The Clifnote Chronicles: The Wright Brothers

Our quick rundown of the Wright brothers' first manned flight...

This holiday season many of us will turn to that most convenient, yet stressful mode of transportation, the airline industry.  It seems Christmas time never fails to bring out the worst of the worst of horror stories of flying every year, whether it’s screen caps of email exchanges about none of someone’s luggage making the 1,200 mile journey home with them, or live tweets about the 12th hour spent in the cabin of a plane on a snowy tarmac.  As we plod like cattle through TSA molestations and ticket price gouging, let’s pause to remember the men who made it all possible with this edition of the Clifnote Chronicles.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were two of seven children born to Milton and Susan Wright, Wilbur in 1867 and Orville in 1871.  The boys spent their childhood in Indiana but moved abruptly to Dayton, Ohio where they would begin their own printing press company adyer dropping out of high school.  Their father worked extensively in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. His position was conducive to extensive travel, and from an early age he instilled within his two sons an interest in flight and manufacturing via the trinkets he would bring home.  In 1889 the brothers opened their own printing press and bicycle shop, capitalizing on the craze of “safety bicycle” designs over the previous penny farthing designs.  They manufactured bicycles, printed circulations, and continued to study flight, focusing particularly on the work of manned gliders.  For the Wright brothers, they saw “the flight problem” as solving a problem of stability rather than power, a stark contrast to their contemporary flight researchers.  

Beginning in 1900 the brothers began taking their studies to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, after studying weather data and finding favorable wind conditions and soft landing surfaces for their machines.  They spent three years bringing fixed wing gliders, that had been modeled after the gliding and tilt behavior of bird’s wings, out to Kitty Hawk, focusing exclusively on solving the problem of controlling the stability of their aircraft rather than worrying how they were going to power it.  The Wright brothers differed from their contemporaries by giving their pilot total control, believing that through mechanical correction a pilot could maintain equilibrium.  After several successful tests with fixed wing gliders they turned their attention to powering their machines.  

Orville and Wilbur would again break new ground when they began their designs on a power source, going with an aluminum material, something not done at the time, and even employing a crude form of a carburetor and a gravity fed gasoline tank.  For their propellers, they designed cruder, smaller wings to spin along the vertical axis and push air opposite the wings, lifting the machine.

On December 17, 1903

Orville and Wilbur took their Wright Flyer I machine to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for testing.  The machine would complete two flights of 120 and 200 feet respectively, about 10 feet off the ground, at a speed of about 7 miles per hour.  Following these, the brothers continued modifying, testing, and flying their machines, taking them to U.S. and foreign governments who initially rejected the significance of their invention until the outbreak of World War I created a market for mass produced military aircraft.  The Wright brothers would spend the next ten years in various patent lawsuits, eventually winning the legitimacy of their original patent that called upon their wing warping design and stability control of aircraft.  Despite their court victories the brothers fought PR battles with the public over safety concerns with subsequent models and their own legacy with the Smithsonian museum, which through a conflict of interest in its own research on aerodromes, had been reluctant to name the brothers the inventors of manned flight.  

There you have it, the bare bones rundown of events on this 113th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first manned flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  Less than fifty years after the brothers’ flight we would have jet flight, and twenty years after that we’d put a man on the moon.  So this holiday season when you paid way too much to be cramped next to a sweaty stranger on a 30 year old Boeing, you know exactly who to thank.

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