The Wright Brothers: Great Innovators of Flight

Throughout history, mankind has been fascinated with the concept of flight. It was not until the turn of the 20th Century that the dream of flying among the birds became a reality. On December 17, 1905, Wilbur and Orville Wright flew on the first flying machine that was heavier than air. The Wright brothers made a legacy for themselves and are remembered as some of the greatest innovators of their time. In this report, I will give a brief biographic account of early adulthood, pre-flight business endeavors, and the events that led up to the innovation that evolved into modern aeronautics.

Wilbur, the eldest, was born near Millville, Indiana in 1867. Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871.

During their childhood, the Wright brothers were inseparable. According to The Wright Brothers by Russell Freedman, Wilbur Wright once said, “From the time we were little children, my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together.” Even as adults, they shared everything from a joint bank account and their flight experiments.

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To the surprise of the public, despite being good students, neither of the Wright Brothers finished high school nor received any special education in the fields of science and engineering. However, they always were handy with tools and had well-developed problem-solving skills. Even as adults, the wright brothers enjoyed playing with mechanical toys and devices. Their curiosity with mechanical devices with encouraged by their parents, Milton Wright and Susan Koerner. In 1878, after the father returned from a business trip, Milton Wright gave his sons a toy called a Pénaud helicopter.

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This toy was made of cork, bamboo, and thin paper and flew with a mechanism powered by a rubber band. The helicopter sparked the young Wright brothers’ curiosity and they began to make their own versions of the helicopter and try to produce flying machines that could help them fly.

When they were children, Orville made kites to sell to his friends. He made kites with thinner ribs that curved. Because of Orville’s unique kite shape, his kites flew better than kites with thicker, sturdier ribs. However, they were unable to accomplish their goal of building a large flying machine during their childhood and temporarily put their ideas of flying through the skies to rest. Since Wilbur was unable to get his high school diploma after his family moved to Dayton, Ohio, he decided to stay home and take care of his terminally ill mother. Wilbur had originally intended to go to Yale, but a small accident caused him to chip his two front teeth and he lost the confidence to go to college. However, he always felt uneasy about his lack of ambition and his decision to stay home. In 1889, Orville dropped out of high school and built a printing press with Wilbur’s assistance. Afterward, the Wright brothers began a printing business. They had a newspaper, but they ceased to publish new issues after a little more than a year. After the failure of their newspaper, Wilbur and Orville began to focus on commercial printing.

One of their most famous clients was Paul Laurence Dunbar, an old classmate of Orville who became a famous African-American poet and writer. For a short period of time, Wright published a paper called the Dayton Tattler that Dunbar edited. In 1892, the invention of the safety bicycle led to a bicycle craze the swept the whole nation. The Wright brothers decided to profit from this wide-scale interest in bicycles by opening a bicycle repair and sales shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange (also known as the Wright Cycle Company). In 1896, the Wright brothers design and manufacture their own brand of bicycles. Their bicycle business was becoming very profitable and was going to fund the Wright brothers’ rekindled interest in flight. Upon reading articles and seeing pictures of flight attempts of scientists such as Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute. In May of 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter asking the Smithsonian Institution to supply him and his brother with information and publications about discoveries made in the field of aeronautics.

Afterward, the Wright brothers began to research the discoveries made by Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci, and Langley and began to design their aeronautical experiments based on the work of the innovators they were studying. Soon afterward, the Wright brothers began to tinker in the back of their bicycle workshop. Wilbur and Orville agreed that the main concern of flight is control. They believed that the pilot must be able to control the flying machine once it is propelled in the air. They needed to control yaw, the movement of an object from left to right. The Wright brothers also had to prevent roll, the process in which a vehicle falls onto its side, and pitch, the machine’s ability to travel upward and downward. The Wright brothers pondered who a pilot would be able to control all three movements at once. Wilbur and Orville looked at the flight of birds for inspiration. They discovered that birds circle their winds in the air by curving one wing up and the other down.

