Bishop Milton Wright and Susan Catharine Wright had four sons, Reuchlin, Lorin, Wilbur, and Orville, and one daughter Katharine. Little did Susan Wright know that she had given birth to one of the world’s most famous inventive partnerships. Wilbur was born on April 16, 1867, near Millville, Indiana. Orville was born 4 years later on August 19, 1871, in the families newly built home at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio. A minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Milton Wright moved his family to Dayton so he could edit the church newspaper published there. The Wrights stayed in Dayton until 1878, when Milton was elected bishop and moved the family to Iowa. In 1885, they returned to the house at 7 Hawthorn Street.
As the boys grew older, their parents encouraged them to pursue intellectual interests. They had two libraries in their house; books on theology were kept in the bishop’s study, while the downstairs library had a large and diverse collection. This kept them always reading and learning while they were not at school. Although their dad was a firm disciplinarian, both parents were loving and kept the family a close one. Every once and awhile, Milton would bring them various souvenirs and trinkets he found during his travels for the church. One such trinket, a toy helicopter-like top, sparked the boys’ interest in flying.
Wilbur's skating accident and his mother’s illness and subsequent death kept him from attending college. Orville was on the other hand, was an average student, known for his mischievous behavior. He quit school before his senior year to start a printing business with his brother.
The first time Wilbur and Orville referred to themselves, as “The Wright Brothers” was when they started their own printing firm at the ages of 22 and 18. Using a damaged tombstone and buggy parts, they built a press and printed their own newspaper.
In 1892, the brothers bought bicycles. They began repairing bicycles for friends, and then started their own repair business. They opened up a bicycle shop in 1893, and three years later, made their own bicycles called Van Cleves and St. Clairs. While caring for Orville, who was sick with typhoid in 1896, Wilbur read about two events; the death in a flying accident of Otto Lilienthal, the celebrated German experimenter with gliders, and the successful launching of powered models by Samuel Langley. This struck Wilbur with excitement.
The Wright’s serious work in aeronautics began in 1899 when Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution for information on aeronautical research. Within a few months after writing to the Smithsonian, Wilbur had read all that was written about flying. He then defined the elements of a flying machine: wings to provide lift, a power source for propulsion, and a system of control. Wilbur alone recognized the need to control a flying machine in its three axes of motion: pitch, roll, and yaw. They quickly developed their own theories, and for the next four years devoted themselves to the goal of human flight.
In August of 1900, Wilbur built his first glider. They sought an arrangement where practice would be easy. Wilbur wanted to build a 150-foot tower with a pulley at the top. A rope, attached to the glider, would pass over the pulley and be tied to a counterweight, supporting part of the weight of the craft. Wilbur believed this arrangement would permit the pilot to practice the skills needed to fly even if the craft was not yet fully airworthy. The brothers friend, Octave Chanute, wisely recommended against this course of action, instead encouraging the brothers to find a place with lots of sand and strong winds, to minimize the effort in moving the glider from the point of landing back to the point of takeoff.
Wilbur then contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau for information on windy regions of the country. He chose a remote sandy area off the coast of North Carolina named Kitty Hawk where there would be no fanfare or no media. The winds averaged 13 M.P.H. and were good speeds for testing. Wilbur arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 13, 1900, while Orville followed on September 27. The two brothers camped in a tent close to Kitty Hawk. The biplane glider was finished during the first week in October. The glider was designed with a wingspan of 20 feet and weighed about 50 pounds. They then began testing the biplane glider. Initially it was tested as a manned kite, where one brother and Bill Tate (the Wright brothers friend) held the ropes while the other brother lay onboard, operating the controls. Later, it was tested as an unmanned kite, with chains being used for ballast. The longest flights were anywhere between 300 and 400 feet in length.
