Wright, Wilbur

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(b.Miliville, Indiana, 16 April 1867; d. Dayton, Ohio, 30 May 1912)


(b. Dayton, Ohio, 19 August 1871; d. Dayton. Ohio, 30 January 1948)


Wilbur and Orville Wright, the sons of Milton Wright, a bishop of the United Brethren Church, and Susan Catherine Koerner, had two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, and a younger sister, Katharine. Their upbringing in a family where liberality of thought and individual initiative and expression were encouraged, contributed markedly to their later achievements. Although their formal education did not go beyond high school, they were widely read, especially in the technical literaics and smatterings of French and German. Both were of medium stature, trim, and athletic, and from boyhood showed powers of physical endurance and mechanical skill and ingenuity. After youthful ventures in editing and printing small Cycle Company in 1892 and for the next decade made their living by the design, manufacture, and sale of bicycles.

The death, on 10 August 1896, of German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, from injuries suffered in a gliding accident, led the Wrights to the serious study of flight. By 1899 they had carried their theory of lateral balance (aileron control) to the point of a practical demonstration made by Wilbur, in August, using a five-foot-span biplance kite. Equilibrium was maintained and maneuver made possible by varying the air pressures at the wing tips through adjustment of the angles of attack on the two sides. With this action and an adjustable horizontal surface (elevator), later (1902) combined with the compensating action of a movable vertical rudder, they achieved control about the threeaxes of the airplane. The system was patented in 1906 and has been used on all airplanes ever ever since.

Discovering–from field experiments and tentative gliding trials at kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the summers of 1900 and 1901–that almost all existing aerodynamic datawere erroneous, the Wrights designed a small wind tunnel in which, in the fall of 1901, they tested several hundred model airfoils and obtained reliable lift and drag measurements as well as many other essential aerodynamic data.

With this knowledge, in October 1902 they began the construction of a powered of a powered airplane. The all-up weight, including pilot, was 750 pounds. The engine and propellers were of their own design and manufacture, and the propellers were based entirely on theories they originated. With this machine four successful fights were made from the level sand near the Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903. The final, longest flight lasted for fifty-nine seconds and covered a distance of 852 feet; this represented about half a mile through the air.

The Wrights devoted the next five years to improving both their invention and their skill as pilots. In 1905, with the airplane nearing the state of practical utility, they offered their patent and their scientific data to the United States War Department, which rejected the overture. Convinced that the first use of the airplane would be in war, the Wrights sought markets abroad. In 1908, after many rebuffs, they received purchase offers from a French syndicate and from the Unitted States government

Demonstration trials in the two countries took place concurrently, with Orville flying in the United States and Wilbur in France. All doubt of the Wrights’ mastery of the air evaporated, and the honors and adulation of two continents were heaped upon them. In 1909 Wilbur flew at Rome and Orvile at Berlin.

The culmination of the Wrights’ achievements came with Wilbur’s two flights at New York in 1909. On 29 September, taking off from and landing at Governors Island, he made a circuit of the Statue of Liberty; on 4 October he flew a twenty–one–mile course to Grant’s Tomb and back.

After their triumph the brothers quietly turned to teaching others to fly and to directing the Wright Company. They now had many imitators and rivals, and were forced to defend their pioneer patent in the courts. Under the strain. Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and died suddenly on 30 May 1912. Having divested himself of his interest in the Wright Company in 1915, Orville, after World War I. confined his aviation activities mainly to research, including membership in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronatics. He survived his brother by nearly thirty-six years. On the twenty-fifty anniversary of the first flight he witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills–the only United States national monument erected during the lifetiome of a man so honored.


The letters of the Wrights have been collected in Miracle at Kitty Hawk; the Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright Fred C. Kelly, ed. (New York, 1951); their papers in The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Including the Chanute–Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute M. W. McFarland, ed., 2 vols. (New York-Toronto-London, 1953). Orville Wright wrote How We Invented the Aeroplane (New York,1953), Orvile Wright wrote How We Invented the Aeroplane (New York, 1953), edited with a commentary by F. C. Kelly. See also Wilbur Wright’s first rebuttal deposition contained in the complainant’s record in the case of Wright Company v Herring Curtiss Company and Glenn H. Curtiss, U.S. District Court, Western District of New York, 1912, vol. 1

A biography of the Wrights is F.C Kelly, The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright (New York, 1943). See also C.H. Gibbs–Smith, The Invention of the Aeroplane (1799–1909) (New york, 1966); W. Langewiesche, “What the Wrights Really Invented,” in Harper’s Magazine200 (June 1950), 102–105; and M.W. McFarland, “When the Airplane Was a Military Secret: A study of National Attitudes Before 1914,” in U.S. Air Services39 (Sept. 1954), 11, bur Wright,” Ibid40 (Dec. 1955), 4–6.

Marvin W. McFarland

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