The Wright  Brothers' Journey of Invention
Full Story, Part III

 

Witty or Scientific

 

Katharine Wright.

Back at their home in Dayton, Katharine sensed that things had not gone well for her brothers.  She wrote to her father:

 

They haven’t much to say about flying. They can only talk about how disagreeable Mr. Huffaker was.

—Katharine Wright, sister

 

Octave Chanute.

 

Less than a month after their return, a letter arrived at 7 Hawthorn Street that would help bring Wilbur out of his melancholy and change the course of aviation history. The letter was from Octave Chanute and it was a request for Wilbur to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming meeting of the Western Society of Engineers—one of the most august and distinguished bodies of engineers and scientists in the country.

 

Katharine Wright.

 

 

Wilbur’s first inclination was to turn the request down. He had never before made a public presentation on aeronautics and was feeling none-too-certain about his findings. But Katharine, now a teacher and the only college graduate in the family, had another plan. She wrote to her father:

 

Will was about to refuse, but I nagged him into going. He will get acquainted with some scientific men and it may do him a lot of good.

—Katharine Wright, sister

 

Wilbur Wright.

 

This was an incredible honor. It marked Wilbur as an accomplished man. All of a sudden, a part of his dream is beginning to happen.

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

The invitation was just the incentive Wilbur needed. While preparing for the speech, he was forced to reexamine all the trials and tribulations of the past two years.

 

The most important thing it did for them was it made Wilbur put down on paper these thoughts they’ve been discussing between themselves for a couple of years now.

Fred Howard, author

Katharine asked Wilbur if his speech was to be “witty or scientific,” to which he replied that, “he thought it would be pathetic before he got through with it!”

 

Gathering of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, Illinois.

Wearing a borrowed shirt and cuffs from his brother, Wilbur addressed the seventy members of the Western Society of Engineers.

 

It was ladies’ night. Wilbur was kind of shy about ladies. Older ladies he could deal with, but younger ladies kind of made him nervous.

Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

 

Lantern-lit slide projector.

 

With lantern-lit slides of the brothers’ flying machines, Wilbur detailed the successes and failures of the last two years.

 

Kind of incredible. This guy with no basic experience in public speaking, no experience in preparing scientific papers for presentation at a professional gathering. And yet, it sounds as if he did extremely well and was extremely well received.

James Tobin, author

 

"Some Aeronautical Experiments" published in the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers.

The corrected transcript of his speech was printed and reprinted in numerous scientific and engineering journals on both sides of the Atlantic. The paper, modestly titled “Some Aeronautical Experiments,” became the guidebook for every new experimenter entering the field over the next ten years.

 

Wilbur Wright and four of his airfoil test data figures.

 

 

 

 

Wilbur’s speech to the Western Society of Engineers gave him a boost of confidence and a renewed determination to solve the problems the brothers had encountered. The Wrights’ mission became clear: they would trust nothing that they could not prove themselves. No widely accepted formula would go untested and no figures would go unchecked.

 

Replica Wright wind tunnel.

 

 

 

 

Their quest would lead them to conduct hundreds of tests on airfoil surfaces and shapes. They built a small wind tunnel in the back room of their bicycle shop and spent hours upon hours peering down through the glass viewing window at delicate testing balances.

 

 

 

Replica Wright airfoil test balance.

 

Again, it’s one of those moments when you can see the genius of the Wright brothers. They devise these little balances. They’re built out of old hacksaw blades and bicycle spoke wire and they pin these little metal airfoil models on them. The fan starts moving at twenty-five mile an hour wind through that tunnel and the little balances move in such a way that they drop out the precise figures you need to calculate the coefficients of lift and drag.

Tom Crouch, author

 

Replica Wright airfoil test balance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A cambered surface has air rushing across it. The air produces lift so that it lifts up, but at the same time, it’s also dragging that cambered surface back. And your most efficient wing is not necessarily the wing that produces the most lift, but the wing that produces the most lift with the least drag.

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Replica Wright airfoil test balance.

The Wrights reveled in their groundbreaking findings—the wind tunnel experiments had provided the critical answers they sought. But the brothers brought their research to an abrupt end the first week of December, 1901. There were next year’s bicycles to build and preparations for next season’s trials to make.

 

Replica Wright airfoil test balance.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wrights emerged from the back room of their bicycle shop with a mountain of data that would help them design their next flying machine.

 

Replica Wright airfoil test balance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the course of two months, a pair of Dayton bicycle mechanics, using only a small, wooden wind tunnel and little bits of metal, redefined aeronautics for the new century. Yet their friend Octave Chanute, the celebrated elder statesman of aeronautics, was having a difficult time keeping up.

Octave Chanute.

 

 

 

 

Chanute was not quite up to understanding what they were doing or what they were trying to explain to him, and he was really left behind.

—Fred Howard, author

With greater frequency, Wilbur had to write longer and longer explanations of new aerodynamic concepts that the elder statesman of flight never fully grasped.

