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The Wright Brothers
Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright


A pair of self-taught engineers working in a bicycle shop, they made the world a forever smaller place
By BILL GATES for Time Magazine


Wilbur and Orville Wright were two brothers from the heartland of America with a vision as sweeping as the sky and a practicality as down-to-earth as the Wright Cycle Co., the bicycle business they founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892. But while there were countless bicycle shops in turn-of-the-century America, in only one were wings being built as well as wheels. When the Wright brothers finally realized their vision of powered human flight in 1903, they made the world a forever smaller place. I've been to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and seen where the brothers imagined the future, and then literally flew across its high frontier. It was an inspiration to be there, and to soak up the amazing perseverance and creativity of these two pioneers.

The Wright brothers had been fascinated by the idea of flight from an early age. In 1878 their father, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, gave them a flying toy made of cork and bamboo. It had a paper body and was powered by rubber bands. The young boys soon broke the fragile toy, but the memory of its faltering flight across their living room stayed with them. By the mid-1890s Wilbur was reading every book and paper he could find on the still earthbound science of human flight. And four years before they made history at Kitty Hawk, the brothers built their first, scaled-down flying machine - a pilotless "kite" with a 5-ft. wingspan, and made of wood, wire and cloth. Based on that experiment, Wilbur became convinced that he could build an aircraft that would be "capable of sustaining a man."

While the brothers' bicycle business paid the bills, it was Wilbur's abiding dream of building a full-size flying machine that inspired their work. For many years, he once said, he had been "afflicted with the belief that flight is possible." The reality of that obsession was a lonely quest for the brothers in the workroom behind their bike shop, plotting to defy gravity and conquer the wind. Yet that obsessive kind of world-changing belief is a force that drives you to solve a problem, to find the breakthrough--a force that drives you to bet everything on a fragile wing or a new idea. It was a force that led the Wright brothers to invent, single-handedly, each of the technologies they needed to pursue their dream.

When published aeronautical data turned out to be unreliable, the Wright brothers built their own wind tunnel to test airfoils and measure empirically how to lift a flying machine into the sky. They were the first to discover that a long, narrow wing shape was the ideal architecture of flight. They figured out how to move the vehicle freely, not just across land, but up and down on a cushion of air. They built a forward elevator to control the pitch of their craft as it nosed up and down. They fashioned a pair of twin rudders in back to control its tendency to yaw from side to side. They devised a pulley system that warped the shape of the wings in mid-flight to turn the plane and to stop it from rolling laterally in air. Recognizing that a propeller isn't like a ship's screw, but becomes, in effect, a rotating wing, they used the data from their wind-tunnel experiments to design the first effective airplane props--a pair of 8-ft. propellers, carved out of laminated spruce, that turned in opposite directions to offset the twisting effect on the machine's structure. And when they discovered that a lightweight gas-powered engine did not exist, they decided to design and build their own. It produced 12 horsepower and weighed only 152 lbs.

The genius of Leonardo da Vinci imagined a flying machine, but it took the methodical application of science by these two American bicycle mechanics to create it. The unmanned gliders spawned by their first efforts flew erratically and were at the mercy of any strong gust of wind. But with help from their wind tunnel, the brothers amassed more data on wing design than anyone before them, compiling tables of computations that are still valid today. And with guidance from this scientific study, they developed the powered 1903 Flyer, a skeletal flying machine of spruce, ash and muslin, with a wingspan of 40 ft. and an unmanned weight of just over 600 lbs.

On Dec. 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the Flyer lifted off shakily from Kitty Hawk and flew 120 ft. — little more than half the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400. That 12-sec. flight changed the world, lifting it to new heights of freedom and giving mankind access to places it had never before dreamed of reaching. Although the Wright brothers' feat was to transform life in the 20th century, the next day only four newspapers in the U.S. carried news of their achievement — news that was widely dismissed as exaggerated.

The Wright brothers gave us a tool, but it was up to individuals and nations to put it to use, and use it we have. The airplane revolutionized both peace and war. It brought families together: once, when a child or other close relatives left the old country for America, family and friends mourned for someone they would never see again. Today, the grandchild of that immigrant can return again and again across a vast ocean in just half a turn of the clock. But the airplane also helped tear families apart, by making international warfare an effortless reality.

The Wrights created one of the greatest cultural forces since the development of writing, for their invention effectively became the World Wide Web of that era, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together. It also ushered in an age of globalization, as the world's flight paths became the superhighways of an emerging international economy. Those superhighways of the sky not only revolutionized international business; they also opened up isolated economies, carried the cause of democracy around the world and broke down every kind of political barrier. And they set travelers on a path that would eventually lead beyond Earth's atmosphere.

The Wright brothers and their invention, then, sparked a revolution as far-reaching as the industrial and digital revolutions. But that revolution did not come about by luck or accident. It was vision, quiet resolve and the application of scientific methodology that enabled Orville and Wilbur to carry the human race skyward. Their example reminds us that genius doesn't have a pedigree, and that you don't discover new worlds by plying safe, conventional waters. With 10 years of hindsight, even Orville Wright admitted that "I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine."

Now, on the eve of another century, who knows where the next Wright brothers will be found, in what grade of school they're studying, or in what garage they're inventing the next Flyer of the information age. Our mission is to make sure that wherever they are, they have the chance to run their own course, to persevere and follow their own inspiration. We have to understand that engineering breakthroughs are not just mechanical or scientific — they are liberating forces that can continually improve people's lives. Who would have thought, as the 20th century opened, that one of its greatest contributions would come from two obscure, fresh-faced young Americans who pursued the utmost bounds of human thought and gave us all, for the first time, the power literally to sail beyond the sunset.

