The Wright brothers: pioneers of the skies
They sought to unlock the birds’ flying secrets
One Saturday afternoon in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made final repairs and adjustments to their aircraft. This was the culmination of four years’ work by the brothers. Next morning, the aircraft was ready and wind conditions were perfect, but there would be no flight that day. This was Sunday, and Wilbur and Orville chose not to work on Sundays.
Wilbur Wright was born on 16 April 1867, on a farm 13 km (8 miles) east of Newcastle, Indiana. He was the third son of Bishop Milton Wright, a minister of the United Brethren Church. The family later moved to Dayton, Ohio, where the fourth son, Orville, was born on 19 August 1871.
As boys, Wilbur and Orville loved playing with anything mechanical and investigating how it worked. Their toys included a gyroscope, an old sewing machine, and a small helicopter-like toy operated by rubber bands. During their youth, they began building their own machinery. They built a complicated lathe, and Wilbur designed and built a machine to fold newspapers. This ability to construct their own machinery proved extremely valuable.
As well as being interested in mechanical equipment, the boys tried their hand at various business ventures, some successful and some not. Their more successful business ventures included making and selling kites, and printing leaflets for local shopkeepers on a small printing press given to Orville by his older brothers. Both these childhood enterprises foreshadowed their future endeavors.
Both Wilbur and Orville did well at school, but neither went to university. Wilbur’s plans to attend Yale College and become a clergyman like his father were dashed when he lost most of his teeth in an accident while playing ice hockey. It was only years afterwards when he was fitted with artificial teeth that his confidence to speak in public resumed. After the accident, Wilbur spent several years at home caring for his dying mother.
In March 1889, Wilbur and Orville started producing a newspaper in Dayton. Seventeen-year-old Orville was the publisher and 21-year old Wilbur was editor. Soon they were publishing other newspapers as well. However, in 1892, they became fascinated with a more mechanical interest—the bicycle.
The present-day style of bicycle was rapidly replacing their penny-farthing bicycle during the 1890s. While continuing their publishing, Wilbur and Orville opened a shop selling bicycles. Their active minds constantly sought ways to be more efficient. This prompted Orville to invent a calculating machine in 1895 to make their bookkeeping easier. The next year they decided to design and manufacture their own bicycles rather than merely sell those manufactured by others. Their mechanical abilities ensured their success, but the manufacture and sale of bicycles was somewhat seasonal. This left Wilbur and Orville some time during the cold months each year to pursue another interest.
Wilbur and Orville’s interest in flying had begun when their father had given them a helicopter-like toy, and had continued through years of making, flying and selling kites. However, in 1899, they decided to seriously study aeronautics. Neither of them had officially completed high school, but they were certainly educated and scientific in their approach. Extensive personal study made them experts on the existing information relating to aeronautics.
The first step towards powered flight was to construct a glider which would lift a man’s weight and which could be maneuvered in flight. To test the glider, strong head winds were needed. The most suitable weather conditions were found at the sand hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during summer and early autumn. For the next four years, the Wright brothers spent most of the summer and autumn experimenting at Kitty Hawk, and the remainder of the year in Dayton studying and planning. Although they still owned their cycle business, they now employed someone to operate it on their behalf, for their ‘hobby’ was occupying most of their time.
The glider which Wilbur and Orville built in 1900 successfully supported a man’s weight but was difficult to control. Several years earlier, Wilbur had realized that the Creator’s ‘flying machine’—the bird—had excellent maneuverability. Wilbur sought to unlock the bird’s flying secrets. By spending many hours with binoculars studying birds in the wilderness near Dayton, Wilbur found that birds maneuver by changing the shape of their wings. The Wright brothers designed a system of pulleys and cables to change the shape of the glider’s wings in a similar way. By doing this, they achieved maneuverability during their 1901 experiments.
