Taking to the Skies
IntroductionView ItemsSIL Digital LibraryNational Air & Space Museum Library


Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867 in Millville, Indiana; Orville was born August 19, 1871 in Dayton, Ohio. Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Their mother, Susan Catherine Koerner, had a technical bent and was the inventor of many practical household items. Although both brothers completed high school courses, neither formally graduated. Orville later wrote of his childhood,
Wilbur Wright
"We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests, to investigate whatever aroused curiosity." While still in school, Orville became interested in printing and in 1889 started printing The West Side News. The newspaper was printed on a homemade press. In 1893 the two brothers opened a shop for the manufacture and sale of bicycles.

Throughout their youth, Orville and Wilbur Wright eagerly followed the gliding experiments of the German engineer, Otto Lilienthal. After Lilienthal's tragic death in 1896, the Wright brothers thought of taking up gliding where Lilienthal left off. The Wright brothers believed that the principles behind riding a bicycle and maintaining balance were analogous to flying. Their experience in designing and building lightweight, precision machines of wood, wire and metal tubing was ideal preparation for the construction of flying machines. The brothers realized that a successful airplane would require wings to generate lift, a propulsion system to move it through the air, and a system to control the craft in flight. They worked hard to develop a flying machine that had the right combination of wing shape, design and surface area coupled with the right kind of lightweight engine.

Otto Lilienthal gliding

Also, as experienced cyclists, the Wrights preferred to place complete control of their machine in the hands of the operator. After carefully studying bird flight, the Wright brothers became aware of the inefficiency of Lilienthal's methods of seeking balance and control solely by body movements. The brothers were determined to control their machine through the precise manipulation of the center of pressure on the wings. Wilbur thought of a practical way of achieving better control of the machine by twisting or warping the wings in order to present different angles to the wind. The resulting increase in lift on one side and decrease on the other would enable the pilot to raise or lower either wing tip at will. The brothers tested this theory by building and flying a small kite-like glider with superposed surfaces. The glider showed that their system of control was effective and the brothers planned a man-carrying glider. Using "wing warping", the pilot could cause the glider to climb, dive and bank to the right or left.

After checking with the United States Weather Bureau, the Wright brothers determined that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was suitable for testing their glider. Kitty Hawk had high, steady winds and sand dunes, free
Wright brothers' control system - wing warping
from vegetation. The brothers went to Kitty Hawk in 1900 with their first man-carrying glider, which measured 18 feet from tip to tip. The glider included a horizontal front rudder or elevator, whose front edge could be raised or lowered for fore-and-aft balance. The cradle in which the pilot lay was connected with wires in order to give a spiral twist to the wings for greater balance and control. The brothers were disappointed in the glider's lifting abilities but were encouraged by the performance of their controls. Orville and Wilbur determined to return the next year with a larger machine having more deeply curved wings.

Because the results did not correspond to the estimated values in Lilienthal's tables of air pressure, the Wright brothers wondered if the accepted information was wrong. They decided to experiment with miniature wings in a six-foot wind tunnel, testing more than 200 types of wings set at different angles. They measured monoplane, biplane and triplane models as well as staggered-wing models. They measured the lift produced by different aspect ratios as well as wing curvature and thickness. Among other things, these experiments proved the undesirability of a sharp edge at the front of the wing. The Wright brothers also learned that having one wing directly above another results in a loss of lift.

These experiments marked a turning point in man's attempts to fly. Using the knowledge gained from their wind tunnel experiments, the Wrights could now design an aircraft capable of flying. Their 1902 glider had a wingspan of 32 feet, 10 feet more than the one built in 1901, but the most noticeable change was the addition of a tail with twin vertical vanes. The tail provided balance and stability. They could now glide more than 600 feet and on a smaller angle of descent, closer to the horizontal. When they built their first powered aircraft the following year, they felt certain it would fly.

Wright brothers' 1902 glider

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers were the first men in history to make powered, sustained and controlled flights in an airplane. The machine, engine and propellers were all of their own design and construction. It was bitterly cold that morning and a gusty 27 mile-per-hour wind scoured the sand dunes. It seemed unsafe to try their flying machine but Orville and Wilbur Wright decided to start from the level ground before their camp. As was typical of all of their efforts, the Wright brothers carefully and methodically made their preparations.

It was Orville's turn to try flying the machine; Wilbur made his attempt on the 14th. There were several witnesses to this momentous event: J.T. Daniels, W.S. Dough, A.D. Etheridge (friends from the life-saving station), W.C. Brinkley and Johnny Moore, a Nag's Head boy. At 10:30 A.M. Orville lay face down in the aircraft, warmed up the motor and released the tie-line. The machine started moving slowly against the gale. Wilbur ran alongside for 40 feet.

