The Wright Brothers’ First Powered Flight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Humans had longed dreamed of mastering the ability to travel aloft, and during the late eighteenth century, inventors began experimenting with machines to bring this dream to life. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Wright brothers refined existing ideas about controlled flight. After a series of experiments, they added an engine to provide power in 1903. Using this machine, the brothers took turns making a series of brief, but controlled, flights on the windy sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of that year. Orville Wright, who piloted the inaugural flight, recorded the details of these first successful heavier-than-air flights in his diary, noting information about the weather conditions, flight speeds, distances covered, and time elapsed airborne. Wright’s primary-source retelling of these seminal events in scientific history provides a close look at the brothers’ innovative techniques and monumental achievement.

Summary Overview

Humans had longed dreamed of mastering the ability to travel aloft, and during the late eighteenth century, inventors began experimenting with machines to bring this dream to life. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Wright brothers refined existing ideas about controlled flight. After a series of experiments, they added an engine to provide power in 1903. Using this machine, the brothers took turns making a series of brief, but controlled, flights on the windy sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of that year. Orville Wright, who piloted the inaugural flight, recorded the details of these first successful heavier-than-air flights in his diary, noting information about the weather conditions, flight speeds, distances covered, and time elapsed airborne. Wright’s primary-source retelling of these seminal events in scientific history provides a close look at the brothers’ innovative techniques and monumental achievement.

Defining Moment

Although human history suggests a long and multicultural fascination with the ability of individuals to fly, the first true practical steps toward doing so did not occur until the eighteenth century. Recognizing that one key to flight was developing a machine lighter than the surrounding air, inventors began experimenting with balloons propelled upward by heated air. In 1783, two French brothers named Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier successfully launched a large paper-and-fabric balloon, and an era of fascination with the possibilities of the hot air balloon commenced in earnest, mostly around the city of Paris. Over the next several months, experimentation led to a process of using hydrogen gas to propel such balloons. Following a pattern that would be repeated nearly two centuries later with space flight, scientists first sent animals into the air using the new devices before attempting the first manned hot air balloon flight in late 1783. By 1785, the hot air balloon had become reliable enough that Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries were able to cross the English Channel using one.

Experiments with hot air balloons continued into the nineteenth century, even as inventors pursued another possibility–winged flight. Drawing on existing contraptions, such as the kite and the pinwheel, French and English thinkers developed rudimentary flying devices, such as gliders and small machines that resembled miniature modern helicopters. One version of these helicopters, produced as toys in the 1870s, was capable of traveling many feet into the air and remaining in flight for nearly thirty seconds. These miniature flying models soon inspired burgeoning aeronautics enthusiasts to attempt to construct larger machines capable of carrying humans in heavier-than-air flight.

Among this group of experimenters were two young Ohioans, Orville and Wilbur Wright. As boys in the 1870s, the two enjoyed playing with the popular flying toy helicopters of the day. As they grew up, they developed practical technical skills through the operation of printing presses, and, later, through the construction and repair of bicycles. By 1901, the Wright brothers identified three key challenges that had to be overcome to achieve and sustain machine-powered flight: the construction of useful wings to lift the aircraft, the powering of the machine to move it forward, and the control of the aircraft through a steering device. The pair looked to existing technology to inform their own designs, combining the concepts of glider wings and automobile engines.

The Wright brothers began conducting experimental flights in the open fields near their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and traveled to the windier, loftier dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to take advantage of the favorable conditions there. They developed advanced gliders in 1901 and 1902, which allowed them to perfect a rudder system that addressed the problem of steering. By late 1903, they were prepared to experiment with a true, engine-powered airplane.

Author Biography

Orville Wright, along with his brother Wilbur (1867–1912), became world renowned as a pioneering aviator after the pair made the first successful heavier-than-air powered flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17,1903. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wright was born in 1871 and worked with his older brother as a printer and bicycle-shop owner before turning to aviation. The skills the brothers developed in constructing and repairing bicycles proved helpful as they began designing flying machines around the turn of the century. After achieving flight, the pair continued to refine their designs and, in 1908, began to market the device commercially and to the US military. They also began to vigorously defend the patent rights to their inventions in court. Orville Wright continued to operate the firm that the brothers founded for only a few years after his brother’s death, but he maintained a presence in aviation until his own death in 1948.

