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Flying Machines: A History of Early Aviation

Langley’s Aerodrome

The Wright Brothers

In 1893, Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and his younger brother, Orville Wright (1871–1948), opened a bicycle repair shop in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Two years later, they began manufacturing their own cycles. The success of their business gave them the capital and time to devote to their new aeronautical hobby.

Wilbur (left) and Orville Wright at home in Dayton, Ohio, ca. 1910. Hallion, Richard P., ed. The Wright Brothers: Heirs of Prometheus. Smithsonian Institution, 1978. View Source.

Learning to Fly

Since Dayton did not have the best weather conditions, research led them to the Atlantic coast of North Carolina beginning in 1900, where they built and tested kites, gliders, and eventually their motorized Wright Flyer. The Wright’s most important innovation during this period was what they called “wing warping,” that enabled a pilot, using a hip paddle, to twist and raise a wing, which would turn and stabilize the aircraft in flight. They filed a patent for their invention on March 23, 1903, which was granted three years later.

Photo of Glider test at Kitty Hawk Orville is piloting the machine with Wilbur and local resident Dan Tate

Glider test at Kitty Hawk, October 10, 1902. Orville is piloting the machine with Wilbur (left) and local resident Dan Tate (right). McFarland, Marvin W., ed. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. McGraw-Hill, 1953. View Source.

The First Flights

At 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the Wright Flyer motored down a wooden track into the wind. After 40 feet, the aircraft gained lift and flew 40 yards in 12 seconds at an altitude of 10 feet with an airspeed of 34 miles per hour. The Wright brothers made three more flights that day. The last flight, with Wilbur as pilot, covered over 850 feet in 59 seconds. For the first time in history, humans had made a heavier-than-air machine.

The Wright Flyer takes to the air, December 17, 1903, with Orville piloting the aircraft and his brother Wilbur running alongside. The Wright flyer weighed 750 pounds with a pilot aboard and was powered by a 12-horse- power gasoline engine that turned two 8-foot propellers with a chain-and-sprocket system. The Flyer had a wingspan of 40 feet and was 21 feet in length. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.