What If

Bicycles Held the Secret to Human Flight?

Bicycles Held the Secret to Human Flight?

Despite any formal training in physics or engineering, Wilbur and Orville Wright brought an utterly original and successful approach to the problem of human flight. Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them! Orville Wright, June 7, 1903
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On December 8, 1903, Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, prepared to launch his airplane over the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Built with funding from the War Department and the Smithsonian, the aircraft – dubbed the “Aerodrome” – benefitted from Langley’s more than 15 years of flight research. But just seconds after launch, the Aerodrome plunged into the river.

Nine days later, on December 17, two obscure brothers from Ohio quietly won the race for powered flight. Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully piloted their heavier-than-air, powered Flyer in the remote Kill Devil Hills dunes, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wrights, working alone and without so much as a high school diploma between them, solved a technical problem that had baffled the brightest minds for centuries.

Growing Up Wright

Milton and Susan Wright of Dayton, Ohio, encouraged intellectual curiosity, reading, experimentation, and tinkering in their home -- skills that shaped the methodical approach to problem solving used by their sons, Wilbur and Orville.

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 Portrait of Wilbur Wright as a Boy, 1878, Portrait of Orville Wright as a Boy, 1878
Wilbur (left) and Orville Wright as boys, 1878
 

Milton, a Bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, traveled extensively and often brought back gifts for his children. One such present was a rubber band-powered flying toy, Pénaud’s Helicopter, which Milton brought home in 1878. The toy fascinated Wilbur and Orville and stimulated their first interest in flying machines. 

From a young age, siblings Wilbur and Orville were inseparable. On one occasion Wilbur remarked,

“From the time we were little children, my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together, and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussions between us."

Wright Cycle Shop

  Details
Artifact

Store

Date Made

circa 1875

Summary

Wilbur and Orville Wright operated their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle business out of this building from 1897 to 1908. The brothers sold and repaired bikes, and even produced models under their own brands. It was also in this shop that the Wright brothers built their earliest flying machines, including the 1903 Flyer that became the first successful heavier-than-air, powered, controlled aircraft.

Place of Creation

United States, Ohio, Dayton 

Object ID

38.819.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village
 On Exhibit

at Greenfield Village in Main Street District

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

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They were also exceptionally close to their sister, Katharine, who played a critical role in their eventual successes. Wilbur said of Katharine, if ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister.” These three siblings remained in the family home most of their lives, with the brothers focusing on their many shared ventures in lieu of marriage. Wilbur and Orville established a printing shop in 1889, when they were 22 and 18 respectively. As the bicycle craze swept the country, the brothers bought bikes, learned to repair them, and in 1893 opened their own cycle shop. Eventually, they even sold bikes under their own brand names, but the majority of the shop’s income came from bicycle repairs.

By 1896, aeronautic enthusiasts were already drawing connections between the skills needed to bicycle and those needed to fly. Balance was essential to cycling, just as it would be to flying.  Coincidentally, bicycling, via the Wright Cycle Shop, supported the brothers’ early aviation work, both financially and through the wood- and metalworking skills they honed there.

The Challenge of Control

In 1896 Germany’s Otto Lilienthal, the world leader in glider flight, died when his glider plunged to the ground. Lilienthal had completed more than 2,000 successful glider flights, and his fatal accident jolted aviation enthusiasts worldwide. Lilienthal’s sudden death reawakened the Wrights’ interest in aviation. They scoured local libraries for anything related to aeronautics. When those sources were exhausted, Wilbur penned a letter to the Smithsonian Institution on May 30, 1899, requesting more information about “mechanical and human flight.”

The brothers recognized that a successful flying machine required three things: wings to provide lift, an engine to provide propulsion, and a means for the pilot to control the aircraft in flight. The brothers saw little trouble with the first two points. Pioneers like Lilienthal seemingly had mastered wings with their gliders, and the fledgling automobile industry presumably could provide a suitable engine. The third point was the true challenge.

Aerodynamic control had received little study. Most people attempting to build flying machines were simply concerned with getting off the ground, and they attached little importance to control. However, without the ability to control direction and landing, manned flight would be too dangerous to be useful. To tackle the problem of control, the Wright brothers identified the three basic axes around which an airplane had to move: pitch (side-to-side or lateral axis), roll (front-to-back or longitudinal axis), and yaw (rotation around the vertical or perpendicular axis). A pilot must command the pitch, roll, and yaw of a flying machine in order to control it.