However, they still didn’t know how to replicate this effect with artificial wings. One day, Wilbur was selling an inner tube to a customer. While twisting it in his hands, he realizes that he was replicating the shape of a bird’s wings by bending one part upward and one part downward. He showed Orville his discovery and the brothers immediately began to design a two-winged glider capable of flexing like the inner tube. Before building a glider, they tested their wing-warping design on a five-foot-long kite in August or 1899. Using a series of complicated mechanisms, the Wright brothers were able to warp and twist the wings and controlled the direction in which the kite flew. In order to test their glider designs, Wilbur wrote a letter to the U.S. Weather Bureau and asked them about areas where there were consistently strong and steady winds. They chose the seashore new Kitty Hawk because it was close to their home in Dayton, Ohio. In this area, the Wright brothers began to test various gliders with the assistance of the local postmaster, Bill Tate, and his brother Dan. They began to test their gliders by throwing them off the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Most of the time, the gliders crashed. In 1900, the Wright Brothers decided to test a glider that could carry a man. However, neither of the brothers rode in the glider. Instead, the added weights to the glider and put Tom Tate, Dan’s ten-year-old son, in the passenger seat. They pushed the glider off one of the sand dunes while Wilbur controlled the glider from the ground with kite wires. During October, on the last day of their first trip to Kitty Hawk, Wilbur finally rode one of the gliders he made with his brother. He soared over three sand dunes while he tested the controls. The controls were a success and Wilbur was able to control the whole flight. Unfortunately, it was time for them to return to Ohio. They left their glider to rot away in the sand dunes. After the Wright brothers left Kitty Hawk, Bill Tate’s wife cut the wing coverings off the glider to make dresses for her daughters. The Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1901. The Wright brothers had created the largest glider that anyone has tried to fly.

However, the summertime presented many obstacles for the Wright brothers. Orville complained about wild pigs and mice and large amounts of mosquitoes and sand fleas in his letters to his younger sister, Katharine. Despite Orville’s complaints about the conditions that endured during their experiments, their nieces and nephews were excited to receive mail from the Wright Brothers. According to Fly by Wendie Old, the Wright brothers had sent a package to the nieces and newfews that contained “… a dried horseshoe crab, bottles of salty seawater, and fine seashore sand.” (Old 22). Despite the Wright brothers’ optimism, their 1901 glider kept crashing into the ground. When they returned to their home in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright brothers were depressed. Wilbur once told Orville, “[I don’t] think people [will] be able to fly for a thousand years.” (Old 22). Despite the Wright brothers’ sadness at their failed glider attempt, they did not give up. Encourage by letters from their friend Octave Chanute, the Wright brothers continued their experiments. They decided that the calculations they used to develop wing shapes must be wrong. The Wright brothers made new calculations and tested multiple vanes or wing shapes. They were the first people to measure how air pressure and airflow affected different wing shapes. They tried measuring the effect of air pressure and flow on wings by attaching them to a bicycle and riding the bicycle up and down the street. However, it was difficult to record calculations while balancing their bicycle. Thus, they design a six-foot wind tunnel.

The Wright brothers used their wind tunnel to test over 200 designs. During each test, they made careful observations and wrote detailed notes. When they completed these experiments, the Wright brothers had developed new, more accurate tables of air pressure. To their surprise, the Wright brothers had discovered many things that contradicted previous ideas. For example, most people had that that a wing with a sharp front edge would help it slice through the air. However, through the research they conducted with their wind tunnel, the Wright brothers discovered that a blunt, round front edge, with a sharp rear edge, created more lift and was a more effective design. Using their new tables of air pressure, the Wright brothers built a new and improved glider. In this model, “they built the peak of the wing’s arc closer to the front.” (Old 27). In September of 1902, they returned to the Atlantic shore near Kitty Hawk. Wilbur taught Orville how to fly. However, the glider fell into the sand. The Wright brothers were not discouraged. They made many repairs on the wings and made them warp at the ends only. This made the middle of the glider more stable and the glider’s ability to stay in the air improved enormously. Chanute and Augustus Herring visited them around this time so they could test their own gliders.

However, none of their gliders were able to fly. Since Wilbur and Orville’s glider design was such a success, they prepared to build a self-propelled flying machine.In the winter of 1902 and early 1903, Orville and Wilbur built a motor and propellers for their flying machine. Since they strongly believed that their machine was going to fly, the called it the Flyer. Despite previously established ideas on the design of propellers, the Wright brothers design their propellers like their wings, curved with round edges. They mounted one propeller on each side of the Flyer and placed them behind the wind to help propel it through the air. The reason that they build their own engine was that none of the automobile companies that they contacted had available engines that were strong and light enough for the Flyer. Charlie Taylor, their bicycle mechanic helped the brothers design and build the engine out of aluminum. The engine was ready, the propellers were in place, the wings were finished, and the only thing left to do was to see if their machine could fly. The pieces of their Flyer were shipped to Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903.

