The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention

by David Garrigus
edited by Fred  Howard

The following true story chronicles the invention of the airplane—an epic tale of hardship, perseverance, and spectacular triumph. It includes hundreds of colorful photos and illustrations not found anywhere else on the web.

To get the full experience, you'll want to unlock all the videos and see the award-winning TV documentary, Kitty Hawk, which is widely recognized as the best documentary about the invention of the airplane. Kitty Hawk includes stunning flight sequences, animations, and all the drama and excitement that no written version can deliver—watch Kitty Hawk right now or own it on DVD.


Watch the Full Movie!



« Chapters »

1. Dreams and Flying Machines

Others invent while Wilbur lives a quiet life of desperation.

2. A Strategic Opening

Wilbur believes flight is possible and sees an opportunity to contribute.

3. Defining the Problem

Wilbur asks the right questions before attempting to solve the mystery of flight.

4. Balance and Control

Absentminded fiddling leads Wilbur to his grand solution.

5. I Have Been Afflicted

Wilbur writes acclaimed engineer, Octave Chanute, who helps alter his destiny.

6. When You Come Among Us

Wilbur and Orville travel to the remote Outer Banks of North Carolina.

7. A Gentleman's Adventure

Kitty Hawkers are not sure what to make of these two city boys.

8. The Flying Business

The Wrights' 1900 experiences with their little machine on the dunes near Kitty Hawk.

9. Hopeless Desperation

The Wrights travel back to Kitty Hawk in 1901 with a much bigger glider.

10. Witty or Scientific

A letter sets in motion the invention of modern aeronautical engineering.

11. Kitty Hawk Cures All Ills

The Wrights' experiences with their 1902 glider on Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina.

12. Motors and Propellers

The Wrights prove their inventive genius in the back room of their little Dayton shop.

13. A Machine on Close Margins

Setbacks plague the Wrights while Langley looks to be the first.

14. A Proper Wind

The brothers make their attempt during the hard Outer Banks winter of 1903.

15. The Price of Success

Qualities that help the Wrights invent are not what they need in business.

16. Protector of the Claim

Orville struggles to secure the Wrights' place as the first to conquer the air.

17. The Legacy

How the 1903 Wright Flyer made it to the moon.


Dreams and Flying Machines

Most school-age children know about Kitty Hawk and Wilbur and Orville Wright—the story of two self-reliant brothers who single-handedly invented the airplane, and in doing so, gave form to the tradition of individualism and “Yankee Ingenuity.”

These guys were geniuses of creativity—of making something out of nothing. That, to me, is the most inspirational part of their story. Airplanes are amazing, but the act of human creativity is more universal and more amazing.

James Tobin, author

May 6, 1896. On the Potomac River 40 miles south of the capitol, Samuel Pierpont Langley watched from a riverbank as his assistants on the deck of his modified houseboat prepared his latest in a series of flying machines, Aerodrome Number Six, for a test run. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had been conducting experiments with flying models for the past ten years. His team had developed numerous steam-powered models—all pilotless— that were launched by a spring-driven catapult. Alexander Graham Bell, the great inventor himself, was an honored guest invited to observe the trials.

Langley's Aerodrome Number 6.By early afternoon, Aerodrome Number Six was ready to go. At the signal, the machine shot down the launch rail. Just as it left the end of its track, a guy-wire snagged, causing a wing to break. As so many of their trial aircraft had done before, the little model arched into the Potomac, smashing its propellers and severely damaging its engine. Langley’s experiments had been plagued by failure and generated skepticism among his scientific colleagues.

Launch of Langley's Aerodrome Number 5.Two hours later, Aerodrome Number Five was set to launch. With its small boiler at full temperature and its two propellers spinning at top speed, Langley’s one remaining model launched down the rail. It left the track twenty feet above the water, began to drop, but then suddenly and miraculously angled up and started to climb. The men on the launch boat—who had grown so accustomed to failure—were amazed. The machine circled the houseboat twice as it gained altitude. Reaching 100 feet before exhausting its steam, Aerodrome Number Five gently coasted into the Potomac River. Langley’s team launched another flight later that afternoon which was also successful.