Flying_LRG

The Wright brothers studied birds and recognized that when turning or performing the roll motion, a bird simultaneously raised the tip of one wing while lowering the tip of the other. However, observing birds in flight never produced the “aha!” moment the brothers expected. Instead, the bicycle business clarified the problem of controlling roll, and ultimately, flight. 

One evening in July 1899, alone in the cycle shop, Wilbur toyed with a rectangular bicycle inner-tube box, twisting it forward and backwards. The cardboard box performed the same motion as a bird in flight, and maintained stiffness, even when he twisted forcefully. Wilbur realized that by connecting the motion of a flying machine’s wings in relation to one another, twisting the axis of the wings in the same way a box twists or a bird flies, a pilot could control roll. This breakthrough, nicknamed “wing warping,” was the answer to controlled flight.

Testing Wing Lift with a Bicycle

The Wrights were now “fully afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man,” as Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute – a fellow aviation pioneer who would become a mentor. The brothers began testing with gliders. They asked the Weather Bureau where they might find optimal winds and discovered Kill Devil Hills, on the Atlantic Ocean near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The remote location offered privacy, open space, and plenty of soft sand on which to land. The seasonal nature of the bicycle business allowed the brothers to remain at Kitty Hawk for several weeks each year.

The Wrights shaped their wings based on calculations made by Lilienthal. The glider pioneer had created elaborate tables indicating just how much lift should be generated by a wing of a certain contour. Their first glider tests at Kitty Hawk, in 1900, were encouraging, but the wings did not produce as much lift as Lilienthal’s tables suggested. The Wrights returned in 1901 with larger wings, again shaped according to Lilienthal, but the new glider performed even worse. Disheartened, Wilbur exclaimed on the train ride home, “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!”

The Wrights began to question Lilienthal’s data, and sought to check it through a series of experiments in Dayton. They created a test apparatus by mounting a wheel horizontally across the handlebars of a bicycle.

Reproduction of Wright Brothers' Wind Tunnel inside Wright Cycle Shop, Greenfield Village, 1938

  Details

Reproduction of Wright Brothers' Wind Tunnel inside Wright Cycle Shop, Greenfield Village, 1938

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

When their glider did not perform as expected in 1901, Wilbur and Orville Wright determined that the standard lift tables -- used to predict the lift generated by aircraft wings -- were incorrect. The Wrights built a wind tunnel in their Dayton bicycle shop and calculated their own tables. This new data led directly to their success with the 1903 Wright Flyer.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

P.A.2620

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Reproduction of Wright Brothers' Wind Tunnel inside Wright Cycle Shop, Greenfield Village, 1938

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

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  Details

When the device did not act in accordance with Lilienthal’s data, the brothers knew they had found their culprit. The Wrights then built a wind tunnel consisting of a six-foot-long rectangular wooden box with a mechanized fan at one end, and a series of sensitive metal balances. Using model airfoils in the wind tunnel, Wilbur and Orville calculated their own lift tables. Their next glider, shaped by the new data, performed brilliantly at Kitty Hawk in 1902.

With control and lift solved, the Wrights turned to power. Though they had assumed that an adequate engine could be sourced “off the shelf” from an automaker, the Wrights could not find a satisfactory unit. Instead they worked with mechanic Charlie Taylor, whom they had hired to tend the cycle shop during their absences, to build a lightweight four-cylinder gasoline engine. With this final piece in place, the problems of lift, control, and propulsion were resolved.

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Pioneering Aviation

Wilbur Wright Flying at Hunaudieres Race Course, Le Mans, France, August 1908

  Details

Wilbur Wright Flying at Hunaudieres Race Course, Le Mans, France, August 1908

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Negative (Photograph)

Summary

Worried that rivals would steal their yet-to-be patented designs, the Wright brothers stopped flying publicly for nearly three years in late 1905. People began to doubt that the Wrights had ever flown. Skeptics were silenced in August 1908 when Wilbur Wright made a series of spectacular demonstration flights at Le Mans, France, achieving more distance and control than anyone else.

Place of Creation

France, Le Mans 

Object ID

2000.53.129

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Wilbur Wright Flying at Hunaudieres Race Course, Le Mans, France, August 1908

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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  Details

Near a quiet community on North Carolina’s outer banks, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright became the first man to fly. That first flight lasted just 12 seconds and covered 120 feet, but later that day, Wilbur flew for 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet.

