Will and Orv set out in mid-1899 with virtually no preparation except reading some books from their father's home library and with no experience except their mechanical skills as pressmen and bike-builders.
But four-and-a-half years later, they did it. On Dec. 17, 1903, they flew all of 120 feet in an odd-looking biplane, with Orville lying across the lower wing. One of humanity's most longstanding dreams had finally come true.
And thus they joined a long line of eccentrics, iconoclasts and downright nutcases who changed the world. Like many others, they had to fight for the credit due them and were unable to translate their inventiveness into wealth. And like many others, they succeeded because of the intensity of their focus, their invulnerability to doubts and jeers -- and above all, their ability to think about things differently from everyone else.
To the proprietors of the Wright Cycle Company, flying was just like riding a bike. Leaning into a curve gives a bike-rider balance and control. The biggest problem afflicting glider experiments in those days was that pilots had little control. Otto Lilienthal, the world-famous German engineer who had made a number of advances in glider flight, was killed when his glider suddenly stalled out of control. He was trying to steer the plane simply by throwing his legs around and shifting his weight from one side to another.
The Wrights' solution to the problem was a thing they called "wing warping," which morphed into what today we call ailerons. By making air flow at different speeds across the left and right wings, wing-warping made the airplane bank, or roll over a bit, at the same time the rudder was making the plane change direction -- just like a bicycle leaning as the front wheel turns. At the time, others thought the challenge was to stop the plane from doing that.
It seems so obvious now, looking back 100 years. But not everyone got it at first, even when Orville and Wilbur patiently explained it. One who didn't was the man often considered a leading American expert on aeronautics in the 1890s, civil engineer Octave Chanute, builder of railroads and bridges.
"Safety, strength and stability were the watchwords on which Chanute had built his reputation," says Wright biographer Tom D. Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. "Some men might have overcome the limitations of personal experience and tradition. Chanute was not one of them. He could conceive of the problem of flight control in only two dimensions. The idea of a roll axis did not even occur to him when Wilbur described his notion of twisting the wings to raise or lower the tips."
But, notes Crouch, "Wilbur's experience with cycling had stretched his imagination and focused his attention on the need for active control in all three axes of motion" -- up and down, side to side, and rolling over. (The aeronautical terms are pitch, yaw and roll.)
We celebrate the off-beat thinkers who overcome the doubters and become heroes. But we don't celebrate them until they succeed. While they are in the midst of their struggles, their unconventionality, wackiness, obliviousness, deviancy and occasionally clinical madness draw jeers and sneers from conventional souls around them. The creators see things in ways that others don't.
"Our entire society and, in fact, all societies, are the outgrowth of deviant thinking," say trend-watching consultants Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker in a book called The Deviant's Advantage. "The great inventions of all time, the most successful corporations in history, the greatest works of art and triumphs of science have their roots in the twisted mind of the deviant, the pariah, the social leper."
That describes Charles Goodyear in mid-19th century America. The man whose name would one day adorn a blimp, not to mention a major tire company, endured dire poverty and repeated stays in debtors' prison, pawned prized possessions, bummed off of acquaintances, suffered health problems. The best thing going for him was that his wife was steadfastly devoted.
"Goodyear was rubber," writes biographer Charles Slack in Noble Obsession. "He spent his days stirring it, boiling it, kneading it, reeking of it. ... He wore caps, shoes and coats made of the stuff. His strange attire made him an object of much ridicule as he wandered with his family from one town to another."
But Charles Goodyear believed in his mission to solve the problem that kept natural rubber, known and used for at least 200 years, from fulfilling its many potential uses: It turned sticky in hot weather, hard and brittle in cold weather. He finally solved the problem with a process called vulcanization, discovered when one of his combinations of sulfur and rubber was "carelessly brought into contact with a hot stove," as Goodyear put it. Detractors dismissed it as accident, not genius.
"The fundamental flaw in calling Goodyear a fortunate rube is that human discovery is largely the story of accident converted into opportunity," counters his biographer. "Alexander Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist, wasn't looking for penicillin when he noticed a strange mold growing in an old culture dish. But where a hundred other men would have reached for a scrub brush and trash can, Fleming's peculiar genius was to recognize potential in this humble growth."
Goodyear himself compared it to "the falling of an apple."
An interesting allusion. Isaac Newton himself was a head case, even before the apple fell on it. How many people had watched an apple fall? But only Newton wondered why the apple fell and the moon didn't, then went on to figure out in mathematical detail why that was.
Young Isaac was a daydreamer, a peculiar chap who assiduously kept records, a prolific reader, an average student. He was always making things, including a mill that ground wheat into flour using mouse power. At one point, trying to figure out how eyes worked, he actually inserted an object behind his eyelid. No wonder he never married. Yet out of his solitary absent-minded weirdness, Newton invented calculus and discovered the laws of motion that are a major component of physics.
Not bad for a nut case. But neither he nor Goodyear apparently ever imagined air travel as one of the results of their work.
