The Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur – “are credited with inventing and building the first successful airplane” as well as “making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They worked from 1905 until 1907 developing their “flying machine” into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft. They also made fixed-wing powered flight possible by inventing aircraft controls.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were two of seven children born to their parents, Milton Wright (1828-1917) and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831-1889). Their paternal ancestry was English and Dutch, and their maternal ancestry was German and Swiss. Wilbur was born on April 16, 1867, near Millville, Indiana; Orville was born four years later on August 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio. Their siblings were Reuchlin (1861-1920), Lorin (1862-1939), Katharine (1874-1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, died in infancy). Orville and Wilbur both attended high school, but neither of them graduated or married.
After their successful flight, the brothers credited their interest in flying to a toy helicopter they were given as children in 1878 by their father. The toy “helicopter” was made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor and was about twelve inches long. It was based on an invention made by Alphonse Penaud, a French aeronautical pioneer. The boys played with the toy until it broke and then made their own.
“The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method became and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds. From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving `the flying problem.’ This approach differed significantly from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on developing powerful engines. Using a small homebuilt wind tunnel, the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before. Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces.
“They gained the mechanical skills essential for their success by working for years in their shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles in particular influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots. Their bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team, building their first airplane engine in close collaboration with the brothers.”
Wilbur became ill on a business trip to Boston, Massachusetts, in April 1912; he died of typhoid fever at age 45 on May 30, 1912, at the family home in Dayton, Ohio. Orville lived from the days of horse and buggy to the days of supersonic flight. He died on January 30, 1948, following his second heart attack. The next day John T Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their famous first flight photo, died the following day. The Wright brothers are buried at the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, in Dayton, Ohio.