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The Wright Brothers

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With no formal qualifications, they solved the challenge of flight.
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To be sure, these two are far stranger than generally thought. They grew up in a rigidly conservative religious household. Wilbur spent a year or more in a severe depression after a sporting accident. Orville dropped out of high school to start a printing business. Neither was ever romantically linked to any one of either gender, but both were devoted to their sister to the point of obsession.

Horribly antisocial and painfully shy they are not your typical heroic pair.

All this strangeness adds to their appeal, that these quintessential American heroes are, it turns, out, people with rough edges to them.

But look at what they accomplished. Out of nowhere, with no qualifications, little financial backing and no connections to anyone important, they solved the problem of heavier than air flight. And, make no mistake, they really did solve it: various claims for the priority of others are all little more than fables.

They invented the first practical way of making aircraft controllable in all three dimensions, invented the first practical wind tunnel for testing wing shapes, fabricated a more efficient motor, designed an amazingly efficient propellor and carried out a multi-year test program culminating in December 17, 1903's miracle.

Thank God the psychologists and counselors were not able to get a hold of them as teenagers and turn them into normal, well-adjusted people.

The Wright Flyer
It is primitive. The wings slope downward rather than up making it harder to control, wing-warping was not a very good idea, the only instrumentation was a stopwatch and a wind-driven odometer, the engine produced just 12hp from 180 lbs of home-crafted metal and there was no throttle: the engine ran full tilt until it ran out of gas.

And one other thing, the craft is unstable. It is controllable, but not stable. If some force pushes it off center, it wants to go farther off rather than coming back on its own. This is a nice attribute for nimble fighter jets with computer driven control systems. It is a terrible thing in a simple hand-controlled aircraft.

How interesting that modern pilots have a very hard time flying it.

Sources:

Peter Garrison, "What was right about the Wright Flyer," Flying, Dec. 2003.

Peter Garrison, "Wrightophilia," Flying, Dec. 2003.

Richard P. Hallion, "The Wright Brothers: How they flew," Invention & Technology, Fall 2003.

Phaedra Hise, "The Wright Brothers: How they failed," Invention & Technology, Fall 2003.

"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 cost me an increased amount of money if not my life."
-- Wilbur Wright, 1900.

"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 in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."
-- Orville Wright, describing their achievement.

"This morning at 3:15, Wilbur passed away, aged 45 years, 1 month, and 14 days. A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died."
- Bishop Milton Wright, on his son, May, 1912.

"Wilbur and I could hardly wait for morning to come to get at something that interested us. That's happiness."
-- Orville Wright

Links

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co. Historical information. Don't miss the newly recoverd 1910 interview of the Wrights by Kate Carew. (Up 5/15/05)

Re-living the Wright Way. On the science of the Wright Flyer. By Tom Benson. (Up 5/15/05)

Kitty Hawk NC Where they did it. (Up 5/15/05)

National Park Service museum at Kitty Hawk (Up 5/15/05)

SUCCESS // FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING // ALL AGAINST TWENTY-ONE MILE WIND // STARTED FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINE POWER ALONE // AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR THIRTY-ONE MILES // LONGEST 57 SECONDS // INFORM PRESS // HOME CHRISTMAS

-- Telegram Orville Wright sent his father December 17, 1903

Last modified 6/14/08; posted 9/6/01; original content © 2008, 2001 John P. Nordin