The Wright Brothers And The Birth Of The Airplane

The fateful flight took place 110 years ago today.
Popular Science archives

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took their famous first flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C. After four years of experimentation, the brothers became the first to fly a “heavier-than-air machine with a pilot on board.” This article, which details the birth of the flying machine, was written by John McMahon for the September 1925 issue of Popular Science_. _

When Orville Wright announced last spring that he would present to an English museum the pioneer airplane in which he and his brother Wilbur made historic flight on December 17, 1903, there was quite a stir in this country and abroad. President Coolidge hoped that the machine might be kept at home. There was promise of Congressional action, both to retain patent models in America and to investigate Mr. Wright’s charge that the Langley relic in the National Museum at Washington had been refurbished improperly, manipulated and labeled to support a priority claim.

We can wait for Congress to clear up the Langley matter, which, after all, is a question of “might have” or “afterward also” rather than “did fly first.” Meanwhile it is interesting to have a bit of light thrown on the yet obscure details of the “Wright brothers’ independent and marvelous achievement. Their story, despite world-wide publicity, is still to be told. One reason for this is the death of Wilbur, the elder brother, in 1912.

The young bicycle men of Dayton, Ohio, had been discussing the problem of flight for about three years when the first real idea came to them in June, 1899. They had spent Sundays lying on their backs beside the Miami River, hoping to learn something from the stately maneuvers of hawks and buzzards in the blue overhead. Then came that first real idea, which was Orville’s—to obtain lateral balance by hinged wings.

“The hinge is a good idea, but not practical,” agreed the brothers after debate. This was their judgment as expert mechanics.

The bicycle shop that the young men conducted was kept open late evenings to cater to the trade of factory employees. Wilbur was on duty one night in July, some weeks after the hinge concept had been argued and seemingly discarded.

A customer came in. If he had asked for tire tape, a wrench or a pump, the course of history might have been changed. But this customer asked for an inner tube for his bicycle tire. That tube was packed in a rectangular pasteboard box. Wilbur held the empty box by its ends while the customer examined the contents. Wilbur’s hands were inclined to be nervously active. He looked down and suddenly realized what he was doing with an empty box—twisting it—warping it. What was this? Can’t hinge wings? Never. But you can warp them! Eureka!

Read the rest of the story in the September 1925 issue of Popular Science magazine.