Wright brothers

Orville Wright
"We came down here for wind and sand, and we have got them."
Born Aug. 19, 1871
Dayton, Ohio
Died Jan. 30, 1948
Dayton, Ohio
Occupation printer/publisher, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
Spouse none
Wilbur Wright
"For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man." "It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill."
Born April 16, 1867
Millville, Indiana
Died May 30, 1912
Dayton, Ohio
Occupation printer/editor, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
Spouse none

The Wright brothers, Orville (August 19, 1871–January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867–May 30 1912), are Americans generally credited with making the first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air human flight on December 17, 1903. In the two years afterward, they developed their flying machine into the world's first practical fixed-wing aircraft.

The brothers' fundamental breakthrough was their invention of "three axis-control," which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method has been used ever since by all fixed wing aircraft.[1] From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on unlocking the secrets of control to conquer "the flying problem," rather than developing powerful engines as some other experimenters did.

Mechanical skills they gained working for years in their shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors and machinery contributed to their success, as did their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice, as they had learned with bicycles.[2]

The Wright brothers' status as inventors of the airplane has been subject to counter-claims by various parties. Much controversy persists over the many competing claims of early aviators. See First flying machine for more discussion.



Childhood and youth

The Wright brothers were the children of Milton Wright (1828-1917); and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831-1889). Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana in 1867, Orville Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1871. The brothers never married. The Wright siblings were Reuchlin (1861-1920), Lorin (1862-1939), Katharine (1874-1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, died in infancy). In elementary school, Orville was given to a bit of mischief and was once expelled.[3] In 1878 their father, who traveled often as a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, brought home a toy "helicopter" for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the initial spark of their interest in flying.[4]

In 1885 or '86 Wilbur was accidentally struck in the face by a hockey stick while playing an ice-skating game with friends. He had been vigorous and athletic until then, and although his injuries did not appear especially severe, he became withdrawn, and did not attend Yale as planned. Had he enrolled, his career might have taken a very different path than the extraordinary one he eventually followed with Orville. Instead, he spent the next few years largely housebound, caring for his mother who was terminally ill with tuberculosis and reading extensively in his father's library. He ably assisted his father during times of controversy in the Brethren Church.[5] However, he also expressed unease over his own lack of ambition.[6]


Early career and research

Both brothers received high school educations, but did not receive diplomas. The family's move in 1884 from Richmond, Indiana to Dayton (where the family had lived during the 1870s) prevented Wilbur from receiving his diploma after finishing four years of high school. Orville dropped out after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur's help. Quietly starting a partnership with far-reaching consequences, Wilbur joined the print shop, serving as editor while Orville was publisher of the weekly newspaper the West Side News, followed, for only a few months, by the daily Evening Item. Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze, they opened a repair and sales shop in 1892 (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company) and began manufacturing their own brand in 1896. They used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. In the early or mid-1890s they saw newspaper or magazine articles and probably photographs of the dramatic glides by Otto Lilienthal in Germany. The year 1896 brought three important aeronautical events. In May, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered model aircraft. In the summer, Chicago engineer and aviation authority Octave Chanute brought together several men who tested various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. In August, Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his glider.[7] These events lodged in the consciousness of the brothers. In May 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics.[8] Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci, and Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation that year.

Replica of the Wright brothers' wind tunnel at the Virginia Air and Space Center.
Replica of the Wright brothers' wind tunnel at the Virginia Air and Space Center.

The Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note, however, that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899-1900, writing of "my" machine and "my" plans before Orville became deeply involved when the first person singular became the plural "we" and "our". Author James Tobin asserts, "it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of a store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the beginning to the end."[9]

The Wrights did all the theoretical work and most of the hands-on construction. Their bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team, building their first aircraft engine in close collaboration with the brothers.


Ideas about control

Despite Lilienthal's fate, the brothers favored his strategy: to practice gliding in order to master the art of control prior to attempting flight with a motor. The death of British aeronaut Percy Pilcher in another hang gliding crash in 1899 only reinforced their opinion that a reliable method of pilot control, not elusive built-in stability, was the key to successful—and safe—flight. At the outset of their experiments they regarded control as the unsolved third part of "the flying problem". They believed sufficiently promising knowledge of the other two issues—wings and engines—already existed.[10] The Wright brothers thus differed sharply from more experienced practitioners of the day, notably Ader, Maxim and Langley who built powerful engines, attached them to airframes equipped with unproven control devices, and expected to take to the air with no previous piloting experience. Though agreeing with Lilienthal's idea of practice, the Wrights saw that his method of balance and control—shifting his body weight—was fatally inadequate.[11] They were determined to find something better.

