2 unlikely candidates solved riddle of flight

Wrights: With parents who nurtured their intellectual curiosity, the brothers found answer that eluded others.

December 17, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It is one of the most enduring questions of the 20th century: How did two seemingly ordinary men from Dayton, Ohio, solve the age-old riddle of human flight when its answer eluded others for centuries?

Bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright could explain with precision the process that gave birth to their flying machine thanks to a detailed record captured in diaries, notebooks, letters and photographs. But, as historians point out, even they had difficulty answering the question: Why them?

When a friend suggested that pure genius might explain it, Wilbur politely disagreed.

"To me it seems that a thousand other factors ... influence the event ten times more than mere mental ability or inventiveness," he said.

The lifelong bachelors appeared unlikely candidates to crack the problem. They were not members of the aeronautical community. They had neither government funding nor much formal scientific or technical training. In fact, on paper, they were high school dropouts.

But Milton Wright, a United Brethren bishop, and his wife, Susan, the inventive daughter of a carriage-maker, nurtured the intellectual curiosity of Wilbur, Orville and their three siblings.

"The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement," Orville said in 1934. "If my father had not been the kind who encouraged his children to pursue intellectual interests without any thought of profit, our early curiosity about flying would have been nipped too early to bear fruit."

The brothers first turned their thoughts to flight in 1878 when Wilbur was 11 and Orville was 7. Their father brought home a helicopter-like toy, powered by rubber bands, and released it. They were amazed that it did not fall to the floor, but with a buzzing sound, rose to the ceiling.

They began to seriously explore flight in 1896 after reading about the death of a German engineer in a glider accident. Four years later, they started a ritual of locking up their bike shop in the late fall to travel to the fishing hamlet of Kitty Hawk, N.C., and test their theories by launching gliders off sand dunes. By 1903, Wilbur and Orville, at 36 and 32 respectively, had rewritten the leading aeronautical theories of the time.

Unlike other inventors, they attacked the problem methodically and obsessively, finding solutions to the aerodynamically complex problems of lift, power and balance.

They focused first on balance with their invention of "wing-warping," the helical twisting of an aircraft's wings to bank left and right.

The idea came to Wilbur at the bicycle shop in 1899 as he chatted with a customer and began to absent-mindedly twist an inner-tube box like a helix between his fingers. He noticed that as he did so it retained its lateral stiffness - much like the birds he observed in flight. He decided to test the concept with a double-winged kite.

It worked. Over the next four years, with income from their modest business and family support, they pioneered three-axis aerodynamic control by building and testing gliders. When they realized that the published aeronautical data were flawed, they built a wind tunnel to test airfoils and measure how to lift an aircraft. The wing design data propelled them far ahead their competitors and led to their first "aeroplane," the Flyer.

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