He made flights of up to three-quarters of a mile with these large steam-powered models. The wingspans were fifteen feet. These were big things. No one had ever gotten a flying machine that big into the air on what was clearly a sustained and impressive flight before. Langley was big news.

Tom Crouch, author

Langley was ecstatic and relieved. His earlier failures at heavier-than-air flight had raised many eyebrows in the scientific community and threatened to damage the dignified reputation of the Smithsonian Institution. Now the press heralded Langley’s triumph and freely speculated on the wondrous future of heavier-than-air flight.


Langley was the secretary of the Smithsonian, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and in those days, that post was sort of like the chief scientist of the United State.

Peter Jakab, author


Samuel Pierpont Langley

So the fact that a guy like Langley with his reputation was working on this possibility gave some degree of confidence to people that maybe this was possible. Maybe this wasn’t a crazy thing to do.

—James Tobin, author


Otto Lilienthal and his assistant carry monoplane glider up hill near Berlin, 1896.But Samuel Langley wasn’t the only inventor to receive attention for his flying experiments. A few months later, another aeronautical researcher—Otto Lilienthal—and his assistant carried a monoplane glider up the side of a large hill near Berlin. Over the last five years, this talented engineer had made close to two thousand short flights using a dozen different glider designs—all the while thrilling the world press. And nowhere had Lilienthal’s work found a more receptive audience than in the United States.


Otto Lilienthal tests monoplane glider near Berlin.There had been a lot of attempts before, people jumping off of the roofs of barns and out of towers, and all those with disastrous results. But just about that time, half-tone illustrations in magazines and newspapers had appeared, and there were eight or nine shots, very well reproduced in McClure’s, of Lilienthal in the air.

Fred Howard, author


Otto Lilienthal tests monoplane glider near Berlin.On a sunny August Sunday in 1896, Lilienthal was again testing his most successful monoplane glider—an elegant machine in which the pilot was suspended through an opening in the wing and used his shifting body weight to maintain balance and control.


Lilienthal launched his glider by leaping into the wind from the side of a hill. Its bat-like wings, spanning 23 feet, lifted him gracefully into the air.  The machine soared to fifty feet above the slope.


But suddenly and without warning, the nose of the machine pitched dangerously high. Alarmed, Lilienthal attempted to right the aircraft by shifting his weight to bring the nose down, but it was not enough. The glider stalled and plummeted back to earth.  The world’s greatest aeronautical experimenter lay unconscious inside his crumpled machine.  Lilienthal was without visible injury, but the crash had broken his spine, and he would die the next day.Wilbur and Katharine Wright.

At that time, Wilbur Wright, now age 29, was still living in his father’s house in Dayton, Ohio. Two weeks after Lilienthal’s fateful crash, Wilbur and his sister Katharine found themselves attending their gravely ill brother.


Orville and Wright home at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio.Orville had contracted typhoid.  At times, his fever rose to over 105 degrees. Katharine and Wilbur took turns sitting at Orville’s bedside while he drifted in and out of delirium. Six weeks would pass before Orville would recover.


Susan and Wilbur Wright.The duties of a caregiver were all too familiar for Wilbur. From the age of twenty, he had spent three years caring for his dying invalid mother. He stepped into this role of full-time nurse to relieve his father, a bishop for the United Brethren Church, who was busy with his churches’ administration and frequently traveled for extended periods of time.


Orville was in high school. Katharine was even younger. So Wilbur was the one whose job it was to take care of his mother and that was part of it too.

—Tom Crouch, author

Wilbur willingly took on the duties of caring for his mother. The job suited his introspective personality and provided him with uninterrupted hours in which he could pursue one of his favorite pastimes—reading.


What they learned that lead to them becoming sort of independent engineers and scientists were things that they picked up entirely on their own outside of school. Their mother and their father kept a pretty good home library that they used a lot. They would sit around reading science. They would read mathematics books. Wilbur especially did a great deal of reading and learning on his own.

