Introduction: The Wright Brothers, Inventors of the Airplane
“Suddenly, the whole machine lifted from the rail. For 12 long seconds, the Flyer wobbled and snaked 10 feet above the dunes, landing 100 feet away. [John] Daniels had snapped the shutter, freezing in an instant what mankind had sought for millennia,” Michael Patrick of Popular Mechanics, December 17, 1903, when Wilbur Wright successfully flew their Flyer 1 aircraft.
The Wright Brothers are credited for inventing the airplane, but many had paved the way for them. They knew about Otto Lilienthal’s stellar work, but it wasn’t until his death in 1896 that they became interested in his glider flight experiments. At the time of Lilienthal’s death, the Wright Brothers had owned and operated a cycle shop for four years where they also manufactured bicycles. This gave them solid experience in practical mechanics.
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Name: Orville Wright
Birth Date: August 1871 – January 1948
Name: Wilbur Wright
Birth Date: April 1867 – May 1912
Job Functions: Entrepreneur, Aviator
Known For: Inventing the Airplane
In 1892, the Wright Brothers opened the Wright Cycle Shop inDayton,Ohio. At that time in history, the bicycle was an exciting mechanical device, and in 1895 they started to manufacture bicycles. They knew about Otto Lilienthal from 1891, but it was after his death in 1896 that the Wright Brothers took notice of the body of work that Lilienthal left behind. Lilienthal inspired the brothers, and they became interested in glider experiments.
The Wright Brothers entered the aviation field at the right time because some of the theories of aerodynamics were already known, and a body of experimental data was available. There was also a recent development in internal combustion, which would make powered manned flight possible.
Wright Brothers Biography
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The Wright Brothers started the process the way most successful inventors and innovators would.
- Gathered all the information they could find on the topic and read them through until they thoroughly understood the subject.
- They didn’t just read the data they collected, but also carefully analyzed it. The Wright Brothers determined that they would have to master the principles of flight observation by using gliders, after which they would combine an engine with the wing structure. They looked at the failed attempts with heavier-than-air machines.
- Designed and tested their own models and gliders.
- Built their own engine.
- When the experimental data they had gathered was inadequate or wrong, they conducted more thorough experiments.
By going through the process above, the Wright Brothers concluded that earlier attempts at flying failed because plans for the early plane required the pilot to maneuver his body to control the plane. They decided that it would be better to control the plane by the twisting of the wing tips so the flight could be adjusted to changing air patterns without requiring the pilot to shift his weight.
Armed with this newfound knowledge, the Wright Brothers flew double-winged kites and gliders to gain experience and test the data they had. They needed the perfect place to do that. After checking with the US Weather Bureau, they found an area of sand dunes, Kill Devil Hills, close to Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. In 1900, they set-up a camp in Kill Devil Hills.
Their first device failed to fly because it was unable to develop sufficient lift. As they tested their devices, they kept accurate records of both their successes and failures. Their own test data proved that previous tables of information they had gathered were inaccurate.
They returned to Dayton in 1901 to build the first wind tunnel in the US so they could test their devices in a more controlled environment. They tested over 200 models of wing surfaces to measure lift and drag factors to find the most suitable design.
“They also discovered that although screw propellers have been used on ships for more than half a century, there was no reliable body of data on the subject and no theory that would allow them to design proper propellers for their airship. They would have to work the problem out for themselves mathematically.”
The brothers built a third glider and incorporated all the new information from their experiments. They returned to Kitty Hawk, made over 1,000 gliding flights, confirmed their previous data and demonstrated that they could control the three axes of motion of the glider. The Wright Brothers were now ready to add power to their machine. They soon discovered that no manufacturer would build the engine to their specifications, so they had to build it themselves. The engine had four cylinders with 12 horsepower.
In December 1903, they made the first manned, powered flight in heavier-than-air craft. First, Orville’s plane flew 120 feet and the flight lasted 12 seconds. On the fourth flight, with Wilbur at the controls, the plane traveled 852 feet and stayed in the air for 59 seconds. Unfortunately a gust of wind severely damaged their aircraft. They returned to Dayton determined to build another aircraft.
In 1905, the Wright Brothers decided to focus on aviation, and in 1906 they received a patent for a flying machine. In 1907, Army Signal Corps (the US government) tendered a $25,000 bid for an airplane built to their requirements, and three of the 22 bids were accepted. The Wright Brothers were the only ones to complete the contract.
In September 1908 while Wilbur was in France, Orville successfully demonstrated their contract airplane, which was accepted by the government.
The Wright Brothers’ Steps to Success
- Their father, Bishop Wright gave his children a toy helicopter, which ignited Orville’s and Wilbur’s early interest in aviation.
- As children, they assisted their father in editing the journal, Religious Telescope. As young adults, they produced their own paper, Westside News on a printing press that they created.
- Wilbur and Orville’s skills complemented each other. Wilbur was meticulous, detailed oriented, had business savvy, mechanical skills and a disciplined mind, and finished the projects he started, while Orville was impetuous, an idea generator, full of enthusiasm and spontaneity.
- They didn’t know much about flying, but had a deep interest in it so they looked at the body of work that was available and started from there.
- Mastered the body of information on aeronautical science and added to it.
- Viewed problems as opportunities: When they couldn’t find anyone to build an engine to their specifications, they built one themselves.
- Were curious and inventive.
- Tested, tested and tested until they got it right.
- Used their failures as feedback.
- They became expert pilots as a result of all the glider flights they made.
Why the Wright Brothers Contribution Matters
The Wright Brothers came into the game after a considerable amount of work was done, and they did the smart thing by looking at what had been done before instead of reinventing the wheel. They immersed themselves in the topic of aviation until they really understood it, then they started testing the accuracy of the data they had uncovered. They found a lot of inaccuracies and they ran their own tests to gather new information.
They conducted the same tests over and over to make sure the experiments were repeatable. When there were no data on a certain aspect of aviation, they did tests to accumulate the body of knowledge. When they couldn’t find anyone to build an engine to their specifications they built it themselves. They were undaunted by the many obstacles they faced. The aviation industry followed the path of The Wright Brothers and not of Samuel Pierpont Langley – it accepted the Wright Brothers’ method of aerodynamic control.
Pearls of Wisdom
- Objectively evaluate what’s been done before and decide which path you are going to take. Many times you have to blaze your own trail, don’t get caught up in circular thinking.
- Because you start out late in a field doesn’t mean that you cannot finish ahead.
Why Orville and Wilbur Wright Would Make Excellent Invisible Mentors
Their lives are living proof of what hard work and determination can accomplish.
Life Wisdom from the Wright Brothers
- Know and understand the fundamentals of your field.
- Build on your basic knowledge to become a master.
- Fail fast, fail often, and fail forward to success.
- Look at what’s being done in other industries for inspiration.
- Find ways to experiment in your job to perform better, and keep careful notes for evaluation later.
For More Information on the Wright Brothers
Science and its Times, Volume 6
Encyclopedia of World Biography
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
Business Leader Profiles for Students
Europe 1789 – 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire
Bowling, Beatniks and Bell Bottoms: Pop Culture of 20th Century America
YouTube Video Credit: Uploaded by NatureLover987 on Feb 6, 2009