First Flight
Part I - Inventing the Future

All adult photographs of Orville Wright show him with facial hair.
Larger View of Orville

Orville and Wilbur's father, Milton, was a minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. As part of his work, he often traveled from place to place. When he returned home, he often brought gifts for his young children. Once, he presented a rubberband-powered flying toy to the boys. The toy fascinated them and sparked their lifelong interest in flight.

"Late in the autumn of 1878, our father came into the house one evening with some object partly concealed in his hands, and before we could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor ... It was a light frame of cork and bamboo, covered with paper, which formed two screws, driven in opposite directions by rubber bands under torsion. A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding."

Neither Wilbur nor Orville finished high school, although both liked to learn new things. By the time Wilbur was 22 years old, he and Orville (who was 18) opened their own printing office. They recycled broken parts and built the printing press they would use to start their business. A few years later, they became interested in bicycles and decided to switch businesses. In 1893, they opened the Wright Cycle Company, a bicycle sales and repair business in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. By 1896, Wilbur had his mind set on a new idea: flying.

Wilbur Wright was four years older than his brother Orville.
Larger View of Wilbur

Wilbur began by reading everything he could find about the state of human flight. It became his hobby. At the time, several scientists in Europe were testing human gliding machines. As a matter of fact, one of the most famous, Otto Lilienthal, crashed and died in a gliding accident in 1896. By 1899, Wilbur had studied all of the research that was available and decided to request more from the Smithsonian Institution. In a letter dated May 30, 1899, Wilbur asked to receive all available information and also stated his plan to begin a "systematic study of the subject in preparation for actual work."

Just a month or so later, in the summer of 1899, the brothers built their first biplane. It was made of wood and cloth with a wingspan of five feet and a chord of about thirteen inches. The plan was to fly it as a kite to test their ideas about controlling the forces of flight. Orville was not present when Wilbur flew the kite that summer in Dayton. No written record or photographs exist.

The results must have been good, though, because in November, 1899, Wilbur wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau and asked about wind predictions for the Chicago area. He wrote that they planned to fly a kite that was "capable of sustaining a man."

By the following Summer, in August, 1900, the Wright Brothers had changed their plans. They decided instead to go to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This empty beach on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean would be windy while also having soft, sandy ground for landing.

By then, they were also ready with their new design. They had used Otto Lilienthal's scientific data table to calculate the size and shape of their first full-sized flying machine. They began to build some of the pieces in Dayton, with plans to finish building the plane in Kitty Hawk.

On September 6, 1900, Wilbur left Dayton to travel to North Carolina. Orville stayed behind to take care of the bicycle business, but planned to join Wilbur later in the month. When Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 28, Wilbur was almost finished building the plane.

The camp at Kitty Hawk.
Larger View

The glider's wing frames were made of bent ash wood and covered with a high-quality French sateen fabric. The other wooden pieces were made from white pine. The wing span was seventeen feet and the chord was five feet. On the bottom wing, in the center, was a space for the pilot to lie down. With one of the brothers onboard, the weight of the plane was about 190 pounds.

They tested early glider models as kites, tethered to the ground to reduce the risk of ruin.
Larger View

In October, the brothers flew their "manned kite." They quickly realized that the wind was not strong enough to lift a man. Still, they were able to test the design of the kite and were pleased with their findings.

Sadly, the 1900 glider was damaged in a strong gust of wind, so they went home to Dayton with plans to build a new one.

"Our machine was designed to be flown as a kite, with a man on board, in winds of from fifteen to twenty miles an hour. But, upon trial, it was found that much stronger winds were required to lift it. Suitable winds not being plentiful, we found it necessary, in order to test the new balancing system, to fly the machine as a kite without a man on board, operating the levers through cords from the ground."

On July 10, 1901, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk and set up camp further south at Kill Devil Hills. The next few weeks were spent building the new plane and hiding from the rain and mosquitoes.

The new plane was almost twice the size of the previous flying machine. To solve some of the lift problems that they had noticed in 1900, the new plane was built exactly to the sizes specified by Lilienthal's lift calculations.

On July 27, they began. The first few trials were almost disasters. The plane nearly crashed. Wilbur was puzzled. The 1900 glider had worked better. He decided to take the wings apart and rebuild them. They tried again and had fastastic glides of 389 feet!

A Wright glider in flight, although the date is uncertain.
Larger View

They returned to Dayton in August, facing a new problem. After thinking about the events of 1900 and 1901, Wilbur was beginning to think that Lilienthal's data tables were wrong. Lilienthal was the famous international expert on the forces of flight, while Wilbur was just a hobbyist. Yet, Wilbur was finding that the numbers didn't work.

"The experiments of 1901 were far from encouraging. ... we saw that the calculations upon which all flying-machines had been based were unreliable, and that all were simply groping in the dark. Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations. Truth and error were everywhere so intimately mixed as to be undistinguishable. Nevertheless, the time expended in preliminary study of books was not misspent, for they gave us a good general understanding of the subject, and enabled us at the outset to avoid effort in many directions in which results would have been hopeless."

Wilbur also realized that the brothers could not afford to keep building gliders based on the old data tables. So, in the Fall of 1901, Wilbur became a scientist. He began to experiment with models in order to create his own calculations. No longer was he just enjoying his hobby. Now, he was ready to change the world.

But how? Turn the page to see, as
Part I - Inventing the Future continues...


[ First Flight | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV ]