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



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


Motors and Propellers


They are intuitively engineers of genius. They have this fundamental understanding of a really effective way to approach and solve technical problems and it carries them from the beginning to the end really in a remarkably short period of time.

Tom Crouch, author

Only two years earlier, Wilbur had written:


I am certain I can reach a point much in advance of any previous workers in this field even if complete success is not attained at present.

—Wilbur Wright

Now the Wrights’ future path was crystal clear—they would return to Kitty Hawk the following year and fly a powered machine.


The original design for the 1903 Wright Flyer.

With the problems of lift and control solved, the brothers thought that building a bigger machine and adding an engine and propellers would be relatively simple. They started designing the new machine before leaving for their return trip home.


Many experimenters would design an airplane; try to see if it would fly; if it wasn’t successful, go onto something completely different. The Wright brothers’ airplane was a continually evolving single design. If you look at their very first craft, a small little five-foot wing span kite, it looks very similar to their powered airplane of 1903.

Peter Jakab, author

Back in Dayton, the brothers immediately went to work on the project. Wilbur contacted at least ten engine manufacturers, only to discover that none were willing or able to build a motor that would be light enough for their new machine.

Propeller design would also prove to be more difficult than the brothers had anticipated.


Examples of early marine propeller designs.


They assumed that since ships had been using propellers for years and years and years, that there had to be just all sorts of engineering treatises on how to make a propeller. And when they got into it, they found that, no, it was still very much an empirical science.

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

Throughout its 100-year-old technological history, ship propellers had been designed using trial and error methods only.


Shaping a part for a replica 1903 Wright Flyer.

The Wrights had spent the previous four years designing and handcrafting every piece of hardware, shaping every rib, and sewing every stitch on their flying machines. Undeterred by the lack of reliable propeller data and a suitable engine, the Wrights resolved to do the work themselves.


Filing the crank shaft of a replica 1903 Wright motor.



But for the engine construction, they had an experienced assistant. Charlie Taylor, their bicycle shop machinist, fabricated the motor from plans prepared by Orville.


I made all the different parts in the motor.  I even made the crank shaft—cut it right out of a solid block by drilling holes and knocking out large pieces out of it, and then turning it up in the lathe.

—Charlie Taylor, mechanic

The resulting engine was crude, but it was light and produced ample horsepower for their needs.


Propellers travel in a helical path.

The breakthrough in propeller design came when the Wrights intuitively recognized that a propeller was in fact a wing traveling in a helical path.


Once they established that, they could use all their ideas about lift and drag to design the propeller.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


Octave Chanute and the Wright 1902 glider design as published in French.

Meanwhile, Octave Chanute was traveling in Europe, spreading the word about the Wrights’ stunning accomplishments to his far-reaching circle of would-be experimenters—and sharing many of the Wright’s hard-won secrets in the process.



He does it with the best of intentions. Chanute believed that the problem of flight would be solved only by a worldwide community of experimenters all sharing their knowledge. This is in the best interest of academic science.

James Tobin, author


French glider design based on the1902 Wright glider.


Chanute freely distributed copies of Wilbur’s article “Some Aeronautical Experiments,” which would inspire a new generation of airplane inventors in Europe to attempt to build their own Wright gliders.


French glider design based on the1902 Wright glider.






French inventors are using basically Wright designs that had been given to them by the Wrights’ great friend and supporter, Chanute.

—James Tobin, author


Langley's quarter-size Aerodrome on his launching houseboat on the Potomic River in 1903.







On the morning of August 8, 1903, a quarter-size version of Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome stood ready in its launch catapult atop a houseboat moored on the Potomac River. After several days of waiting, project leader and gifted young engineer Charles Manly decided that the winds on the river had finally let up enough to make a launch attempt.


Langley's quarter-size Aerodrome launches from his houseboat on the Potomic River in 1903.




At 9:30 a.m. the machine catapulted down the launch rail and shot out over the river. The model flew straight for a distance of 350 feet before beginning a quarter turn. Three times the engine wavered and the machine started a descent, and then sped up and rose again. With one last burst of speed, the model flew another 350 feet and dropped into the Potomac.


Langley's quarter-size Aerodrome in flight over the Potomic River in 1903.





Manly was ecstatic. This one-fourth-scale model was an exact replica of the larger, man-carrying Aerodrome in every detail. He now felt more confident than ever that the full-scale Great Aerodrome would carry him into history as the first man to fly.





A Machine on Close Margins


Wright 1902 glider flown in 1903 on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur returned to their old campsite on September 26, 1903. They put off repairing and enlarging their weather-beaten structures to take advantage of the good flying weather.  Breaking out their 1902 glider once again, the brothers increased their record glide time to over 71 seconds in the air.


Wright 1902 glider flown in 1903 on Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Their spirits were high, and their confidence was at its peak.


By 1903, they weren’t experimenting anymore as much as they were proving that they had succeeded.

Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University

Their only goal was to get their new machine—called the “Flyer”— into the air.


To make a powered sustained flight; prove that it could be done; go home.

—Tom Crouch, author


Langley's Great Aerodrome launch from his houseboat on the Potomic River in October of 1903.

But as the weather intensified on the Outer Banks, so did the Wrights’ competition grow 200 miles away. While the brothers were contending with torrential rains and winds as high as 75 miles per hour, Samuel Langley—with his assistant, Charles Manly—prepared to test the Great Aerodrome flying machine. Like the earlier, smaller models, the Great Aerodrome would be launched from a catapult atop a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River.


Langley's Great Aerodrome launch from his houseboat on the Potomic River in October of 1903.


The brothers were certainly very much aware, because it was in the news, that Langley seemed to be closing in on success.

—James Tobin, author


Langley's Great Aerodrome launch from his houseboat on the Potomic River in October of 1903.



On October 7, 1903, Charles Manly climbed into position on the Great Aerodrome, ran up the engine, and gave the signal to launch.  The machine shot out of the catapult and down the rail only to arc into the waters of the Potomac, in the words of one reporter, “like a handful of mortar.”  Langley was not present for the trial. Wilbur wrote to Chanute after reading the news:


I see that Langley has had his fling, and failed. It seems to be our turn to throw now, and I wonder what our luck will be.

—Wilbur Wright




Langley's Great Aerodrome wreck on the Potomic River in October of 1903.

But Langley was not finished yet. He and Manley promised that another attempt would be made before winter set in, blaming the failure of the first test on a fault in the launch mechanism. The Aerodrome, they insisted, would fly.

Meanwhile, high winds and rainstorms repeatedly struck the Outer Banks, impeding the Wrights’ progress. They had not yet begun testing their machine.


The Wrights' carbide can stove at their 1903 camp near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The brothers attempted to ward off the miserable camping conditions by improvising a makeshift stove out of an empty carbide can. Orville complained about the smoke-belching contraption in a letter to his sister:


The building was sooted up so thoroughly that, for several days, we couldn’t sit down to eat without a whole lot of black soot dropping down in our plates.

—Orville Wright


Wiblur and Orville Wright at work on their 1903 Flyer in theircamp building near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

With winter fast approaching, the Wrights worked as quickly as possible to prepare for a powered flight. George Spratt, who had recently arrived in camp, was alarmed and concerned about the brothers’ plans for testing their machine. The Wrights had decided to forgo any attempts at testing the Flyer as a glider.


Replica 1903 Wright Flyer engine.






Tests of the engine brought an additional set of problems. The motor badly misfired and tended to overheat and bind up after only a short run. The magneto failed to produce an adequate spark and the rough-running engine continually shook loose the sprockets.


Gluing a replica Wright 1903 propeller to its shaft.






The propellers won’t stay bolted on the propeller shafts. They solve that problem with Arnstein’s bicycle cement, which was a cement which was meant to cement the tires to the wooden rims of the day.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


Removing a replica Wright propeller shaft.





The heavy vibrations finally cracked and tore loose one of the steel tube propeller shafts, forcing the brothers to send both shafts back to Charlie Taylor in Dayton for strengthening.

Seeing that progress would be halted for some time, Spratt decided to leave camp early and offered to express-ship the faulty propeller shafts on his way home. He crossed paths with Chanute en route and shared his apprehensions of disaster for the Wrights.

Chanute arrived at the camp the following day and expressed his own uncertainties.


Chanute made them more nervous than anybody had ever made them, and it had to do with whether or not they’re going to have enough power to get off the ground.

—Tom Crouch, author


Octave Chanute and a replica Wright 1903 Flyer transmission.