Document Analysis

Orville Wright’s account of the Wright brothers’ first flights at Kitty Hawk shows the main events, challenges, and successes of the day. In doing so, it reveals how the Wright brothers managed to address the three impediments to powered, controlled flight that they had previously identified–lift, propulsion, and control. Their achievements drew on a wing design that captured wind to create lift; a specially designed engine to produce power to move the aircraft forward; and a temperamental, but ultimately effective, rudder to provide control through manual steering.

Climatic conditions are immediately shown to be a factor that the brothers monitored closely. Wright opens his account with a measurement of wind speed and direction, and gives readings from the anemometer, an instrument that measures wind speed, and other commentary on the prevailing winds throughout his account–wind being the key to the wings’ ability to pull the plane upward. Wright also reports that wind affected control of the airplane, noting that “a strong gust from the left” forced the machine to move off course. This event, however, allowed the brothers to develop a favorable opinion of the changes that they had made to the aircraft’s control system, as Wright’s movement of the rudder revealed the success of the steering and wing control modifications that the brothers had made to this version of the aircraft.

Wright also describes some of the technical challenges that the brothers encountered in their flights, particularly in regard to the tricky problem of control. He especially struggled with the front rudder on the first flight, resulting in an aircraft that was hard to handle and “would rise suddenly . . . and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground.” The risk of crashing the aircraft from even the low altitudes at which the planes flew was, therefore, quite great, and, indeed, it was a drop in altitude from this problem that brought the inaugural flight to an end.

Although the airplane succeeded, its design, Wright reveals, was less than ideally suited for ground storage. Wright announces that the airplane “left the ways successfully at every trial,” avoiding even damage to the tail that the brothers had expected. Yet the same wind that had helped carry the airplane above the ground proved to be the machine’s undoing. A gust caught the aircraft while the Wrights and the observers who had spent the day at Kitty Hawk were talking over the day’s events, forcing it to roll over repeatedly, heavily damaging the plane, and nearly killing one of the men.

Essential Themes

Although the achievements that Wright describes in this diary entry attracted little immediate attention, over the next several years, the development of flight sped up. The first airplane flight in Europe took place in 1906, and in only a few years, airplane design had advanced to allow for long-distance flights over the English Channel (1909) and the American continent (1911). Inventors had taken more than a century to progress from balloon flight to controlled flight in a manned airplane, but the advances that the Wrights made in preparing for their first flights allowed for such rapid technological change that Charles Lindbergh was able to make his famous first nonstop solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean only a quarter-century later. Unsurprisingly, the Wrights’ achievement in flight made them household names and scientific legends of the highest order, and their work and later aircraft are still displayed and studied by US and aeronautic historians.

Wright’s account of the first powered flight also provides an intriguing glimpse at what historians have acknowledged as one of the most important historical events of the twentieth century. The effects of the flight revolution have been immense. Just a decade after the Wrights launched the first, fragile, powered airplane at Kitty Hawk, European military planes flew missions in World War I, and aircraft became a key part of war and national defense thereafter. Airplanes began replacing railroads and ships as preferred methods of long-distance passenger and cargo transportation, contributing to the development of the modern globalized economy. The perfection of the airplane, which took place in the period after the first flight, set the stage for innovation in space flight as scientists built satellites and spacecraft capable of reaching Earth’s orbit and beyond during the 1950s and 1960s. These developments, in turn, allowed for technological innovations ranging from the cell phone to medical devices to the cordless power drill. Without the first halting flights that carried Orville and Wilbur Wright into the air for seconds at a time in 1903, modern life and technology would likely function very differently, even in fields not directly related to flight or transport.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
  • ________. Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.
  • Goldstone, Lawrence. Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. New York: Ballantine, 2014. Digital file.
  • Roach, Edward J. The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry. Athens: Ohio UP, 2014. Digital file.
  • Wright, Orville. How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History. New York: McKay, 1953. Print.
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