Part I - Inventing the Future
In the Fall of 1901, the Wright Brothers decided to begin a
"series of experiments to accurately determine the amount
and direction of the pressure produced on curved surfaces
when acted upon by winds at the various angles from zero to
ninety degrees." To do this, they built a wind tunnel.
"We had taken up aeronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper. Two testing-machines were built, which we believed would avoid the errors to which the measurements of others had been subject."
The tunnel was a long rectangular wooden box with one end open for a fan to make the wind. It was six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and 16 inches deep. They put a pane of glass in the topside of the box so that they could see inside. The fan had two blades and was powered by a belt and pulley system attached to the ceiling. The air from the fan blew at twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour and passed through a metal grid which straightened it.
Wondering how it worked?
Inside, on the floor of the box, they attached two balances which were made from broken hacksaw blades, bicycle spokes, and scrap metal. One balance measured lift while the other measured the ratio of lift to drag.
They then attached horizontal planes to the balance to test how they behaved in the wind. These horizontal planes, called airfoils, were miniature models for full-sized airplane wings. The brothers made the airfoils from twenty-gauge steel and hammered them into shape. Wilbur once wrote, "With a pair of tin shears, a hammer, a file, and a soldering iron, you can get almost any shape you want."
Can you see the hammer marks?
They made hundreds of tests in the wind tunnel, recording all of the measurements precisely. They used the back of scrap pieces of wallpaper to record data and then filled page after page of their notebooks with precious information.
Was it paisley or floral?
Wondering if they had neat handwriting?
Within a few months, the Wrights had the world's best collection of lift data. Years later, Orville reflected on the wind tunnel experiments and said, "I believe we possessed...more data on cambered surfaces, a hundred times over, than all of our predecessors put together."
They used their new knowledge to build a very different glider. In September, 1902, Wilbur and Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills. The 1902 glider had a wingspan of thirty-two feet and a chord of five feet. It was the biggest flying-machine ever built. Their wind tunnel tests had convinced them that these measurements should work.
|Cautiously, the brothers began to fly the glider as a kite. Pleased with the performance, they cut it loose and let it soar. On the first two days, Wilbur and Orville made nearly fifty glides. A few days later, they made seventy-five and then 150. The glider landed safely every time.||
On October 23, 1902, Wilbur glided for twenty-six seconds over a distance of 622.5 feet. Orville wrote, "We now hold all the records! The largest machine...the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!"
But gliding would never be enough. They left Kitty Hawk with a new dream: sustained powered flight.
Could it be done? Turn the page to see, as
[ First Flight | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV ]