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«The Wright Brothers: The Start of Aviation»

The bird’s ability to fly has always fascinated people. Since time immemorial people dreamed of inventing a way or a device to hover in the air. According to Greek mythology, Daedalus made wings from feathers and wax for him and his son Icarus, but when the latter flew too high, the sun melted wax and he fell. In the Renaissance period characterized with great technological developments, Leonardo da Vinci drew the prototypes of flying devices. However, it became really possible only after the advancement of Scientific Revolution. Sir George Cayley experimented with a glider in the first half of the nineteenth century but his inventions could not carry an adult person and fly for an extended period of time. The Wright brothers, however, succeeded in making the world’s first airplane that could fly with its own weight and thus established a new era in airplane building.

The environment forms people. The Wright brothers lived in the atmosphere where love for books and experiments were encouraged. Their mother Susan Wright attended college, as well as their younger sister Katherine, and she was rather “mechanically inclined”; so the boys inherited their love to engineering from her (Crompton, 2007, p. 9). There were five children in the Wright family. Wilbur was the middle child and was born in 1867, while Orville was next in line and born in 1871. Wil and Orv, as their dear ones called them, were very close and played together. They liked to fix and make things. When their father brought them a flying toy they replicated it of wood, rubber, and paper (Santella, 2003, p. 8).

Despite the brothers’ interest in science and engineering, they never went to college. When Wilbur was 18, he was a promising young man who dreamed to enter Yale; however, an accident happened to him that crossed out all his dreams about education. During an ice hockey game he got several teeth knocked out and it made him a recluse for a long period of time when he stayed at home and took care of his ill mother (Crompton, 2007, p. 10).

However, even without formal education, the Wright brothers had inquiring minds and never stopped their search for some new inventions and interesting subjects for their mental force application. When bicycles became a new “craze,” Wilbur and Orville first tested them themselves and then began selling these vehicles naming their company the Wright Cycle Company (Crompton, 2007, p. 13). At that time automobiles were not as much developed and widespread, so bicycles were the first mechanical means of transportation and were very popular with all classes. Establishing their company, the Wright brothers started to not only sell and repair bicycles but they also offered new improved models of these vehicles (Crompton, 2007, p. 14).

There is no information when the Wrights became especially interested in flying. Most probably the failures of German glider Otto Lilienthal could catch their interest. They could read about it in 1894 in McClure’s. It was the first type of flight when a person could stay in the air without a hot-air balloon. However, Lilienthal could not invent a glider that would move itself. It had to be pushed into a gust of wind (Crompton, 2007, p. 14). Even with such modest successes it was a remarkable feat for that time period. Probably, the news of Lilienthal’s death as result of a fall from the glider encouraged the Wright brothers to start their own experiments.

Early twentieth century was a busy time in terms of innovations and inventions. Many people at that time were dreaming to fly and were working on their own versions of some flying apparatuses. For example, the famous inventor of the telephone Alexander Bell was very interested in inventing a mechanism that could fly, as well as his friend Samuel Pierpont Langley, the director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who had already tested his aircraft. When Wilbur Wright had just become interested in the subject, he wrote a letter to the Smithsonian enquiring for some materials for his research. Obviously, it was not Langley who answered him and sent the materials, but it is a twist of irony that later on a feud would start between the Wrights and the Smithsonian (Crompton, 2007, p. 21).

The reason why the Wright brothers could get ahead of wise and experienced men like Bell and Langley was that they did not focus their attention on motorized flight. Wilbur and Orville believed that they needed to imitate birds and their technique of flight and it would enable them to get into the air. Meanwhile, Langley thought that he needed to get into the air somehow (from the hill or on the water) and then a motor would keep the aircraft airborne. Langley had already had several failed attempts to fly an aircraft but it did not hover more than several seconds (Crompton, 2007, p. 20).

The innovation of Wilbur was in a system of pulleys and wires that he used to control the wings of the aircraft. It was later called “wing warping” because it employs the same principle the birds use to move their wings. This was the way to keep balance, which was one of the major problems for first flyers. One may wonder if Wilbur’s discovery simply emulated a bird’s movement, why no one had thought of it earlier. The reason why it was not discovered before was that birds move too fast and human eye is not able to catch the exact movement. For Wilbur it was like a revelation, an Eureka moment, rather than something seen with his own eyes (Crompton, 2007, p. 22).

First, the Wright brothers tested Wilbur’s invention on a kite made according to his design. Then they decided to try it on a glider. Wilbur asked advice from the famous aviator Octave Chanute writing that he discovered the method to keep balance by observing buzzards:

They regain their lateral balance, when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of thewings. If the rear edge of the right wing tip is twisted upward and the left downward the bird becomes an animated windmill and instantly begins to turn, a line from its head to its tail being the axis (as cited in Crompton, 2007, p. 25).

