Orville and Wilbur Wright




First airplane


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)




Wilbur (1867-1912), and Orville (1871-1948), inventors of the airplane�

The Wrights dated the origin of their interest in flight to 1878, when their father had presented them with a toy helicopter� The Wrights concluded that the construction of a mechanical flying machine would require the solution of problems in aerodynamics, propulsion, and control. Reasoning that earlier experimenters had designed wings capable of flight and engines with enough power to propel a craft through the air, the brothers focused their attention on devising a mechanical system that would enable the operator to maneuver a flying machine in all three axes of motion: pitch, roll, and yaw. Wing-warping, the notion of achieving control in roll by twisting the wing across the span to increase lift on one tip while decreasing it on the other, was their first in a series of key intellectual breakthroughs.

Encouraged by the successful test of the new system on a small biplane kite flown near Dayton in the summer of 1899, the Wrights designed and built a kite/glider large enough to carry a human being aloft� Tested from 3 to 18 October 1900, the first full-scale Wright glider had 165 square feet of wing area, weighed some 112 pounds, and featured an elevator placed in front of the wings for pitch control. The control system seemed satisfactory, but the wings generated much less lift than predicted by calculation. Most of the tests were made with the unmanned craft flown as a kite while a careful record was kept of wind speed, the amount of lift generated, and the angle of attack at which the machine flew� From 17 July to 16 August 1901 the brothers conducted a new series of tests at Kitty Hawk with a second glider featuring 290 square feet of wing area. The larger wing enabled Wilbur, who did all of the flying prior to 1902, to spend more time in the air, but the performance of the machine remained disappointing�

The Wrights tested their third glider near Kitty Hawk from 15 September to 24 October 1902, completing more than 250 flights during which they covered distances of up to 622.5 feet and remained in the air for up to twenty-six seconds. With the major aerodynamic and control problems behind them, they pressed forward with the design and construction of their first powered machine. The brothers built a four-cylinder engine with the assistance of Charles Taylor, a machinist whom they employed in the bicycle shop. The design of the twin pusher propellers puzzled them until they realized that an efficient propeller was a rotary wing in which the lifting force was vectored as thrust.

Success came on the morning of 17 December 1903, with four powered flights made from a strip of level sand four miles south of Kitty Hawk. Orville made the first flight, covering 120 feet in twelve seconds. Wilbur was in control during the fourth and best flight of the day: 856 feet in fifty-nine seconds. For the first time in history, a heavier-than-air flying machine had taken off from level ground under its own power and had flown far enough to demonstrate beyond any doubt that it was operating under the control of the pilot.

Determined to move from marginal success to a practical airplane, the Wrights built and flew two more powered aircraft from a pasture eight miles east of Dayton in 1904 and 1905. They continued to improve the design of their machines during this period, gaining skill and confidence in the air. By October 1905 they were remaining in the air for up to thirty-nine minutes at a time. No longer able to hide the extent of their success from the press, and afraid that the essential features of their machine would be understood and copied by knowledgeable observers, the Wright brothers decided to cease flying until their invention was protected by patents and they had negotiated a contract for its sale� Finally, in February 1908 the Wrights signed a contract for the sale of an airplane to the U.S. Army�

On 2 May 1912 Wilbur returned home� He was exhausted and suffering from what the family doctor diagnosed as typhoid fever. He died at home� With the death of his brother, Orville assumed leadership of the Wright Company. He was primarily responsible for designing new types of Wright aircraft between 1909 and 1915� In 1915 Orville Wright sold his shares in the company to a group of financiers. He worked as an aeronautical engineer and consultant during World War I, helping plan the production of foreign aircraft designs by the Dayton-Wright Company and playing a role in the development of a pilotless aircraft bomb� Orville Wright died in Dayton�

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Date: 1910