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All About The Wright Brothers

The idea of taking to the air and flying seemed like a far-fetched fantasy or an impossible dream as recently as the 19th century. Today, however, people have the ability to fly around the world within the confines of modern airplanes both big and small. Humankind's ability to take flight can be attributed to research, inventions, and experiments that were conducted by many people, most importantly the works of Wilbur and Orville Wright in the early 1900s. The pioneering Wright brothers were two of the most important influences on modern aviation and are credited with the first successful flight of an airplane. People who are interested in flying will appreciate the brothers' journey toward aviation history and making airplane travel a common form of transportation.

Their Early Life

Wilbur and Orville were two of five children born to Milton and Susan Wright. The brothers were close as children, with both being extremely curious. This natural curiosity was directed toward aviation when their father gave them a toy helicopter, which used rubber bands to make the blades turn. Their interest in things that fly was further heightened when Orville also began flying kites during their brief move to Indiana. Their love of aviation would last a lifetime. Although they were intelligent and would achieve great success in their lives, neither brother obtained a high school diploma, as Orville had no interest in school and Wilbur suffered a sports injury that made him depressed and reclusive. The brothers started a newspaper using a printing press designed by Orville, and roughly three years later, they opened a bicycle shop.

  • The Inventive Wrights (PDF): Visit the Library of Congress website to read an article about the Wright Brothers made for teachers. It talks about their childhood, business ventures, and quest to invent the first airplane.
  • The Wright Brothers (video): Go here to see a video biography about Wilbur and Orville Wright.
  • The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville: Florida International University offers a short article about the Wright Brothers here.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright Childhood: This page has brief information about the Wright Brothers and their contribution to powered flight.
  • Meet the Wright Brothers: Scholastic Inc. has a page for teachers with information about the life and inventions of the Wright brothers.

The Pursuit of Flight: Gliders and the Wind Tunnel

Despite owning a bicycle shop where they designed bikes themselves, the brothers' interest in aviation did not waiver. Inspired by Otto Lilienthal, a German aviator who worked with gliders, the brothers began researching flight soon after his death. In 1900, they began experimenting with different wing designs and rudders and conducted flight tests with gliders that they created. These flight tests were conducted at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, which was selected for its windy weather and available open space. Unfortunately, these early gliders were unsuccessful and used data based off of Lilienthal's work. This led the brothers back to their bike shop in Ohio, where they built a bicycle apparatus and a wind tunnel in late 1901 to test Lilienthal's equations for accuracy and collect their own data on lift and drag. This research proved crucial, and it enabled them to make improvements that would lead to their eventual success. In 1902, they created another Wright glider, which was not only a success but was also the first glider in the world to be fully controllable.

  • 1901 Wind Tunnel: NASA presents information on this page about the wind tunnel the Wright brothers used to develop their first airplane.
  • Wind Tunnel: Find information about the Wright brothers' wind tunnel device here.
  • Wilbur and Orville Wright: Read about the history of Orville and Wilbur Wright on this page.
  • The Wright Brothers' Experiments: Click this link to visit Knowledge Media Institute's First Flight article about the Wright brothers' quest to develop the world's first self-powered airplane.
  • Wright Brothers: Masters of Gravity: Time Magazine explains their inclusion of Wilbur and Orville Wright as two of their 20 most influential Americans of all time in this article.

The First Successful Flight

With the success of the 1902 Wright glider, the brothers were now anxious to make an engine-powered airplane, and in 1903, they created the Wright Flyer. A launching rail was built at Kitty Hawk, which they called the Grand Junction Railroad, and on Dec. 14, 1903, it was used to help launch the Wright Flyer on its first take-off attempt. After tossing a coin, the brothers determined that Wilbur would pilot the flight, which went airborne for only a brief three and a half seconds before it stalled and fell into the sand. A second launch attempt was planned for Dec. 17, with Orville as the pilot. The Flyer launched from the rail at 10:35 that morning, traveled for 12 seconds, and covered 120 feet. This was their first successful flight of a true airplane; however, it was not the only flight that day. With the brothers taking turns piloting the Wright Flyer, it flew three more times, with its final trip taking it the farthest, 852 feet in 59 seconds.

  • The Wright Flyer: The National Park Service has provided this information about the Wright Flyer, and visitors can see a picture of its reconstructed engine and read about the airplane's design.
  • The Wright Brothers' First Flight: Go here to read about the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight. The article also includes information about other pioneers in the field of aviation, such as the first test pilot.
  • History of the 1903 Wright Flyer: Wright State University features a page about the Wright Flyer that documents their struggles with the Smithsonian Institution and quest to gain recognition as the first inventors of powered flight.
  • The Wright Brothers Take Flight: Click here to see a slide show of photographs of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Wright Flyer.
  • The Wright Brothers' First Flight, as Covered by Popular Science: Read about the details of the Wright brothers' first flight on this page from Popular Science.

After the First Flight

For the two years following their first successful flight, the brothers continued their flying experiments. In 1904, they built a hangar near Dayton, Ohio, at a location called Huffman Prairie. They constructed a 1904 Flyer followed by a 1905 Flyer. It was with the latter Flyer that Wilbur was able to fly for an extended period of 39 minutes, during which he traveled a total of 24 1/2 miles by circling the field 30 times.

In 1906 and 1907, no flights were made, as they worked on patents and finding customers for their aircraft. Following this lull, their claims were met with skepticism in the United States, but there was interest in Europe. As a result, Wilbur traveled to France, where he conducted a public demonstration that garnered not only attention but also contracts for their planes. Upon returning to the United States in 1909, they were contracted to develop a plane for the military, and they started the Wright Company, with Wilbur as its president. The Wright Company would go on to manufacture around 120 aircraft.

Later Years

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912, after falling ill in April of that year. The running of the Wright Company fell into the hands of Orville. Three years later, Orville retired and sold the company that he founded with his brother. A year later, he also sold the bicycle shop that he and his brother owned. He went on to work with private companies and the government as a consultant and served on committees and advisory boards. He lived to the age of 76, dying on Jan. 27, 1948, of a heart attack.

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