The Wright Way to Fly

The race to be first in flight
Science Faction/​Corbis The Wright Way to Fly
Rate this item
(0 votes)

A top Kill Devil Hill on North Carolina’s windswept Outer Banks stands a massive granite monument that reads: “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius; achieved by dauntless resolution and incomparable faith.“


Wilbur Wright would have had a problem with the word genius, it sits far more comfortably on the shoulders of Einstein, Mozart or Shakespeare. He might have substituted the word “inspiration.” Inspiration is a necessary condition, but with the Wright brothers resolution and faith carry most of the story line. There are several contenders for the title of greatest invention of all time. The airplane is one of them. But beyond all doubt no invention ever captured the imagination of the public like the airplane.

To use a trite expression, the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio were “as American as apple pie.” One can almost imagine Wilbur and Orville Wright in Boy Scout uniforms pedaling their bicycles off a Norman Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Wilbur, (b. 1867) and Orville (1871) were the youngest sons of Milton and Susan Koerner Wright, and part of a devout sect of the United Brethren in Christ in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur, who would become the driving force behind flight, was a bright but reserved, quirky and odd teenager. His one bow to normality was being a fine gymnast and figure skater, and that keen balance would later serve him well. Of the four Wright brothers, Wilbur was the standout. His two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, went to Hartsville College, but the parents had grander plans for Wilbur — Yale.

In 1886, however, fate intervened when Wilbur was struck in the face by an errant hockey stick. Suffering lacerations and the loss of several teeth, he was also stricken with what his father described as “nervous palpitations of the heart.” He recovered his health by year’s end, but the psychosomatic effects shifted his life into neutral. He began to drift. With other family members being away and his mother suffering from tuberculosis, Wilbur became her primary caretaker. He began reading widely and embarking on a rigorous program of self-​education.

Orville was the first to venture into business, cobbling together a printing press and printing the Brethren Church’s publications. Wilbur joined him, but their efforts were short-​lived. The streets of Dayton were jammed with bicycles, and in 1892, Orville and then Wilbur caught the fever. They turned their printing business over to brother Lorin and opened a shop to sell and repair bicycles. Any growth from the modest living they received was forestalled by their lackluster business skills, which would become more obvious a decade later when big money was on the table.

The Road to Kitty Hawk

Wilbur’s first interest in flight was likely kindled when he read an article in McClure’s Magazine about German engineer Otto Lilienthal, whom McClure’s called the “flying man.” Lilienthal had built a mono-​plane (one-​wing) glider with the wings spreading out from his body. He ran down a steep hill and let the air currents lift him 2030 feet above ground. The critical discovery allowing him to sail (not fly) hundreds of feet was curving the wings a precise number of degrees and holding them at the proper angle to the wind. He kept his balance by shifting his legs to maintain his center of gravity. In 1896, Lilienthal lost control and fell to his death, but his detailed calculations and photographs would help the Wright brothers.

On slow days at the shop, Wilbur began observing the flight patterns of pigeons outside. He noticed they wobbled quickly from side to side; it was not a weight shift, but something else. He conjectured that they were adjusting the angle of their wing tips, one up and one down. He called it “wing warping.” He took a bicycle tube box and held it on a line level with his eyes and then twisted or warped the ends of the box; one clockwise, one counterclockwise. The box looked like the wings of a biplane and seemed to replicate the action of the pigeons. He then built a five-​foot kite with two lines attached to the ends of a stick. By pulling on one end of the stick and releasing pressure on the other, he hoped to emulate the action of the pigeons. It worked.

In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the august Smithsonian Institution: “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight. My observations have convinced me more firmly than ever that human flight is possible and practicable. It is only a question of knowledge and skill as an acrobatic feat.” At 32, he was unmarried — as he and Orville would remain — and his lack of serious accomplishment offered little promise for the future. Yet, in his 13 remaining years, he would change the world.

When Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian, its director, Samuel P. Langley (18341906) was at the forefront of efforts to fly. A Bostonian, Langley spent 20 years in Pittsburgh (Langley High School is named for him) from 1867 to 1887, as director of the Allegheny Observatory and chairman of the astronomy department at the Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt). He joined the Smithsonian in 1887 and, with its resources, he set out to build a flying machine. Langley believed his aircraft would need power, reasoning that a flat stone thrown across water skips along the surface until it loses momentum and sinks. With sufficient power and speed, an aircraft could remain aloft. He thought sufficient power also would mitigate the problems of up-​and-​down and side-​to-​side control. With Langley it was power first and control second. Wilbur Wright disagreed.