Based on observation, Wilbur concluded that birds changed the angle of the ends of their wings to make their bodies roll right or left.[12] The brothers decided this would also be a good way for a flying machine to turn—to "bank" or "lean" into the turn just like a bird—and just like a person riding a bicycle, an experience with which they were thoroughly familiar. Equally important, they hoped this method would enable recovery when the wind tilted the machine to one side (lateral balance). They puzzled over how to achieve the same effect with man-made wings and eventually discovered wing-warping when Wilbur idly twisted a long inner tube box at the bicycle shop.[13]

Other aeronautical investigators regarded flight as if it were not so different from surface locomotion, except the surface would be elevated. They thought in terms of a ship's rudder for steering, while the flying machine remained essentially level in the air, as did a train or an automobile or a ship at the surface. The idea of deliberately leaning, or rolling, to one side either seemed undesirable or did not enter their thinking.[14] Some of these other investigators, including Langley and Chanute, sought the ideal of "inherent stability," believing the pilot of a flying machine would not be able to react quickly enough to wind disturbances to effectively use mechanical controls. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, wanted the pilot to have absolute control.[15] For that reason, their early designs made no concessions toward built-in stability (such as dihedral wings). They deliberately designed their 1903 first powered flyer with anhedral (drooping) wings, which are inherently unstable, but less susceptible to upset by gusty sidewinds.




Toward flight

First flight, December 17, 1903.
First flight, December 17, 1903.

In July 1899 Wilbur put wing-warping to the test by building and flying a five-foot box kite in the approximate shape of a biplane. When the wings were warped, or twisted, one end would receive more lift and rise, starting a turn in the direction of the lower end. Warping was controlled by four lines attached to the kite. The lines led to two sticks held by the kite flyer, who tilted them in opposite directions to twist the wings and make the kite bank left or right. It worked.

In 1900 the brothers journeyed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to begin their manned gliding experiments. They chose the location based on advice from Octave Chanute (answering Wilbur's letter), who suggested a sandy coastal area for regular breezes and a soft landing surface. They singled out Kitty Hawk after scrutinizing Weather Bureau data and writing to the government meteorologist stationed there. The remote spot also gave them privacy from reporters, who had turned the 1896 Chanute experiments into something of a circus. The trip required a train ride from Dayton to Cincinnati; change trains for an overnight ride to Old Point Comfort, Virginia (near Newport News); ferryboat to Norfolk; train to Elizabeth City, North Carolina; and boat ride to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.


The gliders

They based the design of their first full-size glider on the work of their recent predecessors: the Chanute-Herring "double-decker," a biplane hang glider which flew well in the 1896 experiments near Chicago; and aeronautical data on lift that Lilienthal had published. The uprights between the wings of the Chanute and Wright gliders were braced by wires in a modified "Pratt truss," which Chanute, an engineer, had adapted from his bridge-building experience.

Glider Vital Statistics[16]
Wingspan Wing Area Chord Camber Aspect Ratio Length Weight
1900 17 ft 6in 165 sq ft 5 ft 1/20 3.5 11 ft 6in 52 lb
1901 22 ft 290 sq ft 7 ft 1/12,*1/19 3 14 ft 98 lb
1902 32 ft 1in 305 sq ft 5 ft 1/20-1/24 6.5 17 ft 112 lb

* (This airfoil caused severe pitch problems; the Wrights modified the camber on-site.)


1900 Glider

The brothers flew the glider only a few days in the early autumn of 1900 at Kitty Hawk. In the first tests, probably Oct. 3, Wilbur was aboard while the glider flew as a kite not far above the ground with men below holding tether ropes.[17] Most of the kite tests were unpiloted with sandbags or chains (and even a local boy) as onboard ballast. They tested wing-warping using control ropes from the ground. The glider was also tested unmanned while suspended from a small homemade tower. Wilbur (but not Orville) made about a dozen free glides on only a single day. For those tests, the brothers trekked four miles south to the Kill Devil Hills, a group of sand dunes up to 100 feet high (where they made camp in each of the next three years). Although the glider's lift was less than expected (causing most tests to be unmanned), the brothers were encouraged because the craft's front elevator worked well and they had no accidents. However, the small number of free glides meant they were not able to give wing-warping a true test.

The pilot lay flat on the lower wing, as planned, to reduce aerodynamic drag. As a glide ended, the pilot was supposed to lower himself to a vertical position through an opening in the wing and land on his feet with his arms wrapped over the framework. Within a few glides, however, they discovered the pilot could remain prone on the wing, headfirst, without undue danger when landing. They made all their flights in that position for the next five years.


1901 Glider

Orville with the 1901 glider, its nose pointed skyward; it had no tail.
Orville with the 1901 glider, its nose pointed skyward; it had no tail.

They built the 1901 glider with a much larger wing area, hoping to improve lift. It was flown 50 to 100 times in July and August for distances of 20 to 400 feet.[18] This glider, however, delivered two major disappointments. It produced much less lift than calculated and sometimes failed to respond properly to wing-warping, turning opposite the direction intended. On the trip home after their second season, Wilbur, stung with disappointment, remarked to Orville that man would fly, but not in their lifetimes.

The poor lift of the gliders led the Wrights to question the accuracy of Lilienthal's data, as well as the "Smeaton coefficient" of air pressure, which had been used for over 100 years and was part of the accepted equation for lift.

