Wright Again

Wright Again

The Smithsonian Letter - Part II - May 30, 1899

The History: Milton Wright, Orville and Wilbur Wright's father was a minister and later bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. The Wrights respected Sunday as the Sabbath and did not work, although reading and letter writing was allowed. On Sunday, May 30, 1899 Wilbur Wright wrote this letter to the Smithsonian Institution.

Cayley Cayley_drawing

George Cayley and His Aircraft Designs

"I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley's and Penaud's machines. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. It is only a question of knowledge and skill just as in all acrobatic feats. Birds are the most perfectly trained gymnasts in the world and are specially well fitted for their work, and it may be that man will never equal them, but no one who has watched a bird chasing an insect or another bird can doubt that feats are performed which require three or four times the effort required in ordinary flight. I believe that simple flight at least is possible to man and that the experiments and investigations of a large number of independent workers will result in the accumulation of information and knowledge and skill which will finally lead to accomplished flight.

The works on the subject to which I have access are Marey's and Jamieson's books published by Appleton's and various magazines and cyclopaedic articles. I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success. I do not know the terms on which you send out your publications but if you will inform me of the cost I will remit the price."


Many of the statements Wilbur makes in this letter provide tremendous insight into the Wright brothers' personalities and thought process as they began their investigations into human flight. Time and time again over the next few years of journal entries you will note the same politeness, professionalism and clarity of Wilbur's thoughts. Some of his comments are rather prophetic, some ironically incorrect, however they all reflect the type of individuals the Wrights were: steadfast, ethical, methodical, self-starters, hardworking, unwavering, perseverant, driven and extremely clever.

The record of the Wright brothers step-by-step development of the first successful power aircraft is recorded through their technical journals, personal diaries, notes, photographs and letters like this one which Wilbur wrote. While their technical journals record numerical results, the diaries, notes and letters, in contrast, reveal what the Wrights were thinking day by day - right or wrong. Most of the letters were written to Octave Chanute, considered one of the foremost authorities on aerial navigation in the United States. (Wilbur will first write Chanute on May 13, 1900.) Wilbur would remain the primary letter writer and corresponder while both brothers were alive. (Wilbur would die from typhoid fever in 1912. Orville would die from heart failure in 1948.)

Let's review a few important statements in this letter, which many consider the formal/official start of the Wrights investigation into flight.

Wilbur: "... a large number of independent workers will result in the accumulation of information and knowledge and skill which will finally lead to accomplished flight."

It is important to keep the development of the Wrights' successful 1903 Flyer in historical perspective. The Wrights did not simply wake up one morning and build a flying machine. Several well-known and respected scientists, engineers and industrialists as well as talented enthusiasts had tackled the problem of flight and were constructing and testing their own flying machines. Otto Lilienthal, in particular, had many successful glider flights which inspired the Wrights interest.

Although the Wrights own experiments were conducted independently, the brothers benefited from the work other researchers had done before them - and often even if the results were wrong. Earlier investigators' work provided information the Wrights could read about to understand and define the scientific principles of flight, what aspects of others machines had been successful and (equally important) which vehicles had failed and why.

This information provided a starting point for the Wrights and allowed them to objectively summarize the current problems to date and to prioritize which aspects of the flight problem should be tackled first. However, as we will learn, the Wrights' ideas and solutions to those problems were uniquely their own. Sometimes the Wrights even had to take steps backwards as they learned past research by other investigators was not valid. So although the Wrights used others investigators research to learn about the flight as a starting point as their work evolves they neither copy nor use anyone else's information.

Wilbur: "I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business."

Whenever the Wright's embarked on a new endeavor, it was conducted systematically. They had a plan and their investigations were marked by thoroughness and a persistence to understand. Unlike what you might imagine this was neither a long-drawn out, boring, humdrum or uncreative process.

The Wrights were businessmen and took their responsibilities and managed their time carefully. You might imagine that the Wrights worked everyday on the flying problem, but this was not the case. Their experiments and development of their kites, gliders and flying machine was done in their spare time during the slow season in the bicycle shop.

Their family was also extremely important to them. As you will learn "flying" was put aside to help their father, Bishop Milton Wright when a personal matter interfered with their father's position in this church. Especially in the early years (1899-1901) although it was often on their minds, months would go by without time to work on the machines. This makes their success in 1903 even more amazing.

Notice how many times Wilbur says "I" instead of "we" in this letter. Orville had very few criticisms of his older brother; however, the fact that Wilbur would often say "I" when he should have used "we" (including both brothers) was one.

Wilbur: "The works on the subject to which I have access are Marey's and Jamieson's books published by Appleton's and various magazines and cyclopaedic articles. ... I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language."

As a first step they intended on conducting a "literature search" to read and learn what work others had done before them. They would learn about wing shapes, forces on an object or animal in flight, methods to control the machines, propulsion and the progress and mistakes made by others. They wanted to teach themselves and be knowledgeable without reinventing the glider or reconducting established results.

The Wrights had gone to their public library and had looked in their own home library before writing to the Smithsonian. (Their home library is now located in the Special Collections of Wright State University.) They located Professor Etienne Jules Marey's book Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion. However, Marey was a physician and the book focused on animal physiology and experimental methods. Subsequently, this book was only a little helpful. In 1932, when asked by the American Library Association if the brothers had used the public library in their early studies on aerodynamics and aeronautics, Orville wrote that they had found no books on aeronautics. "Aeronautics at that time was a discredited subject and consequently the libraries did not ordinarily carry books on that subject," Orville replied. Since the brothers had heard the Smithsonian was conducting flight experiments, Wilbur contacted the Smithsonian next.

Wilbur: "I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine."

There had been many failures on the path to human powered flight and as Orville termed it, " .. the subject had been brought into disrepute by a number of men of lesser ability".

Wilbur: "I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success."

Today conducting a literature search is a standard "first step" conducted by scientists, researchers and engineers. Little did the Wrights know they would be the ones who would "attain final success".

Wilbur: "I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley's and Penaud's machines."

George Cayley, an English baronet, was just 10 years old when the Montgolfier brothers made their first hot air balloons. In 1799 he summarized his studies, which pursued a path entirely different than the highly popular lighter-than-air designs, on a small silver disk. Engraved on one side was a diagram that depicted the interacting forces upon a wing. On the reverse was an aircraft design which in various forms would be used for all his later constructions. Cayley was convinced that humans did not have sufficient muscle power to create lift, nor did he find it necessary.

Over the next 50 years Cayley added to and refined his principles for controlled gliding flight. Approaching the age of 80, Cayley culminated his career with a practical demonstration of his aviation theories. In 1853 he built a full size glider and persuaded his coachman to climb on board, then launched the craft from the top of a hill. The glider made a fast swoop across the valley before coming to a sudden halt. The coachman gave notice immediately upon climbing out that he would no longer be working for his employer in any capacity, but Cayley was thoroughly pleased. He had achieved the first manned heavier-than-air flight in history, and stimulated a great exchange of ideas among those who followed.

Alphonse Penaud was a young Frenchman and early flight investigator. He experimented in twisted rubber band power and built several small stable airplanes. Stability means the airplane was designed to resist forces which would cause motion or change of motion. Rubber-powered toy airplanes still use Penaud's control system today. (You may like to build our rubber powered toy helicopter, similar to the one the Wrights built as children, which is based on Penaud's rubber band propulsion system.)


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