A pair of self-taught engineers working in a bicycle shop, they made the world a forever smaller place
Wilbur and Orville Wright were two brothers from the heartland of America with a vision as sweeping as the sky and a practicality as down-to-earth as the Wright Cycle Co., the bicycle business they founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892. But while there were countless bicycle shops in turn-of-the-century America, in only one were wings being built as well as wheels. When the Wright brothers finally realized their vision of powered human flight in 1903, they made the world a forever smaller place. I’ve been to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and seen where the brothers imagined the future, and then literally flew across its high frontier. It was an inspiration to be there, and to soak up the amazing perseverance and creativity of these two pioneers.
The Wright brothers had been fascinated by the idea of flight from an early age. In 1878 their father, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, gave them a flying toy made of cork and bamboo. It had a paper body and was powered by rubber bands. The young boys soon broke the fragile toy, but the memory of its faltering flight across their living room stayed with them. By the mid-1890s Wilbur was reading every book and paper he could find on the still earthbound science of human flight. And four years before they made history at Kitty Hawk, the brothers built their first, scaled-down flying machine–a pilotless “kite” with a 5-ft. wingspan, and made of wood, wire and cloth. Based on that experiment, Wilbur became convinced that he could build an aircraft that would be “capable of sustaining a man.”
While the brothers’ bicycle business paid the bills, it was Wilbur’s abiding dream of building a full-size flying machine that inspired their work. For many years, he once said, he had been “afflicted with the belief that flight is possible.” The reality of that obsession was a lonely quest for the brothers in the workroom behind their bike shop, plotting to defy gravity and conquer the wind. Yet that obsessive kind of world-changing belief is a force that drives you to solve a problem, to find the breakthrough–a force that drives you to bet everything on a fragile wing or a new idea. It was a force that led the Wright brothers to invent, single-handedly, each of the technologies they needed to pursue their dream.
When published aeronautical data turned out to be unreliable, the Wright brothers built their own wind tunnel to test airfoils and measure empirically how to lift a flying machine into the sky. They were the first to discover that a long, narrow wing shape was the ideal architecture of flight. They figured out how to move the vehicle freely, not just across land, but up and down on a cushion of air. They built a forward elevator to control the pitch of their craft as it nosed up and down. They fashioned a pair of twin rudders in back to control its tendency to yaw from side to side. They devised a pulley system that warped the shape of the wings in midflight to turn the plane and to stop it from rolling laterally in air. Recognizing that a propeller isn’t like a ship’s screw, but becomes, in effect, a rotating wing, they used the data from their wind-tunnel experiments to design the first effective airplane props–a pair of 8-ft. propellers, carved out of laminated spruce, that turned in opposite directions to offset the twisting effect on the machine’s structure. And when they discovered that a lightweight gas-powered engine did not exist, they decided to design and build their own. It produced 12 horsepower and weighed only 152 lbs.
The genius of Leonardo da Vinci imagined a flying machine, but it took the methodical application of science by these two American bicycle mechanics to create it. The unmanned gliders spawned by their first efforts flew erratically and were at the mercy of any strong gust of wind. But with help from their wind tunnel, the brothers amassed more data on wing design than anyone before them, compiling tables of computations that are still valid today. And with guidance from this scientific study, they developed the powered 1903 Flyer, a skeletal flying machine of spruce, ash and muslin, with a wingspan of 40 ft. and an unmanned weight of just over 600 lbs.
On Dec. 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the Flyer lifted off shakily from Kitty Hawk and flew 120 ft. – little more than half the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400. That 12-sec. flight changed the world, lifting it to new heights of freedom and giving mankind access to places it had never before dreamed of reaching. Although the Wright brothers’ feat was to transform life in the 20th century, the next day only four newspapers in the U.S. carried news of their achievement – news that was widely dismissed as exaggerated.
The Wright brothers gave us a tool, but it was up to individuals and nations to put it to use, and use it we have. The airplane revolutionized both peace and war. It brought families together: once, when a child or other close relatives left the old country for America, family and friends mourned for someone they would never see again. Today, the grandchild of that immigrant can return again and again across a vast ocean in just half a turn of the clock. But the airplane also helped tear families apart, by making international warfare an effortless reality.
The Wrights created one of the greatest cultural forces since the development of writing, for their invention effectively became the World Wide Web of that era, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together. It also ushered in an age of globalization, as the world’s flight paths became the superhighways of an emerging international economy. Those superhighways of the sky not only revolutionized international business; they also opened up isolated economies, carried the cause of democracy around the world and broke down every kind of political barrier. And they set travelers on a path that would eventually lead beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Wright brothers and their invention, then, sparked a revolution as far-reaching as the industrial and digital revolutions. But that revolution did not come about by luck or accident. It was vision, quiet resolve and the application of scientific methodology that enabled Orville and Wilbur to carry the human race skyward. Their example reminds us that genius doesn’t have a pedigree, and that you don’t discover new worlds by plying safe, conventional waters. With 10 years of hindsight, even Orville Wright admitted that “I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine.”
Now, on the eve of another century, who knows where the next Wright brothers will be found, in what grade of school they’re studying, or in what garage they’re inventing the next Flyer of the information age. Our mission is to make sure that wherever they are, they have the chance to run their own course, to persevere and follow their own inspiration. We have to understand that engineering breakthroughs are not just mechanical or scientific – they are liberating forces that can continually improve people’s lives. Who would have thought, as the 20th century opened, that one of its greatest contributions would come from two obscure, fresh-faced young Americans who pursued the utmost bounds of human thought and gave us all, for the first time, the power literally to sail beyond the sunset.
The 20th century has been the American Century in large part because of great inventors such as the Wright brothers. May we follow their flight paths and blaze our own in the 21st century.