(1871-08-19)August 19, 1871
January 30, 1948(1948-01-30) (aged 76)
3 years high school
Printer/publisher, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane
inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
(1867-04-16)April 16, 1867
May 30, 1912(1912-05-30) (aged 45)
4 years high school
Editor, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer,
The Wright brothers, Orville (August 19, 1871 – January 30,
1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912), were two
American aviators, engineers, inventors, and aviation pioneers who are
generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the
world's first successful airplane. They made the first controlled,
sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft on December
17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1904–05
the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical
fixed-wing aircraft. Although not the first to build experimental
Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft
controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
The brothers' fundamental breakthrough was their invention of
three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft
effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method
became and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds.
From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers
focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to
solving "the flying problem". This approach differed significantly
from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on
developing powerful engines. Using a small homebuilt wind tunnel,
the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before,
enabling them to design and build wings and propellers that were more
efficient than any before. Their first U.S. patent, 821,393,
did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention
of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's
They gained the mechanical skills essential for their success by
working for years in their shop with printing presses, bicycles,
motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles in particular
influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine
could be controlled and balanced with practice. From 1900 until
their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive
glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots. Their bicycle
shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team,
building their first airplane engine in close collaboration with the
The Wright brothers' status as inventors of the airplane has been
subject to counter-claims by various parties. Much controversy
persists over the many competing claims of early aviators. Edward
Roach, historian for the
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical
Park argues that they were excellent self-taught engineers who could
run a small company, but they did not have the business skills or
temperament to dominate the growing aviation industry.
2 Early career and research
2.1 Ideas about control
3.1 Toward flight
3.3 Adding power
3.4 First powered flight
3.5 Establishing legitimacy
4 European skepticism
5 Contracts and return to Kitty Hawk
5.1 Return to glider flights
6 Public showing
6.1 Family flights
7 Patent war
7.1 Lawsuits begin
7.2 Victory and cooperation
7.3 Public reactions
8 In business
8.1 Army accidents
9 Smithsonian feud
10 Last years
11 Competing claims
North Carolina coinage rivalry
13 See also
15 Further reading
16 External links
16.4 Image collections
Wilbur (left) and Orville (right) as children in 1876
Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright
(1828–1917), of English and Dutch ancestry, and Susan Catherine
Koerner (1831–1889), of German and Swiss ancestry. Milton
Wright's mother, Catherine Reeder, was descended from the progenitor
Vanderbilt family and the
Huguenot Gano family of New Rochelle,
New York. Wilbur was born near Millville, Indiana, in 1867;
Orville in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. The brothers never married. The
other Wright siblings were Reuchlin (1861–1920), Lorin
(1862–1939), Katharine (1874–1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born
1870, died in infancy). In elementary school, Orville was given to
mischief and was once expelled. The direct paternal ancestry goes
back to a Samuel Wright (b. 1606 in Essex, England) who sailed to
America and settled in Massachusetts in 1636.
In 1878 their father, who traveled often as a bishop in the Church of
the United Brethren in Christ, brought home a toy helicopter for his
two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French
aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork
with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long.
Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their
own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy
as the spark of their interest in flying.
Early career and research
Wright brothers' home at 7 Hawthorn Street,
Dayton about 1900. Wilbur
and Orville built the covered wrap-around porch in the 1890s.
Both brothers attended high school, but did not receive diplomas. The
family's abrupt move in 1884 from
Richmond, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio,
where the family had lived during the 1870s, prevented Wilbur from
receiving his diploma after finishing four years of high school. The
diploma was awarded posthumously to Wilbur on April 16, 1994, which
would have been his 127th birthday.
In late 1885 or early 1886 Wilbur was struck in the face by a hockey
stick while playing an ice-skating game with friends, resulting in the
loss of his front teeth. He had been vigorous and athletic until then,
and although his injuries did not appear especially severe, he became
withdrawn. He had planned to attend Yale. Instead, he spent the next
few years largely housebound. During this time he cared for his mother
who was terminally ill with tuberculosis, read extensively in his
father's library and ably assisted his father during times of
controversy within the Brethren Church, but also expressed unease
over his own lack of ambition.
Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a
printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing
press with Wilbur's help. Wilbur joined the print shop, and in March
the brothers launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News.
Subsequent issues listed Orville as publisher and Wilbur as editor on
the masthead. In April 1890 they converted the paper to a daily, The
Evening Item, but it lasted only four months. They then focused on
commercial printing. One of their clients was Orville's friend and
classmate, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who rose to international acclaim as
a ground-breaking African-American poet and writer. For a brief period
the Wrights printed the
Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper that Dunbar
Wright brothers' bicycle at the National Air and Space Museum
Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze (spurred by the invention
of the safety bicycle and its substantial advantages over the
penny-farthing design), in December 1892 the brothers opened a repair
and sales shop (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle
Company) and in 1896 began manufacturing their own brand. They
used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. In the
early or mid-1890s they saw newspaper or magazine articles and
probably photographs of the dramatic glides by
Otto Lilienthal in
1896 brought three important aeronautical events. In May, Smithsonian
Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned
steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft. In mid-year,
and aviation authority
Octave Chanute brought together several men who
tested various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of
Lake Michigan. In August, Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his
glider. These events lodged in the minds of the brothers,
especially Lilienthal's death. The
Wright brothers later cited his
death as the point when their serious interest in flight research
began. Wilbur said, "Lilienthal was without question the greatest
of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt." In May
1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution
requesting information and publications about aeronautics. Drawing
on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da
Vinci, and Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical
experimentation that year.
Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public,
sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note
that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899–1900, writing of "my"
machine and "my" plans before Orville became deeply involved when the
first person singular became the plural "we" and "our". Author James
Tobin asserts, "it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was,
supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going
from the back room of a store in
Ohio to conferences with capitalists,
presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the
beginning to the end."
Ideas about control
Wright 1899 kite: front and side views, with control sticks.
Wing-warping is shown in lower view. (
Wright brothers drawing in
Library of Congress)
Despite Lilienthal's fate, the brothers favored his strategy: to
practice gliding in order to master the art of control before
attempting motor-driven flight. The death of British aeronaut Percy
Pilcher in another hang gliding crash in October 1899 only reinforced
their opinion that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to
successful—and safe—flight. At the outset of their experiments
they regarded control as the unsolved third part of "the flying
problem". They believed sufficiently promising knowledge of the other
two issues—wings and engines—already existed. The Wright
brothers thus differed sharply from more experienced practitioners of
the day, notably Clément Ader, Maxim and Langley who built powerful
engines, attached them to airframes equipped with unproven control
devices, and expected to take to the air with no previous flying
experience. Although agreeing with Lilienthal's idea of practice, the
Wrights saw that his method of balance and control by shifting his
body weight was inadequate. They were determined to find something
On the basis of observation, Wilbur concluded that birds changed the
angle of the ends of their wings to make their bodies roll right or
left. The brothers decided this would also be a good way for a
flying machine to turn—to "bank" or "lean" into the turn just like a
bird—and just like a person riding a bicycle, an experience with
which they were thoroughly familiar. Equally important, they hoped
this method would enable recovery when the wind tilted the machine to
one side (lateral balance). They puzzled over how to achieve the same
effect with man-made wings and eventually discovered wing-warping when
Wilbur idly twisted a long inner-tube box at the bicycle shop.
Other aeronautical investigators regarded flight as if it were not so
different from surface locomotion, except the surface would be
elevated. They thought in terms of a ship's rudder for steering, while
the flying machine remained essentially level in the air, as did a
train or an automobile or a ship at the surface. The idea of
deliberately leaning, or rolling, to one side seemed either
undesirable or did not enter their thinking. Some of these other
investigators, including Langley and Chanute, sought the elusive ideal
of "inherent stability", believing the pilot of a flying machine would
not be able to react quickly enough to wind disturbances to use
mechanical controls effectively. The Wright brothers, on the other
hand, wanted the pilot to have absolute control. For that reason,
their early designs made no concessions toward built-in stability
(such as dihedral wings). They deliberately designed their 1903 first
powered flyer with anhedral (drooping) wings, which are inherently
unstable, but less susceptible to upset by gusty cross winds.
