How Did the Wright Brothers Make Human Flight a Reality?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

We know that the Wright Brothers were the first to realize the centuries old human fantasy and desire for human flight. But who were the Wright brothers? How did they fall in love with the idea of human flight? And how did they actually make human flight a reality? Let’s find out.

A very early model of an airplane in flight over an empty field, with trees lining the edge of the field along the   horizon.
On December 17, 1903, when the Wright brothers got an airplane built by them to fly the first time, the flight lasted 12 seconds. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A Lifelong Fascination with Flight

The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville together formed a close partnership. Neither man married, but devoted all of their lives to their shared work. As Wilbur put it, they even ‘thought together’ in a sense.

Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop of the United Brethren church, and his responsibilities in ministry meant that he was often away from home and his family. The Wrights’ mother, Susan, was of German background from a family of carriage makers. She was very adept at mechanical challenges, and seems to have passed this trait along to her sons.

One day, their father, perhaps returning from one of his frequent travels, gave the boys a toy, a toy which launched their life’s work. It was a toy helicopter, a fragile construct of cork and bamboo and rubber bands that twisted rotors that were attached to the toy.

Coming into the house, their father threw it to them, and instead of it falling, it flew and buzzed about the room. As the brothers recalled later, the toy didn’t last very long in the hands of energetic small boys, but the memory of that toy was abiding.

The brothers had little in the way of formal schooling, but were fired in their youth by a love of science, much like the youthful Thomas Edison. As they grew older, the Wrights set up a printing shop, following the invention of Gutenberg. In addition, they also set up a bicycle shop, to sell and repair bicycles, which were all the rage in the 1890s.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s print revolution.

The Wright Brothers Started Building from Scratch

News of the death of the German inventor Otto Lilienthal, in a glider accident, galvanized the Wright brothers. They set about studying all that was known about flying, surveying the work of earlier pioneers. As they did so, they discovered something that shocked them.

They uncovered errors in calculations of air resistance, and this fact prompted them not to rely any longer on received wisdom or other people’s earlier work, but to launch their own experiments.

A simple glider tied to the ground on a beach using what looks like wire, with the sea in the background.
The Wright brothers built their own wind tunnel for measurements, and finally created a biplane glider design, with a rudder for steering and forward elevators to ascend or descend. (Image: Wright brothers/Public domain/)

The Wrights even built their own wind tunnel for measurements. A key innovation they arrived at was so-called wing warping, which was intended to stabilize flight. These inventions came not from a university or an extensive research institute, but from their own small workshop in Dayton, Ohio.

From 1900, the Wrights took their experiments to a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There they settled at the Kill Devil Hills in a rickety cabin. The area had sand dunes for soft landings (or at least softer than otherwise would have been the case), and the height of the dunes made them ideal for launching aircraft. But this environment was not mild or pleasant. It could be cold and fiercely windy, and during the summer mosquitoes were a terrible besetting plague.

Here, on a succession of gliders, the Wrights worked out practically the challenges before them. Ultimately, they created a biplane glider design, with a rudder for steering, and forward elevators to ascend or descend. To all of this they added a 12 horsepower engine, which drove revolving propellers, which were essentially wings that spun round and round and round to propel the flight.

Learn more about Kitty Hawk and powered flight.

The Day of the First Flight

The brothers were men of few words. Inside, however, beneath that calm exterior, they oscillated between confidence and doubt. They were sure that they were making real progress on their own. Yet, in 1901, just two years before their triumphant moment, Wilbur had told a friend that he didn’t really expect to see flight achieved in his lifetime.

But on December 17, 1903, they did achieve it. The Wright brothers invited locals from miles around to come see this experiment. Only five people took them up on this invitation, but those people witnessed world history. After tossing a coin to decide which of the brothers would begin, Orville won and made the first flight.

The fact that the Wrights had a lifeguard there to take a photograph with a camera on a tripod that they had set up in advance meant that the Wright brothers suspected they were going to succeed that day and wanted it recorded for history.

In that first flight, lasting 12 seconds, Orville fulfilled the dream. Then Wilbur took a turn and covered 175 feet. Orville flew again, this time he traveled 200 feet. But it was on Wilbur’s second flight that they had the biggest success of that day. Wilbur covered 852 feet and stayed in the air for 59 seconds.

The two brothers telegraphed their father with the news. The first word of the message they sent really said it all: “Success.”

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Wrights Dedicated Their Entire Lives to Human Flight

Two men walking side by side, both dressed in near identical grey suits, white shirts and dark ties, and wearing identical   hats, the only clear point of difference is that the man on the left is sporting a bushy moustache, while the man of the   left is clean shaven.
The success of the Wright brothers galvanized interest in human flight. (Image: Photoprint copyrighted by Cole & Co./Public domain)

Back in Ohio, the brothers continued improving their machine. They received a patent for their plane design in 1906, and later successfully fought off legal disputes by competitors. In 1908, Wilbur Wright took the show on the road as it were. He travelled to France to demonstrate the invention, and elsewhere in Europe.

The French, proud of the pioneering role of the Montgolfier brothers, were sure that their nation would achieve flight first. For this reason, the French often mocked the claims of the Wrights at first, but then actually seeing the demonstration meant believing.

In 1909, the Wright brothers founded a company to build and sell their planes. Wilbur died in 1912, but Orville Wright lived until 1948. Imagine, by 1948, how much Orville had seen in the way of their invention being improved, revolutionized, and improved again.

The result of this invention was a veritable flying craze. Huge crowds gathered to witness this amazing spectacle. When Wilbur Wright flew over Manhattan in 1909, a million people watched him, enthralled.

A French journalist who witnessed Wilbur’s demonstration of flying in France put it very eloquently. He said, “Nothing can give an idea of the emotion experienced and the impression felt … a flight of mastery, assurance and incomparable elegance.”

Contemporaries marveled at what they felt was really the beginning of a new age of human history. Some of them called it the ‘Air Age’. In a word, to fly was to be modern.

Learn more about the turning points in modern history.

Common Questions about the Wright Brothers

Q: Who actually made the first airplane?

Some flying or floating contraptions like gliders and hot air balloons had been invented previously, but it was the Wright brothers who first built a functional powered and steered airplane.

Q: How long was Wright Brothers first flight?

The first flight of the Wright brothers, which took place on December 17, 1903 at a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, lasted for 12 seconds.

Q: Were the Wright brothers entrepreneurs?

The Wright brothers were without a doubt entrepreneurs. Even before entering the world of flying, they had set up a printing shop, following the invention of Gutenberg, and set up a bicycle shop, to sell and repair bicycles. After inventing the first airplane, they patented their design in 1906, and in 1909, the Wright brothers founded a company to build and sell their planes.

Q: Where did the Wright brothers live?

The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio. After entering the field of aviation, they moved to a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they settled at the Kill Devil Hills in a rickety cabin, to conduct their experiments.

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