It happened on December 17, 1903. The first motor-powered airplane with a pilot in control went airborne over the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk. It was a truly American achievement and a transformative event for the 20th century to come.
The plane was made out of spruce wood, driven by a motor built in a bike shop, and was the invention of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur was at the controls, lying flat on his stomach as the flimsy sailcloth-and-wood contraption took off. Orville ran alongside as the plane rose against 27 mph wind gusts. The flight lasted 59 seconds at 852 feet off the ground.
This primitive airplane, built by the Wright brothers in their own bike shop, would become the essential model of human flight for all aircraft to come, and Wilbur and Orville Wright would henceforth be known as “first in flight.”
But the Wright brothers received little attention at the time for their achievement. The press had not been invited, perhaps deliberately for fear of competition from imitators who indeed would later embroil them in many lawsuits. In a telegram to their father, a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren, the brothers announced their victory: “Success four flights thursday morning # all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone # average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 [sic] seconds inform Press home #### Christmas.”
Upon learning news of the flight, reporters were incredulous. The Paris edition of the New York Herald would later say, “They are either fliers or liars.” The only thing the hometown press reported about the event was that the brothers would be back home in Dayton for Christmas.
Yet Wilbur and Orville Wright had made history, launching the first engine-propelled flying machine that a pilot could control. It was such a quintessential American invention, the flying machine. Yet at the beginning of the 20th century, creativity was bubbling up everywhere. In Trieste, James Joyce was writing The-Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, the novel before the novel of modernism, Ulysses. In Paris, Picasso and Braque were creating Cubist canvases. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were writing poetry that would change literature. Stravinsky was composing music on a new scale. And now, the Americans were flying.
By 1905, the Wright brothers had gone on to build an airplane that could fly for more than half an hour at a time. In 1908, Orville made the world’s first one-hour flight, over Fort Myer, Virginia, in a demonstration for the U.S. Army, which subsequently decided to adopt the Wright planes as the world’s first military airplanes. Unfortunately, demonstrating the plane for the Army two weeks later, Orville and his plane went down when a propeller split. His passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, died of a fractured skull in the accident and Orville broke four ribs and his left leg. He was, nonetheless, flying again seven weeks later. That same year, Wilbur made more than 100 flights near Le Mans, France. The longest one was on December 31, a record flight of 2 hours, 19 minutes, wowing the French and winning more accolades for the Wright brothers’ achievement.
To explain their fascination with flight, the brothers always referred to the toy helicopter made out of bamboo, paper, and cork that their father had given them to play with when they were little. It was based on a design by the 19th-century French aeronautics pioneer, Alphonse Penaud, who was the first to actually fly a model plane (for 11 seconds) that he had designed and called a “planophore,” powered by a rubber band and a rear propeller. When their toy helicopter eventually broke, Orville and Wilbur, already hooked on flying machines, built their own.
Many other inventors had already been at work trying to do what the Wrights eventually succeeded in doing. Even Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century had written about flying machines, drawing sketches of mechanical wings and investigating the possibilities of flight. He wrote, “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” Perhaps he inspired the Wright brothers who did extensive research on flight including Leonardo’s drawings and writings. Their father the bishop’s well-stocked library was ready to hand for this research.
They also read everything they could about bird flight, noting that birds changed the shape of their wings–curving or warping them–to maneuver and create lift. The brothers liked to fly kites, and in 1901 they created their first airborne glider modeled after a kite they made, warping the wing tips to control rolling and give balance. They wrote to the Smithsonian Institution asking for information about flight experiments and studied the work of Otto Lilienthal, a German aviator known as the “Glider King,” and Octave Chanute who flew gliders on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. They even wrote to the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau to ask about high-wind locations where their glider could get maximum lift (Chief Willis L. Moore wrote back suggesting Kitty Hawk, North Carolina).
The basic principle of flight involves creating upward lift by decreasing the air pressure over the wings and, as a result, building the air pressure beneath the wings, buoying them up. This is achieved by the shape of the wing–cambered or curved on top–and its angle. Flight also requires thrust, using some method to propel an object forward, which birds do by flapping their wings. Streamlined design with smooth surfaces and tapered edges also helps counteract the drag of air on anything moving through it, especially anything heavier than air. Birds have different wing shapes to counter drag and may be observed flattening their wings close to the body to streamline their flight.
Even today, aeronautics engineers and scientists study the flight of birds to learn more about how to improve human methods of flying. Birds taking off clap their wings together overhead and rotate them to get lift, creating a moving jet of air to keep them up. Their pectoral muscles provide the dynamics of forward movement, or thrust. Even a hummingbird, which can hover like a helicopter for more than an hour, has well-developed pectorals to allow for an 80-times-a-second beating of wings.
The Wright brothers, who were running a successful bicycle shop at the time, took note of all this in their research and passion for flight. They understood the aerodynamics of lift, thrust, and drag, but their major invention was something called three-axis control, which allowed the pilot to maintain equilibrium and steer the plane, controlling the roll of the longitudinal axis of the plane, the yaw (or sideways motion) of its vertical axis, and its pitch (perpendicular to longitudinal axis) or up and down movement. Their method is essentially the same one used today in all fixed-wing airplanes.