Park Ranger Tom White demonstrates a replica of the Wright brothers
1899 box kite at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
In July 1899 Wilbur put wing warping to the test by building and
flying a biplane kite with a five-foot (1.5m) wingspan. When the wings
were warped, or twisted, one end of the wings produced more lift and
the other end less lift. The unequal lift made the wings tilt, or
bank: the end with more lift rose, while the other end dropped,
causing a turn in the direction of the lower end. The warping was
controlled by four cords attached to the kite, which led to two sticks
held by the kite flyer, who tilted them in opposite directions to
twist the wings.
In 1900 the brothers went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to begin
their manned gliding experiments. In his reply to Wilbur's first
Octave Chanute had suggested the mid-Atlantic coast for its
regular breezes and soft sandy landing surface. Wilbur also requested
and examined U.S. Weather Bureau data, and decided on Kitty
Hawk after receiving information from the government
meteorologist stationed there. Kitty Hawk, although remote,
was closer to
Dayton than other places Chanute had suggested,
including California and Florida. The spot also gave them privacy from
reporters, who had turned the 1896 Chanute experiments at Lake
Michigan into something of a circus. Chanute visited them in camp each
season from 1901 to 1903 and saw gliding experiments, but not the
Main article: Wright Glider
Chanute's hang glider of 1896. The pilot may be Augustus Herring.
The Wrights based the design of their kite and full-size gliders on
work done in the 1890s by other aviation pioneers. They adopted the
basic design of the Chanute-Herring biplane hang glider
("double-decker" as the Wrights called it), which flew well in the
1896 experiments near Chicago, and used aeronautical data on lift that
Otto Lilienthal had published. The Wrights designed the wings with
camber, a curvature of the top surface. The brothers did not discover
this principle, but took advantage of it. The better lift of a
cambered surface compared to a flat one was first discussed
scientifically by Sir George Cayley. Lilienthal, whose work the
Wrights carefully studied, used cambered wings in his gliders, proving
in flight the advantage over flat surfaces. The wooden uprights
between the wings of the Wright glider were braced by wires in their
own version of Chanute's modified Pratt truss, a bridge-building
design he used for his biplane glider (initially built as a triplane).
The Wrights mounted the horizontal elevator in front of the wings
rather than behind, apparently believing this feature would help to
avoid, or protect them, from a nosedive and crash like the one that
killed Lilienthal. Wilbur incorrectly believed a tail was not
necessary, and their first two gliders did not have one. According
to some Wright biographers, Wilbur probably did all the gliding until
1902, perhaps to exercise his authority as older brother and to
protect Orville from harm as he did not want to have to explain to
Bishop Wright if Orville got injured.
Glider vital statistics
17 ft 6 in (5.33 m)
165 sq ft (15 m2)
5 ft (2 m)
11 ft 6 in (3.51 m)
52 lb (24 kg)
22 ft (7 m)
290 sq ft (27 m2)
7 ft (2.1 m)
14 ft (4.3 m)
98 lb (44 kg)
32 ft 1 in (9.78 m)
305 sq ft (28 m2)
5 ft (1.5 m)
17 ft (5.2 m)
112 lb (51 kg)
* (This airfoil caused severe stability problems; the Wrights modified
the camber on-site.)
The brothers flew the glider for only a few days in the early autumn
of 1900 at Kitty Hawk. In the first tests, probably on October 3,
Wilbur was aboard while the glider flew as a kite not far above the
ground with men below holding tether ropes. Most of the kite tests
were unpiloted, with sandbags or chains and even a local boy as
The 1900 glider. No photo was taken with a pilot aboard.
They tested wing-warping using control ropes from the ground. The
glider was also tested unmanned while suspended from a small homemade
tower. Wilbur, but not Orville, made about a dozen free glides on only
a single day, October 20. For those tests the brothers trekked four
miles (6 km) south to the Kill Devil Hills, a group of sand dunes
up to 100 feet (30 m) high (where they made camp in each of the
next three years). Although the glider's lift was less than expected,
the brothers were encouraged because the craft's front elevator worked
well and they had no accidents. However, the small number of free
glides meant they were not able to give wing-warping a true test.
The pilot lay flat on the lower wing, as planned, to reduce
aerodynamic drag. As a glide ended, the pilot was supposed to lower
himself to a vertical position through an opening in the wing and land
on his feet with his arms wrapped over the framework. Within a few
glides, however, they discovered the pilot could remain prone on the
wing, headfirst, without undue danger when landing. They made all
their flights in that position for the next five years.
Orville with the 1901 glider, its nose pointed skyward; it had no
Hoping to improve lift, they built the 1901 glider with a much larger
wing area and made dozens of flights in July and August for distances
of 50 to 400 ft (15 to 122 m). The glider stalled a few
times, but the parachute effect of the forward elevator allowed Wilbur
to make a safe flat landing, instead of a nose-dive. These incidents
wedded the Wrights even more strongly to the canard design, which they
did not give up until 1910. The glider, however, delivered two major
disappointments. It produced only about one-third the lift calculated
and sometimes pointed opposite the intended direction of a turn–a
problem later known as adverse yaw–when Wilbur used the wing-warping
control. On the trip home a deeply dejected Wilbur remarked to Orville
that man would not fly in a thousand years.
Wilbur just after landing the 1901 glider. Glider skid marks are
visible behind it, and marks from a previous landing are seen in
front; Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.
The poor lift of the gliders led the Wrights to question the accuracy
of Lilienthal's data, as well as the "Smeaton coefficient" of air
pressure, a value which had been in use for over 100 years and was
part of the accepted equation for lift.
The lift equation
displaystyle L=k;S;V^ 2 ;C_ L
L = lift in pounds
k = coefficient of air pressure (Smeaton coefficient)
S = total area of lifting surface in square feet
V = velocity (headwind plus ground speed) in miles per hour
CL = coefficient of lift (varies with wing shape)
The Wrights used this equation to calculate the amount of lift that a
wing would produce. Over the years a wide variety of values had been
measured for the Smeaton coefficient; Chanute identified up to 50 of
them. Wilbur knew that Langley, for example, had used a lower number
than the traditional one. Intent on confirming the correct Smeaton
value, Wilbur performed his own calculations using measurements
collected during kite and free flights of the 1901 glider. His results
correctly showed that the coefficient was very close to 0.0033
(similar to the number Langley used), not the traditional 0.0054,
which would significantly exaggerate predicted lift.
Replica of the Wright brothers' wind tunnel at the Virginia Air and
To learn whether errors actually existed in Lilienthal's data tables,
the brothers used a bicycle for a new type of experiment. They made a
model-size airfoil and a counter-acting flat plate, both according to
dimensions Lilienthal had specified, and attached them to an extra
bicycle wheel, which they mounted horizontally in front of the
handlebars. Pedaling strenuously on a local street to create airflow
over the apparatus, they observed that the third wheel rotated against
the airfoil instead of remaining motionless as Lilienthal's formula
predicted. The experiment confirmed their suspicion that either the
standard Smeaton coefficient or Lilienthal's coefficients of lift and
drag–or all of them–were in error.
They then built a six-foot (1.8m) wind tunnel in their shop and
between October and December 1901 conducted systematic tests on dozens
of miniature wings . The "balances" they devised and mounted
inside the tunnel to hold the wings looked crude, made of bicycle
spokes and scrap metal, but were "as critical to the ultimate success
Wright brothers as were the gliders." The devices allowed
the brothers to balance lift against drag and accurately calculate the
performance of each wing. They could also see which wings worked well
as they looked through the viewing window in the top of the tunnel.
The tests yielded a trove of valuable data never before known and
showed that the poor lift of the 1900 and 1901 gliders was entirely
due to an incorrect Smeaton value, and that Lilienthal's published
data were fairly accurate for the tests he had done. 
