During the summer of 1896, twenty-five-year-old Orville Wright was recovering from typhoid fever in his Dayton, Ohio home. His brother, Wilbur Wright, was reading to Orville accounts of a German glider enthusiast named Otto Lilienthal who was killed in a crash flying his glider. The brothers started reading several books about bird flight and even applying the mechanics of it to powered human flight.
Despite the dreams of several visionaries who were studying human flight, the Washington Post proclaimed, “It is a fact that man can’t fly.” The Wright Brothers were amateurs who might just be able to prove the newspaper wrong. They had tinkered with mechanical inventions since they were boys. They had owned a printing press and now a bicycle shop and were highly skilled mechanics. They did not have the advantages of great wealth or a college education, but they had excellent good work habits and perseverance. They were enthusiastically dedicated and disciplined to achieve their goal.
On May 30, 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He stated, “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since I [was] a boy.” He added, “My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable.” He requested any reading materials that the Smithsonian might be willing to send. He received a packet full of recent pamphlets and articles including those of Samuel Pierpont Langley who was the Secretary of the Smithsonian.
The Wright brothers voraciously read the Smithsonian materials and books about bird flight. Based upon their study, they first built a glider that allowed them to acquire vast knowledge about the mechanics necessary to fly. They knew that this was a necessary step toward powered flight.
The Wright brothers next found a suitable location to test out their glider flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because that site had the right combination of steady, strong winds and soft sand dunes on which to crash land. They even flew kites and studied the flight of different birds to measure the air flow in the test area.
On October 19, 1900, Wilbur climbed aboard a glider and flew nearly 30 miles per hour for about 400 feet. They made several more test flights and carefully recorded data about them. Armed with this knowledge and experience, they returned to Dayton and made alterations to the glider during the winter. They returned to Kitty Hawk the following summer for additional testing.
The Wright brothers spent the summer of 1901 acquiring mounds of new data, taking test flights, and tinkering constantly on the design. The brothers experienced their share of doubts that they would be successful. During one low moment, Wilbur lamented that “not in a thousand years would man ever fly.” However, they encouraged each other, and Orville stated that “there was some spirit that carried us through.” During that winter, they even built a homemade wind tunnel and continued to re-design the glider based upon their practical discoveries in Kitty Hawk and theoretical experiments in Dayton.
During the fall of 1902, they made their annual pilgrimage to their camp at Kitty Hawk where they worked day and night. During one sleepless night, Orville developed an idea for a movable rear rudder for better control. They installed a rudder, and the modification helped them achieve even greater success with the glider flights. They knew they were finally ready to test a motor and dared to believe that they might fly through the air in what would become an airplane.
The Wright brothers spent hundreds of hours over the next year testing motors, developing propellers, and finding solutions to countless problems. Orville admitted, “Our minds became so obsessed with it that we could do little other work.” In December 1903, they reached Kitty Hawk and unpacked their powered glider for reassembly at their camp.
On December 17, five curious locals braved the freezing cold to watch Orville and Wilbur Wright as they prepared their flying machine. Wilbur set up their camera on its wooden tripod a short distance from the plane. Dressed in a suit and tie, Orville climbed aboard the bottom wing of the bi-plane and strapped himself in while the motor was warming up.
At precisely 10:35 a.m., Orville launched down the short track while Wilbur ran beside, helping to steady the plane. Suddenly, the plane lifted into the air, and Orville became the first person to pilot a machine that flew under its own power. He flew about 120 feet for nearly twelve seconds. It was a humble yet historic flight.
When Orville was later asked if he was scared, he joked, “Scared? There wasn’t time.” They readied the plane for another flight and a half-hour later, Wilbur joined his brother in history by flying “like a bird” for approximately 175 feet. They flew farther and farther that day, and Wilbur went nearly half a mile in 59 seconds. They sent their father a telegram sharing the news of their success, and as he read it, he turned to their sister and said, “Well, they’ve made a flight.”
One witness of the Wright Brothers’ first flight noted the character that made them successful. “It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea, and they had faith.” President William Howard Taft also praised the hard work that went into the Wright Brothers’ achievement. “You made this discovery,” he told them at an award ceremony “by keeping your noses right at the job until you had accomplished what you had determined to.” The Wright brothers’ flight was part of a long train of technological innovations that resulted from American ingenuity and spirit.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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