The brothers needed a place with soft sands for their experiment to prevent Otto Lilienthal's fatal end. Chanute advised to test Wilbur’s ideas somewhere wher good winds blow, for example, “the Atlantic coasts of South Carolina or Georgia” (as cited in Crompton, 2007, p. 25). It was a provisional piece of advice as from that time on the Wrights’ name would strongly associate with Kitty Hawk, South Carolina.

When the Wright brothers first arrived to Kitty Hawk in 1900, they would fly a self-designed glider operating it from the ground by pulling wires and strings. At that time, they continued to observe different birds and notice the differences in their maneuvering their wings. For example, buzzards are slower than hawks but they make more movements with their wings because they want to move faster. And birds do not soar in the windless periods, only in the breeze. However, neither 1900 nor 1901 brought them any positive fruit of their laborious work. The brothers were on the verge of quitting their hobby but by that time their whole family was involved in an affair and greatly enthusiastic. Their sister Katharine convinced them to seek advice from Octave Chanute again (Crompton, 2007, p. 33).

Following Chanute’s advice to continue their search, Wilbur and Orville spent 1902 revising their methods. It turned out that probably there was an error in mathematical tables they used that were composed by earlier experimenters like Lilienthal. Even though Lilienthal’s inaccuracies were not very significant to the amount and depth of work he had done, the Wright brothers took them into account. Chanute helped them to see that lift and drift calculations were done wrongly (Tobin, 2003, p. 121). Having constructed a wind tunnel, the Wrights were able to do more experiments in better conditions. As a result, in the summer of 1902, they spent three months in Kitty Hawk testing their new glider with a tail and a cradle for a pilot to operate the glider (Tobin, 2003, p. 125). The brothers continued to change their glider’s design and one of the models was 280 feet long. By that time, they learned how to maintain balance and fly straight without turning. At that point, Langley had been experimenting for six years and spent public funds of $50,000, but his motorized model could not stay airborne longer than several seconds (Crompton, 2007, p. 42).

By the early 1903, the brothers achieved a remarkable success: “The longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind” (Crompton, 2007, p. 44). At that point, the Wrights’ glider needed a motor. However, the brothers could not simply go and buy any ready-made motor because all of them were too bulky, heavy and intended for automobiles. That is why they decided to create “the world’s first ‘flying engine’” and offered this job to Charlie Taylor, a mechanic who worked in their bicycle shop (Crompton, 2007, p. 45). Wilbur made the propellers of wood because metal ones on sale were not suitable for their purposes as well.

In 1903, the Wright brothers’ experiments coincided with Langley’s one. It was time for Langley to present the result of his work to the government and general public, and the demonstration ended with the sarcastic comments of journalists who were observing this aircraft swiftly taking a nosedive into the river (Crompton, 2007, p. 48). At that time the general public supported by the experts was strongly convinced that manned flight is not possible. Professor of mathematics at Hopkins University Simon Newcomb repeatedly expressed his opinion in the articles on the possibility of flying saying, “We cannot conclude that because the genius of the nineteenth century has opened up such wonders as it has, therefore the twentieth is to give us the airship” (as cited in Tobin, 2003, p. 117). Therefore, Langley’s failure only proved that “flying like birds” for people was indeed impossible yet.

In the autumn of 1903, Wilbur and Orville had many issues with their glider and had to spend a lot of time preparing for the flight. The weather was getting worse and worse, with winds stronger than needed and gusts of sand thrown into their eyes, but they were eager to continue. On December 17, 1903, the brothers took turns to operate the glider from the cradle and flew the glider from the flat sand beach. It was the first time they, or whoever, “achieve[d] unaided flight, under the flyer’s own power, starting from a level surface” with the best result of these four takes being 59 seconds for 852 feet (Crompton, 2007, p. 50).

The incredible thing was that the press did not notice the Wright brothers’ success, even though the news of their flight leaked through a telegraph operator (Crompton, 2007, p. 54). The reason for it was that journalists were not able to appreciate the importance of the Wrights’ invention. No one truly understood what they were doing and what it meant for science and technology.

After their first success, the brothers decided to change the location of their trials because Kitty Hawk was too far away from their home and its sands were damaging for the engine. For their next experiments, Wilbur and Orville chose Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio. Whereas the initial idea behind the Wright brothers’ first glider was Wilbur’s, starting from 1904 it became their joint enterprise and mutual obsession. Both contributed to the solutions and experiments and from that time it was difficult to say who was responsible for which innovation. However, the wind patterns in Huffman Prairie were not beneficial for the Wrights’ flying experiments and to their chagrin the summer of 19904 was not very fruitful. However, the airplane named Flyer they tested at that time managed to “stay in the air for a minute and a half” and it made a full circle, which was unbelievable as no one could have done it before (Santella, 2003, p. 25).