Before the detailed wind tunnel tests Wilbur traveled to
Chanute's invitation to give a lecture to the Western Society of
Engineers on September 18, 1901. He presented a thorough report about
the 1900–01 glider experiments and complemented his talk with a
lantern slide show of photographs. Wilbur's speech was the first
public account of the brothers' experiments. A report was
published in the Journal of the society, which was then separately
published as an offprint titled Some Aeronautical Experiments in a 300
A big improvement
At left, 1901 glider flown by Wilbur (left) and Orville. At right,
1902 glider flown by Wilbur (right) and Dan Tate, their helper.
Dramatic improvement in performance is apparent. The 1901 glider flies
at a steep angle of attack due to poor lift and high drag. In
contrast, the 1902 glider flies at a much flatter angle and holds up
its tether lines almost vertically, clearly demonstrating a much
better lift-to-drag ratio.
Lilienthal had made "whirling arm" tests on only a few wing shapes,
and the Wrights mistakenly assumed the data would apply to their
wings, which had a different shape. The Wrights took a huge step
forward and made basic wind tunnel tests on 200 wings of many shapes
and airfoil curves, followed by detailed tests on 38 of them. The
tests, according to biographer Fred Howard, "were the most crucial and
fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time
with so few materials and at so little expense". An important
discovery was the benefit of longer narrower wings: in aeronautical
terms, wings with a larger aspect ratio (wingspan divided by
chord—the wing's front-to-back dimension). Such shapes offered much
better lift-to-drag ratio than the broader wings the brothers had
tried so far.
With this knowledge, and a more accurate Smeaton number, the Wrights
designed their 1902 glider. Using another crucial discovery from the
wind tunnel, they made the airfoil flatter, reducing the camber (the
depth of the wing's curvature divided by its chord). The 1901 wings
had significantly greater curvature, a highly inefficient feature the
Wrights copied directly from Lilienthal. Fully confident in their new
wind tunnel results, the Wrights discarded Lilienthal's data, now
basing their designs on their own calculations.
With characteristic caution, the brothers first flew the 1902 glider
as an unmanned kite, as they had done with their two previous
versions. Rewarding their wind tunnel work, the glider produced the
expected lift. It also had a new structural feature: a fixed, rear
vertical rudder, which the brothers hoped would eliminate turning
By 1902 they realized that wing-warping created "differential drag" at
the wingtips. Greater lift at one end of the wing also increased drag,
which slowed that end of the wing, making the glider swivel—or
"yaw"—so the nose pointed away from the turn. That was how the
tailless 1901 glider behaved.
Wilbur Wright pilots the 1902 glider over the Kill Devil Hills,
October 10, 1902. The single rear rudder is steerable; it replaced the
original fixed double rudder.
The improved wing design enabled consistently longer glides, and the
rear rudder prevented adverse yaw—so effectively that it introduced
a new problem. Sometimes when the pilot attempted to level off from a
turn, the glider failed to respond to corrective wing-warping and
persisted into a tighter turn. The glider would slide toward the lower
wing, which hit the ground, spinning the aircraft around. The Wrights
called this "well digging".
Orville apparently visualized that the fixed rudder resisted the
effect of corrective wing-warping when attempting to level off from a
turn. He wrote in his diary that on the night of October 2, "I studied
out a new vertical rudder". The brothers then decided to make the rear
rudder movable to solve the problem. They hinged the rudder and
connected it to the pilot's warping "cradle", so a single movement by
the pilot simultaneously controlled wing-warping and rudder
deflection. Tests while gliding proved that the trailing edge of the
rudder should be turned away from whichever end of the wings had more
drag (and lift) due to warping. The opposing pressure produced by
turning the rudder enabled corrective wing-warping to reliably restore
level flight after a turn or a wind disturbance. Furthermore, when the
glider banked into a turn, rudder pressure overcame the effect of
differential drag and pointed the nose of the aircraft in the
direction of the turn, eliminating adverse yaw.
In short, the Wrights discovered the true purpose of the movable
vertical rudder. Its role was not to change the direction of flight
(as a rudder does in sailing), but rather, to aim or align the
aircraft correctly during banking turns and when leveling off from
turns and wind disturbances. The actual turn—the change in
direction—was done with roll control using wing-warping. The
principles remained the same when ailerons superseded wing-warping.
Wilbur makes a turn using wing-warping and the movable rudder, October
With their new method the Wrights achieved true control in turns for
the first time on October 8, 1902, a major milestone. From September
19 to October 24 they made between 700 and 1,000 glides, the longest
lasting 26 seconds and covering 622.5 feet (189.7 m). Hundreds of
well-controlled glides after they made the rudder steerable convinced
them they were ready to build a powered flying machine.
Thus did three-axis control evolve: wing-warping for roll (lateral
motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for
yaw (side to side). On March 23, 1903, the Wrights applied for their
famous patent for a "Flying Machine", based on their successful 1902
glider. Some aviation historians believe that applying the system of
three-axis flight control on the 1902 glider was equal to, or even
more significant, than the addition of power to the 1903 Flyer. Peter
Jakab of the Smithsonian asserts that perfection of the 1902 glider
essentially represents invention of the airplane.
First flight of the
Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville
piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.
In 1903 the brothers built the powered
Wright Flyer I, using their
preferred material for construction, spruce, a strong and
lightweight wood, and Pride of the West muslin for surface coverings.
They also designed and carved their own wooden propellers, and had a
purpose-built gasoline engine fabricated in their bicycle shop. They
thought propeller design would be a simple matter and intended to
adapt data from shipbuilding. However, their library research
disclosed no established formulae for either marine or air propellers,
and they found themselves with no sure starting point. They discussed
and argued the question, sometimes heatedly, until they concluded that
an aeronautical propeller is essentially a wing rotating in the
vertical plane. On that basis, they used data from more wind
tunnel tests to design their propellers. The finished blades were just
over eight feet long, made of three laminations of glued spruce. The
Wrights decided on twin "pusher" propellers (counter-rotating to
cancel torque), which would act on a greater quantity of air than a
single relatively slow propeller and not disturb airflow over the
leading edge of the wings.
Wilbur made a March 1903 entry in his notebook indicating the
prototype propeller was 66% efficient. Modern wind tunnel tests on
reproduction 1903 propellers show they were more than 75% efficient
under the conditions of the first flights, "a remarkable feat", and
actually had a peak efficiency of 82%.
A Wright engine, serial number 17, circa 1910, on display at the New
England Air Museum
The Wrights wrote to several engine manufacturers, but none could meet
their need for a sufficiently lightweight powerplant. They turned to
their shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, who built an engine in just six
weeks in close consultation with the brothers. To keep the weight
down the engine block was cast from aluminum, a rare practice at the
time. The Wright/Taylor engine had a primitive version of a
carburetor, and had no fuel pump. Gasoline was gravity-fed from the
fuel tank mounted on a wing strut into a chamber next to the cylinders
where it was mixed with air: the fuel-air mixture was then vaporized
by heat from the crankcase, forcing it into the cylinders.
The propeller drive chains, resembling those of bicycles, were
supplied by a manufacturer of heavy-duty automobile chains. The
Flyer cost less than a thousand dollars, in contrast to more than
$50,000 in government funds given to
Samuel Langley for his
man-carrying Great Aerodrome. The Flyer had a wingspan of
40.3 ft (12.3 m), weighed 605 lb (274 kg) and
had a 12 horsepower (8.9 kW) 180 lb (82 kg) engine.
First powered flight
In camp at Kill Devil Hills, they endured weeks of delays caused by
broken propeller shafts during engine tests. After the shafts were
replaced (requiring two trips back to Dayton), Wilbur won a coin toss
and made a three-second flight attempt on December 14, 1903, stalling
after takeoff and causing minor damage to the Flyer. (Because December
13, 1903, was a Sunday, the brothers did not make any attempts that
day, even though the weather was good, so their first powered test
flight happened on the 121st anniversary of the first test flight that
the Montgolfier brothers had done, on December 14, 1782.) In a message
to their family, Wilbur referred to the trial as having "only partial
success", stating "the power is ample, and but for a trifling error
due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of
starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully."
