No bird soars in a calm.” - Wilbur Wright
Wilbur and Orville Wright, two of seven children in the family, were born in the US in 1867 and 1871 respectively. Their father, Milton (b. 1828), was a bishop in the United Brethren Church who did not believe in giving his children middle names. Rather, he tried to choose distinctive “handles.” And so Wilbur and Orville were named after preachers that Milton admired. However, despite his best efforts to give his children names that would stand out, in the end, their neighbors just referred to Wilbur and Orville as the “Bishop’s kids” and “Ullam” and “Bubs” to each other. The brothers never married and neither completed high school (although Wilbur was awarded his high school diploma posthumously in 1994 on what would have been his 127th birthday!). In fact, as the pioneers of powered flight, the two brothers had no college degrees, no formal engineering education, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies and little money. And yet they still changed the entire world.
Interestingly, the Wright Brothers were not the first to fly. That distinction belongs to Otto Lilienthal, a German fellow who made the first documented flight of 25 meters, in 1891, using a glider. However, the Wright Brothers were the first to fly a “heavier-than-air,” motorized, manned air craft that was able to take off and land under its own power.
In 1889, Orville dropped out of high school after his first year to start a printing business. Wilbur pitched in to help design and build their printing presses and decided to join his brother in the venture. They launched various newspapers over several years but none were a rip-roaring success. By 1892, the brothers decided to abandon the world of publishing and opened a bicycle repair shop. By 1896 they were manufacturing their own brand and used the proceeds of the business to self-finance their aviation efforts. And it was during this time that their interest in flight truly ignited, having seen articles on the work and progress made by none other than Otto Lilienthal.
And so, by 1900 they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to begin their tests with manned gliders. They chose this location for many reasons(constant breezes, etc ) but one of them was that the site was remote enough to shroud their work in secrecy. Living intents the entire time, by late 1902 they had flown well over a thousand successful flights with the longest flight being over 600 feet and lasting 26 seconds. By then, they were happy enough with their efforts that they decided to turn their attention to the issue of power.
Powering their glider was a whole different “can of worms.” The brothers had to hand-carve their own propellers using a wind-tunnel they built to test the finished product. They also had to find an engine that was light enough for the purpose. But such an engine did not exist at the time. So they built a special, aluminum-block engine from scratch – with the significant help of Charlie Taylor (b. 1868), their bicycle shop mechanic. By March of 1903, the brothers had built the Wright Flyer. It cost about $1,000 to build (a little less than $30K in 2021 USD), had a wingspan of 40 feet, weighed 605 pounds and had an engine that produced 12 horsepower.
With multiple delays caused by broken propellers and minor damage to the Flyer, they finally took to the air at 10:35AM EST on Thursday, December 17th, 1903 – in front of five witnesses. Orville was piloting (he won the coin toss with Wilbur). With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, he took off in a 27-mph headwind and covered a distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds at a speed of about 7 miles per hour. That same day, both Wilbur and Orville took turns piloting the Wright Flyer and achieved two additional flights at a height of approximately ten feet off the ground. Wilbur was at the controls for the fourth and last flight of the day. He managed to cover 852 feet and a flying time of 59 seconds before his flying machine pitched forward and hit the ground hard. The damage was not extensive so they decided to haul the airplane back to their “starting point” to do some additional runs. However, a strong gust of wind flipped the Wright Flyer over several times despite the best attempts to hold it down. It was wrecked beyond repair and never flew again.
The brothers did alert the American press of their achievement but there was virtually no interest. They were disregarded, and the story quickly died.
Undaunted, the brothers built Flyer II in 1904. And in many ways they were happy that their accomplishment with the Wright Flyer had been ignored. By this point, they had decided to reduce their attention on the bicycle shop and devote most, if not all, of their efforts to the business of making and marketing a practical airplane. As mentioned previously, the Wrights were not wealthy and had no government support. So they could not afford to give away their invention – so their secrecy increased.
By August of that year, they flew the Flyer II 1,300 feet. And by September, the Wright Brothers flew the first complete circle, in the air, by a manned, heavier-than-air machine. Wilbur went over 4,000 feet in about a minute and a half. By November and December of that same year, both brothers were flying the Flyer II almost 3 miles at a time. Of course, their efforts did take a toll on the aircraft. So they decided to scrap it and build the Flyer III. On September 26th, 1905, Wilbur flew Flyer III almost 25 miles over a period of 38 minutes. He landed smoothly when the fuel ran out.
The Wright Brothers now knew they had a machine that was practical and viable. So they started contacting journals, like Scientific American, to advertise their invention. Every publication turned them down. They even contacted the US government and were rebuffed as quacks. So they turned their attention to Europe.
The French were working very hard to develop an airplane and initially scorned the brothers. However, Wilbur removed all doubt when he flew his airplane, in a public demonstration, on August 8, 1908. Experts were amazed and fell over themselves issuing apologies for the “vile words ”they had previously directed at the brothers. The Wright Brothers became world-famous literally overnight.
Of course, by now the US government had heard about their achievements and “changed their tune.” They were eager to bring the Wright Brothers and their invention back to America. They were invited to the Whitehouse on June 10th, 1909, where President Taft bestowed awards upon them. And the Wrights began making much longer flights, ones that were over an hour in length. In that same year, 1909, Wilbur flew his airplane in New York City before an audience of over a million people. And the rest, as they say, was history……….sort of.
The Wright Brothers did manage to obtain patents for their invention. That said, Glenn Curtiss, another aviator, decided to attempt to circumvent the patents in order to avoid paying royalties to the Wrights. The brothers filed a lawsuit that went on for years. And similar patent circumvention was taking place in Europe as well. Tragically, Wilbur spent his remaining years fighting multiple legal battles and died, in 1912, of typhoid fever. In the end, the brothers were vindicated and in a rather ironic twist of fate, Orville joined forces with what he considered his number one enemy, the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, and merged his business with them to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation – which remains in business to this very day. Other lawsuits, including one involving the Smithsonian Institute, did not get resolved until 1942. At that time, the Smithsonian finally published written statements that it had lied repeatedly, over many years, in order to try to discredit the brothers.
Orville eventually retired and became an aviation statesman. In April of 1944, more than forty years after he first took to the air, Orville took his last trip on an airplane – a Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes. During the trip, Orville commented that the wingspan of the Lockheed Constellation was longer than the distance he traveled on his very first flight!
Orville passed away at the age of 76, on January 30th, 1948. He suffered a heart attack right after repairing the doorbell on his home. Both he and Wilbur led amazing lives and Orville survived long enough to see the world transition from horse and buggy to the dawn of supersonic flight!
As a “tip of the hat” to the brothers, Neil Armstrong, of Apollo 11, took a small piece of fabric from the left wing of the original Wright Flyer, aboard the lunar module Eagle, on the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.
Today, aviation supports over 63 million jobs around the world and has a GDP of almost 3 trillion USD. And it all got started on a cold day in December, a mere 119 years ago, on a windswept, barren sliver of land at a place called Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.