Wilbur Wright


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(1867–1912) American aeronautical engineer

The sons of a bishop in the United Brethren Church, Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana, and his brother Orville Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio. Neither brother received more than a high-school education. They had, however, shown a certain inventiveness and an interest in things mechanical. They were the kind of boys who having seen a woodcut in a magazine would immediately make their own woodcut. Thus on leaving school they first experimented with printing, publishing the weekly West Side News for over a year. By 1892 they had lost their interest in printing and decided instead to open a bike shop in which they not only sold and repaired bikes but made them themselves.

They later reported that their interest in flight had been stimulated by reading in 1896 of the death of the German engineer Lilienthal in a gliding accident. They first devoured the available literature describing the machines and flights of Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, and others. Above all they were struck by the lack of control mechanisms in the early machines. The early designers had merely sought to maintain equilibrium, but the Wrights saw that flying meant directing and upsetting equilibrium in a carefully controlled manner. A specific control mechanism was suggested to them by observing the flight of pigeons, and how they maintained their balance by twisting their wing tips. A comparable effect could be achieved in a plane by warping the wings' ends. But how could this be produced? The answer came to Wilbur when, while fiddling with a narrow rectangular box, he noted how easily the ends could be twisted in opposite directions.

The principle was incorporated in a biplane kite which they tested in 1900 on the sandhills at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A larger kite was tested in 1901 and in 1902 further data was collected from trials in a wind tunnel constructed by the brothers. One result of this work was the installation of a vertical tail on the 1902 glider. At this point they considered converting their kite-glider to a powered aircraft. Characteristically they designed and built their own 12 horsepower model and fitted two propellers with a diameter of 8.5 feet. Wilbur piloted the first flight on 14 December 1903 but induced a stall; during the second flight, on 17 December, Orville covered 120 feet at an average speed of 7 miles per hour. The plane, known as ‘the Flyer’, was damaged in a later flight that day and was never flown again; it was later placed as a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian, Washington DC.

The brothers continued to work on their design and only when completely satisfied with a new version of the Flyer were they prepared to demonstrate powered flight to the public. Wilbur first flew publicly near Le Mans in France in August 1908, and Orville a few days later at Fort Meyer, Virginia.

In 1909 they set up the Wright Company, with considerable financial backing, to build versions of the Flyer. They also received license fees from European manufacturers. Much of their time, however, must have been spent in patent disputes which dragged on in one form or another until 1928. Wilbur died from typhoid fever in 1912. Orville sold the business in 1915 for a sum said to be $1.5 million, while remaining as a consultant for $25,000 a year. Much of his later life was spent ensuring the contribution of the Wright brothers to the early history of aviation was properly recognized. He died of a heart attack in 1948.


Subjects: Warfare and Defence.

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