Following repairs, the Wrights finally took to the air on December 17,
1903, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing
headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). The first
flight, by Orville at 10:35 am, of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds,
at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) over the
ground, was recorded in a famous photograph. The next two flights
covered approximately 175 and 200 feet (53 and 61 m), by Wilbur
and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet
(3.0 m) above the ground. The following is Orville Wright's
account of the final flight of the day:
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock.
The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the
time three hundred ft had been covered, the machine was under much
better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had
but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the
machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward,
struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852
feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the
front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was
not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in
condition for flight again in about a day or two.
Orville's notebook entry of December 17, 1903
Five people witnessed the flights: Adam Etheridge, John T. Daniels
(who snapped the famous "first flight" photo using Orville's
pre-positioned camera) and Will Dough, all of the U.S. government
coastal lifesaving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny
Moore, a teenaged boy who lived in the area. After the men hauled the
Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it
over several times, despite the crew's attempt to hold it down.
Severely damaged, the airplane never flew again. The brothers
shipped it home, and years later Orville restored it, lending it to
several U.S. locations for display, then to a British museum (see
Smithsonian dispute below), before it was finally installed in 1948 in
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., its current
The Wrights sent a telegram about the flights to their father,
requesting that he "inform press." However, the
refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be
important. Meanwhile, against the brothers' wishes, a telegraph
operator leaked their message to a Virginia newspaper, which concocted
a highly inaccurate news article that was reprinted the next day in
several newspapers elsewhere, including Dayton.
The Wrights issued their own factual statement to the press in
January. Nevertheless, the flights did not create public
excitement—if people even knew about them—and the news soon
faded. In Paris, however, Aero Club of France
members, already stimulated by Chanute's reports of Wright gliding
successes, took the news more seriously and increased their efforts to
catch up to the brothers.
Modern analysis by Professor Fred E. C. Culick and Henry R. Jex (in
1985) has demonstrated that the 1903
Wright Flyer was so unstable as
to be almost unmanageable by anyone but the Wrights, who had trained
themselves in the 1902 glider. In a recreation attempt on the
event's 100th anniversary on December 17, 2003, Kevin Kochersberger,
piloting an exacting replica, failed in his effort to match the
success that the
Wright brothers had achieved with their piloting
Orville in flight over
Huffman Prairie in
Wright Flyer II. Flight #85,
approximately 1,760 feet (536 m) in 40 1⁄5 seconds,
November 16, 1904.
In 1904 the Wrights built the Flyer II. They decided to avoid the
expense of travel and bringing supplies to the Outer Banks and set up
an airfield at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture eight miles (13 km)
northeast of Dayton. They received permission to use the field
rent-free from owner and bank president Torrance Huffman. They invited
reporters to their first flight attempt of the year on May 23, on the
condition that no photographs be taken. Engine troubles and slack
winds prevented any flying, and they could manage only a very short
hop a few days later with fewer reporters present. Library of Congress
historian Fred Howard noted some speculation that the brothers may
have intentionally failed to fly in order to cause reporters to lose
interest in their experiments. Whether that is true is not known, but
after their poor showing local newspapers virtually ignored them for
the next year and a half.
The Wrights were glad to be free from the distraction of reporters.
The absence of newsmen also reduced the chance of competitors learning
their methods. After the Kitty Hawk powered flights, the Wrights made
a decision to begin withdrawing from the bicycle business so they
could concentrate on creating and marketing a practical airplane.
This was financially risky, since they were neither wealthy nor
government-funded (unlike other experimenters such as Ader, Maxim,
Langley and Alberto Santos-Dumont). The
Wright brothers did not have
the luxury of being able to give away their invention; it was to be
their livelihood. Thus, their secrecy intensified, encouraged by
advice from their patent attorney, Henry Toulmin, not to reveal
details of their machine.
Wilbur flying almost four circles of Huffman Prairie, about
2 3⁄4 miles in 5 minutes 4 seconds; flight #82, November 9,
Wilbur's logbook showing diagram and data for first circle flight on
September 20, 1904
At Huffman Prairie, lighter winds made takeoffs harder, and they had
to use a longer starting rail than the 60-foot (18 m) rail used
at Kitty Hawk. The first flights in 1904 revealed problems with
longitudinal stability, solved by adding ballast and lengthening the
supports for the elevator. During the spring and summer they
suffered many hard landings, often damaging the aircraft and causing
minor injuries. On August 13, making an unassisted takeoff, Wilbur
finally exceeded their best Kitty Hawk effort with a flight of 1,300
feet (400 m). Then they decided to use a weight-powered catapult
to make takeoffs easier and tried it for the first time on September
7. On September 20, 1904, Wilbur flew the first complete circle in
history by a manned heavier-than-air powered machine, covering 4,080
feet (1,244 m) in about a minute and a half. Their two best
flights were November 9 by Wilbur and December 1 by Orville, each
exceeding five minutes and covering nearly three miles in almost four
circles. By the end of the year the brothers had accumulated about
50 minutes in the air in 105 flights over the rather soggy 85 acres
(34 ha) pasture, which, remarkably, is virtually unchanged today
from its original condition and is now part of
Heritage National Historical Park, adjacent to Wright-Patterson Air
The Wrights scrapped the battered and much-repaired aircraft, but
saved the engine, and in 1905 built a new airplane, the Flyer III.
Nevertheless, at first this Flyer offered the same marginal
performance as the first two. Its maiden flight was on June 23 and the
first few flights were no longer than 10 seconds. After Orville
suffered a bone-jarring and potentially fatal crash on July 14, they
rebuilt the Flyer with the forward elevator and rear rudder both
enlarged and placed several feet farther away from the wings. They
also installed a separate control for the rear rudder instead of
linking it to the wing-warping "cradle" as before. Each of the three
axes—pitch, roll and yaw—now had its own independent control.
These modifications greatly improved stability and control, enabling a
series of six dramatic "long flights" ranging from 17 to 38 minutes
and 11 to 24 miles (39 km) around the three-quarter mile course
Huffman Prairie between September 26 and October 5. Wilbur made
the last and longest flight, 24.5 miles (39.4 km) in 38 minutes
and 3 seconds, ending with a safe landing when the fuel ran out. The
flight was seen by a number of people, including several invited
friends, their father Milton, and neighboring farmers. 
Wright Flyer III
Wright Flyer III piloted by Orville over Huffman Prairie, October 4,
1905. Flight #46, covering 20 3⁄4 miles in 33 minutes 17
seconds; last photographed flight of the year
Reporters showed up the next day (only their second appearance at the
field since May the previous year), but the brothers declined to fly.
The long flights convinced the Wrights they had achieved their goal of
creating a flying machine of "practical utility" which they could
offer to sell.
The only photos of the flights of 1904–1905 were taken by the
brothers. (A few photos were damaged in the Great
Dayton Flood of
1913, but most survived intact.) In 1904
Ohio beekeeping businessman
Amos Root, a technology enthusiast, saw a few flights including the
first circle. Articles he wrote for his beekeeping magazine were the
only published eyewitness reports of the
Huffman Prairie flights,
except for the unimpressive early hop local newsmen saw. Root offered
a report to Scientific American magazine, but the editor turned it
down. As a result, the news was not widely known outside Ohio, and was
often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune
headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"
In years to come
Dayton newspapers would proudly celebrate the
Wright brothers as national heroes, but the local reporters
somehow missed one of the most important stories in history as it was
happening a few miles from their doorstep. James M. Cox, publisher at
that time of the
Dayton Daily News (later governor of
Democratic presidential nominee in 1920), expressed the attitude of
newspapermen—and the public—in those days when he admitted years
later, "Frankly, none of us believed it."
Dayton Daily News reported the October 5 flight on page 9, with
agriculture and business news.[N 1]
A few newspapers published articles about the long flights, but no
reporters or photographers had been there. The lack of splashy
eyewitness press coverage was a major reason for disbelief in
Washington, D.C. and Europe and in journals like Scientific American,
whose editors doubted the "alleged experiments" and asked how U.S.
newspapers, "alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances
to escape their notice."
In October 1904 the brothers were visited by the first of many
important Europeans they would befriend in coming years, Colonel J. E.
