The Wright brothers made a small engine-powered flying machine and proved that it was possible for humans to really fly.
Wilbur Wright was born in eighteen sixty-seven near Melville, Indiana. His brother Orville was born four years later in Dayton, Ohio. Throughout their lives, they were best friends. As Wilbur once said: “From the time we were little children, Orville and I lived together, played together, worked together and thought together.”
Wilbur and Orville’s father was a bishop, an official of the United Brethren Church. He traveled a lot on church business. Their mother was unusual for a woman of the nineteenth century. She had completed college. She was especially good at mathematics and science. And she was good at using tools to fix things or make things.
One winter day when the Wright brothers were young, all their friends were outside sliding down a hill on wooden sleds. The Wright brothers were sad, because they did not have a sled. So, Mrs. Wright said she would make one for them. She drew a picture of a sled. It did not look like other sleds. It was lower to the ground and not as wide. She told the boys it would be faster, because there would be less resistance from the wind when they rode on it. Mrs. Wright was correct. When the sled was finished, it was the fastest one around. Wilbur and Orville felt like they were flying.
The sled project taught the Wright brothers two important rules. They learned they could increase speed by reducing wind resistance. And they learned the importance of drawing a design. Mrs. Wright said: “If you draw it correctly on paper, it will be right when you build it.”
When Wilbur was eleven years old and Orville seven, Bishop Wright brought home a gift for them. It was a small flying machine that flew like helicopters of today. It was made of paper, bamboo and cork.
The motor was a rubber band that had to be turned many times until it was tight. When the person holding the toy helicopter let go, it rose straight up. It stayed in the air for a few seconds. Then it floated down to the floor.
Wilbur and Orville played and played with their new toy. Finally, the paper tore and the rubber band broke. They made another one. But it was too heavy to fly. Their first flying machine failed.
Their attempts to make the toy gave them a new idea. They would make kites to fly and sell to their friends. They made many designs and tested them. Finally, they had the right design. The kites flew as though they had wings.
The Wright brothers continued to experiment with mechanical things. Orville started a printing business when he was in high school. He used a small printing machine to publish a newspaper. He sold copies of the newspaper to the other children in school, but he did not earn much money from the project.
Wilbur offered some advice to his younger brother. Make the printing press bigger and publish a bigger newspaper, he said. So, together, they designed and built one. The machine looked strange. Yet it worked perfectly. Soon, Orville and Wilbur were publishing a weekly newspaper.
They also printed materials for local businessmen. They were finally earning money. Wilbur was twenty-five years old and Orville twenty-one when they began to sell and repair bicycles. Then they began to make them. But the Wright brothers never stopped thinking about flying machines.
In eighteen ninety-nine, Wilbur decided to learn about all the different kinds of flying machines that had been designed and tested through the years. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He asked for all the information it had on flying.
The Wright brothers read everything they could about people who sailed through the air under huge balloons. They also read about people who tried to fly on gliders — planes with wings, but no motors.
Then the Wright brothers began to design their own flying machine. They used the ideas they had developed from their earlier experiments with the toy helicopter, kites, printing machine and bicycles.
Soon, they needed a place to test their ideas about flight. They wrote to the Weather Bureau in Washington to find the place with the best wind conditions. The best place seemed to be a thin piece of sandy land in North Carolina along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It was called Kill Devil Hill, near the town of Kitty Hawk. It had the right wind and open space. Best of all, it was private.
In nineteen hundred, the Wright brothers tested a glider that could carry a person. But neither the first or second glider they built had the lifting power needed for real flight. Wilbur and Orville decided that what they had read about air pressure on curved surfaces was wrong. So they built a wind tunnel two meters long in their bicycle store in Dayton, Ohio. They tested more than two hundred designs of wings. These tests gave them the correct information about air pressure on curved surfaces. Now it was possible for them to design a machine that could fly.
The Wright brothers built a third glider. They took it to Kitty Hawk in the summer of nineteen-oh-two. They made almost one thousand flights with the glider. Some covered more than one hundred eighty meters. This glider proved that they had solved most of the problems of balance in flight. By the autumn of nineteen-oh-three, Wilbur and Orville had designed and built an airplane powered by a gasoline engine. The plane had wings twelve meters across. It weighed about three hundred forty kilograms, including the pilot.
The Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk. On December seventeen, nineteen-oh-three, they made the world’s first flight in a machine that was heavier than air and powered by an engine. Orville flew the plane thirty-seven meters. He was in the air for twelve seconds. The two brothers made three more flights that day. The longest was made by Wilbur. He flew two hundred sixty meters in fifty-nine seconds. Four other men watched the Wright brothers’ first flights. One of the men took pictures. Few newspapers, however, noted the event.
Wilbur and Orville returned home to Ohio. They built more powerful engines and flew better airplanes. But their success was almost unknown. Most people still did not believe flying was possible. It was almost five years before the Wright brothers became famous. In nineteen-oh-eight, Wilbur went to France. He gave demonstration flights at heights of ninety meters. A French company agreed to begin making the Wright brothers’ flying machine.
Orville made successful flights in the United States at the time Wilbur was in France. One lasted an hour. Orville also made fifty-seven complete circles over a field at Fort Myer, Virginia. The United States War Department agreed to buy a Wright brothers’ plane. Wilbur and Orville suddenly became world heroes. Newspapers wrote long stories about them. Crowds followed them. But they were not seeking fame. They returned to Dayton where they continued to improve their airplanes. They taught many others how to fly.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in nineteen twelve. Orville Wright continued designing and inventing until he died many years later, in nineteen forty-eight.
Today, the Wright brothers’ first airplane is in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Visitors to the museum look at the Wright brothers’ small plane with its cloth wings, wooden controls and tiny engine. Then they see space vehicles and a rock collected from the moon. This is striking evidence of the changes in the world since Wilbur and Orville Wright began the modern age of flight, one hundred years ago.