After assessing their machine, Chanute asserted that the brothers had not allowed for a margin of power loss in the transmission.

There were no greater experts in the field of aerodynamics than the Wrights in 1903, but the brothers were neophytes when it came to the mechanical principles of transferring power from the motor to the propeller. Chanute was one of the most distinguished civil engineers of the time and was well-versed on the topic. If Chanute was correct in his belief that the Flyer would have insufficient power, it would bring the year’s trials to an abrupt end. There was no way for the brothers to make the Flyer any lighter or make it generate more thrust. The potential ramifications were devastating.

Chanute soon departed camp, and by mid-November, temperatures dropped below freezing.


Wilbur Wright stands before his 1903 camp hanger near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Work on the Flyer came to a halt. Until the repaired propeller shafts could be returned, all the brothers could do was wait and worry.


We are now alone again, the first time for about a month. The weight of our machine complete with man will be a little over 700 pounds and we are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears... Mr. Chanute says that no one before has ever tried to build a machine on such close margins as we have done to our calculations.

—Orville Wright


Reinactment of Wrights testing for power loss with the Flyer tied to a spring scale and on a launch rail.

On November 20th the repaired propeller shafts arrived, and the brothers set about testing for the suspected loss in power. Running the assembled machine on a section of its launching rail, the Wrights measured the amount of pull the Flyer generated. To their relief, Chanute had been wrong. Their calculations were correct. The machine did generate enough thrust.

The brothers were vindicated and relieved. But their elation would not last for long. After a week of testing the engine and transmission, they noticed yet another hairline crack in one of the shafts. In that moment, their hopes of launching the Flyer that year had all but disappeared.

They determined that the only solution to the problem was to replace the hollow propeller shafts with rods of solid spring steel. Obtaining the new shafts would mean another long round-trip to Dayton, delaying any trials for many days. In the meantime, Langley would make his second attempt, which he had confidently predicted in the press would succeed.


Rain of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

And there was the weather to consider. Every week that passed put the Wrights deeper into the harsh winter season. They knew too well how brutal the winters could be on the Outer Banks. Only last winter, while they were away, gale-force winds had literally ripped their little building off its foundation. The sensible thing, they realized, would be to pack up their camp and return in the spring. Even if Langley was to be the first in the air, they reasoned, they still had much to contribute to the progress of manned flight.

Yet, after coming so far, their ultimate goal was within grasp. They would continue on. On November 30th, Orville left for Dayton to have the new shafts made while Wilbur stayed to hold down the fort—or at least attempt to keep it from blowing away.


Samuel Langley and a newspaper cartoon critical of his flight experiements.

While the Wrights struggled through setbacks, Langley was in a struggle to save his reputation. The Army’s $50,000 grant had been depleted, and $23,000 from the Smithsonian had also been spent. The unsuccessful attempt two months earlier had put his team’s credibility into question. The Aerodrome’s second attempt would be their last chance to save face.


Charles Manly and Samuel Langley aboard their Aerodrome's launching houseboat.

Charles Manly would again be the pilot. He stripped down to his long winter underwear to avoid being hampered by excess clothing in the water and put on a cork-lined jacket. Whether success or failure awaited him, Manly knew that he would be taking a plunge in the icy river below.

With frigid gusts of 20 miles per hour, the boatmen had difficulty keeping the houseboat’s launching apparatus pointing into the wind.


Final failed attempted flight of Langley's Great Aerodrome from a houseboat on the Potomac River in December, 1903.

It was almost dark when Manly ran up the engine and gave the signal for release. The Great Aerodrome shot down the track, assumed a nose-up position for a fraction of a second, and then slipped tail-first into the icy Potomac.

Trapped beneath the water’s surface with his jacket hooked in the wreckage, Manly ripped off the garment and struggled through the tangled wire and debris. Finally clear of the wreck, he lunged toward the surface, only to find himself trapped beneath a section of ice. Manly managed to break through the ice, gasping for air a short distance from the houseboat.


The language that the newspapers reported as he was hauled out of the water was something you wouldn’t expect from a minister’s son.

—Tom Crouch, author

Langley’s Aerodrome debacle became the subject of newspaper editorials and jokes on the vaudeville stage.


He was just trashed in the press, and the fact that government money had been spent on his project made the editorialist and reporters and congressmen all the more likely to say this was a great boondoggle.

