The Wright Stuff

Photo: Smithsonian Institute

Orville and Wilbur [standing], Kitty hawk, N.C., 17 December 1903

The 17th of this month is the 100th anniversary of Orville Wright's 12-second, 40-meter flight down the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the flyer that he and his brother Wilbur built. We can only guess what it was like to see that wondrous wing lift gingerly into the sky. In our times perhaps only the first Mercury, Vostok, or space shuttle launches, or maybe the Apollo moon landings inspired the same kind of thrill.

The anniversary will be marked by all sorts of hoopla, including a sprawling six-day jamboree at Kitty Hawk put on by the Experimental Aircraft Association and hosted by actor John Travolta (a licensed pilot who owns a Boeing 707 airliner). It's nice to see the brothers Wright get their due, but it's even nicer that they and their accomplishment--the invention of the first piloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air machine to achieve sustained flight--have both been mercifully rescued lately from cartoon characterization. For that we can thank some excellent new biographies and museum shows.

Particularly noteworthy among the books is T.A. Heppenheimer's First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane and James Tobin's To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight . And in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's exhibit, ”The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age” [ http://www.nasm.si.edu/wrightbrothers], brings together 170 artifacts, including the legendary 1903 flyer.

These books and exhibits put to rest the idea that the Wrights were a couple of lucky bike mechanics who somehow happened upon powered flight serendipitously. They dispense with the notion that the brothers came up with their invention in a vacuum by detailing how they systematically steeped themselves in all the available aviation technology of their day.

It's true that the Wrights didn't possess the panache and high-voltage hysteria of their Brazilian colleague Alberto Santos-Dumont, the aviator and bon vivant who for a while held sole claim to the invention of manned flight (for more on that, see Paul Hoffman's excellent new book, Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight ). Because of the Wrights' passion for secrecy, an idea somehow took hold that they didn't have rich and complicated lives of their own.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the Wright brothers were arguably the very first aeronautical engineers. Yes, there were many other technically capable people trying to build a practical flyer. But the Wrights saw what the rest couldn't see--that balance and control and other principles from the world of the bicycle held the key to powered flight, not just raw engine power. They capitalized on the work of many of those who preceded them--George Cayley and Otto Lilienthal among them.

They built the first wind tunnel and used it to assemble a solid body of knowledge on the aerodynamics of warping wings. They constructed, tested, and measured the performance of wings over and over again, bringing their flying machines to life iteratively and with their own hands. And although it would take Glenn Curtiss to turn aviation into a business, the Wrights intuitively understood the importance of secrecy and patent protection and the fact that the military would be an eager early adopter of this technology.

It is hard to believe that two men could have accomplished in roughly six years what countless people had failed to achieve since the beginning of recorded time. But happen it did. Perhaps at this very moment the people who will someday make commercial supersonic flight a reality--again--are scanning this page. Human beings have been flying at essentially the same speed, 1000 km/h, since the late 1950s. Last month we bid adieu to the Concorde, humanity's first experience with supersonic passenger flight. We're sure it won't be the last--if not in our lifetime, then perhaps in our children's. Will you be one of the people who lets humanity soar again?

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