But the brothers were disappointed with the lift they had achieved. They had designed the curve of the glider’s wings using published tables of information. But something was wrong. Wilbur wrote:
“Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another till, finally, after two years of experiments, we cast it aside, and decided to rely entirely on our own investigations.”1
Solved balance problem
Wilbur and Orville’s ingenuity now shone through. They set up a wind tunnel in their bicycle shop and experimented with different shaped curved surfaces. Their research produced the first reliable tables of the effect of air pressure on various shaped curved surfaces. The usefulness of their new tables was verified during their 1902 gliding experiments in which they achieved better lift than before, and solved the problem of balance in flight.
The brothers were now ready for the final step—the addition of a light-weight engine. However, no suitable engine was available, and they could not find an engineering company prepared to take them seriously and build what they requested. So they designed and built their own engine. Their experience with bicycles was put to use in designing a system of chains and gears to operate the propellers. Wilbur and Orville also built the propellers themselves, designing them according to their own data on air pressure.
First powered flight
Delayed by mishaps, minor mechanical problems and severe storms, the Wright brothers continued their 1903 experiments as the bitterly cold winter set in. Despite the harsh conditions, the tone of their letters to their sister Kate reflected their continuing cheerfulness. As always, they steadfastly observed their principle of not working on Sundays even though they often had to wait several days for suitable wind conditions to return.
Finally, on Thursday, 17 December 1903, Wilbur and Orville achieved their goal—the world’s first powered flight. Orville flew the Wright Flyer a distance of about 37 m (120 ft), staying aloft for 12 seconds. Later the same day, Wilbur flew about 260 m (852 ft) in a flight lasting 59 seconds.
Most other aircraft experimenters at that time had large crowds watching their trials. In contrast, Wilbur and Orville had quietly gone about their work without fanfare. This now proved to be a disadvantage. The media and the public had not witnessed Wilbur and Orville’s achievements and were not willing to believe them. A few newspapers did carry the story but wildly distorted the facts, greatly upsetting the brothers. This lack of recognition did not dampen the brothers’ enthusiasm for their work—they merely continued experimentation to produce further improvements. This was done near their home town, Dayton, for the strong head winds of Kitty Hawk were no longer needed once the engine had been fitted to the aircraft.
It was not until Wilbur flew before a crowd in France in 1908 that the Wright brothers’ achievements were finally recognized. Unfortunately, that same year they were reminded of the dangers of their work when Orville was injured in a crash which killed his passenger.
At the end of 1909, Wilbur and Orville set up the Wright Co. to manufacture and sell aeroplanes. However, their difficulties were not over. A number of lawsuits took place relating to infringements of patents. Some people still did not accept that the Wright brothers were the first to fly a powered aircraft. Their claims were eventually accepted, but it took many years. Wilbur did not live to see these problems resolved. He died of typhoid fever in Dayton on 30 May 1912, aged 45 years. Orville lived on for many years, and died from a heart attack in Dayton on 30 January 1948, aged 76. Neither had married.
Wilbur and Orville had both received Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour during their youth. Throughout their lives, they refused to work on Sundays, and they did not drink, smoke, or gamble. The level of cooperation between Wilbur and Orville was truly remarkable, even during their somewhat loud debates over possible solutions to problems. They remained cheerful while experiencing danger and physical hardship. They were not dependent on praise and recognition for their motivation, and when fame and fortune finally came, they retained their humility.
The Christian character displayed by the Wright brothers was evident to those around them. Co-founder of the Rolls-Royce Motor Co., C.S. Rolls, gave the following description of Wilbur and Orville:
“They have lived through continual accusations of bluff, through disbelief and ridicule and have been unaffected. Now they have seen the sudden turn of popular opinion and have sprung to fame; but they are still equally unaffected, pursuing their daily work with their own hands in their own quiet way.”2
And what was their father’s explanation for these enviable characteristics displayed by Wilbur and Orville?
“He never tired of relating the positive effect that the Bible had had on his children.”3
The Wright brothers used intelligence, experience, and ingenuity to design their aircraft. They allowed chance to play no part. From studying God’s creation in the form of bird-flight, they were helped to develop their own creation of a better aircraft. If we marvel at how great their achievement was, how much more should we give glory to the Creator who designed flight in the first place.