—James Tobin, author


What he did was a lot more courageous than what the Wrights did because he had so much more to risk as the head of the national museum. He put a long and distinguished career as an astronomer on the line because of his dream of flight.

Stephen Kirk, author

Samuel Langley’s days as an aerial experimenter were over.


A Proper Wind


Wright 1903 Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville arrived back in camp and the new shafts were installed by the next afternoon, but light winds prevented any attempts at taking off from level ground. After two more days of light winds, the brothers lost all patience and decided to attempt a launch off the slope of Big Kill Devil Hill. They would use gravity as well as wind to assist in their takeoff.


Replica of Wrights' signal for the US life saver to come and help.



They tacked a large red flag (or a white sheet) on the side of the hanger, signaling the men of the Kill Devil lifesaving station to come lend a hand. It would be no easy task hauling the 600-pound machine a quarter of a mile away and up the side of the big dune. Even with the help of five men from the station, it took the Wrights over 40 minutes of hard slogging to get the machine into position on the launch rail halfway up the slope.


Wright 1903 Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


Orville and Wilbur tossed a coin to see who would make the first attempt. Wilbur won. Two small boys and a dog had tagged along but bolted away when the Wrights fired up the engine.


Jammed restraining rope on a replica Wright 1903 flyer.

Orville took hold of the right wing while Wilbur climbed into the pilot’s position, lying prone on the lower wing. When everything was ready, Wilbur pulled the release, but nothing happened. The weight of the machine on the slope and the thrust created by the propellers jammed the restraining rope in place. Orville wrote in his diary that evening:


We had to get a couple of the men to help push the machine back till the rope was slipped loose. While I was signaling the man at other end to leave go, but before I myself was ready, Will started the machine. I grabbed the upright the best I could and off we went.

—Orville Wright


Illustration of Wright 1903 Flyer launched from a dune.


Orville held on until he could no longer keep up, and the Flyer left the rail. The machine climbed a few feet and started to stall. Wilbur immediately turned the elevator down too far, not realizing how sensitive it was. The left wing struck the ground first, swinging the machine around and slamming the front skids into the sand.


Wilbur Wright on Flyer after failed attempt on December 15, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.





Orville, who’s always anxious to keep a record with his camera, set the camera up, and before Wilbur got up, took a photograph of this first and unfortunately failed flight.

Fred Howard, author

Wilbur had applied too much elevator, which angled the Flyer up too quickly. The resulting trial was too short to be considered a true flight. The only damage, however, was a splintered elevator support that would require a day or two of repairs.


Wright telegram on December 15, 1903 from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


But they were not discouraged at all. That night, they sent a wire home to their father ending, “success assured. Keep quiet.” They didn’t want the press involved until they had made a flight from the level.

—Fred Howard, author

They would not attempt another start from a slope. Launching down an incline would not be considered by others to be a true unassisted first flight. It was obvious to the brothers now that with the right amount of breeze, the Flyer would take off from level ground. All they needed was a proper wind.

The brothers arose early on Thursday, December 17th to cold northerly winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour.


To give you an example how cold it was that morning, it had rained the night before, so a number of the fresh-water puddles that accumulated around the campsite, they had frozen over.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service


Replica of the Wrights' 1903 camp stove.

They were apprehensive about starting their trials in such strong wind with an unfamiliar machine. Hoping that the frigid gusts would diminish, they waited by their stove and tried to keep warm. The high winds continued throughout the morning with no sign of relief. By ten o’clock, the brothers could wait no longer. They decided to risk it all—the machine they had toiled over for so long and their very own lives.


Kitty Hawk, North Carolina life savers.

They signaled the lifesavers and began laying out sections of the launch rail. By 10:30 the machine was ready to go. It was now Orville’s turn to attempt a flight. According to Lifesaver John T. Daniels, the two inventors shared a private moment and shook hands while the engine warmed up. Daniels would recall in an interview 24 years later:


We couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, “sort o’ like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d see one another again.

—John T. Daniels, Kitty Hawk life saver


And the idea of them shaking hands, especially as if they would never see each other again; after they had sent this telegram to their father three days before, “success assured.”—That to me seems quite out of key.