Capper, later superintendent of the Royal Balloon Factory. Capper and
his wife were visiting the United States to investigate the
aeronautical exhibits at the St. Louis World Fair, but had been given
a letter of introduction to both Chanute and the Wrights by Patrick
Alexander. Capper was very favorably impressed by the Wrights, who
showed him photographs of their aircraft in flight.
Wright brothers were certainly complicit in the lack of attention
they received. Fearful of competitors stealing their ideas, and still
without a patent, they flew on only one more day after October 5. From
then on, they refused to fly anywhere unless they had a firm contract
to sell their aircraft. They wrote to the U.S. government, then to
Britain, France and Germany with an offer to sell a flying machine,
but were rebuffed because they insisted on a signed contract before
giving a demonstration. They were unwilling even to show their
photographs of the airborne Flyer. The American military, having
recently spent $50,000 on the Langley Aerodrome—a product of the
nation's foremost scientist—only to see it plunge twice into the
Potomac River "like a handful of mortar", was particularly unreceptive
to the claims of two unknown bicycle makers from Ohio. Thus,
doubted or scorned, the
Wright brothers continued their work in
semi-obscurity, while other aviation pioneers like Santos-Dumont,
Léon Delagrange and American
Glenn Curtiss entered the
In 1906 skeptics in the European aviation community had converted the
press to an anti-
Wright brothers stance. European newspapers,
especially those in France, were openly derisive, calling them
Ernest Archdeacon, founder of the Aéro-Club de France, was publicly
scornful of the brothers' claims in spite of published reports;
specifically, he wrote several articles and, in 1906, stated that "the
French would make the first public demonstration of powered
The Paris edition of the
New York Herald
New York Herald summed up Europe's opinion of
Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906: "The Wrights
have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do
not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is
difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'"
In 1908, after the Wrights' first flights in France, Archdeacon
publicly admitted that he had done them an injustice.
Contracts and return to Kitty Hawk
Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. They
spent the time attempting to persuade the U.S. and European
governments that they had invented a successful flying machine and
were prepared to negotiate a contract to sell such machines. They also
experimented with a pontoon and engine setup on the Miami River (Ohio)
in hopes of flying from the water. These experiments proved
The modified 1905 Flyer at the
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills in 1908, ready for
practice flights. Note there is no catapult derrick; all takeoffs were
used with the monorail alone.
Replying to the Wrights' letters, the U.S. military expressed
virtually no interest in their claims. The brothers turned their
attention to Europe, especially France, where enthusiasm for aviation
ran high, and journeyed there for the first time in 1907 for
face-to-face talks with government officials and businessmen. They
also met with aviation representatives in Germany and Britain. Before
traveling, Orville shipped a newly built Model A Flyer to France in
anticipation of demonstration flights.
Soaring flight, Kitty Hawk, Oct., 1911 "Arrows indicate 50-Mile Wind,
Showing How Machine Was Sustained in a Stationary Position"
In France Wilbur met Frank P. Lahm, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army
Aeronautical Division. Writing to his superiors, Lahm smoothed the way
for Wilbur to give an in-person presentation to the U.S. Board of
Ordnance and Fortification in Washington, D.C. when he returned to the
U.S. This time, the Board was favorably impressed, in contrast to its
previous indifference. With further input from the Wrights, the U.S.
Army Signal Corps issued Specification #486 in December 1907, inviting
bids for construction of a flying machine under military
contract. The Wrights submitted their bid in January.[N 2] In
early 1908 the brothers also agreed to a contract with a French
company. In May they went back to Kitty Hawk with their 1905 Flyer to
practice in private for their all-important public demonstration
flights, as required by both contracts. Their privacy was lost when
New York newspapers heard about the tests and sent several reporters
to the scene.
Their contracts required them to fly with a passenger, so they
modified the 1905 Flyer by installing two seats and adding upright
control levers. After tests with sandbags in the passenger seat,
Charlie Furnas, a helper from Dayton, became the first fixed-wing
aircraft passenger on a few short flights May 14, 1908. For safety,
and as a promise to their father, Wilbur and Orville did not fly
together. However, several newspaper accounts at the time mistakenly
took Orville's flight with Furnas as both brothers flying together.
Later that day after flying solo seven minutes, Wilbur suffered his
worst crash when—still not well-acquainted with the two new control
levers—he apparently moved one the wrong way and slammed the Flyer
into the sand at between 40 and 50 miles per hour (64 and
80 km/h). He emerged with only bruises and a cut nose, but the
accident ended the practice flights—and the airplane's flying
Return to glider flights
In October 1911,
Orville Wright returned to the Outer Banks again, to
conduct safety and stabilization tests with a new glider. On October
24, he soared for nine minutes and 45 seconds, a record that held for
almost 10 years, when gliding as a sport began in the 1920s.
Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia
September 1908. Photo: by C.H. Claudy.
Hart O. Berg (left), the Wrights' European business agent, and Wilbur
at the flying field near Le Mans.
The brothers' contracts with the
U.S. Army and a French syndicate
depended on successful public flight demonstrations that met certain
conditions. The brothers had to divide their efforts. Wilbur sailed
for Europe; Orville would fly near Washington, D.C.
Facing much skepticism in the French aeronautical community and
outright scorn by some newspapers that called him a "bluffeur", Wilbur
began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908 at the
Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His
first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to
effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned
onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators, among them Louis
Blériot. In the following days, Wilbur made a series of technically
challenging flights, including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills
as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far
surpassed those of all other pioneering aircraft and pilots of the
The French public was thrilled by Wilbur's feats and flocked to the
field by the thousands, and the
Wright brothers instantly became
world-famous. Former doubters issued apologies and effusive praise.
L'Aérophile editor Georges Besançon wrote that the flights "have
completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of
the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men
who were truly the first to fly ..." Leading French aviation
Ernest Archdeacon wrote, "For a long time, the Wright
brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff ... They are today
hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure ... to make
On October 7, 1908, Edith Berg, the wife of the brothers' European
business agent, became the first American woman passenger when she
flew with Wilbur—one of many passengers who rode with him that
autumn.[N 3] Wilbur also became acquainted with
Léon Bollée and
his family. Bollée was the owner of an automobile factory where
Wilbur would assemble the Flyer and where he would be provided with
hired assistance. Bollée would fly that autumn with Wilbur. Madame
Bollée had been in the latter stages of pregnancy when Wilbur arrived
in LeMans in June 1908 to assemble the Flyer. Wilbur promised her that
he would make his first European flight the day her baby was born
which he did, August 8, 1908.
Orville followed his brother's success by demonstrating another nearly
identical Flyer to the
United States Army
United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia,
starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9, he made the first
hour-long flight, lasting 62 minutes and 15 seconds.
Fort Myer crash. Photo by C.H. Claudy.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Fatal fall of Wright airship
On September 17, Army lieutenant
Thomas Selfridge rode along as his
passenger, serving as an official observer. A few minutes into the
flight at an altitude of about 100 feet (30 m), a propeller split
and shattered, sending the Flyer out of control. Selfridge suffered a
fractured skull in the crash and died that evening in the nearby Army
hospital, becoming the first airplane crash fatality. Orville was
badly injured, suffering a broken left leg and four broken ribs.
Twelve years later, after he suffered increasingly severe pains,
X-rays revealed the accident had also caused three hip bone fractures
and a dislocated hip. The brothers' sister Katharine, a school
teacher, rushed from
Dayton to Virginia and stayed by Orville's side
for the seven weeks of his hospitalization. She helped negotiate a
one-year extension of the Army contract. A friend visiting Orville in
the hospital asked, "Has it got your nerve?" "Nerve?" repeated
Orville, slightly puzzled. "Oh, do you mean will I be afraid to fly
again? The only thing I'm afraid of is that I can't get well soon
enough to finish those tests next year."
Deeply shocked and upset by the accident, Wilbur determined to make
even more impressive flight demonstrations; in the ensuing days and
weeks he set new records for altitude and duration. In January 1909
Orville and Katharine joined him in France, and for a time they were
the three most famous people in the world, sought after by royalty,
the rich, reporters and the public. The kings of Great Britain, Spain
and Italy came to see Wilbur fly.
