To say simply that the Wright brothers invented the airplane would be disrespectful to the long years of scientific research and hard work put in by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Their story reads like the proverbial American dream where two honest, hardworking men, armed with nothing but their intelligence and determination made one of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth century.
Wilbur and Orville were born to Milton and Susan Wright. It was their father who initiated and encouraged the brothers’ interest in airplanes. In 1878 Milton Wright returned from a work related trip with a rubber band powered helicopter. The Wright brothers even at a young age immediately studied the model helicopter and started building replicas.
Around 1896, when the Wright brothers were successfully managing their bicycle company, the newspapers started carrying many stories about the invention of gliders and inventors who were trying to fly. This triggered the imagination of both brothers. They noticed that all the aircrafts developed till then lacked controls.
To start their venture, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting for all the information on flight experiments that they had. Subsequently, in 1899 the brothers developed a simple system to warp the wings of a biplane. Warping meant that the plane could be controlled and rolled left or right as required. They tested this system on a series of gliders they developed.
The Wright brothers used Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test the various models they built. They launched two gliders in 1900 and 1901 but were disappointed with the performance due to lack of lift and control. The brothers went back to the drawing board and spent the winter of 1901-1902 designing a wind tunnel and conducting experiments to figure out the best wing shape. This allowed them to build a glider with plenty of lift. Towards the end of 1902 they launched their third glider with roll, pitch and yaw controls.
The next winter was spent in designing a gasoline engine small and powerful enough to propel an aircraft. Their mechanic Charlie Taylor was a great help in designing the engine. They also designed the first ever airplane propellers and finally built a new, powered aircraft.
However, the road to success was not so easy. They suddenly found themselves competing with Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He had also built a powered aircraft and had investment funding to help his ventures. Luckily for the Wright brothers, Langley’s two attempts at launching his airplane failed miserably and put him out of competition.
Other problems were not quite so easily resolved. The weather misbehaved and there was nothing much they could do about it. Something in their control however, was the propeller. The propeller shafts broke on the first attempt and the drive sprockets were too loose on the second try. On the third try one of the propeller shafts cracked. Orville finally resolved the problem by using spring steel to make a new set of shafts. The aircraft was ready and they called it the Flyer.
After two unsuccessful attempts, the Wright brothers made aeronautical history on December 17th, 1903. Orville Wright took the Flyer for a 12 second sustained flight covering 120 feet. In the next few hours the brothers made 4 flights the longest of which was 852 feet.
Thus, the Wright brothers invented the airplane and much more!