Masters of Gravity: Wilbur, 1867-1912 Orville, 1871-1948

Wilbur and Orville Wright were two brothers from the heartland of America with a vision as sweeping as the sky and a practicality as down-to-earth as the Wright Cycle Co., the bicycle shop they founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892. But while there were many bicycle shops in their America, in only one were wings being built as well as wheels.

The brothers were long fascinated by the idea of flight. The force of their obsession led them to develop, single-handedly, the technologies they needed to pursue their dream. When standard aeronautical data proved unreliable, they built their own wind tunnel to learn how to lift a flying machine into the sky (in the photo on this page, they are test-flying a glider). They were the first to discover that a long, narrow wing shape was the ideal architecture of flight. They figured out how to move the vehicle freely up and down on a cushion of air. They built a forward elevator to control the pitch of their craft and fashioned a pair of twin rudders in back to control its tendency to yaw from side to side. They devised a pulley system that warped the shape of the wings in midflight to turn the plane and to stop it from rolling laterally in the air.

When the Wrights discovered that a light-weight gas-powered engine did not exist, they decided to design and build their own. It produced 12 horsepower and weighed only 152 lbs. Result: the powered 1903 Flyer, a skeletal flying machine of spruce, ash and muslin, with a wingspan of 40 ft. and an unmanned weight of just over 600 lbs. On Dec. 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls, the Flyer lifted off shakily from the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., and flew 120 ft. — a distance little more than half the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400. That 12-sec. flight changed the world, lifting humans to new heights of freedom and giving us access to places we had never dreamed of reaching.


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