En route from Indianapolis Indiana to Cleveland Ohio, we had to detour to see the historic spot where Wilbur and Orville Wright developed their idea of how man could fly. The brothers made a living by hard work in their own Bicycle Shop. In the days before the automobile, the wheeled bike had offered a great step forward in helping people move faster, women as well as men. In 1887, the “safety” bicycle was invented in France. By the early 1900’s it was very popular in the US with perhaps a million bikes produced for the American market. The Wright Brothers Bike Shop primarily offered repair and spare parts for bikes built by others as their custom-made bicycles were very costly.
How did the brothers prepare for their remarkable success in unlocking the secret of flying? Well, it was not from formal education. Neither brother had graduated from high school. Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) lived at home and enjoyed tinkering. Living in a country whose government was founded on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” ingenious people were free to think new ideas, nurture possibilities and to experiment. In fact, after the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the ideas of common people both in Europe and America propelled the quality of life forward. In the United States, we benefited from inventions such as Edison’s electric light; Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; and in this case, Wright Brothers’ airplane. It took our freedoms to give us the freedom of flight.
When they heard that Otto Lilienthal, an early German pioneer in flight, had crashed in an experimental run, the idea came to them that perhaps they could solve this age-old problem. To begin their quest, they ordered a series of monographs on flight from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington so they could study what was known to date.
Seeking to solve the riddle, they challenged others’ basic assumptions. Working in their bike shop, they postulated that what bikes and airplanes had in common was the need to maintain BALANCE. This led to the question of how did birds maintain balance. Wilbur and Orville noted that birds stayed balanced by flexing (or warping) their wings. An airplane would need to have WING WARPING as well. They understood that there were three axes of movement for the body of the plane – ROLL from left to right to elevate one wing over he other; PITCH from front to back to lower or raise the elevation of the front of the plane compared to its tail; and YAW from left to right to advance one wing in front of the other to produce a turn. Success did not come quickly. They researched each of the hypotheses, they postulated in meticulous detail, recorded their observations in record books, and built upon their conclusions.
Confident in their early glider design, the Wright brothers undertook a long, arduous rail trip from southwestern Ohio to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The journey concluded with rowing an open boat across the waters of Roanoke Sound, then making a painstaking trip on foot through swamps and high sand banks to the open landscape of Kitty Hawk. They hoped this windswept open area would provide the steady wind they needed to test their theories and soft ground on which to bring their glider down. Here, in 1900, Wilbur took a 17 foot motor-less craft into the air for a bare ten seconds, their first real, but limited success.
Much still remained to be done to more clearly understand the theory of aero-dynamics and to produce a machine that would take off from the ground using its own power and with one man as its pilot. Finally, on December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers had their first successful powered flight. For more information, check David McCullough’s excellent biography, The Wright Brothers.
|Orville and Wilbur Wright on their porch, Dayton, Ohio|
|Safety Bicycle with Two Wheels Same Size|
|Smithsonian Institution - Early Flight Studies|
|Similarities: Bicycle and Aeroplane|
|Wright Brothers Sketches of Wing Warping|