The Wright brothers’ success was born out of years of painstaking work and attention to detail. Each problem they solved prepared them for the historic first flight. Like other innovators, the Wrights experienced their share of failures along the way, but they refused to let the setbacks stop them. With unfailing curiosity, methodical problem-solving, and perseverance through complications, the Wright brothers achieved what so many before them believed to be impossible.

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Artifacts Related to This StoryRelated Artifacts

Browse Collections

First Flight of Wright 1903 Flyer at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, December 17, 1903

  Details

First Flight of Wright 1903 Flyer at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, December 17, 1903

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

When John T. Daniels snapped the shutter on Orville Wright's camera, he captured one of the most significant images ever taken. The photo not only shows the moment of liftoff during the Wright brothers' first flight, but also the instant that heavier-than-air flight began. Daniels, a crewman at the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station, had never used a camera before.

Object ID

P.188.22016

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

First Flight of Wright 1903 Flyer at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, December 17, 1903

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Wright Home

Photographed by Michelle Andonian
  Details
Artifact

House

Date Made

1870

Summary

Though the Wright family moved around, brothers Wilbur and Orville always thought of this house, originally located at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio, as home. Orville was born here in 1871, and Wilbur died here in 1912. It was also here that the brothers began their serious studies in aviation -- work that led to their successful 1903 Wright Flyer.

Place of Creation

United States, Ohio, Dayton 

Object ID

38.820.1

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Greenfield Village
 On Exhibit

at Greenfield Village in Main Street District

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Portrait of Wilbur Wright as a Boy, 1878

  Details

Portrait of Wilbur Wright as a Boy, 1878

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Carte-de-visite (Card photograph)

Summary

Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867, near Millville, Indiana. He was a strong student until an ice hockey accident as a teenager sunk him into a depression. Ironically, his mother's failing health brought Wilbur out of his melancholy as he cared for her in her final years. Instead of college, Wilbur educated himself through his father's extensive library.

Object ID

62.167.2

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Portrait of Wilbur Wright as a Boy, 1878

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Portrait of Orville Wright as a Boy, 1878

  Details

Portrait of Orville Wright as a Boy, 1878

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Carte-de-visite (Card photograph)

Summary

Orville Wright was born on August 19, 1871, in the family house in Dayton, Ohio. In 1878 his father, a bishop who traveled frequently on church business, brought home a toy helicopter for Orville and his brother Wilbur. The Wright brothers later credited the toy with sparking their earliest interest in aviation.

Object ID

62.167.3

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Portrait of Orville Wright as a Boy, 1878

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Orville and Wilbur Wright at Their Home in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1910

  Details

Orville and Wilbur Wright at Their Home in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1910

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Wilbur and Orville Wright pose on the porch of the Wright family home in Dayton, Ohio. Neither of the brothers married or had children, and both continued to live with their father, Milton, and sister, Katharine. Without families of their own, the Wright brothers were free to devote increasing amounts of time and money to their aviation experiments.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

P.188.22519

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Orville and Wilbur Wright at Their Home in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1910

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Orville Wright, Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909

  Details

Orville Wright, Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Summary

Orville Wright and Katharine Wright joined their brother, Wilbur, in France in early 1909. Wilbur had completed a series of impressive demonstration flights the previous fall, and the three siblings were celebrated throughout the country as heroes. Despite all of the attention from monarchs, politicians and business titans, the Wrights remained unaffectedly true to their Midwestern modesty.

Creators

Unknown 

Object ID

P.188.20982

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Orville Wright, Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Wright Cycle Shop--Original Site--Exterior--Item 7

  Details

Wright Cycle Shop--Original Site--Exterior--Item 7

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Date Made

1936

Summary

Before moving the Wright Cycle Shop from Dayton, Ohio, to Greenfield Village in 1937, Henry Ford's agents found and took detailed photographs of the building's exterior. These photos helped the team to reassemble the structure in Dearborn. Orville Wright and Charlie Taylor, the mechanic who built the engine for the 1903 Flyer, also assisted to ensure the reconstruction's accuracy.

Object ID

P.B.94167

Credit

From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Related Objects

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Wright Cycle Shop--Original Site--Exterior--Item 7

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Discussion Questions

  • What or who motivated the Wright brothers to innovate?
  • What traits of an innovator did the Wright brothers illustrate?
  • Which of these traits do you think was most important to their success inventing the first flying machine?
  • Do you think you could solve transportation problems of today with some of the same approaches made famous by the Wright brothers? What transportation problem would you want to solve?
  • Do you think you can be an innovator like the Wright brothers? Why or why not?

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