Science and Invention

Wright Brothers

Did the Wright brothers invent the airplane?

The Wright brothers were the first to successfully build and fly an airplane; and both events went virtually unnoticed at the time. The owners of a bicycle shop in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville (1871–1948) Wright were interested in mechanics from early ages. After attending high school, the brothers went into business together and, interested in aviation, began tinkering with gliders in their spare time. The brothers consulted national weather reports to determine the most advantageous spot for conducting flying experiments. Based on this data, they concluded it was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There in 1900 and 1901, on a narrow strip of sand called Kill Devil Hills, they tested their first gliders that could carry a person. Back at their bicycle shop in Ohio, they constructed a small wind tunnel (about six feet in length) in which they ran experiments using wing models to determine air pressure. As a result of this research, the Wright brothers were the first to write accurate tables of air pressures on curved surfaces.

Based on their successful glider flights and armed with their new knowledge of air pressure, Orville and Wilbur Wright designed and built an airplane. The returned to Kitty Hawk in September 1903 to try the craft. But weather prevented them from doing so until December. It was days before Christmas when, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the world’s first flight in a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine. Orville piloted the craft a distance of 120 feet and stayed in the air 12 seconds. They made a total of four flights that day, and Wilbur made the longest: 59 seconds of flight time that covered just more than 850 feet.

It was not a news event: The brothers had witnesses (a few spectators on the beach in North Carolina), and there were a handful of newspaper accounts of the Wrights’s marvelous feat, but some were inaccurate. After they made a public announcement in January 1904, Popular Science Monthly published a report (in March), as did another magazine. Other than these scant notices, the Wrights received no attention for their accomplishments. Many were trying to do what the Wrights had done, but the public was skeptical that any heavier-than-air manmade machine could take flight. The doubt played a role in the lack of acclaim. Meanwhile, the brothers continued their experiments at a field near Dayton: In 1904 and 1905 they made 105 flights, but totaled only 45 minutes in the air.

The Wright brothers persisted, and in spite of public skepticism, which initially included that of the U.S. government, in 1908 Orville and Wilbur Wright signed a contract with the Department of War to build the first military airplane. Only then did they receive the media attention they deserved. A year later, they set up the American Wright Company to manufacture airplanes. In spring 1912 Wilbur became sick and died; three years later Orville sold his share in the company and retired. The plane piloted by the two brothers in December 1903 near Kitty Hawk is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first airplane in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Here the brothers are shown near New York Harbor in September 1909.

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