The Lift Equation
L = k\;S\;V^2\;C_L

L = lift, in pounds
k = coefficient of air pressure (Smeaton coefficient)
S = total area of lifting surface
V² = velocity (headwind plus airspeed) squared
CL = coefficient of lift (varies with wing shape)

The Wrights—and Lilienthal—used the equation to calculate the amount of lift that wings of various sizes would produce. Based on measurements of lift and wind during the 1901 glider's kite and free flights, Wilbur believed (correctly, as tests later showed) that the Smeaton number was very close to .0033, not the traditionally used 60% larger .0054, which would exaggerate predicted lift.

Realizing that trial-and-error with different wings on full-size gliders was too costly and time-consuming, the Wrights built a six-foot wind tunnel in their bicycle shop and conducted systematic tests on miniature wings from October to December 1901. The "balances" they devised and mounted inside the tunnel to hold the wings looked crude, made of bicycle spokes and scrap metal, but were "as critical to the ultimate success of the Wright brothers as were the gliders."[19] The devices allowed the brothers to balance lift against drag and accurately calculate the performance of each wing.[20] They could also see which wings worked well as they looked through the viewing window in the top of the tunnel.


1902 Glider

Wilbur Wright pilots the 1902 glider over the Kill Devil Hills, Oct 10, 1902. The single rear rudder is steerable; it replaced the original fixed double rudder.
Wilbur Wright pilots the 1902 glider over the Kill Devil Hills, Oct 10, 1902. The single rear rudder is steerable; it replaced the original fixed double rudder.

Lilienthal had made "whirling arm" tests on only a few wing shapes, and the Wrights mistakenly assumed the data would apply to their wings, which had a different shape. The Wrights took a huge step forward and made basic wind tunnel tests on 200 wings of many shapes and airfoil curves, followed by detailed tests on 38 of them. The tests, according to biographer Howard, "were the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time with so few materials and at so little expense".[21] A key discovery was the benefit of longer narrower wings: in aeronautical terms, wings with a larger aspect ratio (wingspan divided by chord—the wing's front-to-back dimension). Such shapes offered much better lift-to-drag ratio than the broader wings the brothers had tried so far.

With this knowledge, and a more accurate Smeaton number, the Wrights designed their 1902 glider using an airfoil with less camber—the depth of the wing's curvature related to its chord. The 1901 glider had significantly greater camber, a highly inefficient feature the Wrights adopted directly from Lilienthal. Fully confident in their new wind tunnel results, the Wrights discarded Lilienthal's data, now basing their designs on their own calculations.

With characteristic caution, the brothers first flew the 1902 glider as an unmanned kite, as they had done with their two previous versions. Rewarding their wind tunnel work, they found the glider produced the expected lift. It also had a new structural feature: a fixed, rear vertical rudder, which the brothers hoped would eliminate the problem of turns that went contrary to warping control. They understood that wing-warping caused "differential drag" now known as adverse yaw. Increasing lift at one end of the wing to raise it also increased drag, slowing it, and making the nose of the aircraft turn in the wrong direction.

The improved wing design, generating greater lift, enabled consistently longer glides, but the turning problem was only partly solved. The glider did not respond completely as intended to the wing warping control. Sometimes when the pilot banked for a turn, or the wind tilted the glider to one side, the craft failed to respond to corrective wing-warping and continued to slide toward the lower wing, which hit the ground and spun the aircraft around; now known as a ground loop, the Wrights called this "well digging".

On the night of October 3, Orville had the idea that the rear rudder be movable, under control of the pilot, to overcome the problem. When Orville suggested it at breakfast the next morning, Wilbur suggested they connect the rudder directly to the warping control so a single movement (of their hips in the warping "cradle") simultaneously controlled wing warping and rudder deflection.[22]

Wilbur making turn Oct. 24, 1902 with the movable rudder.
Wilbur making turn Oct. 24, 1902 with the movable rudder.

With this method they achieved true control in turns for the first time on October 8, 1902, a major milestone. During September and October they made between 700 and 1000 glides, the longest lasting 26 seconds and covering 622.5 feet–the best results anyone had ever achieved. Thus, did three axis-control evolve: wing-warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side). On March 23, 1903 the Wrights applied for their famous patent for a "Flying Machine," based on their successful 1902 glider. Some aviation historians believe that integrating the system of three-axis flight control on the 1902 glider was equal to, or even more significant, than the addition of power to the 1903 flyer.[23]


Adding power

In 1903, they built the Wright Flyer, designed and carved their own wooden propellers, and had a purpose-built gasoline engine fabricated by Charlie Taylor in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur made a March 1903 entry in his notebook indicating the prototype propeller was 66% efficient.[24] Modern wind tunnel tests on reproduction 1903 propellers showed they were more than 75% efficient under the conditions of the first flights, and actually had a peak efficiency of 82%.[25] This is a remarkable achievement, considering that modern wooden propellers have a maximum efficiency of 85%.

Their aluminum engine was lighter than manufactured engines available at the time, having the power-to-weight ratio necessary for their Flyer to take off under its own power. The propeller drive chains, resembling those of bicycles, were actually manufactured for automobile chain-drives.[26] The Flyer cost less than a thousand dollars to construct. It had a wingspan of 40 feet (12 m), weighed 750 pounds (340 kg), and sported a 12 hp (9 kW), 170 pound (77 kg) engine. While the early engines used by the Wright brothers are thought to no longer exist, a later example, serial number 17 from circa 1910, is on display at the New England Air Museum in Connecticut.