The 20th century has been the American Century in large part because of great inventors such as the Wright brothers. May we follow their flight paths and blaze our own in the 21st century.


The American aviation pioneers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright were the first to accomplish manned, powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of Milton Wright, a bishop of the United Brethren in Christ. Wilbur was born on April 16, 1867, in Millville, Ind.; Orville was born on Aug. 19, 1871, at Dayton, Ohio. Until the death of Wilbur in 1912, the two were inseparable. Their personalities were perfectly complementary: Orville was full of ideas and enthusiasms, an impetuous dreamer, while Wilbur was more steady in his habits, more mature in his judgments, and more likely to see a project through.

In their early years the two boys helped their father, who edited an evangelical journal called the Religious Telescope. Later, they began a paper of their own, West Side News. In 1892 they opened the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, which was the perfect occupation for the Wright brothers, involving one of the exciting mechanical devices of the time: the bicycle. When the brothers took up the problems of flight, they had a solid grounding in practical mechanics.

The exploits of one of the great glider pilots of the late 19th century, Otto Lilienthal, had attracted the attention of the Wright brothers as early as 1891, but it was not until the death of this famous aeronautical engineer in 1896 that the two became interested in gliding experiments. They then resolved to educate themselves systematically in the theory and state of the art of flying.

The Wrights took up the problem of flight at an auspicious time, for some of the fundamental theories of aerodynamics were already known; a body of experimental data existed; and most importantly, the recent development of the internal combustion engine made available a sufficient source of power for manned flight. Although they sometimes acted as scientists, the basic approach of the Wrights was that of the engineer. They had no formal training as either scientist or engineer, but they combined the instincts of both. They began by accumulating and mastering all the pertinent information on the subject, designed and tested their own models and gliders, built their own engine, and, when the experimental data they had inherited appeared to be inadequate or erroneous, they conducted new and more thorough experiments.

Armed with this information, the Wright brothers proceeded to fly double-winged kites and gliders in order to gain experience and to test data. After consulting the U.S. Weather Bureau, they chose an area of sand dunes near the small town of Kitty Hawk, N.C., as the site of their experiments. In September 1900 they set up camp there and began the work that culminated three years later in success.

Their first device failed to fly as a kite because it was unable to develop sufficient lift. Instead, they flew it as a free glider and learned a great deal from their experience, partly because of the careful records they kept of their failures as well as of their successes. Their own data showed conclusively that previous tables of information were greatly inaccurate.

Returning to Dayton in 1901, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel, the first in the United States, and here they tested over 200 models of wing surfaces in order to measure lift and drag factors and to discover the most suitable design. They also discovered that although screw propellers had been used on ships for more than half a century, there was no reliable body of data on the subject and no theory that would allow them to design the proper propellers for their airship. They had to work the problem out for themselves, mathematically.

The Wrights, by this time, not only had mastered the existing body of aeronautical science but also had added to it. They now built their third glider, incorporating their findings, and in the fall of 1902 they returned to Kitty Hawk. They made over 1,000 gliding flights and were able to confirm their previous data and to demonstrate their ability to control the three axes of motion of the glider. Having learned to build and to control an adequate air frame, they now determined to apply power to their machine.

The Wright brothers soon discovered, however, that no manufacturer would undertake to build an engine that would meet their specifications, so they had to build their own. They produced one that had four cylinders and developed 12 horsepower. When it was installed in the air frame, the entire machine weighed just 750 pounds and proved to be capable of travelling 31 miles per hour. They took this new airplane to Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903 and on December 17 made the world's first manned, powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft.

The first flight was made by Orville and lasted only 12 seconds, during which the airplane flew 120 feet. That same day, however, on its fourth flight, with Wilbur at the controls, the plane stayed in the air for 59 seconds and travelled 852 feet. Then a gust of wind severely damaged the craft, and the brothers returned to Dayton convinced of their success and determined to build another machine. In 1905 they abandoned their other activities and concentrated on the development of aviation. On May 22, 1906, they received a patent for their flying machine.

The brothers looked to the Federal government for encouragement in their venture, and gradually interest was aroused in Washington. In 1907 bids were asked for an airplane that would meet government requirements - 22 bids were received, three were accepted, but only the Wright brothers finished their contract. They continued their experiments at Kitty Hawk, and in September 1908, while Wilbur was in France attempting to interest foreign backers in their machine, Orville successfully demonstrated their contract airplane. It was accepted by the government, although the event was marred by a crash a week later in which Orville was injured and a passenger was killed.

Wilbur's trip to France proved to be a success also, and in 1909 the Wright brothers formed the American Wright Company, with Wilbur taking the lead in setting up and directing the business. His death in Dayton on May 30, 1912, left Orville in a state of desolate isolation. In 1915 he sold his rights to the firm and gave up his interest in manufacturing in order to turn to experimental work. He had little taste for the bustle of commercial life.

After his retirement, Orville lived quietly in Dayton, conducting experiments on mechanical problems of interest to him, none of which proved to be of major importance. His chief public activity was service on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor agency of NASA), of which he was a member from its organization by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 until his death in Dayton on Jan. 30, 1948.










This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008