THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 17, 1903

Wright Brothers Make First Powered Flight

wright-brothers-first-powered-flightWilbur and Orville Wright built and flew the airplane that made the first controlled, powered flight in December 1903. Their design was shaped both by their extensive knowledge of others work on aeronautics and by their own careful research on engines, propeller design, and control systems. They went on, 1908 to 1912, to play a key role in popularizing the new technology.

Born near Dayton, Ohio, during the last third of the nineteenth century, Wilbur and Orville Wright brought business acumen, mechanical skill, and disciplined minds to their experiments with flying machines. They closely followed the work of Otto Lilienthal and Samuel Pierpont Langley and, most importantly, corresponded extensively with Octave Chanute. Chanute, a French-born aviator living in Chicago, provided the Wrights not only with news of his own experiments with gliders but also with a connection to aeronautical work underway in Europe.

Simultaneously, the brothers began a systematic program of experiments and glider flights designed to give them first-hand knowledge. Unable to find reliable scientific data on the aeronautical properties of wings and propellers, they built a wind tunnel and compiled their own data to establish which shapes provide maximum lift and thrust. The brothers also built a series of full-size aircraft, flying them first as kites and then as gliders from the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The dozens of glider flights they made in 1901 and 1902 turned both Wrights into expert pilots — a comparative rarity among airplane designers of that era. The gliders also allowed them to experiment with different methods of controlling an aircraft in flight.

The end-product of this research program was the powered Flyer I, which rose into the air on December 17, 1903. It used the same basic design as their most advanced gliders, but added a pair of propellers driven by a lightweight, 12-horsepower gasoline engine of their own design. The first flight of the day, with Orville at the controls, lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 ft; the fourth and last flight, made by Wilbur, lasted a full minute and covered nearly 600 ft. Though witnessed by five reliable observers and documented in a photograph, the landmark flights of December 17 were ignored for nearly five years. An editorial acknowledgment in the prestigious magazine Scientific American began to turn the tide in 1906, but the Wrights began to receive full credit only in 1908.

“Wright Brothers.” Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Science in Context. Web.


Learn more about the Wright brothers and the planes »

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