Wright engine serial # 17, circa 1910
Wright engine serial # 17, circa 1910

After weeks of delays at Kitty Hawk caused by broken propeller shafts, the Wrights finally took to the air on December 17 1903, making two flights each in a freezing wind gusting to 27 miles an hour. The first flight, by Orville, of 39 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. The next two flights were approximately 175 and 200 feet, by Wilbur and Orville respectively. In the fourth flight of the day, the one most skillfully controlled (and carefully measured), Wilbur flew 279 meters (852 ft) in 59 seconds. Their altitude on the four flights was about ten feet above the ground.[27]

The flights were witnessed by five people: Adam Etheridge, John Daniels and Will Dough of the coastal lifesaving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny Moore, a boy from the village, making it arguably the first public flight. Daniels took the first flight photo, using Orville's camera. A telegraph operator leaked the news against the brothers' wishes, and highly inaccurate reports ran in several newspapers the next day.[28]

Here is Orville Wright's account of what happened:

"Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machne could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.

"While we were standing about discussing this last flight, a sudden strong gust of wind struck the machine and began to turn it over. Everybody made a rush for it, Wilbur, who was at one end, seized it in front. Mr. Daniels and I who were behind, tried to stop it by holding to the rear uprights.

"All our efforts were in vain. The machine rolled over and over. Daniels , who had retained his grip, was thrown about head over heels, inside of the machine. Fortunately he was not seriously injured...The ribs in the surfaces of the machine were broken, the motor injured and the chain guides badly bent, so that all possibility of further flights with it for that year were at an end."[29]

After the wind wrecked the Flyer, it never flew again. The brothers shipped the pieces home, and years later Orville restored it, lending it to several U.S. locations for display, then to a British museum (see Smithsonian dispute below), before it was finally installed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1948.


Trouble establishing legitimacy

In 1904 the brothers built the Flyer II and set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture eight miles northeast of Dayton which banker Torrance Huffman let them use rent-free. On May 23, they invited reporters to their first flight attempt of the year on the condition that no photographs be taken. Engine troubles and slack winds prevented any flying, and they could manage only a very short hop a few days later with fewer reporters present. Some scholars of the Wrights speculate the brothers may have intentionally failed to fly in order to disinterest reporters in their experiments.[30] Whether that is true is not known, but their poor showing did result in the local newspapers virtually ignoring them for the next year and a half.

Orville in flight over Huffman Prairie, in Wright Flyer II approximately 1,760 feet in 40 1/5 seconds, Nov. 16, 1904.
Orville in flight over Huffman Prairie, in Wright Flyer II approximately 1,760 feet in 40 1/5 seconds, Nov. 16, 1904.

The Wrights were glad to be free from the distraction of reporters. The absence of newsmen also reduced the chance of competitors learning their methods. After the Kitty Hawk powered flights, the Wrights made a decision to begin withdrawing from the bicycle business and devote themselves to creating and marketing a practical airplane.[31] The decision was financially risky, since they were neither wealthy nor government funded (unlike other experimenters such as Ader, Maxim, Langley and Santos-Dumont). They did not have the luxury of giving away their invention. It was to be their livelihood. Thus, their secrecy intensified, encouraged by the advice of their patent attorney not to reveal details of their machine.

At Huffman Prairie, lighter winds and lower air density than in Kitty Hawk (due to Ohio's higher altitude and higher temperatures) made takeoffs very difficult, and they had to use a much longer starting rail, stretching to hundreds of feet, compared to the 60-foot rail at Kitty Hawk. During the spring and summer they suffered many hard landings, real crackups, repeated Flyer damage, and bodily bumps and bruises to show for it. In August, making an unassisted takeoff, they finally flew farther than their longest powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Then they decided to use a catapult to make takeoffs easier and tried it for the first time on September 7. On September 20, 1904 Wilbur flew a complete circle in about a minute and a half—the first in history by a heavier-than-air flying machine. By the end of the year, the brothers had made 105 flights over the rather soggy 85 acre pasture, which, remarkably, is virtually unchanged today from its original condition and is now part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, adjacent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

In 1905 the brothers built the Flyer III, which had the same marginal performance as the first two Flyers. Its maiden flight was June 23 and its first several flights were no longer than 10 seconds[32]. After Orville suffered a bone-jarring crackup on July 14, they rebuilt the Flyer with the forward elevator and rear rudder both several feet farther away from the wings. The modifications greatly improved stability and control, and by October 5 Wilbur demonstrated they had a practical airplane by setting a record of 39 minutes 23 seconds in the air, flying for 24 miles (38.9 km) circling Huffman Prairie, landing only when his fuel ran out. The flight was seen by a number of people, including several invited friends and their father. Reporters showed up the next day (their first appearance at the field since May the previous year), but the brothers declined to fly. The only photos of the flights of 1904-05 were taken by the brothers.