Their bike shop, the Wright Cycle Company, helped provide the wherewithal to pursue their experiments in flight, and it gave them the mechanical knowledge to move ahead with their airplane designs. Though bicycles and airplanes would not seem to have much in common, the Wright brothers may well have learned something from riding a bike about balance and about banking or tilting an airplane in a turn. Bike spokes and scrap metal came in handy as they built their gliders in the back room of their shop.
Bicycles at the time had had different-sized wheels, a large front wheel and a much smaller back wheel, but by the 1890s, they were being produced with same-sized wheels, starting a national bicycle craze. In 1896, Orville and Wilbur began producing the new-style bicycles in their own design, one of which is on exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., along with the Wrights’ original 1903 plane and reproductions of their gliders and kites. While the bike shop was a thriving venture, the brothers were far more intrigued with the possibility of flying. Even their bicycle mechanic, Charles Taylor, was busy designing an engine that could be used to power the gliders they were experimenting with and came up with the engine that the Wrights used in their 1903 plane at Kitty Hawk.
That plane was the result of four years of intensive experimentation, beginning in 1899, as other inventors, making attempts at flight, perhaps spurred the Wright brothers on to their own. In 1896, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley flew a model airplane that had steam power, and the Chicago engineer Chanute began his experiments with gliders. Meanwhile, Otto Lilienthal fell to his death manning one of his gliders. The Wright brothers continued to painstakingly design, build, and fly their own gliders, manned and unmanned, first outside Chicago, then at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They discovered that the pilot could reduce drag by lying flat on the lower wing of the glider, and they even built their own wind tunnel to experiment with various flight conditions. But at one point, a discouraged Wilbur supposedly told Orville he thought that while man would eventually fly, it would not be in their lifetime.
Yet by 1903, they had flown their first airplane, and by 1906, Wilbur and Orville were granted a patent for their flying machine by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The patent actually was based on their glider but covered the unique method of control the Wrights had devised. Because their plane was easy to copy, many other inventors tried to imitate it, involving them in numerous lawsuits over the years that distracted the brothers from more creative work. But in 1909, they established the Wright Company in Dayton to produce airplanes and ran a flying school where they trained pilots to fly and show off the planes they were producing. A soft drink company sponsored a coast-to-coast flight of one plane in 1911. By 1929, the company, then known as the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, merged with its chief legal opponent, Curtiss Aeroplane, to become Curtiss-Wright, still operating today.
The Wrights suffered a total of 11 plane crashes, but their passion for flight sustained them through many setbacks. They never flew together–except once–to ensure that one of them would survive and carry on their work. Their fame grew and recognition started to come. President William Howard Taft invited them to the White House and gave them an award. Wilbur made a 33-minute flight over New York Harbor in 1909, circling the Statue of Liberty before a crowd of a million New Yorkers, assuring the brothers’ fame in the United States.
After all, they were native-born citizens, the third and fourth of the seven children of Milton and Susan Wright. Wilbur was born in 1867 in Indiana before the family moved and settled in Dayton where Orville was born in 1871. Though they both went to high school, Orville dropped out in his junior year to start a printing business, and Wilbur did not get his diploma because of another family move. He was supposed to go on to Yale, but became withdrawn and depressed after his front teeth got knocked out in an ice-skating accident and he devoted himself to helping his father with church matters and to caring for his mother who was dying of tuberculosis. It’s interesting to note that Susan Wright, a college graduate and mathematics whiz, had once built a sled for her children that was designed to reduce air resistance, an issue her sons would later contend with.
Eventually Wilbur joined his brother in the printing business and they began publishing weekly, then daily newspapers. In 1892, the brothers had moved on to open the Wright Cycle Exchange bicycle shop to sell and repair bicycles. Meanwhile, attempts at flight abroad and in the United States began to make news, and it was just a matter of time before the Wright brothers joined other pioneer aviators on the frontiers of flight.
Even though it was Orville who first struck out on his own to open a business, it turned out to be Wilbur who took the lead in most of their subsequent enterprises, including their gliders and airplanes. The brothers never married–according to Wilbur there was no time to have both a wife and an airplane–but their sister Katherine frequently accompanied them around the country and occasionally flew with them. Wilbur was stricken with typhoid fever and died when he was only 45 years old, but Orville lived on, accepting the awards and accolades the world bestowed on the brothers. He died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 77, having made soaring above the earth a reality though himself born into a horse-and-buggy world. The state of North Carolina includes the motto, “First in Flight,” on its license plates and the back of its state quarters. There is a Wright Brothers National Memorial on the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Not to be outdone, Ohio’s slogan is, “Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers,” found on Ohio state quarters. The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park also honors the Wright brothers.
Anderson, John D. Inventing Flight: The Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.