with a strong belief in themselves. This self-confidence enabled them to reject the theories of well-known and more experienced aeronautical experimenter when the brothers felt their own ideas were correct. Often it was the emotional anchor provided by their strong family ties that helped Wilbur and Orville persevere when they encountered difficulties in their research.
The Wright brothers were known to get into frequent, heated discussions during their work together. These “conversations” were a key aspect of their creative process. Their ability to defend a position with genuine passion, while considering the other’s point of view, was essential to their inventive success.
“I like scrapping with Orv,” Wilbur said, “he’s such a good scrapper.”
Wilbur Wright was born near Millville, Indiana, on April 16, 1867. A favorite of his father, Wilbur was quiet, but sure of himself. An intellectual, he excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory and was a good athlete. He was a voracious reader, a talented writer and a gifted speaker.
“I have always thought I would like to be a teacher… It would be congenial to my tastes, and I think with proper training I could be reasonably successful.”
Wilbur’s life suddenly changed when he was injured playing an ice hockey game during the winter of 1885–86. The damage to his face and teeth healed, but he suffered lingering heart and digestive complications. He became depressed and withdrew from the world. The confident, robust young Wilbur faded. Uncertain of his health and future, Wilbur dropped his plans to attend Yale and descended into a self-imposed isolation of reading and contemplation.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, on August 19, 1871, Orville Wright showed an interest in technology and science early on, performing experiments and dismantling things to find out how they worked (not unlike many of the stories we have heard from our EN innovators!). He fit the stereotype of the “budding inventor” much more than Wilbur.
While pursuing the airplane was initially Wilbur’s idea, it was Orville’s enthusiasm and optimism that were often what carried them through to solutions of difficult technical problems.
Orville was as bright as his brother, but he was often mischievous in the classroom and did not always apply himself fully. His work habits improved in high school, but instead of moving forward with the required curriculum his junior year, he opted for a series of advanced college preparatory courses. As a result, he did not qualify for his high school degree at the end of his senior year, so he decided not to attend school that term. He never graduated.
An introvert, Orville was painfully shy among strangers. Wilbur always represented them publicly.
Life in Dayton
The Wright family returned to the Dayton area toward the end of Wilbur’s senior year at Richmond High School in Indiana, due to Milton’s church responsibilities.
By 1896, Dayton was experiencing unprecedented expansion and economic strength. Its population had reached 80,000. With a thousand factories, machine shops, and foundries, it had become a national center for the production of farm implements, bicycles, metal castings and railroad cars.
Dayton’s emergence as a center of manufacturing and industry made it a place conducive to technological innovation. The Wright brothers’ own bicycle manufacturing business placed them squarely within this environment.
Spark of Innovation
Technology and innovation were part of the Wright brothers’ lives before they began their study of aeronautics. Orville in particular was intrigued by mechanical things as a youngster, always building, fixing and tinkering. His first serious technical interest and pursuit was printing. He began a printing business as a teenager, in which Wilbur later joined him.
Milton Wright had an office in the United Brethren Printing Establishment, and his boys Wilbur and Orville enjoyed frequent access to the press rooms. Fascinated with the operation, Orville took up printing as a serious hobby shortly after the family returned to Dayton in 1884. In 1888, with Wilbur’s assistance, Orville designed and built a larger, more professional press so he could accept bigger jobs. It marked the first time their historic moniker, “the Wright brothers,” appeared in print. The Wrights maintained their printing business until 1899.
Just like riding a bike…
The bicycle craze in America began in 1887 with the introduction from England of the safety bicycle. The safety, with its two wheels of equal size, was easier to ride than the traditional high-wheel bicycle. It made the freedom of cycling accessible to a much wider market. At the height of the bicycle boom in the 1890s, more than 300 companies were producing over a million bicycles per year.
The Wright brothers purchased bicycles in the spring of 1892. The Wrights’ growing local reputation as skillful cyclists and mechanics led to many requests from friends to fix their bicycles. In 1893, they capitalized on the situation and opened a small rental and repair shop. With their newspapers defunct and their printing business in good hands, the brothers were in search of a new challenge. Bicycles furnished it.
The Wright Cycle Co. did business in five different locations on the west side of Dayton between 1892 and 1897. The brothers quickly expanded their enterprise from rental and repair to a sales shop carrying more than a dozen brands.
By the mid-1890s, Dayton had more than two dozen bicycle shops. With competition growing stiff, Wilbur and Orville decided to manufacture their own line in 1895 and introduced their first model the following year.
During their peak production years of 1896 to 1900, Wilbur and Orville built about 300 bicycles and earned $2,000 to $3,000 per year. Their top-of-the-line model, the Van Cleve, sold for $65. The less expensive St. Clair sold for $42.50. Only five bicycles manufactured by the Wright brothers are known to exist.