Wright Model A
Wright Model A Flyer flown by Wilbur 1908–1909 and launching
derrick, France, 1909
The Wrights traveled to Pau, in the south of France, where Wilbur made
many more public flights, giving rides to a procession of officers,
journalists and statesmen—and his sister Katharine on February 15.
He trained two French pilots, then transferred the airplane to the
French company. In April the Wrights went to Italy where Wilbur
assembled another Flyer, giving demonstrations and training more
pilots. An Italian cameraman Federico Valle climbed aboard and filmed
the first motion picture from an airplane.
After their return to the U.S., the brothers and Katharine were
invited to the White House where President Taft bestowed awards upon
Dayton followed up with a lavish two-day homecoming celebration.
In July 1909 Orville, with Wilbur assisting, completed the proving
flights for the U.S. Army, meeting the requirements of a two-seater
able to fly with a passenger for an hour at an average of speed of 40
miles an hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged. They sold the
airplane to the Army's
Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps
Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps for
$30,000 (which included a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed
specification). Wilbur climaxed an extraordinary year in early October
when he flew at New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration, circling
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty and making a 33-minute flight up and down the
Hudson River alongside Manhattan in view of up to one million New
Yorkers. These flights solidly established the fame of the Wright
brothers in America.
On May 25, 1910, back at Huffman Prairie, Orville piloted two unique
flights. First, he took off on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his
passenger, the only time the
Wright brothers ever flew together. They
received permission from their father to make the flight. They had
always promised Milton they would never fly together to avoid the
chance of a double tragedy and to ensure one brother would remain to
continue their experiments. Next, Orville took his 82-year-old father
on a nearly seven-minute flight, the only one of Milton Wright's life.
The aircraft rose to about 350 feet (107 m) while the elderly
Wright called to his son, "Higher, Orville, higher!"
Wright brothers patent war
Wright brothers wrote their 1903 patent application themselves,
but it was rejected. In January 1904 they hired
Ohio patent attorney
Henry Toulmin, and on May 22, 1906, they were granted U.S. Patent
821393 for "new and useful Improvements in Flying Machines".
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office archive
The patent illustrates a non-powered flying machine—namely, the 1902
glider. The patent's importance lies in its claim of a new and useful
method of controlling a flying machine, powered or not. The technique
of wing-warping is described, but the patent explicitly states that
other methods instead of wing-warping could be used for adjusting the
outer portions of a machine's wings to different angles on the right
and left sides to achieve lateral (roll) control. The concept of
varying the angle presented to the air near the wingtips, by any
suitable method, is central to the patent. The patent also describes
the steerable rear vertical rudder and its innovative use in
combination with wing-warping, enabling the airplane to make a
coordinated turn, a technique that prevents hazardous adverse yaw, the
problem Wilbur had when trying to turn the 1901 glider. Finally, the
patent describes the forward elevator, used for ascending and
Attempting to circumvent the patent,
Glenn Curtiss and other early
aviators devised ailerons to emulate lateral control described in the
patent and demonstrated by the Wrights in their public flights. Soon
after the historic July 4, 1908, one-kilometer flight by Curtiss in
the AEA June Bug, the Wrights warned him not to infringe their patent
by profiting from flying or selling aircraft that used ailerons.
Curtiss was at the time a member of the Aerial Experiment Association
(AEA), headed by Alexander Graham Bell, where in 1908 he had helped
reinvent wingtip ailerons for their Aerodrome No. 2, known as the AEA
White Wing (the AEA's other members became dismayed when
Curtiss unexpectedly dropped out of their organization; they later
came to believe he had sold the rights to their joint innovation to
the United States Government).
Curtiss refused to pay license fees to the Wrights and sold an
airplane equipped with ailerons to the Aeronautic Society of New York
in 1909. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, beginning a years-long legal
conflict. They also sued foreign aviators who flew at U.S.
exhibitions, including the leading French aviator Louis Paulhan. The
Curtiss people derisively suggested that if someone jumped in the air
and waved his arms, the Wrights would sue.
European companies which bought foreign patents the Wrights had
received sued other manufacturers in their countries. Those lawsuits
were only partly successful. Despite a pro-Wright ruling in France,
legal maneuvering dragged on until the patent expired in 1917. A
German court ruled the patent not valid because of prior disclosure in
speeches by Wilbur Wright in 1901 and Chanute in 1903. In the U.S. the
Wrights made an agreement with the
Aero Club of America
Aero Club of America to license
airshows which the Club approved, freeing participating pilots from a
legal threat. Promoters of approved shows paid fees to the Wrights.
Wright brothers won their initial case against Curtiss in
February 1913 when a judge ruled that ailerons were covered under the
patent. The Curtiss company appealed the decision.
From 1910 until his death from typhoid fever in 1912, Wilbur took the
leading role in the patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult
with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause,
particularly against Curtiss, who was creating a large company to
manufacture aircraft. The Wrights' preoccupation with the legal issue
stifled their work on new designs, and by 1911 Wright airplanes were
considered inferior to those of European makers. Indeed, aviation
development in the U.S. was suppressed to such an extent that when the
U.S. entered World War I no acceptable American-designed airplanes
were available, and U.S. forces were compelled to use French machines.
Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible
for Wilbur's premature death, which occurred in the wake of his
exhausting travels and the stress of the legal battle.
Victory and cooperation
In January 1914, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict
against the Curtiss company, which continued to avoid penalties
through legal tactics. Orville apparently felt vindicated by the
decision, and much to the frustration of company executives, he did
not push vigorously for further legal action to ensure a manufacturing
monopoly. In fact, he was planning to sell the company and departed in
1915. In 1917, with World War I underway, the U.S. government
pressured the industry to form a cross-licensing organization, the
Aircraft Association, to which member companies paid a
blanket fee for the use of aviation patents, including the original
and subsequent Wright patents.[N 4] The
(successor to the Wright company) and the Curtiss company (which held
a number of its own patents) each received a $2 million
payment.[N 5] The "patent war" ended, although side issues
lingered in the courts until the 1920s. In a twist of irony, the
Wright Aeronautical Corporation
Wright Aeronautical Corporation (another successor) and the Curtiss
Aeroplane company merged in 1929 to form the Curtiss-Wright
Corporation, which remains in business today producing high-tech
components for the aerospace industry.
Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith stated a number of
times that the Wrights' legal victory would have been
"doubtful" if an 1868 patent of "a prior but lost invention" by
Matthew Piers Watt Boulton of the UK had been known in the period
1903–1906. The patent, titled Aërial Locomotion
&c, described several engine improvements and conceptual designs
and included a technical description and drawings of an aileron
control system and an optional feature intended to function as an
autopilot. In fact, this patent was well-known to
participants in the Wright-Curtiss lawsuit. A U.S. federal judge who
reviewed previous inventions and patents and upheld the Wright patent
against the Curtiss company reached the opposite conclusion of
Gibbs-Smith, saying the Boulton patent "is not anticipatory".
The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who were
generally regarded before this as heroes. Critics said the brothers
were greedy and unfair and compared their actions unfavorably to
European inventors, who worked more openly. Supporters said the
brothers were protecting their interests and were justified in
expecting fair compensation for the years of work leading to their
successful invention. Their 10-year friendship with Octave Chanute,
already strained by tension over how much credit, if any, he might
deserve for their success, collapsed after he publicly criticized
Wright brothers at the
Belmont Park Aviation Meet in 1910
Wright Company was incorporated on November 22, 1909. The brothers
sold their patents to the company for $100,000 and also received
one-third of the shares in a million dollar stock issue and a 10
percent royalty on every airplane sold. With Wilbur as president
and Orville as vice president, the company set up a factory in Dayton
and a flying school/test flight field at Huffman Prairie; the
headquarters office was in New York City.
In mid-1910, the Wrights changed the design of the Wright Flyer,
moving the horizontal elevator from the front to the back and adding
wheels although keeping the skids as part of the undercarriage unit.