In 1904 Ohio beekeeping businessman Amos Root, a technology enthusiast, saw a few flights including the first circle. Articles he wrote for his beekeeping magazine were the only published eyewitness reports of the Huffman Prairie flights, except for the unimpressive early hop local newsmen saw. Root offered a report to Scientific American magazine, but the editor turned it down. As a result, the news was not widely known outside of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"

In years to come, Dayton newspapers would proudly celebrate the hometown Wright brothers as national heroes, but the local newsmen's ability to overlook one of the biggest stories in human history as it was happening a few miles from their doorstep stands as a unique chapter in the annals of American journalism.

The Wright brothers were, in fact, complicit in the lack of attention they received. Wary of the competition stealing their plans, after 1905 they refused make public flights or take part in air shows unless they had a firm contract to sell their airplane. They attempted to interest the military in the U.S., France, Britain, and Germany, but were rebuffed because they insisted on a signed contract before giving a demonstration. American bureaucrats were particularly unreceptive, having recently spent $50,000 on the Langley Aerodrome, only to see it plunge twice into the Potomac River "like a handful or mortar".[33] Thus, doubted or scorned, the Wright brothers continued their work in semi-obscurity, while other aviation pioneers like Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont and American Glenn Curtiss were occupying the limelight.

The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. After finally signing contracts with a French company and the U.S. Army, they went back to Kitty Hawk in May 1908 with the 1905 Flyer, modified with seats for pilot and passenger, and began practicing for their all-important demonstration flights. Their contracts required them to be able to carry a passenger. After tests with sandbags in the passenger seat, Charlie Furnas, a helper from Dayton, became the first fixed-wing aircraft passenger on a few short flights May 14. For safety and as a promise to their father, Wilbur and Orville did not fly together.


The patent

Their 1903 patent application, which they wrote themselves, was rejected. In early 1904 they hired Ohio patent attorney Henry Toulmin, and on May 22 1906 they were granted patent #821,393 for a "Flying Machine". Significantly, this patent illustrated a non-powered flying machine—namely, the 1902 glider. The patent's importance lies in its claim of a new and useful method of controlling a flying machine, powered or not. The technique of wing-warping is described, but the patent explicitly states that wing-warping need not be the only method that could be employed to vary the angle presented to the air by the outer portions of a machine's wings. The concept of varying the angle near the wingtips, by whatever means, is central to the patent. The broad protection intended by this language succeeded when the Wrights won patent infringement lawsuits against Glenn Curtiss and other early aviators, who adopted ailerons while the Wrights continued to use wing-warping. The courts decided that ailerons were also covered by the patent (see Patent War section below). The patent also describes the steerable rear vertical rudder and its innovative use in combination with wing-warping, enabling the airplane to make a coordinated turn, a technique that prevents hazardous adverse yaw, the problem Wilbur had when trying to turn the 1901 glider. Finally, the patent describes the forward elevator, used for ascending and descending.


Public showing

Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September, 1908.
Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September, 1908.

The brothers' contracts with the U.S. Army and a French syndicate depended on successful public flight demonstrations that met certain conditions. The brothers had to divide their efforts. Wilbur sailed for Europe; Orville would fly near Washington, D.C.

Wilbur began their official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908, at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators. In the following days he made a series of technically challenging flights including figure-eights, demonstrating to the world his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pilot pioneers. The French public was thrilled by Wilbur's feats, and the Wright brothers became world famous overnight. On October 7 Mrs. Hart O. Berg (Edith), the wife of the brothers' European business agent, became the first American woman airplane passenger when she flew with Wilbur.[34]

Orville followed his brother's success by demonstrating another nearly identical flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9 he made the first hour-long flight.

Fort Myer crash
Fort Myer crash

On September 17 Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge rode along as his passenger, serving as an official observer. A few minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 100 feet, a propeller split, sending the aircraft out of control. Selfridge was killed in the crash, the first person to die in powered fixed-wing aircraft. Orville was badly injured, at first it was believed fatally; miraculouly he survived albeit his left leg fractured and suffering four broken ribs.[35] The brothers' sister Katharine, a school teacher, rushed from Dayton to Washington and stayed by Orville's side for the many weeks of his hospitalization. She helped negotiate a one-year extension of the Army contract.

While recovering from the accident, a friend visiting him ask: "Has it got your nerve?"

"Nerve?" asked Orville, slightly puzzled. "Oh, do you mean will I be afraid to fly again? The only thing I'm afraid of is that I can't get well soon enough to finish those tests next year."[36]

Deeply shocked by the news, Wilbur determined to make even more impressive flight demonstrations; in the ensuing days and weeks he set new records for altitude and duration. In January 1909 Orville and Katharine joined him in France, and for a time they were the three most famous people in the world, sought after by kings, princes, prime ministers, reporters and the public.

Wright Model A Flyer and launching derrick, France, 1909
Wright Model A Flyer and launching derrick, France, 1909

In February Katharine flew as Wilbur's passenger. The trio traveled to Pau, in the south of France, where Wilbur made many more public flights, giving rides to a procession of officers, journalists and statesmen. In April Wilbur gave demonstrations in Italy where a cameraman climbed aboard and made the first motion picture from a plane.

