The Wright Way to Fly

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Cartoon of inventor Wilbur Wright as a bird

The late 1800s and early 1900s were years full of innovation and excitement, as aviation hopefuls pulled out all the stops and strapped on their wings in the pursuit of helping man to fly. Wilbur and Orville Wright were two Americans often credited with inventing and creating the first successful airplane, and finding ways to control it in powered, sustained, heavier-than-air flight.

Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright












When they were boys, Orville and Wilbur were given a paper, bamboo, and cork “helicopter” toy by their father. They played and played with the device until it broke. And then they built a new one. The brothers pointed to this experience as the moment when their interest in aviation was sparked. The following years of working in their shops with printing presses, bikes, and other machinery gave them the technical skills needed to take such a leap of innovation. The bicycles in particular spurred their interest in flight, and in making a seemingly unstable object controlable and balanced through practice.

Otto Lilienthal in his flying machine

There were several other inventors at this time working toward the same goal. For many, the question of who deserves credit for the flying machine is still in debate. But the two Wrights found inspiration and ideas through the efforts of their fellow aviationists. German inventor Otto Lilienthal was one of these early aspirers. His strategy of first practicing gliding to master control was favored by the Wrights, and they drew upon his data while developing their own approaches.

Much of their time was spent making kite-gliders, which they flew in a sort of test-run for the planes they would later try to pilot. The brothers were meticulous in their calculations and practice flights, though their efforts still brought about many failures. After one particularly disappointing day, a disheartened Wilbur remarked to his brother that man would fly, but not in their lifetimes.

First flight of the Wright flyer, 1903. Orville pilots the craft while Wilber runs alongside.

The brothers soldiered on in their attemtps, and in 1903, a successful flight was made that even they considered worth sharing. The first flight, by Orville, was of 120 feet in 12 seconds, at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour over the ground, and was recorded in the famous photograph above. The newspapers were informed, but it seems that the flights, if people ever even knew of them, were more or less swiftly forgotten.

Two Wright gliders. The left shows one of their earlier models, and the right demonstrates the significant changes made with some improvements in the design.

The Wright brothers continued to improve their design, creating a change even within their own accomplishements. Their biggest impact in aviation technology was likely their invention of three-axis control, a method which became, and remains, standard for fixed-wing aircraft. These three developments were wing-warping, for lateral control; forward elevator for up and down movement (pitch); and a rear rudder for side to side movement (yaw). Their contributions allowed for further innovation in controlling and improving flight, which continued to progress as the years went on.

Newspapers, such as the one pictured below, helped to perpetuate the idea that flying machines would soar in popularity as well as through the air. This ad from 1911, eight years after the Wrights’ first successful flight, shows the enthusiasm for this up-and-coming mode of transportation:

Got somewhere to go? Rent a comfortable flying machine!

For more pictures and info on the Wright brothers and their flying machines, see this page on Fold3, created by Clio.