Wilbur and Orville Wright, by contrast, were just mildly eccentric. They were quiet, introverted, cerebral. When Orville assembled an "army" made up of playmates when he was about 7 years old, 11-year-old Wilbur helped them develop a battle strategy based on Plutarch. Their father was a bishop of the United Brethren Church who became a vocal spokesman for church Radicals fighting to keep Freemasons out of the church. (Biographer Crouch, noting the influence of this headstrong father, called his biography of Wilbur and Orville The Bishop's Boys.) Milton Wright traveled widely on church business and would bring back toys. One, in 1878, was a toy helicopter, powered by a wound-up rubber band. Orville tried to reproduce the toy on a somewhat larger scale, but never succeeded.
Both Orville and Wilbur overcame serious illnesses as young men. Wilbur at 19 was struck in the head with a bat while playing a game on ice skates. It caused several after-effects, and he had an extended recovery. He came to think of himself as a "potential invalid," and he gave up thoughts of going away to college. He fell into a depression. Over the next three years he nursed his mother, who had become an invalid from tuberculosis, and spent his spare time in his father's extensive library.
In 1896, typhoid struck Orville. He nearly died. By then the brothers had their bicycle shop, and glider experiments were in the headlines. The year brought the death of Otto Lilienthal, who had made perhaps a thousand brief flights before his plane stalled and fell 50 feet with Lilienthal strapped underneath. The same year, Samuel Pierpont Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian, got a small, steam-powered, unmanned "aerodrome" 3,000 feet in the air. As Wilbur and his sister Katharine nursed Orville back to health, their father's books on birds and flight, plus newspaper stories about the flying experiments, prompted study and discussion. In 1899 a book about ornithology finally moved the Wrights to action, they would say later. It showed them that if birds of all shapes could fly with modest exertion of their wings, humans could fly too.
On June 2, 1899, a letter from a Wilbur Wright arrived at the Smithsonian. Wilbur, 32, said he was "an enthusiast, but not a crank." He wanted copies of anything the Smithsonian had published on flying and suggestions of other reading. Wilbur was determined to amass all the accumulated knowledge about flying. From June to August 1899, that's what he did, focusing not on what was already known but things that weren't known.
Powered flight, Wilbur concluded, would depend on three things: wings with the proper design so that airflow would lift the plane into the air; an engine strong enough to move it forward into the wind fast enough to generate the lift; and a way to control the plane in the air. It was the third issue, Wilbur concluded, that had to be addressed. Lilienthal and others had already managed to get gliders into the air. Advances in engines for the new automobile showed that power was going to be available. But the only way to test theories of control was to have someone be onboard a plane to handle the controls.
Yaw and pitch were generally understood. Yaw was controlled by a rudder. Pitch was controlled by an "elevator," tilting up or down to raise or lower the nose. But controlling roll was a big challenge.
Other aviation pioneers were seeking automatic control of all three motions. Langley, using models without pilots, needed automatic stabilization. Alphonse Penaud, who had designed the helicopter toy the Wrights received from their father, had proposed stabilizing rolls by tilting wings upward at the ends. That way, if a plane tipped, the end of the low wing would become level and provide more lift, while the upper wing would lose some lift and drift back down.
Wilbur, however, wanted a pilot to be able to intentionally lean into a tighter turn.
But how to do that with wings instead of handlebars?
The Wrights adapted Penaud's idea of angling the wings, but with, literally, a twist. They designed a helix of wires hooked to a steering mechanism to make the tips twist in unison but in opposite directions, one up, one down. They tried it out on a biplane kite they built, with sticks to control the wings. It worked. They could make the kite dive, climb and roll pretty much as they desired.
By the end of August 1899, they were ready to build a man-carrying kite.
But first, they'd have to spend the fall and winter building next spring's supply of Wright bicycles.
To Kitty Hawk
A Smithsonian scientist in 1896 had described the bicycle as "one of the world's great inventions." The big-wheel version came into being in 1878. In 1887, the "safety" bicycle, with two equal-sized wheels, made bicycles accessible to the masses. By 1895 America was building 1.2 million bicycles a year.
Orville and Wilbur had bikes. Orville was a racer, and Wilbur liked rides on country roads. As guys who had built their own printing press and ran a print shop, they were besieged by acquaintances needing bike repairs. They opened the Wright Cycle Exchange in December 1892. To get an edge on the growing competition, they decided to build their own bikes, not just sell what others built.
But the Wrights could not fly a manned kite in Dayton, Ohio. They needed strong, steady winds that could keep a tethered kite-glider in the air for sustained periods while they tested the controls. They wanted to avoid urban areas, for reasons of safety and secrecy. From the Monthly Weather Review, they learned that the sixth-highest average wind was at a place called Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Wilbur set out by train. In Elizabeth City, he scouted around for three days until he found someone to take him across Albemarle Sound to the Outer Banks. Orville arrived two weeks later. To measure the effects of their designs, they had only a hand-held anemometer from the local weather station to measure wind speed and a fish scale to measure the pull of the tethered glider.