 

Whether he really grasps what they’re doing or not, he’s someone Wilbur can always talk to. Maybe Chanute will understand and say something useful. If not, at least Wilbur’s been forced to wrestle with it himself just to get it down on paper and get it off.

Tom Crouch, author

 

Octave Chanute poses in one of his experimental gliders.

Wilbur was grateful for Chanute’s help, but in other ways his relationship with the elder experimenter was becoming an impediment.

 

Octave Chanute poses in one of his experimental gliders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resuming the research he had conducted six years earlier, Chanute wanted the Wrights to rebuild some of his earlier glider designs and test them on their next trip to Kitty Hawk. In his correspondence, Wilbur did his best to diplomatically beg off these proposals without hurting Chanute’s feelings.

 

Augustus Herring poses with a Chanute experimental glider.

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, Chanute would engage his earlier collaborator Augustus Herring to join the Wrights on the Outer Banks for the purpose of testing two experimental gliders.

 

 

 

 

Kitty Hawk Cures All Ills

By August of 1902, the Wrights were absorbed in preparations for the trip to Kitty Hawk. Katharine thought her brothers were looking thin and nervous. She wrote to her father:

 

 

They will be all right once they get down in the sand where the salt breezes blow... They think that life at Kitty Hawk cures all ills, you know... The flying machine is in process of making now. Will spins the machine around by the hour while Orv squats around marking the places to sew. There is no place in the house to live, but I’ll be lonesome enough by this time next week and wish that I could have some of the racket around.

—Katharine Wright, sister

 

1902 Wright campsite near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur arrived at their old campsite near Kill Devil Hills only to find the shed they had built the previous year badly in need of repair. The brothers took the opportunity to improve the structure and make it more comfortable than it had been previously.

 

Kitchen section of the 1902 Wright camp building.

Wilbur described their new lodgings to George Spratt in an invitation to join them:

 

...We fitted up our living arrangements much more comfortably than last year. Our kitchen is immensely improved and then we have made beds on the second floor and now sleep aloft. It is an improvement over cots. We have put battens on the cracks of the whole building including the addition, so it is much tighter and waterproof than before as well as more sand-proof... There are other improvements too numerous to mention, and no Huffaker and no mosquitoes, so we are having a splendid time.

—Wilbur Wright

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider.

Once their accommodations were in place, the brothers spent the next three weeks assembling their new glider. A fixed vertical tail was added to this year’s model in hopes of correcting the lateral control problem Wilbur encountered at the end of last season.

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider hip cradle for the control of wing-warping.

 

 

 

 

The foot bar that controlled wing warping in the two previous gliders was now replaced by a unique hip cradle control. As in previous years, the brothers started their trials by flying the machine as a kite—and then in assisted glides—before attempting free glides.

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider and Dan Tate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wrights, joined by Will Tate’s half-brother, Dan, carried the glider up the gentle slope of the smallest of the three Kill Devil Hills. Wilbur’s glides were cautious at first, gingerly hugging the slope just above the sand.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it soon became apparent that the months of wind tunnel experiments were paying off. The performance of the 1902 glider exceeded the brothers’ hopes and expectations.

 

Comparing the Wright 1902 glider wing to their glider wing from the previous year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The glider had wings only slightly larger than the 1901 machine, yet produced far greater lift.

 

There’s a big leap between 1901 and 1902. In 1901, they’re pretty much like most of the other experimenters around the world. They’ve had some success, but they really don’t know where they’re going. In 1902, they’ve become the Wright brothers as we think of them.

—James Tobin, author

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

Wilbur continued the trials the next day on Big Kill Devil Hill—this time, adding a turn.  He did not experience the sudden veering about the higher wing that he had the previous year. The fixed vertical tail seemed to take care of the problem.

 1902 Wright gliding record and a replica 1902 Wright glider.

 

 

 

On this, their third trip to Kitty Hawk, the journals kept by the brothers begin to document Orville’s attempts at piloting glides.

 

Horse hoof.

The previous year, Wilbur had compared learning to fly with learning to ride:

 

There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse. One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on the fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.

—Wilbur Wright

 

Orville Wright.

Little is known about why Orville “sat on the fence” during most of the earlier trials. It was not from fear. Orville had raced bicycles in earlier days and was considered to be the more adventurous of the pair. Yet, for over two years, he had seldom taken the controls himself to learn how to fly.

 

He’s fascinated with printing presses. He was fascinated with bicycles. Why wouldn’t he be fascinated with the kites? Why wouldn’t he be fascinated with the early airplanes? He had to be holding himself back. It’s the only logical explanation.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

To me it’s pretty clear that the fact that he doesn’t fly shows us that this was very much Wilbur’s project in the first few years—that Orville was along to help. And increasingly, his ideas become important to the design of the aircraft. He himself becomes increasingly intrigued by the problems involved. And so, Wilbur gradually cedes more and more of the project to Orville. It becomes a joint project.

