The Wright brothers, Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 - January 30, 1948) and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 - May 30, 1912), are generally credited with the design and construction of the first practical aeroplane, and making the first controllable, powered heavier-than-air flight along with many other aviation milestones. However, their accomplishments have been subject to many counter-claims by some people and nations at their start, and through to the present day.
Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana in 1867, Orville in Dayton, Ohio in 1871. Both received high school educations but no diplomas.
The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where they opened a bicycle repair, design and manufacturing company (the Wright Cycle Company) in 1892. They used the occupation to fund their growing interest in flight. Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Otto Lilienthal and Samuel Pierpont Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation in 1899. The brothers extended the technology of flight by emphasizing control of the aircraft (instead of increased power) for taking off into the air. They developed three-axis control and established principles of control still used today.
The Wrights had researched and initially relied upon the aeronautical literature of the day, including Lilienthal's tables; but finding that the Smeaton Coefficient (a variable in the formula for lift and the formula for drag) was wrong, had a wind tunnel built by their employee, Charlie Taylor, and tested over two hundred different wing shapes in it, eventually devising their own tables relating air pressure to wing shape. Their work and projects with bicycles, gears, bicycle motors, and balance (while riding a bicycle), were critical to their success in creating the mechanical airplane.
During their research, the Wrights always worked together, and their contributions to the aeroplane's development are inseparable.
The Wright Brothers were noted for placing the emphasis of their aviation research on navigational control rather than simply lift and propulsion which would make sustained flight practical. To that end, they first made gliders (beginning in 1899), using an intricate system called “wing warping.” If one wing bent one way, it would receive more lift, which would make the plane lift. If they could control how the gliders' wings warped, then it would make flying much easier. To allow warping in the first gliders, they had to keep the front and rear posts that hold up the glider unbraced. The warping was then controlled by wire running through the wings, which led to sticks the flyer held, and he could pull one or the other to make it turn left or right.
In 1900 they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to continue their aeronautical work, choosing Kitty Hawk (specifically a sand dune called Kill Devil Hill) because of its strong and steady winds. They experimented with gliders at Kitty Hawk from 1900 through 1902, each year constructing a new glider. Their last glider applied many important innovations in flight, and the brothers made over a thousand flights with it. On March 23, 1903 they applied for a patent (granted as U.S. patent number 821,393, "Flying-Machine", on May 23, 1906) for the novel technique of controlling lateral movement and turning by "wing warping". By 1903, the Wright Brothers were perhaps the most skilled glider pilots in the world.
In 1903, they built the Wright Flyer -- later the Flyer I (today popularly known as the Kitty Hawk), carved propellers and had an engine built by Taylor in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. The propellers had a 66% efficiency rate. The engine was superior to manufactured ones, having a low enough weight-to-power ratio to use on an aeroplane*.
Then on December 17, 1903, the Wrights took to the air, both of them twice. The first flight, by Orville, of 39 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day, the only flight made that day which was actually controlled, Wilbur Wright flew 279 meters (852 ft) in 59 seconds.
The flights were witnessed by 4 lifesavers and a boy from the village, making it arguably the first public flight. A local newspaper reported the event, inaccurately. Only one other newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, printed the story the next day.
The Flyer I cost less than a thousand dollars to construct. It had a wingspan of 40 feet, weighed 750 pounds, and sported a 12 horsepower, 170 pound engine.
The Wrights established a flying field at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, and continued work in 1904, building the Flyer II and using a catapult take-off system to compensate for the lack of wind in this location. By the end of the year, the Wright Brothers had sustained 105 flights, some of them of 5 minutes, circling over the prairie, which is now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 1905, they built an improved aeroplane, the Flyer III.
In 1904 and 1905, the Wright Brothers conducted over 105 flights from Huffman Prairie in Dayton, inviting the press and friends and neighbors. Here they completed the first aerial circle and by October 5, 1905 Wilbur set a record of over 39 minutes in the air and 24 1/2 miles, circling over Huffman Prairie.
When a large contingent of journalists arrived at the field in 1904, for instance, the Wrights were experiencing mechanical difficulties, and were unable to correct them within two days. As a result, the first local report of the flights appeared in a beekeeping magazine. The news was not widely known outside of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"
The brothers became world famous in 1908 and 1909 when, weary of continuing doubt, they took their aeroplane on tour. Wilbur toured Europe demonstrating their aeroplane and organising a company to market it, while Orville demonstrated the flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia
On May 14, 1908 the Wright Brothers made the first two-person aircraft flight with Charlie Furnas as a passenger. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed in a powered airplane on September 17, 1908 when a propeller failure caused the crash of the passenger-carrying plane Orville was piloting during military tests at Fort Myer in Virginia. Orville broke a leg and two ribs. (This was the only serious accident the Wrights suffered.) In late 1908, Madame Hart O. Berg became the first woman to fly when she flew with Wilbur Wright in Le Mans, France.
The Wright Brothers brought great attention to flying by Wilbur's flight around the Statue of Liberty in New York in 1909.
Also in 1909, the Wrights won the first US military aviation contract when they built a machine that met the requirements of a two-seater, capable of flights of an hour's duration, at an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged. $30,000 of the federal budget was reserved for military aviation. That year the Wrights were also building Wright Flyers in factories in Dayton and in Germany.
On October 25, 1910, the Wright Brothers were engaged by Max Moorehouse of Columbus, Ohio to undertake the first commercial air cargo shipment. Moorehouse, owner of Moorehouse-Marten's Department store in Columbus asked if the Wright Brother's could carry a shipment of silk ribbon from a wholesaler in Dayton to Columbus. The Wright brothers agreed to the proposal, adding that their pilot and airplane would put on an exhibition once the cargo was delivered to the Driving Park landing area on the east side of Columbus. Moorehouse, in turn, agreed to pay the Wright's $5,000 for the service, which was more an exercise in advertising than a simple delivery. The actual flight occurred on November 7, 1910, with the Model "B" Wright Flyer piloted by Phil Parmalee. The sixty-two mile flight took 62 minutes, with Parmalee overtaking the "Big-Four" express train in London, Ohio. In addition to carrying the first air-freight, Parmalee's speed of 60 miles an hour set a world's record for in flight speed. For the return trip, however, the Wright Flyer was loaded on a train the night of the world record flight, and Paramalee returned to Dayton on the same Big Four Express train that he overtook in the air the day before.
The Wrights took over 300 photographs of flights and many other events of those pioneer days of aviation.
The Wrights were involved in several patent battles, which they won in 1914. Wilbur died from typhoid fever in 1912, an event Orville never completely recovered from. Orville sold his interests in the airplane company in 1915 and died thirty-three years later from a heart attack while fixing the doorbell to his home in Oakwood, Ohio. Neither brother married. The Flyer I is now in display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C..