Slowly, the world's first airplane rose against the wind under full control. The centuries old dream of flight had finally come true. Orville Wright was in the air 12 seconds and flew over 120 feet at 31 miles per hour. Orville and Wilbur flew several times that day. At noon, Wilbur made the record flight of the day. He was in the air 59 seconds and flew 852 feet. Through careful scientific research and persistent effort, the Wright brothers had finally succeeded in flying.

Paul K. McCutcheon, National Postal Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
William E. Baxter
, National Air and Space Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
December 2003

Further Reading

The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Adams, Noah.
New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2003.

Inventing Flight: the Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors.
Anderson, John David.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Gentleman Amateurs: An Appreciation of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Bernstein, Mark and Ron Rollins (Editor).
Dayton, OH: Dayton Daily News, 2002.

Into the Air: The Story of the Wright Brothers' First Flight.
Burleigh, Robert and Bill Wylie (Illustrator).
San Diego, CA: Silver Whistle, 2002.

The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes.
Burton, Walt and Owen Findsen.
New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2003.

First to Fly: How Wilbur and Orville Wright Invented the Airplane.
Busby, Peter et al.
New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2003.

Pendulum: The Story of America's Three Aviation Pioneers: Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, and Glenn Curtiss, the Henry Ford of Aviation.
Carpenter, Jack.
Carlisle, MA: Arsdalen, Bosch & Company, 1992.

Airborne: A Photobiography of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Collins, Mary.
Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2003.

Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Crouch, Tom.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.

First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane.
Crouch, Tom.
Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service Division of Publications, 2002.

Wings: a History of Aviation from Kites to Wright Brothers to Space Age.
Crouch, Tom.

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.
Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age.
Crouch, Tom and Peter Jakab.
Washington, DC: National Geographic Books, 2003.

The Wright Brothers: Heroes of Flight.
Ford, Carin.
Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003.

The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane.
Freedman, Russell et al.
New York: Holiday House, Inc., 1991.

Kitty Hawk and Beyond: The Wright Brothers and the Early Years of Aviation - a Photographic History.
Geibert, Ronald et al.
Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart Publisher, 2003.

Race to the Sky: the Wright Brothers versus the United States Government.
Goddard, Stephen.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.

The Wright Brothers and Other Pioneers of Flight.
Hansen, Ole Steen.
New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 2003.

The Wright Brothers.
Haynes, Richard.
Columbus, OH: Silver Burdett Press, 1992.

First Flight: the Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane.
Heppenheimer, T.A.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

Kitty Hawk: The Flight of the Wright Brothers.
Hossell, Karen Price.
Barrington, IL: Heinemann Library, 2002.

Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers.
Howard, Fred.
Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.

First Flight: The Story of the Wright Brothers.
Jenner, Caryn.
New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 2003.

Wilbur Wright's Flights in France.
Kandebo, Stan and Dawne Dewey.
New York: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2003.

Taking Flight: The Story of the Wright Brothers.
Krensky, Stephen and Larry Day (Illustrator).
Riverside, NJ: Simon & Schuster Books, 2000.

The Wright Brothers: They Gave Us Wings.
Ludwig, Charles and Barbara Morrow (Illustrator).
Fenton, MI: Mott Media, 1985.

Wright Brothers: Orville and Wilbur.
Marsh, Carole.
Peachtree City, GA: Gallopade International, 2002

The Wright Brothers.
Martin, Michael.
Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2002.

To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers.
Old, Wendie and Robert Andrew Parker (Illustrator).
Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

The Wright Brothers and Aviation.
Parker, Steve.
Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.

Triumph at Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers and Powered Flight.
Parramore, Thomas.
Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Division of Archives & History, 1999.

Wright Brothers, Pioneers of American Aviation.
Reynolds, Quentin.
Madison, WI: Turtleback Books, 1981.

The Wright Brothers: Inventors of the Airplane.
Ryan, Bernard.
Danbury, CT: Scholastic Library Publishing, 2003.

The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Sobol, Donald.
New York: Scholastic Inc., 1987.

The Wright Brothers.
Sullivan, George.
New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003.

The First Flight: The Story of the Wright Brothers.
Taylor, Richard.
Danbury, CT: Scholastic Library Publishing, 1990.

First to Fly: The Unlikely Triumph of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Tobin, James.
London: John Murray, 2003.

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.
Tobin, James.
Riverside, NJ: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History.
Wright, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1998.

Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Wright, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Fred C Kelly.
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, Inc., 2002.

The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute, Set.
Wright, Wilbur et al.
New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2000.

The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Wright, Wilbur et al.
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Wright Brothers' Aeroplane.
Wright, Orville et al.
Silverthorne, CO: Vistabooks, 1981.


Smithsonian Institution Libraries On Display