After their return to the U.S., the brothers and Katharine were invited to the White House where President Taft bestowed awards upon them. Dayton followed up with a lavish two-day homecoming celebration. In July 1909 Orville, with Wilbur assisting, completed the proving flights for the U.S. Army, meeting the requirements of a two-seater able to fly with a passenger for an hour at an average of speed of 40 miles an hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged. They sold the aircraft to the Army's Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps for $30,000 (which included a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed specification). Wilbur climaxed an extraordinary year in early October when he flew at New York City's Hudson-Fulton celebrations, circling the Statute of Liberty and making a 33-minute flight up and down the Hudson River alongside Manhattan in view of up to one million New Yorkers. These flights solidly established the fame of the Wright brothers in America.


Family flights

On May 25, 1910 back at Huffman Prairie, Orville piloted two unique flights. First, he took off on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his passenger, the only time the Wright brothers ever flew together. They received permission from their father to make the flight. They had always promised Milton they would never fly together—to avoid the chance of a double tragedy and to ensure one brother would remain to continue their experiments. Next, Orville took his 82-year old father on a nearly seven-minute flight, the first and only one of Milton Wright's life. The airplane rose to about 350 feet while the elderly Wright called to his son, "Higher, Orville, higher!" [37]


The patent war

In 1908 the brothers warned Glenn Curtiss not to infringe their patent by profiting from flying or selling aircraft that used ailerons. Curtiss refused to pay license fees to the Wrights and sold a plane to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, beginning a years-long legal conflict. They also sued foreign aviators who flew at U.S. exhibitions, including the leading French aviator Louis Paulhan. The brothers' licensed European companies, which owned foreign patents the Wrights had received, sued manufacturers in their countries. The European lawsuits were only partly successful. Despite a pro-Wright ruling in France, legal maneuvering dragged on until the patent expired in 1917. A German court ruled the patent invalid due to prior disclosure in speeches by Wilbur Wright in 1901 and Octave Chanute in 1903. The Wrights did make agreements with some U.S. groups that sponsored airshows and collected license fees from them. The Wrights won their initial case against Curtiss in February 1913, but the decision was appealed.

From 1910 until his death from typhoid fever in 1912, Wilbur took the leading role in the patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss, who was creating a large company to manufacture aircraft. The Wrights' preoccupation with the legal issue hindered their development of new aircraft designs, and by 1911 Wright aircraft were considered inferior to those made by other firms in Europe. Indeed, aviation development in the US was suppressed to such an extent that when the US entered World War 1 no acceptable American-designed aircraft were available, and the US forces were compelled to use French machines. Orville and Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur's premature death, which occurred in the wake of his exhausting travels and the stress of the legal battle.

In January 1914 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in favor of the Wrights against Curtiss, whose company continued to avoid penalties through legal tactics. Since Orville was planning to sell the Wright company, no follow ups were made after the legal victory. In 1917, with World War I underway, the U.S. government stepped in to supervise a cross-licensing organization in which member companies paid a blanket fee for the use of aviation patents, including the original and subsequent Wright patents. The Wright-Martin company (successor to the Wright company) and the Curtiss company (which held a number of its own patents) each received a $2 million payment. The "patent war" ended, although side issues lingered in the courts until the 1920s. In a twist of irony, the Wright Aeronautical Corporation (another successor) and the Curtiss Aeroplane company merged in 1929 to form the Curtiss-Wright corporation, which remains in business today producing high-tech components for the aerospace industry.

The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who were generally regarded before this as heroes. Critics said the brothers were greedy and unfair, and compared their actions unfavourably to European inventors, who refused to enforce restrictive patents on this new technology. Supporters said the brothers were protecting their interests and were justified in expecting fair compensation for secrets of their invention. Their long friendship with Octave Chanute collapsed after he publicly criticized their actions.


In business

In 1910, the Wrights hired a 5-man exhibition team to fly airshows. The team's debut was at the Indianapolis Speedway on June 13, 1910. The short tenure of this program was punctuated by several crashes, including one in which the mayor of Richmond, Virginia was riding along. The program was discontinued in November 1911, at which time two of nine aviators on the Wright payroll had died in crashes. [2]

On October 25, 1910, the Wright brothers were engaged by Max Moorehouse of Columbus, Ohio to undertake the first commercial air cargo shipment. Moorehouse, owner of Moorehouse-Marten's Department store in Columbus, asked if the Wright brothers could carry a shipment of silk ribbon from a wholesaler in Dayton to Columbus. The Wright brothers agreed to the proposal, adding that their pilot and aircraft would put on an exhibition once the cargo was delivered to the Driving Park landing area on the east side of Columbus. Moorehouse, in turn, agreed to pay the Wrights $5,000 for the service, which was more an exercise in advertising than a simple delivery. The actual flight occurred on November 7 1910, with the Model B Wright Flyer piloted by Philip Orin Parmelee. The 62 mile (100 km) flight took 62 minutes, with Parmalee overtaking the Big Four express train in London, Ohio. In addition to carrying the first air-freight, Parmalee's speed of 60 miles an hour (97 km/h) set a world record for in-flight speed. For the return trip, however, the Wright Flyer was loaded on a train the night of the world record flight, and Parmalee returned to Dayton on the same Big Four Express train that he overtook in the air the day before.

