Twelve seconds that changed the world – The Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903
“It is a fact that man can’t fly” – Washington Post
“the flying machine crank” with advancing age gets increasingly foolish to the point of “imbacility” – San Francisco Chronicle
“What useful purpose could it [flight] serve?” – Professor at Johns Hopkins University
Freedom brings with it with the opportunity for any individual to create wonder. This is why so many of the worlds’ inventions were created in America. By the late nineteenth century, the idea of flying was one that had only seen success in gliders, not piloted, engine driver aircraft. Two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur and Orville Wright, changed this. Through dogmatic resolve, ingenuity, and intelligence, the two men brought the world into a new age.
In 1892, the Wright brothers opened a shop in response to the growing popularity of the bicycle in American society. However, even as they grew their business, the brothers had another form of transportation on their minds – flight. Wilbur, four years older than his brother Orville, was particularly curious. He wrote a letter to the Smithsonian in 1899 asking for any information the institution had on flight. Wilbur studied birds and how they moved. Both brothers tried to rebuild a toy helicopter powered by a rubber band they received as children on a larger scale. Orville said it didn’t work very well. Armed with this knowledge, the brothers set out to work on a “flying machine.”
After constructing the first version of their aircraft, the brothers needed someplace to test it. They reached out to the United States Weather Bureau to gather information about wind velocities across the United States. They determined the best place to develop their flying machine was an isolated stretch of land on the coast of North Carolina called Kitty Hawk. The brothers packed up all their equipment and research and headed there. It was a difficult journey. Once there, the brothers encountered few local residents but mosquitoes so bad as Orville stated in his journal they “almost darkened the sun.” Along with the mosquitoes, Kitty Hawk presented the brothers with intense heat and sometimes frigid cold.
Between 1900 and 1903, the brothers worked on a variety of issues and traveled back and forth from Kitty Hawk to Dayton. They conducted multiple test flights with gliders, performed tests in a wind tunnel they created and learned lessons from the setbacks they endured. One problem they encountered was trying to find an engine for their machine. They wrote letters to various car makers of the time. Only one responded but that engine prove inadequate. The brothers built their own engine with the help of an assistant, Charlie Taylor.
On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright took control of the flying machine, the result of a coin toss three days earlier. The two brothers shook hands. At 10:35 am, the brothers used a launching mechanism to get the plane into the air. Once launched, the aircraft known as Flyer I flew approximately 120 feet in the air for twelve seconds. Orville said of the flight it was “extremely erratic” and “there wasn’t time to be scared.” John T. Daniels, an eyewitness, credited the Wright brothers as the “workingest boys” he ever saw. The brothers could not have anticipated how significant those twelve seconds were. Their concern at the time was to move forward and improve their aircraft.
The Wright brothers plane as displayed at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The brothers story did not stop at Kitty Hawk. They continued to produce new and better versions of their original Flyer. Their subsequent aircraft went further and continued to set the standard for flight in the era. The brothers themselves became sensations. Wilbur took an overseas trip to Europe that made him a celebrity. Europeans, especially the French, turned out in high numbers to see flight displays by Wilbur Wright. Orville displayed the Flyer around Washington, D.C. to astonished crowds. The entire world took notice.
The Wright brothers took many risks to get an engine powered aircraft up in the air. In all, Wilbur crashed twice and Orville four times. Orville was badly injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge of the U.S. Army, was killed during a flight demonstration. Lt. Selfridge became the first person to die in an airplane crash. Through their many flights, the brothers gained an understanding of how to pilot their aircraft. They were able to takeoff, fly, and return to their initial location.
Wilbur Wright pilots his aircraft during a demonstration in New York on September 29, 1909
The Wright brothers success set off airplane building all over the world. The French began to build their own aircraft and other countries followed. The brothers spent a great deal of their time in lawsuits to defend their patents. Their company, the Wright Company, produced multiple versions of their original Flyer. Each version better than the last.
Wilbur Wright died on May 30, 1912 of typhoid fever at his home in Dayton. Orville Wright gave up flying in 1918 in large part because of the injuries he suffered in his earlier crashes. He sold the Wright Company and dedicated his time to scientific research at the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory he created. He died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven on January 30, 1948. He lived through both World War I and World War II, seeing the airplane used as an instrument of war. Orville said he wished the airplane was an instrument of peace but did not regret its creation.
In 1928, the Regents of the Smithsonian passed the following resolution: “to the Wrights belongs the credit of making the first successful flight with a power-propelled heavier-than-air machine carrying a man.” The Wright brothers received their proper place in history. For all their fame, the humble brothers remained as one writer put it, “the imperturbable men from home.” The two brothers, neither college educated nor possessing any formal technical training, made the impossible possible.
Sixty-six years after Kitty Hawk, American Neil Armstrong carried with him a small swatch of the muslin from the wing of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer. He became the first man to step on the moon.
The Wright Brothers by David McCollough