First in Flight: The Wright Brothers
The Wright brothers, pioneering aviators and inventors, will forever be remembered as the first to develop and fly an engine-powered airplane. Wilbur and Orville Wright, born in 1867 and 1871 respectively, , first became fascinated by flight when their father brought home a toy helicopter for the boys. Primitive technology of the time only allowed it for a few moments in the air, but the toy inspired the brothers to create their own models thereafter.
Over the next decade, Wilbur and Orville followed the progress of flight technology around the world. Across the ocean in Germany, Otto Lillenthal's gliders reinforced the possibility of manned flight. Meanwhile, American inventor Samuel Langley was building unmanned steam-powered aircraft. In 1892 the Wright brothers had opened their own bicycle shop, the Wright Cycle Company, where they repaired and sold bicycles. Most all of their profits were put towards their passion for flight. Inspired by the progress of aviators such as Lillenthal and Langley, the young men began their own aircraft designs.
The brothers began experimenting with flying by simply using kites. This method allowed them to test new design ideas and theories on a basic level. By 1900, Wilbur and Orville were ready to test out their ideas on larger, more powerfuldevices. The two headed to North Carolina, where they began experimenting with gliders on the beach. Through these tests, they altered and improved their designs based on successful and unsuccessful glides. Using calculations and equations dictated by these results, the brothers worked to develop their next project: a powered plane.
Many inventorsat the time were focused on creating powerful engines and then attaching them to aerodynamic models. These creations were often unsuccessful, as the planes lacked balance and control with the heavy engine on board. Seeing this obstacle, Wilbur Wright looked to the most experienced of flyers for inspiration - birds. Wilbur observed how birds could change the angle of their wings during a turn to help retain balanced when tilting. He concluded that designing similar wings on an aircraft, ones that could shift angle during flight, may have the same effect as bird wings.
In 1903, the Wrights built their first engine-powered plane, the Wright Flyer I. They used spruce wood, two propellers, and a gasoline engine. Leading up to their first success, the two men suffered many setbacks from engine issues to broken propellers. At last, on December 17the Wrights took to the air. Their first flight lasted twelve seconds and covered 120 feet, at about ten feet above the ground. That day, the Wrights took three more flights, each slightly longer and further than the last. After its fourth flight, Wright Flyer I was flipped out of control by a strong gust of wind and damaged beyond repair. Nonetheless, these trials marked just the beginning of the Wright brothers' achievements.
Over the next few years, they built more planes and piloted several more flights, experiencing failures along the way but undoubtedly learning from each crash. The Wright brothers, although not significantly recognized during their lifetimes by the public, are now globally appreciated as pioneers of flight.Learn More About the Wright Brothers: Additional Resources: