December 17 marks the 115th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, a major milestone in the history of aviation. Orville and Wilbur Wright didn’t just invent the first airplane; they created a prototype that included many inventions that underlie today’s airplanes. The many Wright Brothers inventions are still used today to develop aircraft that go far beyond the capabilities that they could have ever imagined back in Kitty Hawk.
What Sparked Their Passion for Innovation?
Orville and Wilbur Wright, born 1867 and 1871, grew up in a home that fostered independent thinking long before “innovation” and “disruption” were buzzwords. The home was equipped with an extensive library and according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Orville once said that in their home “there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused their curiosity.”
The Wright brothers were raised by parents who were outspoken, free thinking and technically savvy — all attributes that provided an excellent background for their adult lives as inventors. Their mother was a tinkerer ahead of her time. She was the top mathematician in her college class and as an adult she built household appliances for herself and toys for her children, according to The National Park Service (NPS). Their father was a bishop who openly opposed aspects of his church’s ideology and eventually split from the church amid controversy.
In 1878, according to NPS, their father brought Wilbur and Orville a souvenir from a business trip: a rubber band–powered toy helicopter. They made copies of this toy — possible signs of future Wright brothers inventions. The helicopter was based on a design by French inventor Alphonse Pénaud, whose work in aeronautics they would eventually study as grown men.
Their passion for learning and building grew with age, and they started their careers by making a printing press and opening a bicycle shop in Ohio. The Wright brothers were inspired by leaders in early aviation, and according to Britannica, they had followed the work of Otto Lilienthal, a German glider pioneer who died in a glider crash. Fascinated with his work, Orville and Wilbur started investigating flight research, consulting with the Smithsonian Institution for aeronautics resources. In 1900, they wrote to introduce themselves to Octave Chanute, an engineer and a leading authority on aviation who became a personal friend and champion of the Wright brothers during the critical years of experimentation that followed.
How They Designed Their First Flying Machine
The brothers started with a kite to test how to control and balance an aircraft, and they tested early designs for a system they called “wing warping” in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. For several years, according to NOAA, the brothers went back and forth between North Carolina and their home in Ohio. They calculated, experimented and developed their designs in a custom wind tunnel at their Ohio bike shop, and then assembled their prototypes and field tested in Kitty Hawk.
After extensive research, testing and design changes, on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, their flying machine became the world’s first airplane when it successfully completed a 12-second flight. By the end of that day, they had demonstrated an even longer flight, lasting 59 seconds and covering 852 feet. This was a pivotal moment in the history of aviation.
A Lasting Impact on Aviation
Their groundbreaking innovations shaped future airplanes and the aviation space in general. Peter Jakab, chief curator at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, explained in an educational video, “They knew that the airplane was not one invention but many inventions that all needed to work in concert for the machine to be successful.”
The Wright brothers paid close attention to each component to build a successful airplane. They focused on the basic building blocks for an airplane: wings (a lifting surface to get them into the air), a control system (to control the plane while flying), a propulsion system, aerodynamics and structural design — all the elements that would make up the airplanes of the future.
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