Wilbur and Orville were born in Indiana and Ohio, respectively; neither sought education beyond high school, though both showed an aptitude for mechanicsand independent study from an early age. In 1878 the Wright brothers first became interested in flight when their father brought a toy whirligig home forthem to play with. They tinkered with the basic design and built their own models, displaying an inventiveness that would stay with them throughout theirlives.
When the brothers heard of Otto Lilienthal's fatal glider crash in 1896, theybegan to seriously consider the problem of flight. They meticulously studiedcontemporary aeronautical research--including that of American engineer Octave Chanute (1832-1910), a pioneer of the biplane --and observed the flights of soaring birds.
They first tackled the problem of controlling the machine in all three axes of movement (up and down, side to side, forward and backward) without resorting to the pilot twisting or shifting his body weight as Lilienthal had. Afterobserving buzzards control their flight by twisting their wing tips, they settled on wing warping as the best method of maintaining balance.
To test their theories, the Wrights traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, an ideal site for wind and terrain. Following experiments with a biplane kite,they built several gliders, each more sophisticated than its predecessor. During the process they discovered errors in the mathematical tables that Lilienthal had created to explain lift. To achieve the correct calculations, theybuilt their own wind tunnel with a homemade pressure-testing device to checkthe amount of lift in various wing configurations.
By the time they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1902 with their last glider, the Wright brothers had solved the basic problems of control. They gave this glider narrower wings which curved much less than the previous ones. They also mounted a tail assembly on the back that acted as a rudder, with control wires linking it to the wing-warping mechanism. Before returning to Dayton, Wilbur Wright flew the glider 622 feet (189.71 m) in just 26 seconds.
The Wrights immediately prepared for powered flight the following year at Kitty Hawk. They needed a gasoline engine to provide the power, but none in existence was light enough. Consequently, the resourceful brothers designed and built their own four-cylinder, 12-horsepower engine.
They also worked on propellers for the craft, only to discover that little was known about how they worked. They soon realized that a propeller was nothing more than a wing moving in a circular course and finally designed and builttwo blades that would be mounted at the rear of the plane so the craft wouldbe undisturbed by propeller turbulence. In addition, the blades would spin in opposite directions to prevent torque from pulling the craft to one side.
The Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk in September 1903, ready to try their powered machine. Storms, engine problems, and the need to devise a takeoff systemslowed progress. Then, on December 14, 1903, the brothers were ready and Wilbur, who had won a coin toss, took the first ride. Unaccustomed to the engine's power, he rose too steeply, stalled, and then plowed into the sand, slightly damaging the craft. On December 17, Orville took his turn. He rose into the air, climbing to about 10 feet (3 m), and landed 12 seconds later, some 120feet (37 m) beyond the takeoff point. The Wrights flew three more times thatday, with Wilbur covering 852 feet (259 m) in a 59-second flight. In the next two years, the brothers built improved models of their aircraft and, by 1905, they were staying aloft for as long as 38 minutes and covering a distanceof 24 miles.
In 1908, they sold the first military airplane to the U.S. Department of War;this same year Orville established several aloft records in excess of one hour before crashing and injuring himself. Fortunately, he fully recovered andthe Wrights formed both a German and an American company to manufacture airplanes. Although they never became wealthy due to patent infringements and lawsuits, the brothers were universally hailed as the first to unlock the secretsof flight through their determination, experimentation, and inventiveness.