The following year, in 1901, the Wright brothers returned to North Carolina and tested a new and improved glider with a 22-foot wingspan. They made their camp in Kill Devil Hills, rather then Kitty Hawk, as they found the large hills better to conduct flight tests than the beaches of Kitty Hawk. The glider was an enlarged version of the 1900 glider. Unfortunately, the 1901 glider still did not have adequate lift. Numerous attempts at free flight were made. The longest flight on August 8 covered a distance of 389 feet. The Wrights often tested their glider as a kite, in an effort to better understand how much lift the craft produced. It was clear that there was an error in the formula they had used to compute lift. A bad performance by the glider prompted the Wright brothers to construct a wind tunnel to test the effectiveness of a variety of wing shapes.
Using the results of the wind tunnel experiments, they constructed their 1902 glider. Testing it at Kitty Hawk in October they flew it a record of 620 feet. Although the 1902 flyer was the first truly effective heavier-than-air craft, it didn’t have a propulsion system, and so it only counted as a glider, not an airplane.
Once again they returned to Dayton and began work on developing a propeller and an engine for their next effort, a flying machine. They had to make one more breakthrough to be successful here; they had to understand how propellers worked. This was harder than it seemed, as no one really understood that a propeller was nothing more than a wing that rotates on its axis, and lifts the plane forward. They then reasoned out the basic mental model of the propeller as a moveable wing. This allowed them to test propeller shapes in their wind tunnel, discovering an efficient shape. For their 1903 plane, they needed all the efficiency they could get.
To drive a propeller, you need power. The Wrights wanted a lightweight gasoline engine that would provide the necessary power. They tried to buy an engine, but no one was willing to build one to their specifics. Wilbur and Orville then built their own 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower engine. They built the 1903 Flyer in sections in the back room of their cycle shop, and with the able assistance of Charles Taylor, they built their own engine. There was no carburator. The gas was just dumped into the cylinders. It was air-cooled, without even the benefit of fins. To control the engine speed, the spark was advanced or retarded. It barely had the horsepower to drag the 1903 machine. As the engine broke in, the next year, it began to produce more horsepower, and better flights.
It was then shipped down to Kitty Hawk and assembled. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur for the first time tried to fly the machine but stalled it on takeoff. The brothers then flipped a coin to determine who would pilot the machine next. Orville won the toss. At 10:35 a.m., he made the first heavier-than-air, machine-powered flight in the history of the world. Even though the flight only lasted 12 seconds and covering just 120 feet, Orville did what men and women had only dreamed about, he flew. The brothers had finally developed the first flying machine.
The Wright brothers then went on to do more flights. At twenty minutes after eleven Wilbur started on the second flight. The speed over the ground was somewhat faster than that of the first flight, due to the lesser wind. The duration of the flight was less than a second longer than the first, but the distance covered was about seventy-five feet greater.
Twenty minutes later the third flight started. Wilbur was proceeding along pretty well when a sudden gust from the right lifted the machine up twelve to fifteen feet and turned it up sidewise in an alarming manner. It began sliding off to the left. He warped the wings to try to recover balance and at the same time pointed the machine down to reach the ground as quickly as possible. The time of this flight was fifteen seconds and the distance over the ground a little over 200 feet.
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just 12 o’clock. The distance over the ground was measured and found to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The rudder was now broken but the main body was in perfect shape, allowing just a few days for repairs, the Wright brothers were back at it trying to fly farther and longer.
The following year the Wrights replaced the engine with a more powerful 16-horsepower engine and separated the rudder controls from the controls that changed the shape of the wing. They tested their new model in their hometown of Dayton, learning to make longer flights and tighter turns.
In 1905 the Wrights were sufficiently confident of their design to offer it to the United States War Department. The following year they patented their control system, including the elevator, rudder, and wing warping controls. Although they spent time patenting and finding markets for their machines during the next few years, they did not feel sufficiently confident to exhibit their airplanes publicly until 1908. That year Wilbur demonstrated the plane in France, while Orville flew in the United States. In 1909 Wilbur flew in Italy and Orville in Berlin, Germany. The airplanes were now sufficiently well controlled and stable enough to allow Wilbur to make a flight of 20 miles in the United States.
During the next few years the brothers and their Wright Company continued building airplanes, but their competitors gained ground. In 1912 Wilbur died in Dayton, Ohio, of typhoid fever. But the legacy of Wilbur and his brother will go on forever as being known as the first men ever to fly in a heavier-then-air machine.