Wilbur and Orville Wright

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible," Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society announced in 1895.  Charles Duell, Commissioner for the US Office of Patents, stated in 1899, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."  Perhaps he had forgotten that in the first century A.D. Julius Frontinus had said the same thing: "Inventions reached their limit long ago, and I see no hope for further development."

Even Wilbur Wright in 1908 admitted, "I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years...Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions.".

Wilbur Wright was born 146 years ago today--on April 16, 1867--in Indiana.  Orville was born in 1871.  Neither received high school diplomas: Wilbur did not get his after 4 years of high school because of a sudden move, and Orville dropped out of school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889.  He and Wilbur had designed and built their own printing press.  They started a weekly newspaper called The West Side News in Dayton, Ohio.  Orville was listed as the publisher and Wilbur as the editor.  In 1890 the paper became a daily, The Evening Item, but this lasted for only 4 months, and the Wrights shifted their focus toward commercial printing.

In 1892, they opened a bicycle repair and sales shop, and in 1896 they began manufacturing their own brand of bicycles. They used their earnings from these endeavors to fund their interest in flight.  They paid close attention to the research of Otto Lilienthal of Germany, who experimented with gliders until his death in a glider crash in August of 1896.  They read and studied all they could about the experiments of other inventors in the aeronautical field.  The death of another inventor, Percy Pilcher, in a hang-gliding crash reinforced their views that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to success.

In 1900, the brothers journeyed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to begin their experiments.  Their first experiments focused on the glider.  They made wind-tunnel tests with over 200 types of wings, and gradually worked to improve glider design.  They also discovered the true purpose of a movable vertical rudder, and developed three-axis control with wing-warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevation for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side).

In 1903, the powered Wright Flyer 1 was built with spruce, muslin for wing coverings, wooden propellers, and a gasoline engine developed in their bicycle shop.  The propeller drive chains were supplied by a manufacturer of heavy-duty automobile chain-drives.  The Flyer had a 40.3 foot wingspan and weighed 605 pounds; it's engine was 12 horsepower  and weighed 180 pounds.  In all, the Flyer cost less than a thousand dollars (in contrast with the more than $50,000 the U.S. Government gave to Samuel Langley to develop his unsuccessful man-carrying powered flight machine the "Great Aerodrome.")

The brothers suffered from delays because of broken propellers, the engine stalling, and various difficulties.  Finally, on December 17th, Orville made the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds.  Two more flights were made the same day of 175 feet (Wilbur) and 300 feet (Orville) at about 10 feet above the ground.  In the last flight of the day, Wilbur covered 852 feet in about 59 seconds before the plane hit the ground with minor damage.  However, later in the day it was whipped severely by the wind, damaged, and never flew again.  Five men witnessed the flights, but the flights did not generate public excitement.  The Dayton Journal at first even refused to publish the story.  

In 1904, they built the second Wright Flyer and continued their experiments at an airfield they set up at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture about 8 miles from Dayton.  The Wright brothers began withdrawing from their bicycle business to focus all the efforts on the improvement of their invention.   They built the third Flyer in 1905 with important design changes which improved stability and control and soon were able to make long flights ranging from 11 to 24 miles.

Since few people had seen their early flights, there was widespread skepticism.

In 1908 Wilbur flew demonstration flights in France and Orville in Washington D.C.  Flyers had been modified to include a passenger seat, so they were able to take a passenger with them.  They catapulted to world-wide fame overnight due to French enthusiasm, and former doubters issued apologies and praised their invention.  On September 9th, Orville made the first hour long flight.  However, on September 17th, Orville and his passenger Thomas Selfridge crashed.  Selfridge was killed, becoming the first airplane crash fatality,  and Orville was badly hurt, suffering a broken leg, 4 broken ribs, and 3 fractures in his hip.  Stunned by the accident, Wilbur redoubled his efforts in France and set new records for altitude and duration.  In 1909, Orville and their sister Katherine joined him in France and they became the three most famous people in the world for a time.  The kings of Spain, Italy, and England came to watch Wilbur fly.  When they returned to the U.S., they were invited to the White House and President Taft presented them with awards.  They sold an airplane to the U.S. Signal Corps for $30,000.  Wilbur flew in New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebrations, circling the Statue of Liberty, making a 33 minute flight up and down the Hudson River, and solidly establishing the brothers' fame in the U.S.

However, the rest of the brothers' lives did not come without problems, they fought patent struggles and lawsuits, and their preoccupation with legal issues stifled their work on new designs.  

The Wright Company was incorporated in November of 1909.  The brothers sold their patents to the company for $100,000 and also received a third of the shares plus a royalty on every airplane sold.  The Wright Company flew the first commercial air cargo on November 7, 1910: 2 bolts of dress silk.  

Wilbur died of typhoid fever at the age of 45.  His father Milton wrote of Wilbur: "A short life, full of consequences.  An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died." 

Orville lived until January 30, 1948, when he died of an heart attack.

In 1965, the brothers were inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

The Wright brothers are a great example of ingenuity.  They were not afraid to attempt the impossible.