They flew, crashed, repaired broken parts, tinkered. They would run down the hill pulling the "kite" ropes, and Wilbur would jump on. On Oct. 19, he made repeated glides of perhaps 15 seconds and could bring the glider back to a landing in almost exactly the same location each time.
On Oct. 23, 1900, with winter coming, they headed home to Dayton, ecstatic.
The Wrights spent the winter reworking the design. In June 1901, they turned supervision of the bike shop over to their longtime friend and employee Charlie Taylor and set out for Kitty Hawk once more.
But this time, nothing worked: their "wing warping system," their new approach to the controls, even their new wing design. In August they gave up and went home.
They had been relying on others' calculations of the effect of wing shapes and angles. Those were wrong. Wilbur and Orville built a 6-foot-long wind tunnel and, using models of perhaps 150 airfoil designs, measured for themselves. By December, they had a new design.
Returning to Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1902 the Wrights took a biplane glider with a fixed double-rudder and less boxy wing designs. Before, Wilbur had done all the flying. Now he was shouting instructions up to Orville. The glider performed well, but it still skidded in turns. On Sept. 23, Orville stalled and crashed.
Within a week, they were back in the air, but Orville concluded that the fixed rudder had to be movable. They redesigned the rudder and the controls. Eureka! On Oct. 23, Wilbur set a record of 622.5 feet in 26 seconds.
They left Kitty Hawk on Oct. 28, 1902, ready to design and build a powered flying machine.
Triumph of Innovation
They had a lot to do. They had to design a propeller. They had to find an engine. And they had to design wings to lift more weight. They designed a 60-foot takeoff rail. The flyer would ride on two bicycle-wheel hubs, one attached to the front and one under a cart that would hold up the rear and fall away as the plane took off. The wing-warping and rudder were controlled with the pilot's hips, the elevator with a hand control.
When they left Dayton on Sept. 23, 1903, the brothers were determined not to return until the craft had flown.
At one point during testing, the propeller shafts broke. Charlie Taylor back at the bike shop made new ones. They kept tinkering with the engine to produce more power. Then the propeller broke again, and Orville himself went to Dayton to redesign and rebuild it.
While Orville was gone, rival Samuel Langley was set to try once again to fly, from a wharf in the Potomac River. It was Dec. 8, a cold, gusty day. Langley had run through a lot of money, and this was a big moment. Langley had focused on power, not control. The Langley plane sped down the track, the nose lifted ... and flipped over backward. The aerodrome splashed into the Potomac.
Three days later, Orville was back at Kitty Hawk. On Dec. 14, the brothers decided to try a flight. Wilbur won the coin toss to see who would be the first to fly. But the plane rose at too sharp an angle, stalled and fell.
Repairs took till noon on the 16th, but the weather wasn't good that afternoon. The 17th was cold and clear, and a flag went up atop Kill Devil Hill to signal the lifesavers to come help out with another flight. They hauled the craft up the track on the hillside. The Wrights had hoped to take off on level ground, but the plane turned out to be a bit heavier than expected, and they decided to give the engine a little help from gravity to get the craft to takeoff speed.
Wilbur and Orville pulled the propeller to make the engine start. It was Orville's turn to fly. One of the lifesavers observed: "We couldn't help notice how they held on to each other's hand, sort o' like two folks parting who weren't sure they'd ever see one another again."
Orville stretched across the wing and checked the controls. Wilbur sent lifesaver John Daniels to the far end of the rail to man the camera set up there. Then Wilbur walked to the right wingtip. About 10:35 a.m., Orville released the line holding the machine in place and simultaneously started a stopwatch, the anemometer and a gadget to measure propeller RPM. The craft started moving, with Wilbur running alongside.
The plane rose. The lifesavers cheered. Then the plane sank back down and landed, 12 seconds and 120 feet after lifting off. "You could have thrown a ball farther," writes Crouch, "but for the Wrights it was enough. For the first time in history, an airplane had taken off, moved forward under its own power, and landed at a point at least as high as that from which it had started -- all under the complete control of the pilot. On this isolated, windswept beach, a man had flown."
After warming up inside the Wrights' shed, they did it again. Wilbur flew 195 feet. Then Orville flew again, for 200 feet in 15 seconds. About noon, Wilbur piloted the most remarkable flight of the day: 852 feet, nearly the length of three football fields, in 59 seconds.
The bishop and the boys' sister Katharine got the telegram at home that evening. The Western Union operator had also sent word to the operator in Norfolk, who in turn passed the word to Ed Dean at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. The exaggerated headline read: FLYING MACHINE SOARS 3 MILES IN TEETH OF HIGH WIND OVER SAND HILLS AND WAVES AT KITTY HAWK ON CAROLINA COAST.
In Dayton, Orville and Wilbur's brother Lorin went down to the Journal office and reported the news to city editor Frank Tunison. "Fifty-seven seconds, hey?" he said. "If it had been fifty-seven minutes, then it might have been a news item."
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