Langley took a great step forward on May 6, 1896 when he launched an unmanned aerodrome (his name for the airplane) that flew a half mile in 90 seconds at a speed of 25 miles per hour. Langley’s close friend, Alexander Graham Bell, snapped a picture of the flight. Langley needed an internal combustion engine to power the aerodrome, but in 1896, no satisfactory engine existed. Langley turned to the steam engine. It was heavy and dirty, but it worked. And in November, Langley repeated the flight, this time doing a mile.

The next step was obvious — manned flight with an internal combustion engine. Langley estimated it would cost $50,000. Private funding was unavailable, but luck intervened in the form of the Spanish American War. The airplane made the War Department’s agenda, and in November 1898, the Board of Ordinance proposed a $25,000 allocation for Langley’s project, with a second $25,000 upon evidence of progress. The success of the 1896 unmanned flight, coupled with the backing of the government, made Langley the odds-​on favorite to capture the prize of “first man in the air.”

In 1900, the vast weight of popular and scientific opinion weighed against the possibility of manned flight. The small minority of believers was divided into two camps, the quacks and the scientific investigators. Adding notably to the work of Langley and the Wright brothers was wealthy Chicogoan Octave Chanute.

Chanute (18321910) was the foremost railroad engineer of his day and had devoted most of his energy during the past decade to studying manned flight. He personally experimented with gliders. However, his greatest contribution to the young science of aeronautics was as an informal clearinghouse for investigators. He gathered information from varied sources, including screwballs with wing-​flapping devices as well as those showing promise, including the Wrights. Chanute was impressed by Lilienthal’s work and shared the Wright brothers’ confidence in a dual wing, or biplane, design strengthening the frame with little additional weight.

In May 1900, Wilbur wrote to Chanute: “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life.” Wilbur estimated that in five years Lilienthal had spent no more than five hours in the air. More time in the air, reasoned Wilbur, would improve the art leading to more flight time — a virtuous circle. He proposed to conduct gliding experiments from a 150-​foot tower. Chanute disabused him of the idea, suggesting a sandy, windswept hill — towers were expensive, hills were free.

Kitty Hawk

Wilbur sent letters to likely Atlantic coast locations. Bill Tate, a fisherman in Kitty Hawk, N.C., replied favorably. The Outer Banks were covered with sand and offered the 80-​foot Kill Devil Hills, devoid of bushes or trees that might impede the steady 10– to 20-​mile-​an-​hour wind.

In Wilbur’s plan, he had to solve three problems: sufficient lift, adequate power and steering control. Wilbur regarded the first two as essentially solved and focused on control. If one holds a thin, flat object parallel to the ground, the earth’s gravity causes it to drop. Tilt it 15 degrees to the vertical, and the wind provides “lift.” Continue the rotation to 90 degrees and the wind pushes back — “drag.” Determine the correct angle of incidence (angle of attack) and you maximize lift and minimize drag. The concept is simple; its application excruciatingly complex. The biggest decision facing Wilbur was the wing’s size and shape. Relying heavily upon Lilienthal, he made the wings 17 feet from tip to tip and five feet wide, with a curvature of one inch in 23 inches.

He arrived in the Outer Banks, in September 1900 and had trouble finding anyone who’d heard of Kitty Hawk, population 60. Orville appeared Sept. 28, and on Oct. 3 they stepped out of their tent into a stiff wind. With one brother at each end, they released the glider into the facing wind. In Wilbur’s words, “they felt its weight evaporate.” As it rose, with lines attached to the horizontal rudder in front, they could easily glide up or down. With Bill Tate and Orville at the tips and Wilbur in the middle, they ran along until Wilbur was able to lie in the 15-​inch space between the wings. They repeated the process, measuring the pounds of pull on the rope with a grocery scale. Trigonometry provided numbers for lift (the pull up) and drift (pull back). The disappointing numbers showed far less lift than anticipated. They relocated four miles south to Kill Devil Hills and imitated Lilienthal by running downhill facing the wind. The results were better but still unsatisfactory. On his best run, Wilbur followed the contour of the hill just a few feet off the ground for a distance of 400 feet. After the last run, they launched the unmanned glider toward the ocean and watched it plunk in the sand, They left it there, departing for Dayton on Oct. 23. In a dozen flights, Wilbur was airborne a total of two minutes. Tate’s wife, Addie, turned the French sateen wing coverings into dresses for their daughters.

