Many people have heard of the Wright brothers and know they are credited with inventing and successfully flying the world’s first airplane! It’s an incredible piece of American history that has shaped the way the entire world travels.
On Dec. 17 we recognize their achievements and celebrate the anniversary of Orville and Wilbur’s first flight in 1903. Their story is often a quick blip in history classes and textbooks, we want to take a little bit of time and share how that first powered flight came to be.
The History of the Wright Brothers
Wilbur and Orville Wright were American inventors and are known to be the leading pioneers of aviation as we know it today. On Dec. 17, 1903, they achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight. While this was unbelievable on its own, they outdid their own accomplishment by building and flying the first fully practical airplane just two years later.
Wilber and Orville both showed an interest in mechanics and engineering from an early age. Part of a family of five children, the two grew up as playmates and best friends. Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867, near Millville, Indiana; Orville Wright, was born in 1871.
Their father, Milton Wright was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and his preaching frequently took him on the road. On his returns, he’d often bring the boys small toys. One of these toys—a small model helicopter made of cork, bamboo and paper, and powered by a rubber band—is considered to be the spark that ignited their lifelong love of aeronautics and flying.
Life before flight
When they were younger, the Wright brothers helped their father edit a journal called the Religious Telescope. After a few years, they left the journal to start their own weekly newspaper, the West Side News.
Always inclined towards mechanics, Wilbur and Orville opened their own bike shop in 1892, at the height of the bicycles craze that was sweeping the country. It’s here—fixing bicycles and selling their own designs—where they gained the skills needed to later invent a working airplane.
Working with these different mechanical projects, like bicycles and printing presses, and following the scientific research of German aviator Otto Lilienthal, inspired the brothers to start their own experiments in flight. When Lilienthal died in a glider plane accident in 1896, the made the decision that it was time to develop their own successful design and moved to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which is known for its strong winds.
Wilbur and Orville began by observing how birds angled their wings for balance and control. Armed with this information, they set out to develop a concept they called “wing warping,” which led to their design for airplane wings. After adding a moveable rudder, which gave them better control, the brothers found the magic formula that gave them flight.
On Dec. 17, 1903 the Wright brothers made the first free flight of a power-driven, heavier-than-air airplane. Wilbur piloted the craft for 59 seconds, at an elevation of 852 feet.
Though they were not the first to build an aircraft, the Wright brothers did invent the three-axis control, which made a fixed-wing powered flight possible. In fact, their first patent—821,393—was not for a “flying machine,” but rather, the aerodynamic controls that manipulated the machine’s surfaces. With this breakthrough, a pilot could steer the plane effectively and maintain equilibrium throughout its flight.
Despite the fact that the Wright brothers found success in the air, there were people throughout the country that preferred to see them grounded. The media and other aviation experts were hesitant to believe the Wilbur and Orville’s claims of flight, and as a result, Wilbur took off to Europe, where he hoped to (and did) find a more receptive audience.
The move proved successful; Wilbur began giving many public flights to journalists, government officials, and society’s elite. In 1909, Orville joined his brother in Europe and the two began selling their airplanes. Shortly after, they returned to the U.S. where they finally found fame and wealth due to their incredible invention.
Make Your Own Airplane at Home
Your child might not have access to all the tools and heavy machinery needed to build their own airplane, but they can still celebrate this monumental anniversary by creating their own paper airplanes! Here’s how to do it.
As you’re making these paper airplanes with your child, share the history of flight with them—you never know, you might just inspire a lifelong love of aeronautics or engineering as well! Don’t forget to share your photos of their creations with us on Facebook!
Copyright 2019, U.S. History Abroad, LLC