—James Tobin, author


He voraciously plunged into his family’s extensive library. But more importantly, the responsibility of his mother’s care seemed to give purpose to Wilbur’s melancholy existence and helped to distract him from his own feelings of frailty and vulnerability. At the end of high school, when most young men would strike out on their own, Wilbur stayed home and struggled through several years of indecision and lack of confidence—a disposition that had started earlier with a seemingly minor sports injury.


He was playing this game in the winter on ice similar to ice hockey that we play now. One of the players let go of his hockey stick and it hit Wilbur in the mouth. He lost a few teeth and it was at least a year that he took recovering.

­—Ann Honious, US National Park Service


Wilbur Wright as a teenager.

People often remarked about how serious Wilbur was and how he didn’t smile. He was ashamed of his teeth. He would give these little enigmatic smiles but he would never show teeth.

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


Once a healthy and energetic young man, Wilbur became cautious and circumspect. Convinced that he had a frail heart, he lived in constant fear of overexerting and damaging it.


The Bishop and the rest of the family members were always sort of vague about what the physical injuries actually were. The Bishops said that his son had developed heart palpitations, as he called it. When you look at the next year or two in Wilbur’s life, I think you can see him going through some sort of a period of real uncertainty—maybe even depression.

—Tom Crouch, author


Wilbur Wright in his twenties.As the years passed and Wilbur watched his peers move on in their career pursuits, he began to see his young adulthood as a series of missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. He recognized his own keen intellect and saw in himself a great potential for achievement—but he could never find a path that suited him.


There’s no question that Wilbur was a very, very unusually bright individual—the kind of person we’d call an autodidact, who was totally self-taught. The kind of kid who was smarter than all his teachers. The kind of kid who was smarter than his parents. That made him a little odd and set him apart. He lived in his own world and that’s the kind of kid he was and it’s the kind of adult he became.


At one point, Wilbur had considered applying to Yale University and pursuing a career as a minister or a teacher. But that goal seemed to slip further away from him with each passing year.


There’s some thought that he would have become a minister. That is cut off by the fact that he doesn’t go to college. Then the options available to him seem to be to go into business of some kind.

—James Tobin, author

After his mother’s death, Wilbur’s focus again seemed to drift, lacking direction. It would be Orville who would draw his older brother into new realms of interests. Orville convinced Wilbur to join him in publishing a neighborhood newspaper and running a small printing business.


West Side News newspaper.

Wilbur joined him as the editor and Orville was publisher until safety bicycles came along.  Orville especially, became a good bicycle racer—participated in bicycle races.

—Fred Howard, author


Wright Cycle Company advertisement.It was Orville’s fascination with cycling, the new craze of the day, that led the brothers to start a bicycle repair shop and to eventually manufacture their own brand of bicycles.


They were not too successful, but they sold bicycles on time and they had a clientèle.

—Fred Howard, author


They were running these two small businesses together—doing okay, but not getting rich. They were still living in their father’s home. Neither of them had married, and again, if you’d been their next-door neighbors, you would have just, I think, thought they were the most ordinary guys around.

—Tom Crouch, author

In spite of Wilbur’s interests in cycling and the mechanical challenges of bicycle design, he felt trapped in a business career—a career in which he thought himself ill-suited.


Wilbur Wright.

His bent was very much intellectual, academic, scientific, but he doesn’t really have an outlet for that.

—James Tobin, author


At that point, he no longer has these “nervous palpitations of the heart,” but he is still very much depressed and he is not the same person he was before the shinny accident. He is just sort of content to be led into things. Orville has a printing business and Wilbur sort of glides into that as the editor. Orville gets very interested in bicycling.  Wilbur sort of gets drawn along in that.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


For whatever reason, we’re not sure, he didn’t get married. The only woman in his life is his little sister. He loves children but the children in his life belong to his brothers. The business that he works in is his younger brother’s business. He doesn’t have anything that he can really call his own and yet he realizes that he’s got the stuff to do something very special. So, maybe that’s the position you need to be in to seize upon a crazy idea like inventing an airplane.

—James Tobin, author

Otto Lilienthal tests his biplane glider near Berlin.

