The Robinson Library > Technology > Aeronautics > Biography
The Wright Brothers

builders of the first successful piloted airplane

Early Lives

Wilbur Wright was born a farm about eight miles from New Castle, Indiana, on April 16, 1867; Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio, on August 19, 1871. Their father, a bishop in the United Brethren Church, moved the family often, but they eventually settled in Dayton. There were two older brothers and one younger sister. Borth Wilbur and Orville completed high school (in Richmond, Indiana, and Dayton, respectively), but neither received a diploma. Wilbur chose to skip his commencement ceremony, while Orville took special subjects rather than regular courses in his final year.

Both Wilbur and Orville displayed an affinity for mechanical devices at an early age, and the two earned their pocket money by selling homemade mechanical toys. In 1889, Orville started a printing business with a press he and Wilbur built themselves. That same year they established the West Side News, first as a weekly and then as a daily paper. They began renting and selling bicycles in 1892, and began manufacturing their own model in 1896.

Orville and Wilbur Wright
Orville WrightWilbur Wright

Early Experiments in Flight

The Wright Brothers first became interested in flight after the death of glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal in 1896, and began serious study in 1899. By the end of 1899 they had built and experimented with a 5-foot biplane kite, but found the wind conditions around Dayton too unpredictable. Upon advice from the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service), they decided to move their tests to Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The brothers tested their first glider capable of carrying a person in 1900. This glider measured 16 feet from wing tip to wing tip and cost them about $15 to build. They tested an even larger glider in 1901, and during these tests showed they could control side-wise balance by presenting the right and left wings at different angles to wind. Neither of these gliders had the lifting power they desired however, so they decided that the published tables of air pressures on curved surfaces they were working from must be wrong. Returning to their Dayton shop, they built their own 6-foot wind tunnel and conducted over 200 tests on model wings. These tests allowed them to create reliable tables of air pressures on curved surfaces, which then allowed them to refine their glider design. In the summer of 1902 they returned to Kitty Hawk and conducted over a thousand test glides, covering over 600 feet during many of them. They applied for their first patent based on their 1902 glider in 1903.

Wright Brothers glider
Wright Brothers glider

First Powered Flights

The Wright Brothers had already begun designing a powered flying machine by the time they left Kitty Hawk in 1902. Working in their Dayton shop, they completed their first airplane by September of 1903, at a cost of less than $1,000, and returned to Kitty Hawk. The bi-wing contraption with forward-facing rudders and "push-type" propellor was 40-1/2 feet from wing tip to wing tip and weighed about 750 pounds, including the pilot. The brothers did all of the design and build work themselves, on both the airplane itself and its engine.

Weather conditions at Kitty Hawk kept the brothers grounded until December 17, 1903. On that day, Orville (the brothers tossed a coin to decide who would attempt the first flight) climbed into the pilot's position, the engine was started, and the plane proceeded to fly 120 feet in 12 seconds. The brothers made three more flights that day, with the longest, 852 feet in 59 seconds, made by Wilbur. Only five people besides Wilbur and Orville witnessed their first flights. Three or four area newspapers reported on the flights the next day, but all of their accounts were inaccurate. The brothers themselves had made it a point to keep their Dayton neighbors uninformed about their experiments just in case they failed, so news of their success had to wait until they returned. The first scientific account of the Wright Brothers' accomplishment was published in the magazine Gleanings in Bee Culture the following March.

first powered flight
first powered flight

After the First Flight

Having proven that manned powered flight was possible, the Wright Brothers moved their base of operations to a field near Dayton, where they continued refining their design. They made 105 flights in 1904, but only accumulated 45 minutes of total air time. Their longest flight was made on October 5, 1905, when the machine covered 24.2 miles in 38 minutes 3 seconds. When the brothers first offered their machine to the U.S. government, they were not taken seriously. But by 1908 they had closed a contract with the Department of War. Meanwhile, they resumed experimental flights at Kitty Hawk, which were reported on extensively by newspapers and wire services.

Upon completion of their latest round of test flights, Wilbur went to France, where he aroused the admiration of thousands. He made flights to altitudes of 300 feet and more, and arranged with a French company for construction of the "Wright Flyer" in France. When he returned to the United States, he made demonstration flights from Governors Island, New York, around the Statue of Liberty, up to Grant's Tomb, and back. While Wilbur was in France, Orville made successful flights in the United States. On September 9, 1908, he made 57 complete circles at altitude of 120 feet over the drill field at Fort Myer, Virginia. He remained in the air for 1 hour 2 minutes, and set several records that day.

The first true failure of the Wright Brothers' aviation career occurred on September 17, 1908. On that day, Orville was piloting a plane which also carried Thomas Selfridge, an Army officer who had been assigned to determine whether a Wright airplane could carry a passenger while simultaneously flying at a speed of at least 40 mph. The men were flying at about 75 feet when, while Orville was executing a slow turn, one of the propellor blades on the right-hand engine struck and loosened a rear rudder wire. Orville subsequently lost control of the plane, which plummeted nose-first to the ground. Orville suffered a broken thigh and two broken ribs and recovered within a year; Selfridge, however, suffered severe head injuries and died later that day.

Although Orville was laid up for almost a year, he and Wilbur did not let the crash dampen their enthusiasm for flight and continued building and testing new designs. In August of 1909, they closed a contract with a group of weathly men in Germany to form the German-Wright Company. Later that year, they formed the Wright Company in New York City to manufacture airplanes.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912, but Orville continued on alone. In 1913, he won the Collier Trophy for a device to balance airplanes automatically. He sold all his interest in the Wright Company and retired in 1915, but continued his work on the development of aviation out of his own shop, the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory. In 1929, he received the very first Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his and Wilbur's contributions to the advancement of aeronautics. Orville Wright died on January 30, 1948.

Other Information

Although the Wright Brothers are now recognized as the first to achieve manned powered flight, they were constantly troubled with imitators, infringements on their patents, conflicting claims, and lawsuits.

In 1928, Orville Wright sent the original plane flown at Kitty Hawk to the Science Museum in London, England, after a dispute with the Smithsonian Institution over his and his brother's place in the timeline of manned powered flight. The Smithsonian wanted to show the men as simply part of the general timeline, but Orville believed they deserved credit for being to first to achieve powered flight. After Orville's death, The Science Museum sent the plane to the United States, and it is now a central feature of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
Wright Brothers National Memorial

Otto Lilienthal
Thomas E. Selfridge

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The Robinson Library > Technology > Aeronautics > Biography

This page was last updated on 04/16/2017.