The second season

In July 1901, Chanute joined the Wrights at Kitty Hawk. They doubled the wing curvature and increased the wings from 17 to 22 feet and the width from 5 to 7 feet. The glider weighed 98 pounds, compared with 50 the previous year. In addition to a stop watch and a Richard anemometer measuring wind direction and speed, Chanute gave the brothers a brass clinometer for determining precise angles of sand dunes, glider descent and tether rope. They hoped for additional lift, but the glider went 20 feet and again plunked in the sand. Wilbur kept moving further back on the wing until the nose of the machine stayed up and he was airborne. But he couldn’t control forward-​to-​aft movement. Lift was inconsistent and inadequate. They made the wing curvature more shallow, and on Aug. 8, Wilbur made several glides of 30 feet or more. The fore/​aft control problem appeared to be solved.

They had taken a step forward, but when they tried wing warping to maintain side-​to-​side balance (roll control), nothing worked. Confounded and disheartened, they returned to Dayton. On the way, Wilbur “doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. We considered…[them] a failure.”

The third season

During Chanute’s brief time at Kitty Hawk, he had seen the largest glider yet built flown by Wilbur for several hundred feet under reasonable control. He returned to Chicago as optimistic as the brothers were pessimistic. He invited Wilbur to address the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago. Still disappointed, Wilbur reluctantly went. In his 7,500-word talk, he used a “fractious horse” as metaphor for the airplane. One could mount the beast and learn to stay in the saddle through trial and error. Or one could sit on the fence, study the horse and develop an appropriate plan. By implication the first approach was Wilbur’s and the second Langley’s. The warm reception of his remarks banished all thoughts of quitting.

Back in Dayton, the brothers devised a crude wind tunnel, 16 inches square and six feet long. A fan simulated winds of 2025 miles per hour. They made six-​square-​inch test wings, cut from steel 132 of an inch thick and hammered into the desired curvature. In their “Kitty Hawk in a box,” they tested hundreds of wings. Wing 12 won. It was one by six inches, with a curvature of one in 16. Learning of their progress, Chanute offered to raise money, perhaps $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie. The Wrights declined.

The wings of the new 1902 glider were 32 feet long and five feet wide. The curvature was shallower. In place of screws and bolts they lashed the frame together with waxed linen cord. The wax held the cords fast to the frame and to themselves. During the bumps and jolts of landing, the cord would give and then snap back into place. They sewed linen covering at 45 degrees to the frame, adding notable strength. They improved the wing warping by replacing the cumbersome foot-​activated mechanism with a hip cradle activated by leaning toward the high wing.

On Sept. 17, Wilbur made 25 glides with near perfect results. Occasionally, however, a wing tip would rise and fail to respond to the wing warping remedies. The glider would go into a sickening slide and touch down wing tip first. Orville solved the problem with a movable tail that effectively counteracted the rolling tendency. With this last piece of the puzzle in place, Wilbur and Orville had essentially solved the problem of flight. They had control in all three dimensions — roll (using wing warping to control lateral balance), pitch (using a horizontal rudder to control fore and aft balance) and yaw (using a movable tail turning right or left). After more than 1,000 glides, they returned to Dayton, as elated as they’d been depressed a year earlier.

The champion season

Meanwhile, the focus of Langley’s efforts was seeking the right engine.

He had promised the government a test in 1900, and it was nowhere in sight. After failed efforts elsewhere, Langley brought the work in-​house at the Smithsonian.

Progress was slow, but by 1902 his team had built an exceptional 53.5-horsepower engine weighing 207.5 pounds — five times his initial requirements.

