Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) and Orville Wright (1871–1948) were brothers whose lives were entwined until death. Pioneers in aviation , their flying machines and first successful flight in 1903 ensured their place in the history books.
The Wright brothers were quite different, but their personalities balanced each other. Both men were intelligent—Wilbur had an amazing memory, while Orville was always coming up with new ideas and inventions. The two brothers together accomplished more than either of them likely could have as individuals. Where Wilbur used his analytical skills to figure out technical problems during the invention of the airplane, Orville's positive outlook and enthusiasm kept the pair from losing hope.
Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867, in Millville, Indiana . He excelled in his school studies. In his senior year of high school, Wilbur and his family moved to Dayton, Ohio . Wilbur did not graduate. He took preparatory classes at a high school in Dayton with the plan of studying at Yale and becoming a teacher.
In 1885 the young Wilbur sustained a serious injury during an ice hockey game. He was left with digestive disorders and a heart condition that would linger throughout his life. Wilbur became a withdrawn and depressed man. He gave up his plans for Yale and isolated himself from the world. He spent most of his time caring for his sick mother, who was dying from tuberculosis, a common bacterial infection. He remained devoted to her until her death in 1889.
Orville was born on August 19, 1871. Even as a young child he would take apart toys and machines in an effort to find out how they worked. Unlike Wilbur, Orville was impulsive, not given to thinking things through before jumping in. Accounts portray him as a perfect example of the nutty inventor, with several projects going on at once and ideas striking him in the middle of the night.
He also differed from his brother in how well he performed in school. Although his mind was every bit as sharp as Wilbur's, Orville was unable to focus on school work. He frequently got into mischief, and teachers complained that he did not apply himself to his full ability. Orville never graduated from high school. Neither brother suffered from their lack of formal education. They both spent much of their life in private study.
Newspapers and bicycles
The Wright brothers lived together and pursued printing as their first serious career endeavor. In 1889 they established their own weekly newspaper. In 1893 they sold their printing business to embark on a new career journey: they opened a bicycle rental and repair shop in Dayton. American consumers had developed an interest in bicycles in the late 1880s. At the peak of the bike craze in the 1890s, more than three hundred bicycle companies were manufacturing more than one million bicycles a year. The brothers were able to make a good living with their shop, and they became known throughout the community as trustworthy businessmen.
The Wright Cycle Company operated out of five separate locations throughout Dayton between 1893 and 1897. Competition was stiff. The brothers began designing and building their own line of bicycles, which they offered to the public in 1896. Unlike the competition, the Wrights built their bicycles by hand, with the help of Ed Sines, who had assisted them in the day-to-day operations of their previous printing business. This traditional means of production gave the Wrights' bikes a certain appeal the other, more “modern” manufactured bikes lacked.
In their peak years of production between 1896 and 1900, the Wrights built three hundred bicycles a year, earning between $2,000 and $3,000 annually. Today, only five bikes built by the Wright Cycle Company are known to exist.
Given the brothers' mechanical ability, curiosity, and unceasing quest for knowledge, it should not be surprising that they began experimenting with aeronautics. Beginning in 1899 they used their bike shop to build and research aircraft. Although the men have been credited with genius for their invention, researchers and scientists through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries have been in awe not only of the result (the first airplane) but also of the research process the brothers implemented. Their research and evaluation methods remain an important part of the aeronautical industry.
Based on their research, Orville and Wilbur decided to test their ideas using full-sized gliders. By studying how aerodynamics would affect such a simple machine, they figured they could slowly develop their design, step by step. It would prove to be an excellent decision.
When complete, the glider weighed 52 pounds (24 kilograms) and had a wing span of 17 feet (5.2 meters). The Wrights wanted to build part of the wings with spruce, but they had to settle for pine, a soft, light wood not ideal for aircraft structure, because that is what was available. The framework was covered with a sateen fabric (a midweight, strong material).
To test the glider the brothers needed a place with wide open spaces and steady winds. They settled on a small fishing village in North Carolina called Kitty Hawk. Wilbur and Orville took turns piloting the glider during the test flights in 1900 at Kitty Hawk. This gave them both much-needed experience manning the craft. Repeated flights gave them the information necessary to take back to the drawing table when it came time to make the next new-and-improved aircraft. They built and tested two more gliders in 1901 and 1902.
They spent most of 1903 researching ideas for a powered plane, designing one with wooden propellers and a specially made gasoline engine. They returned to Kitty Hawk in September. Almost immediately, things started to go wrong, making the men question the reality of their plan to take to the air. The weather was exceptionally bad, and they were experiencing technical difficulties with the airplane. They forged ahead, and on December 14 set out to test the 152-pound (69-kilogram) plane.
They flipped a coin to determine who would fly first. Wilbur climbed aboard. The plane was airborne for just 3½ seconds before it crashed into the sand.
Three days later, the damage was repaired and the brothers set out to test the plane again. Orville sat in the pilot's seat this time. He kept the plane in the air for twelve seconds before it came to rest in the sand. It had flown a distance of 120 feet (37 meters). History had been made: a human had maintained flight for a significant amount of time that did not land in a crash.
They made three more flights that day. Wilbur made the longest flight on the final run. The plane was in the air for 59 seconds and flew 852 feet (260 meters). The world of aviation and aeronautics was changed forever.
Just after that final flight, a gust of wind caused the plane to roll over. It was so seriously damaged that it never flew again. After initially being rejected, on May 22, 1906, the Wrights were granted U.S. Patent 821,393. Owing to a mix-up, the patent was given to the 1902 glider rather than the 1903 airplane. This would cause many patent infringements (violation of owners' rights) in the future.
The Wright brothers achieved their goal of inventing the first powered airplane, but it was not a practical plane. If they were to sell their planes, they had to design and build crafts that could be used in terrains other than wide, sandy spaces. So they set to work and built two more airplanes. By 1905 they were done building experimental aircraft. On October 5 Wilbur flew their latest plane for thirty-nine minutes. He circled a field thirty times and flew a distance of 24.5 miles (39.4 kilometers).
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever (a bacterial disease concentrated in the bloodstream) in 1912. He was forty-five years old. Orville sold the Wright Company in 1916 and returned to the business of inventing. He built himself an aeronautics lab and became a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). He remained a member for twenty-eight years, until his death from a heart attack in 1948. Ten years later, NACA became National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).