Wright brothers

The American aviation pioneers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright were the first to accomplish manned, powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of Milton Wright, a bishop of the United Brethren in Christ. Wilbur was born on April 16, 1867, in Millville, Ind.; Orville was born on Aug. 19, 1871, at Dayton, Ohio. Until the death of Wilbur in 1912, the two were inseparable. Their personalities were perfectly complementary: Orville was full of ideas and enthusiasms, an impetuous dreamer, while Wilbur was more steady in his habits, more mature in his judgments, and more likely to see a project through.

In their early years the two boys helped their father, who edited an evangelical journal called the Religious Telescope. Later, they began a paper of their own, West Side News. In 1892 they opened the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, which was the perfect occupation for the Wright brothers, involving one of the exciting mechanical devices of the time: the bicycle. When the brothers took up the problems of flight, they had a solid grounding in practical mechanics.

The exploits of one of the great glider pilots of the late 19th century, Otto Lilienthal, had attracted the attention of the Wright brothers as early as 1891, but it was not until the death of this famous aeronautical engineer in 1896 that the two became interested in gliding experiments. They then resolved to educate themselves systematically in the theory and state of the art of flying.

The Wrights took up the problem of flight at an auspicious time, for some of the fundamental theories of aerodynamics were already known; a body of experimental data existed; and most importantly, the recent development of the internal combustion engine made available a sufficient source of power for manned flight. Although they sometimes acted as scientists, the basic approach of the Wrights was that of the engineer. They had no formal training as either scientist or engineer, but they combined the instincts of both. They began by accumulating and mastering all the pertinent information on the subject, designed and tested their own models and gliders, built their own engine, and, when the experimental data they had inherited appeared to be inadequate or erroneous, they conducted new and more thorough experiments.

Armed with this information, the Wright brothers proceeded to fly double-winged kites and gliders in order to gain experience and to test data. After consulting the U.S. Weather Bureau, they chose an area of sand dunes near the small town of Kitty Hawk, N.C., as the site of their experiments. In September 1900 they set up camp there and began the work that culminated three years later in success.

Their first device failed to fly as a kite because it was unable to develop sufficient lift. Instead, they flew it as a free glider and learned a great deal from their experience, partly because of the careful records they kept of their failures as well as of their successes. Their own data showed conclusively that previous tables of information were greatly inaccurate.

Returning to Dayton in 1901, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel, t