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Primary Source Set The Inventive Wright Brothers

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Wilbur and Orville Wright’s parents, Milton and Susan Wright, encouraged their children’s intellectual curiosity. Milton Wright was a bishop in a local church and he traveled extensively to preach. He also kept two large libraries that aided the brothers in their intellectual development from an early age.

A Well-Grounded Childhood

In 1878, a toy forever changed the lives of Wilbur and Orville. Milton gave the boys a toy helicopter, a simple device made of bamboo, paper, and cork and powered by a rubber band. Wilbur and Orville would later recall that their father’s gift sparked their interest in the science of flight.

Milton moved his family to Richmond, Indiana, and became a circuit preacher. He began publishing a religious newspaper. Wilbur invented a machine that folded the papers for mailing, demonstrating a knack for engineering. In 1884, the family permanently moved back to Dayton, Ohio.

Brothers in Business

Wilbur was a star athlete and scholar bound for Yale, but a blow to the face during a game of hockey in 1886 changed his mind about studying there. Orville had also been an excellent student, but became disinterested in his studies and eventually dropped out of high school. He completed two printer’s apprenticeships as a teenager and went into business printing small items such as business cards. Wilbur helped Orville build a printing press, and their father bought 25 pounds of used type for print jobs. By 1889, they began printing under the name “Wright Bros.” The printing presses they built attracted a number of admirers. They gradually ended their printing endeavors as they took up a growing national activity – cycling. Friends often came to them for help with bicycle repair and maintenance.

In 1893, they began repairing and manufacturing bicycles. Within three years, Wilbur and Orville were running a bustling enterprise.

Wilbur and Orville Look to the Skies

Their ventures with the bicycle turned their attention back to the pursuit of sustained human flight. Orville and Wilbur faced the momentous task of finding a way to control flight. They read voraciously to learn from others’ experiences and they corresponded with aeronautical pioneers such as the American engineer Octave Chanute.

In 1896, the death of German glider pilot Otto Lilienthal during a flight experiment led the brothers to think more about questions of aeronautics and flight. Lilienthal’s study of the flight of birds as a possible basis for human flight also influenced the Wright brothers. Wilbur often observed buzzards near Ohio’s Great Miami River. He noticed that the birds maintained their balance in flight by adjusting the angle and position of their wings. The brothers designed wings that could adjust their shape the way a bird’s wings did and developed a kite with a biplane – two sets of wings. The tips of the wings were made to adjust and move at opposing angles to maintain balance. They tested the new system in the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1900 and 1901. The gliders did not yield the results the Wrights were looking for and the experiments sent them back to the drawing board.

In 1901, Wilbur and Orville built a wind tunnel in order to study how their wing designs reacted to air resistance. This helped them improve the amount of lift provided by the wings. The glider they built using this data was the first to have three different sets of controls. Since a flying machine had to move on three different axes, each axis would need a control to maintain balance while in the air. One was the “warped wing,” which stabilized the plane’s horizontal movement. The “elevator” controlled the vertical angle of the nose. Finally, they added a moveable rudder, connected to the wing warping mechanism to prevent the craft from spinning out of control, to control the plane’s forward movement.

When they tested their third glider at Kitty Hawk in 1902, it flew 622 feet in about 26 seconds. Their breakthroughs in wing design made this glider the world’s first controllable aircraft. Nonetheless, to achieve powered flight the Wrights still needed to develop a propulsion system. They built an engine with the help of their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, and had devised a transmission and set of propellers for their plane by mid-1903.

They tested the first powered craft at Kitty Hawk in September 1903. Wilbur was the test pilot of the Wright Flyer, which only stayed in the air for 3½ seconds. This didn’t discourage them, and after repairs the brothers attempted to test the Wright Flyer once again on December 17. Orville’s first flight of the day was the first manned, powered, and controlled flight in history. It lasted 12 seconds and spanned 120 feet. By the fourth flight, Wilbur managed to keep the Flyer in the air for 59 seconds and made a trip of 852 feet. They had been sending telegrams to their father detailing their progress. A December 17 telegram informed him that they would be home in time for Christmas. Their story, however, does not end with this great feat of human ingenuity.

The Business of Flight

As the brothers worked to achieve powered flight, they also worked to secure a patent for their invention. This was not only to recoup the significant costs of their experiments, but also to prevent others from stealing their design. Their aeronautical rivals had not come as close as they had to achieving powered and controlled flight, but they came close enough to make the brothers cautious. The brothers finally received a patent on May 23, 1906, but they spent many years in legal battles with aviators and inventors who made their own claims to originality.

Among their rivals was famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

The brothers worked tirelessly to perfect their flyers while attempting to attract the business of private firms and government entities such as the U.S. military. Although they won some contracts, the Wright Company’s success was tentative. Pursuing their various patent suits against their numerous rivals and competitors absorbed much of their time and proved inconclusive. After Wilbur died of typhoid in May 1912, Orville became despondent and sold not only the Wrights’ 1906 patent, but also the Wright Company in 1915. Though not always successful in their business lives, the Wright brothers will long be known for their momentous invention.

Suggestions for Teachers

Consider Orville and Wilbur as children. What do their early letters tell you about their personalities? Their teamwork? What early jobs did they have and how did this help them develop problem solving and mechanical skills?

Select a passage from one letter and match it to an image from the set.

Arrange the items in chronological order. Select a few items to read or study closely.

  • Where did they find inspiration?
  • What can you learn about how their ideas changed after each attempt?
  • How did their experiments follow the scientific method?
  • Imagine our world without human mechanical flight. What impact would the lack of flight have on your life?
  • How important was photography in the Wright brothers’s research? How did Edison and Bell use photography for their research?
  • What obstacles did the Wrights have to overcome in the early years and in their later years? How did their achievement affect their lives?

Research other flight pioneers: Lilienthal, Langley, Chanute, Bell, Edison, or others.

Additional Resources