Orville sold his interests in the plane company in 1915. He, Katharine and their father Milton moved to a mansion, Hawthorn Hill, Oakwood, Ohio, which the newly wealthy family built. There, they lived quietly. Milton died in his sleep in 1917. Katharine married in 1926, which upset Orville. He cut her off, refusing to meet with or write to her. He finally agreed to see her just before she died of pneumonia in 1929. Orville died in 1948, from a heart attack. Wilbur, age forty-five, died of typhoid fever on the morning of Thursday, May 30, 1912. Both brothers are buried at the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. Neither brother had married; Wilbur once quipped that he did not have time for a wife and an airplane.[38] The Flyer I is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (See The Smithsonian Issue).

The Flyer III, the only fixed-wing aircraft designated a National Historic Landmark, was dismantled after the 1905 flights, but rebuilt and flown in 1908 at Kitty Hawk, and was restored in the late 1940s with the help of Orville. It is on display at Dayton, Ohio in the John W. Berry Sr., Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park. The display space for the aircraft was designed by Orville Wright.

Orville instructed that, upon his death, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia should receive his collection of airfoils and devices. The Franklin Institute was the first scientific organization to give the Wright brothers credit and ranking for achieving sustained powered flight. Today, The Franklin Institute Science Museum holds the largest collection of artifacts from the Wright brothers' workshop.


The Smithsonian issue

Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1887 to 1906, experimented for many years with model gliders and built successful powered unmanned aircraft models. Two tests of his full-sized manned Aerodrome in October and December 1903, however, were complete failures. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian later displayed the Aerodrome as the first heavier-than-air craft "capable" of manned powered flight, relegating the Wright brothers' achievement to secondary status. Orville Wright objected, but the Smithsonian was unyielding. Orville responded by loaning the Kitty Hawk Flyer to the London Science Museum in 1928. He stated the airplane would not be donated to the Smithsonian until the Institution acknowledged the primacy of the Wright brothers' invention. Charles Lindbergh attempted to mediate the dispute, to no avail. In 1942, under different leadership, the Smithsonian finally agreed, but the Flyer remained in Britain until 1948. On November 23, 1948 the executors of the estate of Orville Wright wrote a contract with the Smithsonian Institution regarding the display of the aircraft, stating that "Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight." If this agreement was not fulfilled, the Flyer would be returned to the heir of the Wright brothers. This requirement is widely seen as tainting any possible independent examination of the various competing claims of early aircraft pioneers.[citation needed] The Flyer went on display to the public after installation ceremonies at the Smithsonian on December 17, 1948, forty-five years to the day after the airplane's only flights.


Competing claims

Numerous claims before the Wrights aspire to the title of first powered, manned, controlled, and self-sustaining heavier than air flight (or minor variations of this classification—see First flying machine). Controversy regarding credit for the invention of the fixed-wing aircraft was also fueled by the Wrights' secrecy before and after their patent was granted, and by the pride of nations. Several claims actually were made after the Wrights' first successful flights, and attempt to discount the achievement on some technical basis, such as their use of a launching rail and catapult and the Flyer's lack of wheels.

There has also been much debate whether the Wright brothers' early flights (as well as those of earlier claims) flew high enough to be out of ground effect. Competing claimants also note that the Wrights' early flights were usually flown only into the wind, helping lift. Taking off into the wind, in fact, became standard practice in aviation, for the same reason: takeoff is easier because the aircraft receives more lift.

Another source of attack is that some replicas of the Wright Flyer do not fly. The reasons usually stem from an inability to know the exact details of the Wrights' design and construction and to duplicate the conditions of the flight. Specific features of the Flyer that even the Wrights did not know were important in rendering it capable of flight are lost to history, such as the octane of the fuels used, and the small details of aerodynamics that can have disproportionate effect on the ability to fly.

After their Kitty Hawk flights in windy conditions, the Wrights developed a weight-powered catapult in Ohio to aid initial acceleration, compensating for the several additional horsepower their homebuilt engines lacked. This method of launching has been the source of some attacks on the Wrights' claim. Critics say that a plane incapable of taking off using its own power could not be a true aircraft.

In fact, the Flyer II took off without a catapult and made short straight flights dozens of times in the spring and summer of 1904. The location available to the Wrights was unsuitable for wheels and a long takeoff roll, so they used the rail and added the catapult. The combination allowed takeoffs in only 50 or 60 feet, giving them consistent opportunities to get into the air and learn to fly. The takeoff devices materially shortened the time they needed to master their aircraft and make true flights, including turns, circles, figure-eights and safe landings.