In 1905, the brothers realized that their accumulated knowledge would allow them to make and sell airplanes and make a business out of it. They thought that the US government could be a potential buyer as an aircraft is a type of expensive goods that can be used in the national aviation. However, their letter was regarded as a request for financing and rejected. Taking offence the Wright brothers turned to Europe to find customers. Simultaneously, Wilbur and Orville continued their experiments and the 1905 Flyer was an improved model. Making 24 miles in 38 minutes, the Flyer had finally caught an attention of the press (Santella, 2003, p. 25).

As the Wright brothers’ flying successes began being discussed and reaching far and low, some individuals, who were also involved in their own experiments or theorizing on man-powered flights, decided to give it a try and bite a piece of the pie. For example, in 1904, the brothers received a letter from certain Augustus Herring who claimed to be the designer of “the Chanute glider and a powered machine”, and for this reason he wanted a share in the Wrights’ company (Goldstone, 2014, ch. 8). Therefore, the brothers applied documents for a patent of the widest scope. They wanted not simply “exclusivity for a device” but “exclusivity for an idea, the principle of lateral control itself” (Goldstone, 2014, ch. 8). And surprisingly, in 1906, the patent was granted them not only in the US but in England and France as well (Germany took its time because of stricter requirements) (Goldstone, 2014, p. 25).

In 1907, the Wrights went to Europe and Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine simultaneously held negotiations in France, England, and Germany. By that time, even the U S government became interested. Having signed several deals, the brothers did not receive any payments though because all clients were waiting for their demonstrations. Actually, the European press was rather doubtful about the Wrights’ ability to do it. The brothers resumed their flying practice in the winter of 1908 and in spring they had to run demonstrations almost simultaneously – Orville in the US and Wilbur in France. On August 10, 1908, Wilbur showed a highly maneuvered flight making a figure eight and brought the French public to his feet. Orville’s first flight for the US government was successful but it was requested to demonstrate how the plane is able to carry a passenger. The second flight turned disastrous: the passenger died while Orville survived the crash (Crompton, 2007, p. 73).

Throughout 1908, Wilbur stayed in France and took part in negotiations and demonstrations. By that time, the Wright brothers had become celebrities in France and the press was very favorable to them. Some other European leaders expressed their interest in the Wrights’ aircrafts. In the autumn of 1909, the brothers decided to take part in Hudson-Fulton Exhibition. Wilbur was expected to fly around Manhattan. Thousands of people witnessed his five-minute flight. Later Wilbur would take a fuller circle around Manhattan and would finally secure the Wrights’ reputation of American heroes. Given the age and previous traumas, the brothers would never flight again.

In the same 1909, the brothers were approached by a young banker Clinton Perkins with a business offer to start the Wright Company. As a result, they “received a handsome cash payment, stock options for the future, and the promise that the new company would bear all their expenses in the defense of their patents” (Crompton, 2007, p. 83). However, the Wright Company was not prosperous for too long. Many people attempted to make use of the brothers’ invention without paying for it. Many aviators claimed that they used ailerons rather than the warping mechanism. Their major competitor was Glenn Curtiss who was later supported by Henry Ford. Even though the Wrights would win legal battles over their patents, they were exacting and eventually they morally exhausted Wilbur who carried the burden of legal battles mostly on his own. He died in 1912 catching typhoid fever.

With the brother’s death, Orville lost interest in the flight business and sold the company in 1915. He retired early and never made any more innovations in any field. Orville died in 1948 spending a large part of his life quarreling with the Smithsonian over “its claim that Samuel Pierpont Langley had constructed a machine that was capable of flight before the Wrights had constructed theirs” (Crompton, 2007, p. 90).

The Wright brothers’ invention was ground-breaking in any case. All the later airplanes used and improved the principles they developed. Although the Wrights’ aircrafts were not widely employed during the First World War, they became recognized after it. Used “either as reconnaissance unit or in combat” during the war, the two-deckers became used for mail delivery. Later in 1927, their potential as aviation airplanes was noticed (Crompton, 2007, p. 92).

Many aspects contributed to the Wright brothers’ success. On the one hand, it was total disinterest of the press that allowed them to conduct their experiments in a quiet and calm atmosphere, and, at the same time, it was their stubbornness, attention to details, and a certain mental vision when they pursued the idea they had from different sides until they solved the problem or removed the obstacle, on the other hand. Unlike Langley, who relied on motor power, the Wright brothers first dealt with the problem of balance, lift and drift and only after these issues were solved, they moved to the question of motor and propellers. This sequence of actions secured them a positive result.


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