Bikes to Planes
“It is not uncommon for the cyclist… to remark, Wheeling is just like flying!… To learn to wheel one must learn to balance; to learn to fly one must learn to balance.”
-James Howard Means
In designing their airplane, the Wrights drew upon a number of bicycle concepts:
- The central importance of balance and control.
- The need for strong but lightweight structures.
- The chain-and-sprocket transmission system for propulsion.
The Wrights built their first aircraft, a biplane kite with a 5-foot wingspan, in July, 1899. To test their glider, the Wrights needed a site with wide-open spaces and strong, steady winds. Among the places that seemed promising was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a small fishing village on an isolated strip of beach on the mid-Atlantic coast.
Test, test and test again…
The Wright brothers’ flight-testing program was a key to their success. Extensive trials of their gliders not only provided valuable performance data, which was folded back into the evolving design, but also helped Wilbur and Orville develop piloting skills.
Kiting the Glider
Before making free glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. Kiting provided valuable information on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls.
Flying the glider
The pilot lay prone on the lower wing to limit drag. The foot-operated crossbar mounted behind him warped the wings for lateral balance, turning the glider. The horizontal hand levers in front of him flexed the forward elevator up and down, controlling pitch.
Not all test flights were successful…The following photo shows the glider after a gust of wind had picked up the unattended craft and smashed it into the sand. The brothers repaired it and continued their flight testing.
Over time, the Wright brothers designed two gliders using research by others in the field, yet neither glider produced the lift those calculations predicted. Wilbur and Orville felt it was time to perform their own aerodynamic research.
In the fall of 1901, tapping their familiarity with bicycles, they created a device to compare the forces acting on two objects with different shapes.
In October, 1901, the Wright brothers designed and built a wind tunnel to carry out additional dynamic research that proved essential in designing their 1903 airplane. What made the Wrights’ wind tunnel unique were the instruments they also designed and built to measure lift and drag. Called balances, these instruments measured the forces of lift and drag acting on a wing in terms that could be used in the equations.
Wilbur and Orville conducted preliminary tests on as many as 200 different model wing shapes as they perfected the operation of their wind tunnel. They made formal tests and recorded data on nearly 50 of these.
By December, 1901, the Wright brothers had accumulated all the aerodynamic data they needed to build a successful flying machine. But they did not immediately try to build a powered airplane. They could not be sure that data obtained from tiny model wings would translate to a full-size aircraft. Rather than risk life and limb on a large, heavy, untried powered flying machine, Wilbur and Orville decided to build one more glider.
The improved performance of the 1902 glider finally enabled the Wright brothers to gain extensive practice in the air. During September and October, they made between 700 and 1,000 glides. Flights of 500 feet were common, and a few topped 600 feet. Orville enthusiastically wrote home of their success, “we now hold all records!”
In 1902, once they they returned from Kitty Hawk in 1902, the Wright brothers knew they had solved the crucial problems of mechanical flight. They immediately began the process of obtaining their basic flying machine patent, which they first filed in March 1903. It took more than three years for the patent to be granted.
Even with the patent filed and success with the 1902 glider, the Wright brothers were no longer content to merely add to the growing body of aeronautical knowledge; they were going to invent the airplane. During the spring and summer of 1903, they were consumed with leaping that final hurdle into history.
On December 14, three months after arriving at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights were finally ready to give their creation a try. They tossed a coin to determine which brother would make the first attempt. Wilbur won and climbed into the pilot’s position.
“After a while they shook hands, and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.”
-John T. Daniels, Kitty Hawk lifesaving crewman, recalling the moments before the first flight
Forty feet down the rail, the Flyer lurched up, stalled, and smashed into the sand, slightly damaging the forward elevator.
While it was only airborne for three and a half seconds, the power of the engine and the responsiveness of the controls bolstered Wilbur’s confidence. He wrote home, “There is now no question of final success.”
With damage repaired, the Flyer was again ready for flight on December 17. The Wrights arose that morning to freezing temperatures and a 27-mile-per-hour wind. At 10:35 a.m., the Flyer lifted off the launching rail with Orville at the controls. The overly sensitive elevator control caused the Flyer to dart up and down as it sailed slowly over the sand, coming to rest with a thud 120 feet from where it had taken off. The flight was short—only 12 seconds—but it was a true flight nevertheless. A human had flown.
That day, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft.
The Wright brothers had invented the first successful airplane.
The Wright Brothers are true testaments to the inventing process. From taking the fundamentals of one product (bicycles) to create something entirely different (an airplane), to testing existing research against new information. All while enduring multiple failures, but never giving up.
Maybe that crazy idea isn’t so crazy after all…we hope the story of the Wright Brothers inspired you to create your next idea!