A few manned heavier-than-air aircraft probably became airborne before the Wrights, but lacked effective control; candidate machines include those of Félix du Temple de la Croix in 1874, the first takeoff of a powered fixed-wing aircraft with a man aboard, Clément Ader, Hiram Stevens Maxim, Richard Pearse and Gustave Whitehead. The Wright Flyer, however, stands as the first practical airplane with a combination of features not used before, but included in all that came later: efficient wings, three-axis control, an effective system to generate power and turn it into thrust, and a takeoff system.

Their December 17, 1903 flight is recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the standard setting and record-keeping body for aeronautics and astronautics, as "the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight".[39]


Ohio/North Carolina dispute

The states of Ohio and North Carolina both take credit for the Wright brothers and their world-changing invention - Ohio because the brothers developed and built their design in Dayton, and North Carolina because Kitty Hawk was the site of the first flight. With a spirit of friendly rivalry, Ohio has adopted the informal slogan "Birthplace of Aviation" (later "Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers", with a tip of the hat to not only the Wrights, but also John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, both Ohio natives.) North Carolina has adopted the slogan "First In Flight" and both states include the themes on the standard-issue state license plates. Both states included an image of the Flyer I on their respective state quarters. As the positions of both states can be factually defended, and both states play a significant role in the history of flight, neither state truly has a complete claim to the Wrights' accomplishment. Neil Armstrong, at a presentation at the Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, joked that there is enough credit for both states: North Carolina provided the right winds and soft landing material and Dayton, Ohio provided the know-how, resources and engineering.


See also

The site of the first flights in North Carolina is preserved as Wright Brothers National Memorial, while their Ohio facilities are part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.







"While up in the air there is but very little to injure or to put any great strain on any part of the machinery. If you run into a tree or a house, of course, there would be a smash-up. No drinking man should ever be allowed to undertake to run a flying-machine."
Amos I. Root, Jan. 15, 1905 edition of Gleanings In Bee CultureAccessed Nov. 17, 2006.



  1. Howard, p.89; Jakab, p.183
  2. Crouch, p.169
  3. David Wallechinsky & Amy Wallace: The New Book of Lists, p.12. Canongate, 2005. ISBN 1-84195-719-4.
  4. Crouch, Tom. The Bishop's Boys, pp. 56-57
  5. Jakab, p. 164
  6. Crouch, p. 130
  7. Crouch. Chapter 10, "The Year of the Flying Machine," and Chapter 11, "Octave Chanute".
  8. Howard. p.30
  9. Tobin, James: To Conquer the Air, p. 92, Free Press, div. Simon & Schuster, 2003
  10. Crouch. p.166
  11. Tobin. p.53
  12. Tobin. p.70
  13. Tobin. pp.53-55
  14. Crouch. p.167-168
  15. Crouch. pp.168-169
  16. Datafrom Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company website, "WBAC," accessed Nov. 17, 2006
  17. Crouch, pp.188-189
  18. WBACAccessed Nov. 17,2006
  19. Crouch, p.225
  20. WBAC, "Lift and Drift"accessed Dec. 11,2006
  21. Howard, p.72
  22. Anderson, Johnd, Inventing Flight: The Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors, 2004, Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-6875-0, Page 134.
  23. Langewiesche, Woflgang, Stick and Rudder : An Explanation of the Art of Flying, p.163, McGraw-Hill, New York, Copyright 1944 & 1972, ISBN 0-07-036240-8; Jakab, pp.183-184
  24. WBAC,"Propellers-R-Us"accessed Dec.12, 2006
  25. Mechanical Engineering "100 Years of Flight" supplement, Dec. 2003 -- "Prop-Wrights," Feature Article http://www.memagazine.org/supparch/flight03/propwr/propwr.html
  26. Howard, pp.108-109
  27. [1]
  28. Crouch, pp.266-272
  29. Kelly, Fred C. The Wright Brothers: A Biography Chp. IV, p.101-102 (Dover Publications, NY 1943)
  30. Howard, Fred: Wilbur and Orville - A Biography of the Wright Brothers, pp. 154-155. Dover Publications, 1998
  31. Crouch, pp. 273-4
  32. Sharpe, Michael (2000). Biplanes, Triplanes and Seaplanes. Friedman/Fairfax. ISBN 1-58663-300-7.
  33. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museumaccessed Nov. 21, 2006
  34. The first woman aeroplane passenger was Thérèse Peltier on 8 July 1908 when she made a flight of 656 feet with Léon Delagrange in Milan, Italy. Smithsonian
  35. "Twelve years late, after suffering increasingly severe pains, x-rays revealed to Orville that the Ft. Myer accident had also resulted in his having three hip bone fractures, plus a dislocated hip." Kelly, Fred G. The Wright Brothers: A Biography Chapter XIV, p. 230 (Dover Publishers, NY 1943)
  36. Ibid.#24 p.231-232
  37. Crouch, p. 12
  38. Crouch, p.118
  39. FAI NEWS: 100 Years Ago, the Dream of Icarus Became Reality posted December 17, 2003, accessed January 5, 2007.
  40. Yenne, Bill, Lockheed. Bison Books, Greenwich, CT, 1987, p. 44-46.
  41. Kelly, Fred G. The Wright Brothers: A Biography, Chpt. XV, p. 246 (Dover Pubishers, NY 1943)



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