In August 1901, the Wright brothers were ready to give up. They had spent a frustrating summer testing their latest glider on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and nothing seemed to go as planned. The glider, a biplane with a 22-foot wingspan, was difficult to control and almost killed Wilbur. It proved even less maneuverable than the glider the Wrights had built and flown the previous year. Wilbur, nursing bruises from his crash in the dunes, was especially depressed. During the train ride home to Dayton, Ohio, he turned to Orville and said, "Not within a thousand years will man ever fly."
And yet only two years later, on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers flew. The toss of a coin made Orville the pilot; Wilbur remained on the ground. A Kitty Hawk local used Orville's big box camera to record the world's first powered flight at 10:35 a.m. on a cold, windy morning. The old black-and-white photo freezes Wilbur in a posture of surprise, as if he can't quite believe what he's seeing. Just seconds before, he had been sprinting during the takeoff, holding on to the right wing to help balance the plane his brother was piloting into a 27-mile-per-hour wind-and into history. If you look closely you can see 14 footprints Wilbur left in the sand.
Almost a century has passed since that day on the beach, and experts are still trying to understand how two men who never finished high school managed to fulfill an age-old human dream. In just four years the Wrights advanced from building kites to constructing a motorized, 605-pound airplane made largely of spruce, ash, and muslin that carried Orville 120 feet in 12 seconds.
"The view has always been that they were a couple of lucky bicycle mechanics," says Ken Hyde, 63, a retired American Airlines pilot and restorer of antique aircraft. But Hyde-who has been commissioned by the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to reconstruct the Wrights' plane for an anniversary flight at precisely 10:35 on December 17, 2003-knows the Wrights' achievement was no accident. Funded by the Ford Motor Co. and private donations, Hyde has assembled a diverse group of artisans, mechanics, and engineers to recreate not only the '03 flyer but also the entire array of kites, gliders, and planes the brothers built in their career. Every nail, spar, rib, and joint in the reconstructions, even the tool marks on the hand-carved wood propellers, will faithfully mimic the Wrights' work. "What we're doing is clearly demonstrating that these two gentlemen had a very scientific approach," Hyde says.
Before they could build the world's first plane, the Wrights had to discover the mechanics of flight. The brothers were the first to understand that a successful aircraft would need separate control mechanisms for each dimension, an insight that came from years of deep thought-and often hazardous trial runs. While their European competitors were making uncontrolled hops in gliders, the Wrights were building a plane with all the essential mechanisms of modern aircraft: a rudder to control horizontal movement, or yaw; an elevator to direct vertical motion, or pitch; and the "wing warping" system that would allow the plane to bank, or roll. Fearful of revealing hard-won secrets, Wilbur and Orville were reluctant to perform demonstration flights. As a result, their genius wasn't immediately recognized-the French called them bluffeurs-even after their success at Kitty Hawk. The world didn't see the Wrights take to the air until 1908, when Wilbur flew figure eights over astonished crowds in France.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.