Wright Brothers’ First Flight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first successful flight marked the beginning of a new age for air transportation and technology.

Summary of Event

On December 15, 1906, Scientific American editorialized, “In all the history of invention, there is probably no parallel to the unostentatious manner in which the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, ushered into the world their epoch-making invention of the first successful aeroplane flying machine.” The periodical did not exaggerate. Wilbur and Orville Wright succeeded in their first powered flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, in front of five witnesses. Yet, for three years following that day, few seemed to realize that humankind’s dream of flying had been accomplished. Aviation Transportation;air Airplanes;invention Inventions;airplane [kw]Wright Brothers’ First Flight (Dec. 17, 1903) [kw]First Flight, Wright Brothers’ (Dec. 17, 1903) [kw]Flight, Wright Brothers’ First (Dec. 17, 1903) Aviation Transportation;air Airplanes;invention Inventions;airplane [g]United States;Dec. 17, 1903: Wright Brothers’ First Flight[00860] [c]Science and technology;Dec. 17, 1903: Wright Brothers’ First Flight[00860] [c]Inventions;Dec. 17, 1903: Wright Brothers’ First Flight[00860] [c]Space and aviation;Dec. 17, 1903: Wright Brothers’ First Flight[00860] [c]Transportation;Dec. 17, 1903: Wright Brothers’ First Flight[00860] Wright, Wilbur Wright, Orville Chanute, Octave Langley, Samuel Pierpont Lilienthal, Otto Taylor, Charles E.

As two of the seven children of Bishop Milton Wright, originally an itinerant minister from a midwestern Protestant sect, and Susan Koerner Wright, Wilbur and Orville were reared modestly. As the result of their family’s move from Indiana to Dayton, Ohio, neither boy finished high school. In 1892, the Wright brothers opened a bicycle shop in Dayton. They had always been interested in mechanical and scientific matters and were devoted tinkerers. In 1895, they began to build their own bicycles in a workshop above the store. They also experimented with numerous inventions. Their interest in flying was aroused by reports of the initial development of the automobile and of Otto Lilienthal’s experiments with gliders in Germany in the 1890’s.

The Wright brothers started their work as self-made aeronautical engineers in 1899 by writing to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for suggestions about reading materials on the subject of human flight. They discovered that little was known about the subject, despite long interest in it. Octave Chanute and Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley, recognized as a foremost scientist, were the leading U.S. experimenters, but the Wrights were especially influenced by aeronautical pioneer Lilienthal. The early experimenters had met a number of setbacks. Lilienthal and Percy Pilcher, a Scottish glider pioneer, were killed in similar accidents. Chanute had given up, and Langley was to see his first manned flying machine crash after takeoff.

Unlike their better-educated predecessors, the two bicycle mechanics—with their gift for visualizing abstract principles and then bringing them into operation— discovered three essential elements of flight that proved to be immutable aerodynamic principles. These involved lift, drag, and, especially, control for balance and stability in the face of shifting wind patterns and drift. The brothers’ use of movable wingtips, a three-axis rudder, and other devices addressed the difficulty of control, which had caused the other pioneers grief. After experimenting with kites beginning in 1899, the brothers decided to build a glider and sought a site for test flights. They wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau, which informed them that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on a treeless and isolated barrier beach between the Atlantic Ocean and the coastline and dotted with sandy dunes, had suitable wind currents.

The Wrights transported their glider from Dayton to Kitty Hawk. In 1900, they glided for a few minutes in this first man-carrying device. Then they refined their theoretical aerodynamic calculations, realizing that they had to reexamine every earlier finding. Chanute helped them with some advice and money. In 1901, the brothers built their first wind tunnel to test wings; this enabled them to draw up accurate tables of air pressures on curved surfaces.

Successful glider experiments in 1901 and 1902 inspired the Wrights to create a powered flying machine, but no one could supply an engine to their specifications. Their determination led them to decide to build one themselves, and in this endeavor they were greatly and ably assisted by Charles E. Taylor, a mechanic. Taylor machined every component of the engine, except for the crankcase, in the bicycle shop. This was the only aspect of the Wrights’ invention that someone else had a significant role in creating. The engine was crude even by the standards of the day, but it worked. The water-cooled, four-cylinder, thirteen-horsepower gasoline engine weighed less than 180 pounds and provided more power with less weight than any previous model. Its lightness enabled the brothers to keep the total weight of their 1903 Wright Flyer Wright Flyer (airplane) to 625 pounds of wood, fabric, and metal. Most important, the engine and the two chain-driven propellers enabled the craft to move through the air fast enough to generate lift on the wings to keep the machine airborne.

