Wright, Wilbur(1867-1912) & Orville (1871-1948): Inventors of the aeroplane

SONS OF a bishop of the United Brethern Church, Wilbur was born on April 16, 1867 and Orville on August 19, 1871. They went to the local high school in Dayton, where they showed interest in constructing mechanical devices. The pastor father brought up his sons with emphasis on self-development using initiative and enterprise.

He gave them a helicopter model which impressed on them that this was not the way to fly.

Wilbur and Orville helped their father with his Church magazine the ``Religious Telescope''; later they edited and printed a local newspaper. Disabled by an accident which prevented his entering college, Wilbur turned to reading and became interested in the work of Lilienthal. The brothers then entered into the booming bicycle trade: they formed the Wright Cycle Company in 1892. For the next 10 years they built and sold cycles.

With the thriving bicycle business they had established in Dayton, the brothers could afford to finance their flying experiments. They approached the problem of flight methods methodically stage by stage and studied bird flight more closely. They noticed that the buzzard twisted its wing tips to retain its balance.

By twisting the wings of an aircraft the same effect could be achieved: this wing-warping method was the forerunner of the later idea of ailerons.

The Wright brothers decided to start with a glider, which they tested by flying it tethered like a ``huge box kite'' at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In October 1900 they made several manned flights but the results were disappointing. They realised that much of the existing information they had used was wrong.

So the Wrights built a small wind tunnel at Dayton to measure lift and drag, the important parameters that govern flight and stability. They compiled from the data the first accurate tables.

In this tunnel they tested over 200 models, some on more than one scale; they embodied their findings in their third glider which was tested in September 1902 in 1000 gliding flights. This gave a complete system of control - a movable vertical rudder and adjustable flaps.

During the winter of 1902, they searched in vain for a suitable engine for their craft and for literature on propeller design. Eventually they constructed their own motor (12 HP) and efficient propeller. After some initial trouble with the propeller shafts, the well-known Wright Biplane took off and made a successful flight at Kitty Hawk on 17 December 1903. The aeroplane had a wing span of 40 feet. The Wrights were so sure of its success that they invited neighbours to witness.

A new FLYER was built in 1904 and this made about 80 flights, including simple manoeuvres and a complete circuit of the field. During 1905 FLYER No. 3 made several long flights, one lasting over 18 minutes. The Wright Brothers had finally succeeded in producing a practicable aircraft. They had to wait for two years before getting a contract from the U.S. War Department.

For a period of two years, the Wrights did no flying but concentrated on building improved aircraft and engines. In 1908, the model FLYER No. 3 reappeared with several improvements. A passenger was carried for the first time. The Wright exhibited their machines publicly. Wilbur flew in France and Orville in the U.S. In 1909 Wilbur flew in Rome and Orville in Berlin.

From about 1910 the Wright brothers' influence on aviation began to decline because of litigation over their patents. Wilbur died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912. Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company in 1915 but pursued his interest in aviation.

He survived his brother Wilbur by 36 years (till January 30, 1948) during which period he received many awards and honours in recognition of their momentous achievements. (The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists: Engineers and Inventors, Blond Educational Series, London, 1984).