—James Tobin, author

 

My assumption has always been that they’re figuring, “well, you know, at this point we’re getting really short flights, and maybe the more experience one of us gets, the better off we’ll be.” Late in 1901, early in 1902 when the flights are getting longer, that stops immediately and they both start to gather experience.

—Tom Crouch, author

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider.

Orville’s first flights in 1902 were made with some of the controls tied off in a fixed position, but by the end of the day, Orville was making free, sustained flights with all the controls operating.  For the rest of their flying experiences together, the brothers would share the piloting duties equally.

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider canard.

 

During one of Orville’s glides, the right wing began to rise too high. He actuated the wing warping to correct the imbalance, but instead of leveling, the wing rose higher.

In the confusion, Orville had neglected the elevator control. Wilbur and Tate watched in horror as the machine reared up and suddenly rose twenty-five feet. The glider then slid to the left and smashed into the ground.

That evening, Orville recorded in his diary:

 

The result was a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks in a heap, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch. The experiments thereupon suddenly came to a close till the repairs can be made. In spite of this sad catastrophe we are tonight in a hilarious mood as a result of the encouraging performance of the machine.

—Orville Wright

 

Replica 1902Wright glider repair.

 

Here were these guys; they were running a state-of-the-art aeronautical design laboratory out in the middle of nowhere. This is like having a Skunk Works in the middle of the Gobi Desert. And they have to figure out a way that they can repair these aircraft when they’re breaking, because they’re crashing on a regular basis. So what they did is they brought with them lacing cord, scrap iron, a little bit of round rod, some eighth-inch rod, some quarter-inch rod and they made their own hardware as they would go along.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider.

 

George Spratt and Lorin, one of the Wrights’ older brothers, arrived at the camp. With the glider repaired, Wilbur and Orville again took to the air, growing more proficient at the controls with each new attempt.

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider.

 

 

 

 

Yet one nagging problem still plagued them. For the most part, the brothers were able to execute smooth and controlled turns. But on several harrowing attempts, their wing warping failed to work at all, sending the glider into corkscrew impacts with the ground.

 

Illustration of 1902 Wright glider during well-digging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you raise that wing and get more lift, you’re also getting more drag and it wants to bring the glider around like this. We call that adverse yaw today. The Wright brothers were running into this. It would start to swing around like that and then it would swing around faster and faster. They called it well-digging. It would actually spin into the ground.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

1902 Wright glider fixed tail.

The brothers concluded that the fixed vertical tail was the source of the problem. Yet without a tail, they knew that the glider would return to its equally troubling behavior of pivoting around the higher wing while banking.

 

Beds in the 1902 Wright camp building.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They had undoubtedly been arguing about how to correct this. And one night, October 2nd, Orville had drunk too much coffee and he lay awake for some time. And according to his diary, he said he figured out the solution to the problem.

—Fred Howard, author

 

Wilbur Wright in the 1902 Wright camp building.

 

 

 

 

Over breakfast, Orville described his idea of hinging the vertical tail so that the pilot could change the angle at which the tail met the wind—and thus counteract the warp-induced drag. Wilbur saw merit in the idea but felt that one more complex control would be too much for the already overloaded pilot to handle.

 

Replica 1902 Wright glider front elevator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a bar that’s in front of the aircraft that they have to turn in order to work the forward elevator. And they’re swinging their hips back and forth to work the wing warping. And he says, “what else can we use to control the rudder? Why don’t we just couple it into the wing warping because we know we’re always going to have to add rudder when we warp the wing.”

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Augustus Herring testing one of Chanute's gliders near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring arrived at the camp just as the modifications to the glider were completed. The party spent much of the following week struggling to get Chanute’s two gliders off the ground.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

The Chanute-sponsored contraptions barely flew and paled in comparison to the Wrights’ glider.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

Older brother Lorin and Octave Chanute captured Orville and Wilbur’s astounding success in a series of photographs taken on the dunes of Kill Devil Hills.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To have a machine like the 1902 glider, you know was a pure joy. It must have been just absolutely wonderful.

—Tom Crouch, author

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new movable tail arrangement had solved the “well-digging” problem.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wrights could routinely make extended glides and execute fully controlled turns.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve got this marvelous machine with roll, pitch, and yaw controls. It’s making glides of 600 feet and more. It’s remaining aloft as much as a half a minute.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

 

 

 

Ideal gliding weather during the last week of October gave the Wrights the opportunity to fully test their machine in the air.

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things that strikes me is that this is painstaking work at Kitty Hawk; a lot of trudging around the dunes; a lot of waiting for the wind to be right.

—James Tobin, author

 

Testing the 1902 Wight glider on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, when 1902 comes and they really have gotten it right; after all of this trying and all of this waiting and all of this patience, the idea of having a really successful glide—a glide that takes off and goes for many yards in which they can control the wings. That must have been enormously exhilarating and they must of had the sense right then that this was big. This was really something.

—James Tobin, author

 

 

 

 

 

Next   »

Motors and Propellers

The Wrights prove their inventive genius in the back room of their little Dayton shop. of The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention, Part IV.


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