Educator Features

The Wright Brothers' Story
12.01.03
The Flying Toy
Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) were brothers. They lived in Dayton, Ohio, at 7 Hawthorn Street. Their older brothers were Reuchlin and Lorin. Katharine was their younger sister. Their father, Milton, was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Their mother, Susan, the daughter of a wagon maker, made toys for her children and encouraged their curiosity. One day, Bishop Wright brought home a small toy "helicopter" made of wood with two twisted rubber bands to turn a small propeller. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, then made new copies of the toy themselves. They also sold toys to their friends, including handmade kites. The Wright brothers did things together from the time they were small boys.

The Bicycle Business
The Wright brothers went into the printing business together in 1889. Three years later, they opened their first bicycle shop. Initially, they sold and repaired bicycles. They would replace spokes, fix broken chains, and sell accessories. In 1896, they began to build their own brand of bicycles. The Wright brothers' experiences with bicycles aided them in their investigations of flight. They used the technology they learned from their bicycle business in their airplanes: chains, sprockets, spoke wires, ball bearings, and wheel hubs. Their thoughts on balancing and controlling their aircraft were also rooted in their experience as cyclists.


The Search for Control
Orville and Wilbur Wright were convinced of the need to control an aircraft in three axes of motion. An elevator, or horizontal control surface, in front of the wings on their aircraft, enabled the pilot to control climb and descent (pitch axis). The elevator was controlled by a lever in the pilot's left hand. A "wingwarping" system controlled the aircraft in a roll (roll axis). To initiate a roll, the pilot would shift his hips from side to side in a cradle on the lower wing, "twisting" the wings left or right or restoring them to level flight. Orville and Wilbur developed this idea from observing birds in flight. They observed the buzzards keeping their balance by twisting their wings and sometimes curving one wing more than the other. In 1902, the brothers added a vertical rudder to the rear of their machine to control the left and right motion of the nose of the aircraft (yaw axis).

graphic of bi-plane and how the airplane is controlled
Three Axes of Motion

The Kite/Glider Experiments
The Wright brothers began their aeronautical research in 1899. Their first aircraft was a small kite with a 5-foot wingspan that was used to test their notions of aircraft control. In 1900, they built their first machine designed to carry a pilot and chose Kitty Hawk, N.C., as a suitable testing ground. With its strong steady winds, open areas, and tall sandy dunes, the area was perfect for their experiments. When their 1900 aircraft produced less lift than expected, the Wright brothers flew it as a kite and gathered information that would enable them to design improved machines. They returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 with a new glider that did not perform as they expected. While they had learned a great deal with their first two machines, they had also encountered new puzzles and dangers.

graphic of Wright Brother's bi-plane and control features
A Wright Glider

The Wind Tunnel
To simulate flight conditions, the Wrights tested small model wings in a wind tunnel they had built. The wind tunnel was a box with a fan at one end that blew a steady stream of air over model wings mounted on a special "balance" inside the tunnel. Using this device, the brothers were able to gather information that could be used to design the wings of the gliders and powered aircraft that would carry them into the air. The wind tunnel provided them with information on the most satisfactory wing shape. It also enabled them to calculate the size of wing that would be required to lift them into the air, the performance of their propellers, and the amount of power that their engine would have to produce. They based the design of their next glider on this information.

Controlling the Aircraft
During the 1901 glider tests, the Wright brothers had discovered that "wingwarping" created unequal drag on the two wings. Key to solving the control problem was the addition of a rudder to the glider design in 1902. They developed a direct linkage between the rudder and warping system.With the success of this system design, the Wrights were ready to move onto a powered aircraft.

The Solution
At Kill Devil Hills, N.C., at 10:35 am, the Wright 1903 Flyer took off under its own power with Orville as the pilot. It flew 12 seconds and went a distance of 37 meters. Orville and Wilbur took turns making three more flights that morning. Wilbur was at the controls for the fourth and longest flight, traveling 260 meters in 59 seconds. The Wright 1903 Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. Today, this amazing flying invention can be viewed as it is suspended overhead, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

grahpic illustration of Wright Brother's flyer
The 1903 Wright Flyer

The Wright 1904 Flyer
Having achieved success in North Carolina, the Wright brothers decided to continue their experiments closer to home. They built and flew their second powered airplane at Huffman Prairie, a pasture eight miles east of Dayton, Ohio. Progress was slow without the strong, steady winds of Kitty Hawk, but the brothers did achieve the first circular flight of an airplane on September 20, 1904. This first complete circle flight lasted only 1 minute 36 seconds and covered 1,244 meters. Stability problems still plagued the Wright brothers' invention. The modifications made during 1904 helped but did not solve the stability problem.

The Wright 1905 Flyer
This Flyer was the world's first practical airplane. During more than 40 flights at Huffman Prairie, the machine was repeatedly banked, turned, circled, and flown in figure eights. On two occasions the flight exceeded half an hour. Wilbur and Orville Wright, brilliant self-trained engineers, had overcome complex technical problems that had barred the way to mechanical flight for centuries. Think about how their invention has changed our world!


Credit: The Wright Way: The Process of Invention - Poster