On September 23, 1903, the Wright brothers transported their biplane, unassembled, from Dayton to Kitty Hawk. By December 14, a cold and clear day, they were ready to test the reassembled aircraft. They tossed a coin to decide who should try first, and Wilbur won. On leaving the sixty-foot wooden launching rail, the machine climbed a few feet before the engine stalled, and the craft landed after only three and a half seconds. The brothers worked on repairs until December 17. Orville then made an epochal flight of twelve seconds’ duration, covering a distance of 120 feet. Three more tries were made that day. Wilbur flew 195 feet in thirteen seconds. Orville covered 200 feet in fifteen seconds. Finally, shortly after noon, Wilbur flew 852 feet, lying prone at the controls, as usual, for fifty-nine seconds at thirty-one miles per hour against a twenty-one-mile-per-hour wind. Subsequently, a gust of wind damaged the plane while it was parked, and no more flying was possible that year.

The Wright Flyer, with Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright looking on, makes its first flight.

(Library of Congress)

Only a few American newspapers reported the Wrights’ flight on the day after their historic achievement. The skepticism that existed toward their success could be traced to several sources. For one thing, Simon Newcomb, Newcomb, Simon a highly respected U.S. scientist, had published “proof” earlier that year that it would be impossible for heavier-than-air planes to fly. In addition, Lilienthal’s fatal crash in 1896 was still fresh in the public’s memory, and Langley’s prestigious machine had failed just nine days earlier. Even the brothers underestimated the value of their achievement, which they reported to have cost them more than a thousand dollars. For many years, the Smithsonian Institution refused to recognize theirs as the first powered flight, preferring to honor Samuel Langley’s attempt. Not until 1942 did the Smithsonian finally publish an unequivocal statement crediting the Wrights with having invented the airplane.

In 1904, the Wrights designed a new aircraft capable of sustained flight and of turning and banking maneuvers. The 1905 Wright Flyer could hold the air for thirty-nine minutes, covering as many kilometers over Huffman Prairie near Dayton, a more convenient test site than Kitty Hawk and one at which the brothers now continued their experiments.

In 1908, the U.S. War Department finally gave the Wrights a contract to build the first military aircraft. By the end of 1909, the brothers had won every flying competition around, and the Wright Company had received enough production orders to make them wealthy and famous men. Parades and medals greeted them everywhere they went. In 1932, a sixty-foot granite commemorative pylon was erected on the dune near Kill Devil Hills village, from whose slopes the initial flights had been launched.

The Wright brothers’ story—of two high school dropouts with extensive intellectual curiosity, self-education, and a supportive environment who conquered the air for humankind—epitomizes the American legend of gifted amateurism and the rewards of hard work. Their achievement opened the door to a new era for transportation and technology. Aviation Transportation;air Airplanes;invention Inventions;airplane

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. 3d ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. A thorough history of aviation in the United States by a leading historian in the field; the first chapter places the Wrights in the context of the era of early flight.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Combs, Harry B., and Martin Caidin. Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. A good source of information about aviation technology and the Wrights’ contributions to the field. Includes several helpful drawings and other illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corn, Joseph J. The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation. 1983. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. An interesting and lively account of many activities in aviation and the individuals, including the Wright brothers, involved in American flight during the first half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crouch, Tom. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Biography showing the effect of the brothers’ personalities on their approach to life and work. Distinguishes clearly between their human and inventive qualities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hallion, Richard P., ed. The Wright Brothers: Heirs of Prometheus. Washington, D.C.: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978. The illustrations alone make this volume worthwhile.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Sherwood. The First to Fly: Aviation’s Pioneer Days. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: McGraw-Hill, TAB-Aero Division, 1991. A simple, chronologically arranged account of the early days of aviation. Includes excellent photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jakab, Peter L. Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. 1990. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Jakab, a historian at the Smithsonian’s Department of Aeronautics, focuses on the Wright brothers’ thought processes along with providing a factual account. Good illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Fred C., ed. Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright. 1951. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 2002. A collection of correspondence to and from the Wright brothers, authorized by Orville Wright.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFarland, Marvin W., ed. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953. One of the most comprehensive collections of the brothers’ correspondence, original sketches, diary entries, and other documentation. Exhaustive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pisano, Dominick A., ed. The Airplane in American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Explores Americans’ relationship with the airplane since the Wright brothers’ first flight. Contributions cover a range of topics, including aviation’s role in forming perceptions of the landscape as well as the airplane’s influence on literature and art and its significance to the culture of war.

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