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Orville and Wilbur Wright



Born in 1871 Orville and his older brother, Wilbur (born in 1867) were sons of a minister and lived the most proper lives imaginable. They neither smoked, drank, nor married and always wore conventional business suits even when tinkering in a machine shop. Neither had more than part of a high school education, so they were quite in the tradition of the American inventive tinkerers who used instinct, intuition, and endless intelligent effort to make new theory - after the fashion of the greatest non-college educated intuitive genius of them all, Edison.

The Wright Brothers

Orville Wright was a champion bicyclist and so the brothers went into the bicycle business, which gave full vent to their mechanical aptitude. Another hobby was gliding, which, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, had become a most daring, yet, practical sport thanks to Lilienthal. The Wright brothers followed Lillienthal's career, read his publications and those of Langley and felt the stirring hope of manned flight grow. It was Lillienthal's death in 1896 that inspired them to begin their own experimentation, for they thought they could correct the errors that had led the German to his end.

The Wright brothers combined their two hobbies by making every effort to equip a bicycle with wings and place an internal-combustion engine aboard to turn a propeller. They made shrewd corrections in design and invented ailerons, the movable wing tips that enable a pilot to control his plane. That served as their original patent. In addition, they built a crude wind tunnel to test their models; they designed new engines, in fact, that weighed only seven pounds per horsepower delivered. The Wrights' feat in achieving this was an important step in making powered air-flight possible. Their entire eight-year program of research cost them about $1,000.

On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville made the first airplane flight in history - a powered flight as opposed to mere gliding. A total of four flights were made that day.  In the first, he remained in the air almost a minute covering 120 feet and in the last he covered 850 feet. There were only five witnesses and this first flight was met with absolute lack of interest on the part of the newspapers. In fact, as late as 1905, the Scientific American magazine mentioned the flight only to suggest it was a hoax. In that same year, however, the Wrights made a half-hour, 24-mile flight.  Listen to a clip describing his flight here

Orville lived to see airplanes drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His brother Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville died in 1948 and was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1965. Wilbur had been elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1965.

From Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Issac Asimov, Doubleday and Company, Inc., garden City, New York, 1964.

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Updated: 21 March, 2005