The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention
Shorter 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.


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.


Lantern-lit slide projector.





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


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.







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.




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.

—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:


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... 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.


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.

 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.


Orville Wright.


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?

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


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.”

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.

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.

—Orville Wright


Replica 1902Wright glider repair.



They were running a state-of-the-art aeronautical design laboratory out in the middle of nowhere. 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.






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.


Replica 1902 Wright glider front elevator.








Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring arrived at the camp just as the modifications to the glider were completed.


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.









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.










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



Motors and Propellers

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.


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.


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. 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


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.





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.






Next   »

A Machine on Close Margins - Setbacks plague the Wrights while Langley looks to be the first to fly while the Wrights are plagued by setbacks in Part V of The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention.



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