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Wright brothers

First flight, December 17, 1903.

Wilbur Wright

Orville Wright

The Wright Brothers, Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 - January 30, 1948) and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 - May 30, 1912), are generally credited with the design and construction of the first successful aeroplane and making the first controllable, powered heavier-than-air flight; sharing this discovering with the french Clément Ader.

Early career and research

The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where they ran a bicycle repair, design and manufacturing company (the Wright Cycle Company). Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley and Otto Lilienthal, they extended the technology of flight with the principles of control still used today. They had researched and initially relied upon the aeronautical literature of the day, including Lilienthal's tables; but finding that the Smeaton Coefficient (a variable in the formula for lift and the formula for drag) was wrong, had a wind tunnel built by their employee, Charlie Taylor, to perform practical tests.

Flights at Kitty Hawk

In 1900 they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to continue their aeronautical work, choosing Kitty Hawk (actually Kill Devil Hill) because of its strong and steady winds. They experimented with gliders at Kitty Hawk in 1901 and 1902. On March 23, 1903 they applied for a patent (granted as U.S. patent number 821,393, "Flying-Machine", on May 23, 1906) for the novel technique of controlling lateral movement and turning by "wing warping". In 1903, they built the Wright Flyer, carved propellers and had an engine built by Taylor in their bicycle shop in Dayton. Then on December 17, 1903 Orville Wright took to the air. Orville's controlled flight, of 36 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day, the only flight made that day which was actually controlled, Wilbur Wright flew 259 meters (852 feet) in 59 seconds [1].

The flights were witnessed by 4 lifesavers and a boy from the village, making it arguably the first public flight. The Wright brothers invited only a few witnesses to their early flights, in order to protect their patent rights.

The Wrights established a flying field at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, and continued work in 1904, using a catapult take-off system to compensate for the lack of wind in this location. By the end of the year, the Wright brothers had sustained flights of 5 minutes, circling over the prairie, which is now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

In 1904 and 1905, the Wright Brothers conducted over 80 flights from Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio, inviting the press and friends and neighbors. However their achievements were not widely known outside of Ohio. Here they completed the first aerial circle and by October 5, 1905 Wilbur set a record of over 39 minutes in the air and 24 1/2 miles, circling over Huffman Prairie.

The brothers became world famous in 1908 and 1909 when Wilbur toured Europe demonstrating their aeroplane, while Orville demonstrated the flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer.

On May 14, 1908 the Wright Brothers made the first two-person aircraft flight with Charlie Furnas as a passenger. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed in a powered airplane on September 17, 1908 when a propeller failure caused the crash of the passenger-carrying plane Orville was piloting during military tests at Fort Myer in Virginia. In late 1908, Madame Hart O. Berg became the first woman to fly when she flew with Wilbur Wright in Le Mans, France.

The Wright brothers brought great attention to flying by Wilbur's flight around the Statue of Liberty in New York in 1909.

Also in 1909, the Wrights won the first US military aviation contract when they built a machine that met the requirements of a two-seater, capable of flights of an hour's duration, at an average of 40 miles per hour. That year the Wrights were also building Wright Flyers in factories in Dayton and in Germany.

The Wrights took over 300 photographs of flights and many other events of those pioneer days of aviation.

Wilbur Wright died from typhoid fever, while Orville Wright died from a heart attack while fixing the doorbell to his home in Oakwood, Ohio.

Possible earlier flights

There are several claims of earlier powered flights made by others (see Aviation history).

However, the Wright brothers' patented three-axis system of control, using wing warping (later supplanted by ailerons) to control roll, elevators to control pitch and angle of attack and a rudder to control yaw, made flight stable and sustainable. Without it, a "flying machine" would be only an amusement device, not a vehicle. The same principles are still in use in almost all modern aircraft.

Controversy in the credit for invention of the airplane has been fuelled by the Wrights' secrecy while their patent was prepared, by the pride of nations, and by the number of firsts made possible by the basic invention.

The Smithsonian Issue

In the early 1900s professor Samuel P. Langley was secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. He had a claim to being "father of flight" as he had for many years worked on gliders and his assistent C M Manley was actually employed by the US government to construct aircrafts for military use. Orville Wright didn't like anybody else hogging the credit so the Flyer was instead loaned to the London Science Museum and Orville stated it wouldn't be returned until he and his brother were acknowledged as the "Fathers of Powered Flight". The Smithsonian eventually agreed, but the Flyer remained at Kensington in London until 1948. On November 23 1948 the executors of the estate of Orville Wright wrote a contract with the Smithsonian Institute regarding the display of the aircraft and in the contract it stated: "Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight." If this wasn't fullfilled the Flyer would be returned to the heir of the Wright brothers.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

See Paul Laurence Dunbar for the Wrights' contributions to the career of the distinguished African American poet.

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