Wilber and Orville


Although not the first to create a flying machine, Orville and Wilbur Wright were widely credited for their invention of aircraft controls that made modern-day flight possible. The brothers were two of seven children; Wilbur was born in 1867, and Orville followed in 1871. When they were young, their father, who often travelled as a bishop for the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, brought home a toy helicopter made of paper and bamboo. Even years later, the brothers credited this toy as their first inspiration to pursue a career in aviation.

Wright Brothers
The two boys attended high school, but an abrupt move to Richmond prevented Wilbur from receiving his diploma. The elder Wright brother had planned to attend Yale, but after an incident resulted in the loss of his two front teeth, the former athlete became withdrawn and remained home instead. There, he took care of his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis. In 1889, Orville dropped out of high school to start a printing business, and Wilbur soon joined him. A few years later, capitalizing on the bicycle craze that was suddenly sweeping the nation, the two young men opened a repair and sales shop. They used the business from their own bicycle brand to fund their continued interest in flying, an endeavor that was at that time garnering attention from scientists around the world. Drawing on the work of Chanute, Otto Lilienthal, and Leonardo de Vinci, Wilbur and Orville began their experimentation in 1899. Like Lilienthal, they practiced gliding in order to master the art of control, an essential part of motor-driven flight. By studying birds, they determined that the easiest way to turn an aircraft would be by banking, or leaning into the turn—a process with which they were very familiar from their work on bicycles. The brothers began their manned gliding experiments in North Carolina in 1900, beginning with a wingspan of 17 feet and slowly working up to 32 feet. Most of the tests were unpiloted, using sandbags or small children as ballasts.

Despite their efforts, however, The Wrights were not able to achieve the expected lift, and, disappointed, they returned home. Double-checking their equations, Wilbur rightly predicted that the coefficient of air pressure was much lower than had been earlier thought, throwing off their measurements by a large percentage. Reassured, the two began their experiments once more, this time constructing a wind tunnel in which they tested miniature wings. The new designs had less curvature, longer wingspans, and rudders in the back to help stabilize the plane following sharp turns. Orville and Wilbur had created the three-axis control: wing-warping for lateral motion, a forward elevator for vertical movement, and a rudder for side-to-side adjustments. In 1903, the Wrights applied for a patent for their “Flying Machine.” That same year, they began to add power to their planes through the use of two wooden propellers spinning in opposite directions, as well as a lightweight engine built by their shop mechanic. After some initially difficulties, their first plane, the Wright Flyer I, took to the air on December 17, 1903. Unfortunately, newspapers refused to publish the story, saying that the flight was too short to be of significance.

A year later, the brothers built the Flyer II, but the flights they achieved were once again largely ignored by reporters. The Wrights, however, remained confident, and in September 1904, Wilbur flew the first circle made by a powered plane, covering 4,080 feet in just over a minute. Their best flights exceeded five minutes and covered nearly three miles apiece, but despite continued progress, the machine was still difficult to control. In 1905, the Flyer III was constructed, but it proved equally unsuccessful, nearly killing Orville in one crash. At last, following several modifications, the plane was able to stay in the air for 17 to 38 minutes, an impressive improvement. Yet despite their success, the two remained relatively unknown outside of Ohio, and even those who had heard of the brothers doubted their achievements. Shortly thereafter, the brothers stopped their flights, determining only to continue them when they had a contract to sell their aircraft. Yet despite their determination to negotiate an agreement, they refused to show pictures or give any demonstrations, and this earned them scorn and skepticism from European aeronautics communities.

Finally, in 1906, they entered into contracts with the United States and with France, and they began practicing for their demonstration, adding a passenger seat at request of the French. As promised to their father, the two men never flew together. Wilbur suffered his worst crash during these practice sessions, when he barreled into the sand at 40 mph. He emerged uninjured, but the plane was retired. Wilbur sailed to France to perform for the country’s syndicate, while Orville stayed in the country and gave demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Viewers on both continents were shocked, and the Wright brothers grew famous overnight. In 1908, Edith Berg, the wife of a European business agent, became the first American woman passenger when she flew with Wilbur. That same year, Orville gave demonstrations at Fort Myer, Virginia, where he successfully completed the first hour-long flight. Then, tragedy struck; while flying with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a propeller shattered, sending the plane out of control. Selfridge’s skull was fractured, killing him hours later, while Orville suffered from a broken left leg, broken ribs, three hip bone fractures, and a dislocated hip. While he was in the hospital, his sister Katharine took care of him, and after his recovery that three siblings sailed to France, where they made several more demonstrations. Later, in Italy, a reporter climbed aboard and made the first motion picture from an aircraft. Upon their return to the U.S. President Taft awarded them all with awards for their efforts. In 1909, the brothers sold their latest plane to the U.S. Army’s Aeronautical Division. The year ended with a famous flight around the Statue of Liberty that solidified the Wright brothers’ fame in America, as well as the establishment of the Wright Company.

As with all inventions of note, Orville and Wilbur had to content with those who tried to illegally reproduce their aircrafts at a lower cost. They entered into several legal battles. Wilbur led the partially-successful patent war, travelling cross-country and consulting with lawyers on every issue. While they did manage to win several cases, however, the negative publicity and accusations of greed greatly damaged the brothers’ reputations. Several fatalities also occurred in the U.S. Army, further inciting the public against the inventors. Wilbur fell ill in 1912 and died that same year after being diagnosed with typhoid fever. Orville succeeded his brother as president of the Wright Company, but he did not have Wilbur’s business sense, and he sold the factory soon after. He moved to Oakwood, Ohio with his sister Katharine and his father, who died in 1917. Orville continued to fly for another year, and in 1930 he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his work in aeronautics. He was later elected to the National Academy of Science, and in 1944, the Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes, fleew from California to Washington, D.C. in seven hours before picking up Orville for the return flight. The younger Wright passed away four years later, following a heart attack.

Key events during the life of the Wright Brothers:

Wilbur was born.
Orville was born.
Their father brought home a toy helicopter that inspired their dream of flying.
The Wright family moved to Dayton, Ohio, preventing Wilbur from receiving his high school diploma.
Wilbur lost his front teeth in a skating accident, which led to severe depression and a refusal to attend Yale as planned.
Orville dropped out of school to start a printing business.
The brothers opened a bicycle shop.
Began experimenting with mechanical aircrafts.
Flew their first glider.
A new glider with longer wings flew better but was unable to get enough lift.
  Wilbur gave a speech the the Western Society of Engineers detailing his and his brother's experiements with aviation.
Completion of the Wright Flyer I.
Built the Wright Flyer II.
Granted a patent for their Flying Machine.
Signed contracts with France and America to give aeronautic demonstrations.
  Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was killed during a flight with Orville, who broke several bones in the incident.
Establishment of the Wright Company.
Wilbur engaged in several patent battles that damaged the brothers' reputations.
Wilbur died after contracting typhoid fever.
Orville sold the Wright Company and moved to Oakwood, Ohio.
Orville made his last flight.
Orville received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal.
Orville was made a member of the National Academy of Science.
The Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes, flew from California to Washington, D.C. in seven hours.
Orville passed away after a heart attack.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Orville and Wilbur Wright  in  Great Inventors and Their Inventions  by  Frank P. Bachman

Image Links

The First Wright Glider
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

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