Through Chanute, Langley kept abreast of the Wrights’ progress. With the engine problem solved, he became concerned about control, writing to Wilbur and asking to visit Kitty Hawk and then inviting the brothers to visit him in Washington. Holding a strong hand, the brothers declined. With government funding exhausted, Langley forged ahead with test flights.

On Oct. 7, his aerodrome with pilot was catapulted off the top of a specially designed houseboat on the windy Potomac. The aerodrome caught on the launching car and plunged into the water. Claiming failure of the launching apparatus, not the aerodrome, he tried again Dec. 7. Dusk was approaching and the wind was up. It was now or never. The launch was successful, but the power of the engine crumpled the rear wings and for a moment the doomed craft pointed straight up and then dropped tail first into the river. Langley was out of the game.

The brothers returned to the Kill Devil Hills on Sept. 25 1903. They had to solve the problem of an engine and propellers necessary for powered flight. They sought an eight-​horsepower engine weighing less than 200 pounds. Finding none, they sketched specifications and asked their bicycle shop man, Charlie Taylor, to build one. Taylor delivered a 12-​horsepower, 180-​pound engine. Their key conceptual breakthrough was to envision the airplane propeller as a curved narrow wing, unlike marine propellers. With calculations filling five notebooks, they settled upon a pair of eight-​foot pusher propellers. The finished machine with pilot weighed 700 pounds.

On a Nov. 5 test, however, the propeller shafts sprung loose from their mountings and had to be replaced. With Langley threatening a second launch before Christmas, they awaited Taylor’s new shafts from Dayton. Murphy’s law reigned, but by Dec. 14 the new propellers were installed. On Dec. 17, the wind was right, and the culmination of four years’ work was at hand.

They laid 60 feet of wooden track on the flat facing the wind. By a coin toss, Orville was first. They placed the airplane’s skid atop a one-​wheeled cart. Wilbur, with his left hand on the right wing, jogged alongside until they reached eight miles an hour. Daylight began to appear between the skids and the cart — first an inch, then a foot. Orville was in flight. A famous photograph shows Orville prone on the plane, no more than 10 feet off the ground and Wilbur with cap and jacket. After Orville traveled 120 feet, Wilbur followed, then Orville again, each flight modestly longer than the other. The fourth and final flight took Wilbur a total of 852 feet in 59 seconds at an average speed of 37 miles per hour. It was, as Wilbur said, “the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air… and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it had started.” Langley had spent over $70,000 on his failed aerodrome project. The Wright Brothers had spent less than $1,000.

Staking their claim

In 1927, when Charles A. Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget Field after 33 hours across the Atlantic, he achieved instant fame. Not so for the Wright brothers. The reason for their long struggle for recognition lies at the feet of the press and their own desire for secrecy. The first newspaper account hailed a flight of three miles, and when the truth came out — 852 feet in 59 seconds — it was yesterday’s news. When Lorin Wright took the facts to the Dayton Journal, the city editor said, “59 seconds — if it were 59 minutes it might be worth mentioning.” The big news was not the Wright brothers’ triumph, but Langley’s spectacular failure on the Potomac, and it cast a pall over manned flight. In January 1904, Wilbur engaged a patent attorney in Springfield, Ohio. They resolved to keep a low profile, lest the secrets of their discovery leak out before they had patent protection.

In May 1904, on a vacant farm, the brothers began test flights to advance their Kitty Hawk breakthroughs. To substitute for the winds of the Outer Banks, they erected a catapult, 16 feet high, dropping a 1,000-pound weight, sending the Flyer (renamed after 1903 to distinguish it from the 1902 gliders) down a 250-​foot launch rail. Progress was slow. In October, Wilbur first flew a circle and, in November, four circles, for a total of three miles. Rudder problems caused the plane to bob and dip.

The clouds began to part in 1905. They rebuilt the craft; only the engine remained from 1904. It was stronger and heavier with vertical veins added to the horizontal rudder. Progress was solid and impressive September — 11 miles in 20 minutes; October — 25 miles in 40 minutes. They were comfortable at heights to 80 feet; the bobs and dips were gone. By the end of the 1905 season, they had a machine of demonstrable, practical utility. They would not fly again for three years.