 —Fred Howard, author

Life saver Daniels was assigned to Orville’s box camera positioned on a tripod and pointed at the end of the track. His only duty would be to squeeze the camera’s shutter ball if the machine left the launch rail.


Replica of the Wright 1903 Flyer's stopwatch, anemometer, and revolution counter.

Orville climbed into the hip cradle and grasped the controls. With Wilbur in position at the right wing tip, Orville flipped the starting lever. The action released the restraining rope and simultaneously set in motion the Flyer’s stopwatch, anemometer, and revolution counter. Slowly, the machine began to move down the rail.


Replica of the Wrights' 1903 Flyer.




Wilbur easily jogged alongside for the first forty feet until it began to rise. Then the Flyer leapt ten feet in the air, and just as quickly darted to the ground and slid to a stop. Orville immediately killed the engine, which also stopped all the instruments. Orville had left the earth for only 12 seconds. He had covered a mere 120 feet in the air, but man had flown. The hard landing cracked one of the skids and would require a quick repair.


John T. Daniels and a box camera.


John Daniels was still milling around the camera. When asked if he had gotten the picture, Daniels seemed disoriented and confused. He wasn’t sure if he had even tripped the shutter.


Wright 1903 Flyer's first flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.








Little did John Daniels know that the image he captured on film that day would be reproduced millions of times and become one of the most famous photographs of all time.

After a round of congratulations, the Wrights invited everyone inside for relief from the cold.

At 11:40, it was Wilbur’s turn to make a second attempt. The result was a quick hop similar to Orville’s, but covering close to 175 feet.


Third flight of Wright 1903 Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

An hour later, Orville piloted the third trial but did no better.

As high noon approached, the brothers decided to make one more attempt before lunch. Wilbur took his place at the controls, pushed the launch lever, and started down the rail. As the Flyer left the track, it behaved no better than in the previous trialslunging up and down as Wilbur tried desperately to control the oversensitive elevator.


Illustration of Wright 1903 Flyer during bucking motion of forth flight.

As the Flyer passed its longest previous distance mark, the pitching became even more violent. Like before, the aircraft staggered and dove toward the ground. Wilbur managed to pull the machine up and by the time he reached a distance of 300 feet from the takeoff point, he had the Flyer on a straight and level course. There was no doubt now that Wilbur had finally achieved the personal goal that had brought him to this place. He had attained sustained flight, while maintaining balance and control of his machine. Seconds continued to tick by and the machine kept going. 800 feet from his starting point, Wilbur tried to gain altitude to clear a sandbank, but the nose dropped too fast. He overcompensated the control and the wild bucking up and down began again. A moment later, the skids smacked into the ground with the sound of splintering wood.


Wright 1903 Flyer after forth flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

By the time the others made it to the landing spot, Wilbur was assessing the damage. Orville detailed the events in his diary that evening:


The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame suffered none at all, The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds... After removing the front rudder, we carried the machine back to camp. We set the machine down a few feet west of the building, and while standing about discussing the last flight; a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will, who was near one end, ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us.

—Orville Wright


Orville knows enough to let go. Daniels doesn’t, and he stays with the aircraft. And the aircraft begins to tumble over and over and over wrapping Daniels up inside this wire and wood and cloth. They’re convinced that he’s just going to be mangled, but when they finally get to the aircraft when it stops rolling over, Daniels is in the middle of all this mess completely unscathed. And for the rest of his life, he tells people that he made the fifth flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17th.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


Telegraph station.

The high-spirited group dragged the shattered Flyer into the hangar and gradually dispersed. The Wrights ate their lunch before walking the four miles to the Kitty Hawk Weather Bureau station to send a telegram to their father.


Once they’d made a successful flight, they simply telegraphed their father and told him to release the press release that they had prepared in advance. So that implies a fair amount of certainty on their part—that they knew that this machine was really capable of flight.

—Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University

Having done what they set out to do, the brothers looked forward to being home for Christmas. “We at once packed our goods and returned home,” they wrote in a statement to the press, “knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.”


They didn’t fly a very long distance but it was the first time that we saw a heavier-than-air craft takeoff on its own power; make a sustained level flight; and land successfully.

—Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University



Next   »

The Price of Success - The qualities that enabled the Wrights to invent the airplane were not necessarily what they needed to launch their project to the world. The conclusion of The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention, Part IV.



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