A Strategic Opening

Like many informed Americans of his day, Wilbur Wright had followed the exploits of Otto Lilienthal through stories in several newspapers and magazines. But unlike Lilienthal, an interest in flying machines was not a lifelong passion for Wilbur. Like many other boys growing up in middle America, Wilbur and Orville had played with, and even constructed, flying toys.


Bishop Wright launches flying toy for Wright boys.

In 1878, Bishop Milton Wright brought home a little rubber band powered helicopter and they played with it until they wore it out. They tried to make a much bigger one but they didn’t have enough energy, enough rubber, enough oomph, to make it fly.

 —Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

But in 1896, as Wilbur read of Lilienthal’s fateful crash, an extraordinary idea occurred to him. He saw a strategic opening—an opportunity for himself.

Wilbur Wright

I think he saw himself as the Wright brother who was going to do something very special, and something that was commensurate with his talents. And in a way, it is pure accident that that thing happened to be flight. That happened to be the thing that strayed into his consciousness through the work, of Otto Lilienthal.

—James Tobin, author

With Lilienthal’s death, Wilbur felt that a void had opened in the field of aeronautical research. He revealed his goals in a letter to his father four years later:


...It is my belief that flight is possible, and while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight chance of achieving fame and fortune from it. It is almost the only great problem which has not been pursued by a multitude of investigators, and therefore carried to a point where further progress is very difficult.

—Wilbur Wright


Wilbur Wright outdoors near Dayton, Ohio.

Up to that point he probably felt his life was insignificant and he hadn’t really contributed anything to humanity. And I think that Wilbur knew that if they could add to or maybe even invent the airplane, they would achieve immortality.

Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

But if Wilbur saw himself as the one who might fill the experimental void left by Lilienthal, he was not to begin in any tangible way for nearly three years.


Defining the Problem

Both brothers strongly believed that heavier-than-air flight was possible, a belief based primarily on the flight of birds. Orville later recalled:


Of the year 1899, our interest in the subject was again aroused through the reading of a book on ornithology. We could not understand that there was anything about a bird that would enable it to fly that could not be built on a larger scale and used by man.

—Orville Wright


Otto Lilienthal tests his biplane glider near Berlin.

Yeah, they’d been interested since childhood because of the helicopter and they were interested because of Lillienthal’s death. Every time they come to the point where they say, “We begin our active experiments because…” it is because of a book on ornithology—on bird flight.

—Tom Crouch, author


Wilbur Wright drawing of a bird compared to a bird in flight.


First it was a hobby but the more they looked into it, the more serious it became, and the more confident they became.

Larry Tise, author

Wibur’s first step into the world of aeronautical research was to write to the Smithsonian Institution:


I wish to obtain such papers as the Institution has published on this subject, and if possible, a list of other works in print...

—Wilbur Wright

By 1899, the Smithsonian Institution had become a national center for aeronautical research. After his successful tests over the Potomac River, Samuel Langley had been granted an unprecedented $50,000 from the United States War Department for the construction of a full-scale, man-carrying version of his steam-powered flying model.


Early flying machine illustration.After spending three months pouring over the suggested aeronautical literature, Wilbur was encouraged by what he read. Nowhere did he find any means for controlling a flying machine when, and if, it got off the ground.

Early flying machine illustration.

Thousands of men had thought about flying machines and a few had even built machines which they called flying machines, but these were guilty of almost everything except flying.

—Wilbur Wright

But by reading these materials, Wilbur was able to derive much from experimenters who came before him.

Otto Lilienthal tests monoplane glider near Berlin.

They read the writings of Lilienthal, they looked at Octave Chanute’s work, and they used the good ideas from all of these individuals in their first design.

Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University

Concepts of wing configuration and shape, tables of air pressures, and methods for constructing light and durable airframes had all been painstakingly developed by earlier inventors.


Scottish aviation pioneer Percy Pilcher (right) prepares to launch his most successful glider in 1898.From his studies, Wilbur perceptively ascertained that a successful flying machine would need three basic elements—wings for lift, a way to propel itself through the air, and, above all, a method of balance and control while in flight.