It had become apparent by then that a rear elevator would make an
airplane easier to control, especially as higher speeds grew more
common. The new version was designated the "Model B", although the
original canard design was never referred to as the "Model A" by the
Wrights. However, the
U.S. Army Signal Corps which bought the airplane
did call it "Wright Type A".[N 6]
There were not many customers for airplanes, so in the spring of 1910
the Wrights hired and trained a team of salaried exhibition pilots to
show off their machines and win prize money for the company—despite
Wilbur's disdain for what he called "the mountebank business". The
team debuted at the
Indianapolis Speedway on June 13. Before the year
was over, pilots
Ralph Johnstone and
Arch Hoxsey died in air show
crashes, and in November 1911 the brothers disbanded the team on which
nine men had served (four other former team members died in crashes
Wright Company transported the first known commercial air cargo on
November 7, 1910 by flying two bolts of dress silk 65 miles
(105 km) from
Dayton to Columbus,
Ohio for the Morehouse-Martens
Department Store, which paid a $5,000 fee. Company pilot Phil Parmelee
made the flight—which was more an exercise in advertising than a
simple delivery—in an hour and six minutes with the cargo strapped
in the passenger's seat. The silk was cut into small pieces and sold
Between 1910 and 1916 the
Wright Brothers Flying School
Wright Brothers Flying School at Huffman
Prairie trained 115 pilots who were instructed by Orville and his
assistants. Several trainees became famous, including Henry "Hap"
Arnold, who rose to Five-Star General, commanded
U.S. Army Air Forces
in World War II, and became first head of the U.S. Air Force;
Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who made the first coast-to-coast flight in
1911 (with many stops and crashes) in a
Wright Model EX
Wright Model EX named the "Vin
Fiz" after the sponsor's soft drink; and Eddie Stinson, founder of the
In 1912–1913 a series of fatal crashes of Wright airplanes bought by
U.S. Army called into question their safety and design. The death
toll reached 11 by 1913, half of them in the Wright model C. All six
model C Army airplanes crashed. They had a tendency to nose dive,
but Orville insisted that stalls were caused by pilot error. He
cooperated with the Army to equip the airplanes with a rudimentary
flight indicator to help the pilot avoid climbing too steeply. A
government investigation said the Wright C was "dynamically unsuited
for flying", and the American military ended its use of airplanes
with "pusher" type propellers, including models made by both the
Wright and Curtiss companies, in which the engine was located behind
the pilot and likely to crush him in a crash. Orville resisted the
switch to manufacturing "tractor"-type propeller aircraft, worried
that a design change could threaten the Wright patent infringement
case against Curtiss.
Elwood Doherty, a Curtiss pilot, coaxes the structurally modified
Langley Aerodrome into the air above the surface of
Keuka Lake near
Hammondsport, New York, September 17, 1914.
Samuel Pierpont Langley, secretary of the
Smithsonian Institution from
1887 until his death in 1906, experimented for years with model flying
machines and successfully flew unmanned powered fixed-wing model
aircraft in 1896 and 1903. Two tests of his manned full-size
motor-driven Aerodrome in October and December 1903, however, were
complete failures. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian later proudly
displayed the Aerodrome in its museum as the first heavier-than-air
craft "capable" of manned powered flight, relegating the Wright
brothers' invention to secondary status and triggering a decades-long
feud with Orville Wright, whose brother had received help from the
Smithsonian when beginning his own quest for flight. (Ironically, the
Wright brothers were the initial recipients of the Samuel P. Langley
Medal for Aerodromics from the Smithsonian in 1910.)
The Smithsonian based its claim for the Aerodrome on short test
Glenn Curtiss and his team made with it in 1914. The
Smithsonian allowed Curtiss, in an unsavory alliance, to make major
modifications to the craft before attempting to fly it.[N 7]
The Smithsonian hoped to salvage Langley's aeronautical reputation by
proving the Aerodrome could fly; Curtiss wanted to prove the same
thing to defeat the Wrights' patent lawsuits against him. The tests
had no effect on the patent battle, but the Smithsonian made the most
of them, honoring the Aerodrome in its museum and publications. The
Institution did not reveal the extensive Curtiss modifications, but
Orville Wright learned of them from his brother Lorin and a close
friend of his and Wilbur's, Griffith Brewer, who both witnessed and
photographed some of the tests.
Wright Flyer in the
National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum in
Orville repeatedly objected to misrepresentation of the Aerodrome, but
the Smithsonian was unyielding. Orville responded by lending the
restored 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer to the
London Science Museum
London Science Museum in 1928,
refusing to donate it to the Smithsonian while the Institution
"perverted" the history of the flying machine. Orville would
never see his invention again as he would die before its return to the
Charles Lindbergh attempted to mediate the dispute, to
no avail. In 1942, after years of bad publicity, and encouraged by
Wright biographer Fred C. Kelly, the Smithsonian finally relented by
publishing, for the first time, a list of the Aerodrome modifications
and recanting misleading statements it had made about the 1914
tests. Orville then privately requested the British museum to
return the Flyer, but the airplane remained in protective storage for
the duration of World War II and finally came home after Orville's
On November 23, 1948, the executors of Orville's estate signed an
agreement for the Smithsonian to purchase the Flyer for one dollar. At
the insistence of the executors, the agreement also included strict
conditions for display of the airplane.
The agreement reads, in part, "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 1903 Wright Aeroplane,
claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man
under its own power in controlled flight."[N 8] If this
agreement is not fulfilled, the Flyer can be reclaimed by the heir of
the Wright brothers. Some aviation buffs, particularly those who
promote the legacy of Gustave Whitehead, now accuse the Smithsonian of
refusing to investigate claims of earlier flights. After a
ceremony in the Smithsonian museum, the Flyer went on public display
on December 17, 1948, the 45th anniversary of the only day it was
flown successfully. The Wright brothers' nephew Milton (Lorin's son),
who had seen gliders and the Flyer under construction in the bicycle
shop when he was a boy, gave a brief speech and formally transferred
the airplane to the Smithsonian, which displayed it with the
Wright brothers aeroplane
The world's first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man
made free, controlled, and sustained flight
Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright
Flown by them at
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903
By original scientific research the
Wright brothers discovered the
principles of human flight
As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the
aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation
The back of the US Airman Certificate with a picture of the Wright
Neither brother married. Wilbur once quipped that he did not have time
for both a wife and an airplane. Following a brief training
flight he gave to a German pilot in Berlin in June 1911, Wilbur never
flew again. He gradually became occupied with business matters for the
Wright Company and dealing with different lawsuits. Upon dealing with
the patent lawsuits, which had put great strain on both brothers,
Wilbur had written in a letter to a French friend, "When we think what
we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to
experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with
things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he
would choose." Wilbur spent the next year before his death
traveling, where he spent a full six months in Europe attending to
various business and legal matters. Wilbur urged American cities to
emulate the European – particularly Parisian – philosophy of
apportioning generous public space near every important public
building. He was also constantly back and forth between New York,
Washington and Dayton. All of the stresses were taking a toll on
Wilbur physically. Orville would remark that he would "come home
It was decided by the family that a new and far grander house would be
built, using the money that the Wrights had earned through their
inventions and business. Called affectionately Hawthorn Hill, building
had begun in the
Dayton suburb of Oakwood, Ohio, while Wilbur was in
Europe. Katharine and Orville oversaw the project in his absence.
Wilbur's one known expression upon the design of the house was that he
have a room and bathroom of his own. The brothers hired Schenck
and Williams, an architectural firm, to design the house, along with
input from both Wilbur and Orville. Wilbur did not live to see its
completion in 1914.
He became ill on a business trip to Boston in April 1912, the
illness sometimes attributed to eating bad shellfish at a banquet.
After returning to
Dayton in early May 1912, worn down in mind and
body, he fell ill again and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He
lingered on, his symptoms relapsing and remitting for many days.
Wilbur died, at age 45, at the Wright family home on May 30.[N 9]
His father wrote about Wilbur in his diary:
"A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect,
imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing
the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died."
Orville Wright, 1928
Orville succeeded to the presidency of the
Wright Company upon
Wilbur's death. Sharing Wilbur's distaste for business but not his
brother's executive skills, Orville sold the company in 1915.
