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The Story ~ On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright flew the modified and powered version of their early glider, and in a 12-second sustained flight accomplished the first successful, powered, and piloted flight in history. The airplane was invented.
Our PatentWear Flying Machine design is from the Wright brothers’ 1906 patent, considered the grandfather patent of the airplane. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wrights were the first to invent the controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
Self-taught engineers, the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio had a background in bicycle design and manufacturing. Their approach to the problem of manned flight was both systematic and brilliant. With a thorough study—courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum—of past flight experiments and literature, they were able to draw on previous designs and errors. From Otto Lilienthal and his two-thousand-plus hang gliding flights they developed a basic cambered wing design. Lilienthal had published his famous book Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889. From Octave Chanute they borrowed his biplane wing hang glider design for greater lift, and his strut-wire-braced wing structure for strength.
Their goal from the beginning was to devise a control system that would give them absolute command over the motion of the glider in every axis all the time. Flight control is where they centered their design efforts, and with a homemade wind tunnel and small kites and gliders they were able to test their theories. The results were applied to a succession of larger and more sophisticated gliders, along with hundreds of short flights in order to perfect their ideas. These gliders were built of spruce with muslin for the surface coverings.
From all these experiments they were able to solve the problem of three-axis control and how to achieve it: wing–warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side). With the addition of the rudder, the last of the control problems were solved. Some aviation historians believe that applying the system of three-axis control on their final glider design was even more significant than the addition of power for the December 17th flight.
So it was, that two young and innovative bicycle makers—brothers from Ohio with a goal, perseverance, and a knack for engineering genius—solved one of the greatest technical challenges in history. This flight, on December 17th, 1903, is the one that forever shaped our future in travel, commerce, and war.