At the start of the 20th century, technology started to evolve at a pace that virtually no one could have anticipated. New machines, new industries, and new vehicles were coming quickly. At the forefront of this tide of change were a pair of humble bicycle builders from Ohio: Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of a bishop in the Brethren Church. With their parents and five siblings, the Wright brothers settled in Dayton, Ohio while they were still children. Although both boys were inquisitive and bright, neither one would end up receiving a high school diploma.
Wilbur left school following a hockey accident. He spent several years voluntarily housebound, becoming introverted and reading at great length. His younger brother Orville, who always showed greater mechanical aptitude, quit school in 1889 to start his own printing press. Wilbur soon joined him, and the brothers segued from printing into the burgeoning bicycle industry.
Mastering The Airplane
The idea of powered flight was on everyone’s mind at the dawn of the 20th century. Experimenters and engineers on three continents were fervently chasing this dream. It interested Wilbur and Orville, but they took a novel approach to the problem. After much study, they concluded that of the three core problems that had to be faced to create a viable airplane, two – the creation of a lift-generating wing and the availability of a workable engine – were already more or less solved.
The brothers concentrated on the third problem: How to control a flying machine. This proved to be an immensely wise decision, and the Wright brothers’ pioneering work in this field is what truly earned them their fame. It’s worth noting that their key patents from 1904 onwards all relate to innovations in airplane control rather than other aspects of aeronautics.
The Wrights began experimenting extensively with gliders, shelving the problem of powered flight until they had solved the issue of control. They succeeded in creating controllable gliders by 1902, and the next year they would travel to the fateful dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina with a powered version. Wilbur made an abortive flight that lasted all of three seconds on December 14th; on the 17th each brother would complete a flight. Orville’s flight was the one recorded in the famous photograph taken that day.
Nowadays, to reduce the number of aviation accidents, in particular fateful one, people have to take a pilot course and there are health and medical requirements.
Taking On The World
Although the brothers were pleased with their accomplishment, the rest of the world was not quick to applaud them. European aviators were outraged at the idea of a pair of unknowns from Ohio succeeding at the challenge they had been failing to meet for years. Even today, there is a considerable dispute whether or not the Wrights truly achieved the world’s first heavier-than-air flight.
The skill and ingenuity with which the Wrights worked out their control system were undeniable, though. They spent the next several years refining both their equipment and techniques, opening the world’s first flying school and traveling to Europe in 1908 to demonstrate their machines.
The brothers had bottled lightning with their airplane, and they did their best to defend it by aggressively enforcing the patents they’d received for their control systems. This led to protracted legal battles all through the 1910s as the Wrights and their competitors sued and countersued.
The Corporate Epilogue
Eventually, global politics overtook Wilbur and Orville’s business. The patent disputes were primarily settled by government intervention during the first World War, and the Wright brothers were amply compensated. Their zeal for corporate management never matched their interest in machines and engineering, and the two brothers slowly but steadily relinquished control of their company to dedicated managers. Though they regretted some of the uses the airplane was put to over the course of the 20th century, both brothers were proud of their fundamental accomplishments in aviation.
Although it’s not fair to attribute every innovation required for powered flight to the Wright brothers, the lasting importance of their contributions to aeronautics cannot be denied. They earned their place in the history books, and they will always stand as legends of a time when hard-working individuals could make major scientific breakthroughs almost single-handedly.