After 42 years living at their residence on 7 Hawthorn Street,
Orville, Katharine and their father, Milton, moved to
Hawthorn Hill in
the spring of 1914. Milton died in his sleep on April 3, 1917, at the
age of 88. Up until his death, Milton had been very active,
preoccupied with reading, writing articles for religious publications
and enjoying his morning walks. He had also marched in a Dayton
Woman's Suffrage Parade, along with Orville and Katharine.
Orville made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 in a 1911 Model B. He
retired from business and became an elder statesman of aviation,
serving on various official boards and committees, including the
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor agency
to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and
Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA), predecessor to the Aerospace
Industries Association (AIA).
Katharine married Henry Haskell of Kansas City, a former Oberlin
classmate, in 1926. Orville was furious and inconsolable, feeling he
had been betrayed by Katharine. He refused to attend the wedding
or even communicate with her. He finally agreed to see her, apparently
at Lorin's insistence, just before she died of pneumonia on March 3,
Orville Wright served NACA for 28 years. In 1930, he received the
first Daniel Guggenheim Medal established in 1928 by the Daniel
Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1936, he was
elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
On April 19, 1944, the second production Lockheed Constellation,
Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from
Burbank, California, to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours and 57 minutes
(2300 mi – 330.9 mph). On the return trip, the
airliner stopped at Wright Field to give
Orville Wright his last
airplane flight, more than 40 years after his historic first
flight. He may even have briefly handled the controls. He
commented that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than the
distance of his first flight.
Orville's last major project was supervising the reclamation and
preservation of the 1905
Wright Flyer III, which historians describe
as the first practical airplane.
Orville expressed sadness in an interview years later about the death
and destruction brought about by the bombers of World War II:
"We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting
peace to the earth. But we were wrong ... No, I don't have any
regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one
could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel
about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is, I
regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good
for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that
we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses."
Orville died on January 30, 1948, over 35 years after his brother,
following his second heart attack, having lived from the
horse-and-buggy age to the dawn of supersonic flight. Both
brothers are buried in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton,
Ohio.[N 10] John T. Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their
famous first flight photo, died the day after Orville.
Main article: Claims to the first powered flight
Further information: Early flying machines
First flight claims are made for Clément Ader, Gustave Whitehead,
Richard Pearse, and
Karl Jatho for their variously documented tests in
years prior to and including 1903. Claims that the first true flight
occurred after 1903 are made for
Traian Vuia and Alberto
Santos-Dumont. Supporters of the post-Wright pioneers argue that
techniques used by the
Wright brothers disqualify them as first to
make successful airplane flights. Those techniques were: a launch
rail; skids instead of wheels; a headwind at takeoff; and a catapult
after 1903. Supporters of the
Wright brothers argue that proven,
repeated, controlled, and sustained flights by the brothers entitle
them to credit as inventors of the airplane, regardless of those
techniques. The late aviation historian Charles Harvard
Gibbs-Smith was a supporter of the Wrights' claim to primacy in
flight. He wrote that a barn door can be made to "fly" for a short
distance if enough energy is applied to it; he determined that the
very limited flight experiments of Ader, Vuia and others were "powered
hops" instead of fully controlled flights.
North Carolina coinage rivalry
Ohio 50 State Quarter features the 1905
Wright Flyer III
Wright Flyer III built and
flown in Ohio, in a famous photo from Huffman Prairie
North Carolina 50 State Quarter features the famous first flight photo
of the 1903
Wright Flyer I at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
The U.S. states of
North Carolina both take credit for the
Wright brothers and their world-changing inventions—
Ohio because the
brothers developed and built their design in Dayton, and North
Carolina because Kitty Hawk was the site of the Wrights' first powered
flight. With a spirit of friendly rivalry,
Ohio adopted the slogan
"Birthplace of Aviation" (later "Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers",
recognizing not only the Wrights, but also astronauts
John Glenn and
Neil Armstrong, both
Ohio natives). The slogan appears on
North Carolina uses the slogan "First In Flight" on its
The site of the first flights in
North Carolina is preserved as Wright
Brothers National Memorial, while their
Ohio facilities are part of
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. As the positions of
both states can be factually defended, and each played a significant
role in the history of flight, neither state has an exclusive claim to
the Wrights' accomplishment.
Notwithstanding the competition between those two states, in 1937 the
Wrights' final bicycle shop and home were moved from
Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, where they remain.
Augustus Moore Herring
Augustus Moore Herring first (uncontrolled) heavier-than-air flight at
St. Joseph, Michigan
History by Contract
John Joseph Montgomery
Milton Wright (bishop)
The Winds of Kitty Hawk
The Winds of Kitty Hawk (1978)
Wright Brothers flights of 1909
Wright Brothers Medal
Wright Cycle Company
Wright Exhibition Team
Wright Flying School
List of covers of Time magazine (1920s)
List of covers of Time magazine (1920s) (December 3, 1928)
^ Image courtesy
Dayton Metro Library. The newspaper article can be
^ The Board was surprised when it received 41 bids, having expected
only one. None of the other bids amounted to a serious proposal.
^ The first woman passenger was Thérèse Peltier on July 8, 1908 when
she made a flight of 656 feet (200 m) with
Léon Delagrange in
^ Quote: "The suit finally ended with the advent of World War I when
the aircraft manufacturers established the Manufacturers' Aircraft
Association to coordinate wartime aircraft manufacturing in the United
States and formed a patent pool with the approval of the U.S.
government. All patent litigation ceased automatically. Royalties were
reduced to one percent and free exchange of inventions and ideas took
place among all the airframe builders."
^ Quote: "New Organization Is Formed, Under War Pressure, to
^ The author obtained information at the Fort Sam Houston Museum that
also records the place of the flights as the Arthur MacArthur Field,
then used for cavalry drill.
^ The archived website contains details of the modifications.
^ The Agreement is also available upon request from the National Air
and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
^ Quote: "Dayton, Ohio. Following a sinking spell that developed soon
after midnight, Wilbur Wright, aviator and aeroplane builder, died of
typhoid fever at 3:15 am to-day. Wright had been lingering for
many days and though his condition from time to time gave some hopes
to members of his family, the attending physicians, Drs. D.B. Conklin
and Levi Spitler, maintained throughout the latter part of his
sickness that he could not recover."
^ Quote: "Dayton, Ohio, October 30, 1948, Orville Wright, who with his
brother, the late Wilbur Wright, invented the airplane, died here
tonight at 10:40 in Miami Valley Hospital. He was 76 years old."
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^ McCullough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", p. 255.
^ McCullough, David (July 9, 2016). Bastille Day in France; The Only
Street in Paris; Americans in Paris (Radio broadcast). Rick Steves'
Europe. Event occurs at 41:53. ... Wilbur Wright ... was looking at
how they laid out their spaces [in Paris], and he said: Every
important public building has open space in front of it, so you could
enjoy it. Why haven't we done that in New York? Why don't we do that
in our city?
^ a b McCollough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", p. 256.
^ Maurer, Richard (2003). The Wright Sister:
Katharine Wright and her
Famous Brothers. Macmillan. pp. 88–89.
ISBN 978-0761315469. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
^ McCollough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", p. 256
^ "Wilbur Wright Dies of Typhoid Fever. Ill More Than Three Weeks, the
End Came at 3:15 o'clock Thursday Morning". New York Times. May 30,
1912. Retrieved 2015-02-25.
^ Crouch 2003, p. 449.
^ McCullough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", p. 257.
^ McCullough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", Epilogue p. 258
^ Parker, Dana T. Building Victory:
Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los
Angeles Area in World War II, p. 66, Cypress, California, 2013.
^ Yenne 1987, pp. 44–46.
^ McCullough, 2015, "The Wright Brothers", Epliogue pp. 260–261
^ "NCR Loses a Close Friend" NCR Factory News. February–March 1948,
p. 3 (tribute by National Cash Register Company) Retrieved March 23,
^ "Orville Wright, 76, is Dead in Dayton; Co-Inventor With His
Brother, Wilbur, of the
Airplane Was Pilot in First Flight." The New
York Times, January 31, 1948. Retrieved: July 21, 2007.
^ "Who Was First?" Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. Retrieved:
September 23, 2010
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