Otto Lilienthal tests monoplane glider near Berlin.The Wrights believed that much of the work on basic wing design and surfaces that generate lift had already been done by Lilienthal and other experimenters, and that powerful and efficient internal combustion engines had already been invented. But by the summer of 1899, Wilbur and Orville concluded that balance and control had barely been addressed.


They thought this through very systematically and they realized that the problem would be how to stay in equilibrium once you got into the air—how to keep your balance. And it’s very tempting and maybe right to think that their experience with bicycles influenced them.

—James Tobin, author

The process of riding a bicycle is like learning to fly.


When everyone else in sight was convinced that you couldn’t possibly give a pilot complete command of his machine because this thing would be like something balanced on the head of a pin, just drive a pilot crazy—nobody could keep up with it.


What they thought to themselves was, “Well, wait a minute, if you’re trying to explain how you ride a bicycle to somebody who’s never seen a bicycle before and you say, ‘you know you are going to roll down a hill on this little thing with two narrow tires and you are going to have to balance this way. In addition to which, you have these pedals you are going to have to work, and these handlebars, and you are going to have to coordinate all that.’ you know the person you were talking to would quickly become convinced that you’d have to be the world’s greatest acrobat to ride a thing like that.” But the Wright’s knew that you internalize the process of riding a bicycle and they knew the same thing would be true of flying an airplane.

—Tom Crouch, author


Chanute-Herring 1896 biplane glider.After examining all the literature available to him in the field of aeronautical research, Wilbur arrived at a prophetic decision: balance and control would become his primary focus of study. By solving this one critical piece of the flying problem, he would make an indelible contribution to the advancement of flight—and to the world.





Balance and Control


Otto Lilienthal tests monoplane glider near Berlin.Lilienthal had attempted to maintain balance and control in his gliders by shifting his body weight, but Wilbur reasoned that there must be a better way.


...My observations of the flight of birds, convince me that birds use more positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium than that of shifting the center of gravity.

—Wilbur Wright


What Wilbur describes as the earliest idea that we know about, that he was watching a pigeon or a couple of pigeons in Dayton, and seeing them sort of very quickly and in subtle ways alter the angle of their wings and that this is what allows them to keep their balance.

—James Tobin, author


One of the places that Wilbur would ride out to is called the Pinnacles out overlooking the great Miami River, and we have several large birds in the Dayton area that would fly above the river and Wilbur would go out and he would watch those. He saw a bird or an aircraft as sort of balanced in flight as if it were balanced on the head of a pin and it would pitch it’s nose up and down and it used it’s tail for that. And then it would also roll to the right or left and it would use the pinfeathers on the end of the wings for that.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

But to adapt these subtle organic movements into a man-made wing would be no easy task. Wilbur would need a system that could easily twist the wings without compromising the structural integrity of the airframe.


Clock gears.

Both of the brothers tried to figure out how to make the wings flexible so they could turn and Orville had this idea about a mechanical gear that would move one wing up when the other wing went down.

—Fred Howard, author

But the idea was soon rejected because the mechanism would weigh too much for flight. Weeks passed, and no solution was in sight.


Twisting an nner tube box inspires wing-warping concept.One Summer evening in 1899, Orville accompanied his sister Katharine to a friend’s house, leaving Wilbur to mind the bicycle shop alone. When a customer dropped in to purchase an inner tube, Wilbur removed the tube from its package and fidgeted with the empty box as he spoke with the customer.

Twisting an nner tube box inspires wing-warping concept.

He had itchy fingers and anybody would be tempted to do this. He just twisted the box with the ends open and it occurred to him that this might be it.

—Fred Howard, author

Out of this absent-minded fiddling, Wilbur arrived at the solution to his problem: as he watched the empty box twist back and forth between his fingers, he saw in his mind’s eye a pair of wings—trussed together, twisting back and forth, yet still maintaining their strength and integrity. In this moment of inspiration, he had discovered a way to make a flying machine’s wings perform the subtle maneuvers needed to maintain side-to-side—or lateral—control.

