Fred Howard sees the Wright brothers as scientists, not tinkerers. In this biography he also shows how they fit into the history of American and European aeronautics. The Wright brothers had excellent insight into mechanical problems, and armed with these insights along with their patient industriousness, they created the first heavier-than-air machine to rise from the ground under its power in controlled flight. At a time when most inventions are produced by corporations, Fred Howard is deeply impressed by the Wrights’ mastery of the whole gamut of invention: research, design, building a prototype, testing it, manufacturing it, selling it, and teaching people how to use it. The Wrights, with no formal engineering education, became the embodiment of the heroic American engineer.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of Milton Wright, a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and Susan Catherine Koerner, a wheel-wright’s daughter; they had two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, and a younger sister, Katharine. Milton’s income as an itinerant clergyman was small, and he augmented it by teaching and farming. He encouraged initiative in his children and admired the early displays of mechanical ingenuity by Wilbur and Orville. For example, in 1878, when he was made a bishop and the family moved to Iowa, he bought the boys a toy helicopter, which so fascinated them that they made other models and were astonished to find that the larger they made them, the more poorly they flew.
The peripatetic existence of the family came to an end in 1885, when Bishop Wright settled in Dayton, Ohio, in a house on Hawthorn Street that was to be the family’s home for the next twenty-nine years. It was here that Susan Wright died on the Fourth of July, 1889; it was here that Wilbur and Orville built a large printing press and began publishing a local newspaper. In 1892 they set up the Wright Cycle Company and for the next decade made their living first by repairing and renting bicycles, then by manufacturing and selling their own models.
In the summer of 1896 Otto Lilienthal, the pioneer German aviator, died in a gliding accident. The newspapers were filled with pictures of his gliders and accounts of his many flights. This piqued the Wrights’ interest in flying, and they began thinking of experimenting with gliders. In 1899 Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, stating that he wanted all available information on aerodynamics. He received four pamphlets in return, with accounts of Samuel Pierpont Langley’s power-model flights, Lilienthal’s gliding experiments, and a list of commercially available books by Langley, Octave Chanute, and others. After studying this material, the Wright brothers were struck with how little attention had been paid to the problem of control of the glider. These pioneers seemed to be content to maintain equilibrium in flight by shifting their bodies from side to side.
A month after receiving the information from the Smithsonian, Wilbur and Orville were at work on a flying machine of their own—a five-foot biplane designed to be flown as a kite. They also wanted to control this biplane. That a bird or plane changes the angles of its wings to turn or restore its balance seems obvious today, but it was not obvious in 1899. According to Wilbur, he and his brother discovered the method of lateral control by observing the flight of pigeons. The problem was how to apply the pigeon’s wing-twisting ability to a pair of wings made of cloth tightly stretched over a rigid wooden framework. Wilbur stumbled on a solution by twisting a pasteboard box in opposite directions. He saw that the wings of gliders could be twisted in the same way by means of a series of wires that ran through pulleys to the wingtips.
For fifteen dollars, the Wrights built a large glider with their wingwarping mechanism, but they needed a place for extended flights. Wilbur wrote to the United States Weather Bureau, asking about prevailing wind conditions in different sections of the country. He was told that the region around Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was one of the windiest places in the eastern part of the United States; he was also told that Kitty Hawk had a very long, wide beach devoid of high hills. In the fall of 1900, Wilbur and Orville took their man-carrying glider to this beach and tested it for several days. They were astonished at how easy equilibrium was to maintain with the warping wires. After a winter and spring of work, they returned to Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1901 with a larger glider possessing an even better wing-warping mechanism, but problems with the wing structure developed, and their tests were stopped when Wilbur suffered broken ribs when he failed to land the glider properly.
Back in Dayton, the Wright brothers realized that they needed more scientific information to make better gliders. Their glider tests had revealed large errors in published tables of lift pressures for various wing surfaces and wind speeds. They constructed a wind tunnel to discover the angles at which wings of various shapes...