The Flyer was reassembled in one of the two wooden hangers that the Wright brothers built near the sand dunes. To reduce friction, they covered the top and bottom of each wing with a cloth. The engine was mounted on the lower ring to the right of the pilot seat. The pilot would warp the winds and move the rudder with his hips. The pilot’s hips were suspended in a wooden cradle that allowed him to control the Flyer. The front elevator wings were hand-operated. Instead of having an accelerator, the engine was either turned on or off. There was no way to control the Flyer’s speed. Instead of wheels, the Wright brothers put skids on the bottom of the Flyer to help it land. The Flyer was ready, but a bad storm in 1903 delayed the first flight. On the cold windy morning of December 14, 1903, the Wright brothers and some helpers from Kill Devil Hills Lifesaver Corps drag the Flyer up Big Kill Devil Hill, the largest sand dune in the area.

The winds blew at 5 miles an hour, a speed too slow to carry a glider or in their case, a 604-pound flying machine and its passenger. While they sent up the tracks, Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would fly the Flyer first. Wilbur won the coin toss. Once Wilbur was aboard the Flyer, Wilbur noticed that the wind was blowing from the side and the track was not straight. Orville and some of their helpers had to help keep the Flyer on the track as it descended the hill. The moment the Flyer lifted from the track, Wilbur used the elevator wings to make the Flyer go higher.

Unfortunately, this slowed the Flyer too much. After flying 15 feet in the air, the Flyer stalled and crashed into the sand dunes. The Flyer had suffered from minor damages. Stunned, Wilbur came to his senses and turned off the engine. The Wright brothers were not satisfied with this flight. After two days of repair, the Flyer was ready to fly once again. On December 17, the Wright brothers decided to try again. The wind blew between 20 and 25 miles per hour. This time, it was Orville’s turn to be the pilot. Surfmen Willie Dough, Adam Etheridge, and John Daniels and W. C. Brinkley and a boy named Jonny Moore helped lift the Flyer and get it ready to fly. The brothers shook hands, worried that it might be the last time they see each other.

At 10:35 in the morning, Orville signaled the others and the Flyer began to move. John Daniels took out his camera and took a picture of the Flyer as it flew into the air. Wilbur ran alongside the Flyer as Orville flew into the air. The Flyer went up and down. Orville became worried, as the elevator was over-responding to the corrections he made. 120 feet away from the track, a skid cracked and fell off the plane. The Flyer descended until it hit the ground. The flight lasted twelve seconds. The Flyer had taken off from ground level, flew under its own power, and landed in a place that was level with the place that it took off from. The Wright brothers had accomplished the first flight. The Wright brothers worked diligently to repair the cracked skin. At 11:20, Wilbur went on his first flight Wilbur flew 175 feet in 15 seconds. On Orville’s second flight, he flew 200 feet in about 15 seconds. With each flight, the Wright brothers flew farther and farther. In the fourth flight, Orville flew 852 feet for fifty-nine seconds. The Wright brothers planned many flights for the upcoming week. Unfortunately, a powerful gust of wind lifted the Flyer. John Daniels tried to get a hold of it but, he got caught in the wires and the Flyer crashed into the beach with him inside it.

After the rescued John Daniels from the wreckage, they sent a telegram to their father informing them about their success and their return home in time for Christmas. They returned to Dayton, Ohio with all the parts of the wrecked Flyer. In 1908, the Wright brothers became famous for their airplane demonstrations in Washington D.C., and France. The Wright brothers continued to work on their designs and create improved versions of the original Flyer. The inventions and discoveries of the Wright brothers have become the foundation of modern aeronautics. The invention of the airplane has improved oversea travel and is one of the fastest modes of travel. Today, thousands of people fly on commercial airlines in order to travel long distances in extremely short periods of time. Furthermore, airplanes have become an important form of technology used to turn the tides of war. The Wright brothers reached for the sky and flew beyond expectations.

Works Cited

  1. Old, Wendie. To Fly: The Story of the Wright BrothersFreedman, Russell. The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane
  2. Wikipedia The Wright Brothers
  3. The Smithsonian The Wright Brothers

Cite this page

The Wright Brothers: Great Innovators of Flight. (2020, Oct 23). Retrieved from

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