Twisting an nner tube box inspires wing-warping concept.

I love the image of Wilbur standing in the bike shop twisting that cardboard box. We may attribute too much to that moment. On the other hand, there are breakthrough moments that creative people have and that was clearly one of them. And it is one that we can reproduce by holding a little cardboard box in our own hands and twisting that box. And so it is exciting to share that moment with Wilbur Wright.

—James Tobin, author

Wilbur put his concept to the test—first, by making a static model out of split bamboo, paper, and thread. Next, he built a working model—a kite that he could test in the air. He worked at a rapid pace and was soon ready with his biplane model. Made of a pine-strip frame covered with fabric and sealed with shellac, the kite spanned five feet.

Amused by the sight of an adult playing with a kite, several of the neighborhood boys could not resist tagging along behind Wilbur as he carried the large and unusual-looking kite to a field near his home.


Replica 1899 Wright kite test model ready to launch.

There is also some evidence that Wilbur took it in stride and actually enlisted the help of the kids. I know you have to be there on the controls and you have to have one or two other helpers.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

Controls for the 1899 Wright kite testing model.

He’s controlling the glider from the ground with two sticks that he can vary back and forth to pull strings that make the glider warp or twist just like he twisted the box. The kites begin to show the Wright brothers’ approach to the science of aeronautics and how they differed from so many of their peers. He doesn’t build an airplane and then risk his life trying to fly it. No, he builds a small model to see if indeed an aircraft can be rolled from side to side using this wing-warping that he has discovered.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


He analyzed the problem and took it apart piece by piece and solved one piece at a time. That was different than many experimenters who were attempting to do all things at once.

—James Tobin, author


Replica 1899 Wright kite test model in the air.

This method of control, this wing warping control that they first tested in the 1899 kite, ended up being central to the successful invention of the airplane.  That little kite really is the origin of their 1903 powered airplane.

—Peter Jakab, author

But the innovative principles Wilbur successfully tested in this model did not automatically translate into a full-size glider. Wilbur would devote another year of research and planning before attempting to build a glider that he would trust with his own life.

I Have Been Afflicted

One of the books that was suggested for further study by the Smithsonian Institution was Progress in Flying Machines, written by Octave Chanute. Within this work, Chanute had concisely chronicled the history of all aeronautical research conducted through 1893.


Octave Chanute

Chanute, first of all, was acting as a kind of clearing house for information worldwide about what efforts were being made to invent airplanes, what was successful, what wasn’t.

—Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University


He was the grand old man of aeronautics, the one that was supposed to know everything, and he had correspondence from all over the world.

—Fred Howard, author

In May of 1900, Wilbur wrote Chanute and described his own plans for testing a flying machine:


For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.

—Wilbur Wright


He was an excellent writer and he had quite a chore in composing that letter, I’m sure. Here he’s writing, he’s a no one from nowhere, and he’s writing to this foreign born, very well-to-do man of achievement, and he has to very quickly show him that he’s not a crank; show him that this is a thought out problem; show him that he’s aware of current work to date, if any; that he’s aware of the literature, and Wilbur achieves this in almost a few sentences.

Leonard Bruno, author

This was the beginning of an exchange that would eventually include over 400 letters and would become the primary chronicle of much of what is known about the development of the first airplane.


Next   »

When You Come Among Us -Wilbur and Orville travel to the remote and desolate Outer Banks of North Carolina to begin their quest in Part II of The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention.


Watch the Full Movie!


with Neil Armstrong and John Glenn

Legendary astronauts John Glenn and the late Neil Armstrong portrayed the voices of Wilbur and Orville in Kitty Hawk. It proved to be the only time that the two most-famous American astronauts collaborated together on such a project. Armstrong's and Glenn's inspiring voice performances of the Wright Brothers' words provide a fitting tribute from two of the greatest heroes of space to the historic pioneers of aviation.


               Neil Armstrong and John GlennNeil Armstrong and Wilbur WrightOrville Wright and John GlennOrville Wright and Wilbur Wright


See the image behind the journey.