On 17 December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first flight in a powered aircraft. A short distance outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the brothers made four brief flights in their machine, called simply the Flyer. The longest lasted just 59 seconds but nevertheless earned the Wrights a seat at the forefront of aviation history.
Here are 10 facts about their extraordinary life and achievements.
1. They were born 4 years apart
The elder of the brothers, Wilbur Wright was born in 1867 in Millville, Indiana, and was followed four years later by Orville, born in Dayton, Ohio in 1871.
The family moved around frequently – 12 times before finally settling in Dayton in 1884 – due to their father’s job as a bishop, and the pair are named after two influential ministers whom their father admired.
In 1887, they were gifted a toy helicopter by their father, based on designs by Frenchman Alphonse Pénaud. The enthusiastic pair played with it until it fell to pieces, before constructing their own. They later cited this as the beginning of their interest in flight.
2. Neither received their high school diploma
Despite both being bright and capable, neither brother gained a diploma for their studies. Due to the family’s constant relocation, Wilbur missed out on receiving his diploma despite completing four years of high school.
In around 1886, Wilbur’s luck would again fail when he was struck in the face with a hockey stick, knocking out his two front teeth. He was forced into a state of seclusion in which he was virtually housebound, despite having hopes of going to Yale. While at home he cared for his terminal mother and assisted his father through controversies concerning his church, reading extensively.
Orville had struggled in school since a small boy, when he was even on one occasion expelled from his elementary school. He dropped out of high school in 1889 to start a printing business after building his own printing press, and was joined by Wilbur to launch a newspaper together.
After its failure, they founded the Wright Cycle Company to seize on the ‘bicycle craze’ of the 1890s. During this time their interest in mechanics grew, and over the years the brothers would use their knowledge of bicycles and their shop to further their ideas on flight.
3. They were inspired by a tragic pioneer of flight
The Wright brothers were inspired by Otto Lilinethal. Lilinethal was a German pioneer of aviation, and the first to make successful flights with gliders. Newspapers published photographs of his amazing flying attempts, disseminating the idea that human flight may be an achievable goal. This idea certainly found a home in the Wright brothers, who marvelled at Lilinethal’s designs.
As many who tried to conquer this feat however, Lilinethal would in turn be killed by his own invention. On 9 August, 1896 he made his final flight when his glider stalled and crashed, breaking his neck on landing.
When Orville went to Berlin in 1909, following his own successful first flight, he paid a visit to Lilinethal’s widow on behalf of the brothers. There he paid tribute to the incredible influence Lilinethal had on the pair and the intellectual legacy to which they owed him.
4. They discovered wing-warping, the unsolved key to the ‘flying problem’
Following the botched flight of another aviation pioneer, the British Percy Pilcher in 1899 that too resulted in his death, the Wright brothers began to examine why exactly these glider experiments were failing. Promising knowledge of wings and engine already existed, yet the Wright brothers began to look further into what they believed to be the third and key part of the ‘flying problem’ – pilot control.
They explored how birds tilted the angle of their wings to roll left or right, comparing it to how those on bicycles controlled their movement, yet struggled to translate this to man-made wings.
Finally, they discovered wing-warping when Wilbur absent-mindedly began twisting a long inner-tube box at their bicycle shop. While previous engineers sought to build aircrafts with an ‘inherent stability’ in the belief that pilots would not react quickly enough to changing winds, the Wright brothers were determined for all control to be in the hands of the pilot, and began building structures with intentional instability.
5. They believed they were years away from achieving flight
In 1899, the brothers began tests on their wing-warping theory that involved using four cords controlled by the flyer to twist the wings of the kite, causing it to turn left and right on command.
Gliders were then tested in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a remote sandy area that would provide both a soft landing and respite from reporters, who had turned flying attempts by other engineers into a media frenzy. Most of these glider tests were unmanned, with a team on the ground keeping hold of it with ropes, however a few tests were conducted with Wilber aboard.
While these experiments afforded the brothers some success, they left Kitty Hawk deeply dejected due to their gliders reaching only one-third of the lift they desired, and sometimes turning in the opposite direction intended.
Wilber sadly remarked on their way home that man would not fly for a thousand years.
6. They built a wind-tunnel to trial their designs
The brothers began exploring calculations used by previous engineers, and early tests involving various bicycle parts gave reason to believe previous numbers given by eminent early aviator John Smeaton or indeed Lilinethal were incorrect, and were hindering their progress
A further test involving a more developed six-foot wind-tunnel apparatus was conducted, inside which the brothers flew small sets of wings, helping to determine which flew best – decidedly those that were longer and narrower.
These experiments also determined that it was Smeaton’s calculations that were incorrect, and the paved the way for the improvement of their test models.
In 1902, they re-trialled new designs, eventually achieving full turning control with a new movable vertical rudder and newly designed wings. They applied for a patent for their ‘Flying Machine’, and were ready to trial powered flight.
8. They completed the first powered flight in 1903
While now having the perfect structure, the brothers ran into problems when adding power to their flying machine. None of the engine mechanics they wrote to could build an engine light enough to fly in it. They turned thus, to their bicycle shop mechanic Charlie Taylor who in just 6 weeks built a suitable engine. They were ready to test again.
On 14 December, 1903 they returned to Kitty Hawk. Following one failed attempt on this day, they returned on 17 December and the brothers’ finished plane took off without a hitch.
Its first flight was piloted by Orville at 10:35am and lasted 12 seconds, crossing a distance of 120ft at a speed of 6.8mph. History had been made.
9. The flight was initially met with skepticism
Few witnessed the first flight, and though photographs by onlookers existed, hardly anyone knew the event had even taken place. Little media buzz was generated, partly due to the brothers’ secrecy and desire to keep their designs under wraps.
This lead to much skepticism when word did begin to spread however, with a 1906 Paris edition of the Herald Tribune published a headline that asked, ‘FLYERS OR LIARS?’.
When years later their hometown of Dayton hailed the brothers as national heroes, Dayton Daily News publisher James M. Cox confessed that their lack of coverage of the event at the time was because, ‘Frankly, none of us believed it’.
10. A series of public flights cemented them as aviation pioneers
Despite initial disinterest, in 1907 and 1908 the pair signed contracts with the U.S. Army and a French company for the construction of further aircrafts. These were dependent on certain conditions however – the brothers must conduct successful public flight demonstrations with both a pilot and passenger on board.
Wilbur thus went to Paris and Orville to Washington D.C., stunning onlookers with their impressive flight displays. They flew figure-eights, increasingly challenging their own records for altitude and duration. In 1909, Wilbur culminated an extraordinary year by conducting a 33-minute flight down the Hudson River, circling the Statue of Liberty and dazzling millions of onlookers in New York.
Any skepticism was now gone, and the pair became all but celebrities, cementing their place in history as the founders of practical air travel. Their inventions would become vital in the years that followed, as a new era of warfare erupted.