The brothers knew they would soon possess a valuable patent on an extraordinarily valuable invention. They were nonpareil inventors, but businessmen of modest capabilities. They wanted to sidestep the trials and tribulations of building a business and simply sell their patents for a stiff price of $250,000 ($5 million in today’s money). This would give them the wherewithal to continue their scientific pursuits unimpeded by financial constraint. But the stiff-​necked brothers with their penchant for secrecy strangled their golden opportunity in the cradle. They insisted upon a contract before they would provide a demonstration flight. When that failed, they turned to a second alternative, and by early 1908 they had two contracts to sell a workable airplane to the governments of France and the United States.

In the intervening three years, though, aviation had not stood still. Some of their secrets were getting out. In France, Alberto Santos-​Dumont, Leon Delagrange and Henri Farman and were in the air. So too was Glenn Curtiss in the United States. And unlike the Wright brothers, they were trumpeting, not hiding their modest progress.

Curtiss proved to be the Wright brothers’ nemesis in several dimensions. A manufacturer and racer of motorcycles, he earned the title “fastest man in the world” in 1907 by pounding across the hard-​packed sand at Ormond Beach, Fla. at 137 miles an hour. With backing and inspiration from Alexander Graham Bell, he turned his attention to aviation.

In May of 1908, the Wrights split forces, with Wilbur going to France and Orville to Fort Myer, outside Washington, D.C., for the U.S. tests. The French remained dubious when on Aug. 8, Wilbur flew at Les Hunaudières. In his gray suit, plain cap and starched collar, Wilbur executed two tight half-​circle turns, all with perfect command of the craft. It was over in two minutes, and fewer than 100 people saw it, but the effect was electrifying. On his next flight, 2,000 people watched as he flew a figure eight. He followed that with an eight-​minute flight amid gusty winds. The French were doubters no more, and as the flyer Delagrange said, nous sommes battus (we are beaten). The Wrights became the toast of Europe. Thousands thronged to see the phenomenal new thing called flight, including crowned heads of state.

That fall, Orville had turned in an equally impressive performance before the army brass and cabinet secretaries at Fort Myer. Despite a crash that killed a passenger and seriously injured Orville, the U.S. government was convinced.

The brothers were at work building aircraft in the U.S. and France. But they were scientists, inventors and engineers; not businessmen. And after Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of typhoid fever, Orville was left with little stomach for the business.

Meanwhile, Curtiss had his sights on their franchise. An inventor, flyer and manufacturer, Curtiss was above all an aggressive businessman. He saw the future of commercial aircraft clearly and planned to race, gain publicity and manufacture aircraft.

When a 1914 Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upheld the brothers’ patent, Curtiss persuaded the Smithsonian to haul Langley’s aerodrome out of storage. He would fly it — without modification — to cast doubt on the Wrights’ patents. It did fly a few hops, but with modifications. But the advent of war in 1914 swept aside any patent concerns. The Allies wanted planes, and Curtiss provided them. His JN40, nicknamed the Jenny, made him a fortune. And after Curtiss’s questionable flights with the aerodrome, the Smithsonian in a clear conflict of interest, hailed Langley’s invention as “the first man-​carrying aeroplane… capable of sustained free flight.”

In 1915, Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company. Until he died in 1949, he fought the injustice resulting from the chicanery between Curtiss and the Smithsonian. After unsuccessfully lobbying the Smithsonian to change its position, Orville sent the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London. Finally, in 1942, Smithsonian Secretary Charles Abbot announced that the Wright brothers, and not Samuel Langley, were the inventors of the airplane. And in 1948, the Flyer was placed in the position of honor at the Smithsonian, nudging aside the Spirit of St. Louis.

In the end, Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers each got what they wanted. Curtiss got the money, and the Wright brothers received honor and immortality. This was probably just as well. There is a purity and sanctity about the Wright brothers’ achievement that money may have tainted.


William S. Dietrich II

Dietrich was a native of Pittsburgh, who wrote about Pittsburgh history and its greatest industrial leaders and historic philanthrophists. Bill joined that group shortly before his death in 2011, leaving more than $500 million to a variety of Pittsburgh institutions. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton, and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984. He spent his entire business career with Dietrich Industries from 1961 to 2003, eventually serving as president and CEO, and then as non-​executive chairman. He is the author of “In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline.”

Explore Related Stories:

Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input