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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 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.
At the signal, 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. Langley’s team launched another flight later that afternoon which was also successful.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like many informed Americans of his day, Wilbur Wright had followed the exploits of Otto Lilienthal through stories in several newspapers and magazines.
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:
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wilbur put his concept to the test—he built a working model—a kite that he could test in the air. Made of a pine-strip frame covered with fabric and sealed with shellac, the kite spanned five feet.
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.
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
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.
One of the books that was suggested for further study by the Smithsonian Institution was Progress in Flying Machines, written by Octave Chanute.
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.
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.
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