On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the 1903 Wright Flyer became the first
powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.
It flew forward without losing speed and landed at a point as high as that from which it started.
With Orville Wright as pilot, the airplane took off from a launching rail and flew for
12 seconds and a distance of 120 feet. The airplane was flown three more times that day, with
Orville and his brother Wilbur alternating as pilot. The longest flight, with Wilbur at the
controls, was 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds.
The brothers were ambivalent about how much to tell the world of their breakthrough achievement,
but after eating lunch, they walked four miles to the Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, weather station
and sent this telegram to their father, instructing him to "inform press." The message went from
this station to Norfolk, Virginia, where it was relayed to Western Union for transmittal to
Dayton, Ohio. In transmission the fifty-nine seconds became fifty-seven, and Orville Wright's
first name was spelled "Orevelle."
The difference between the Wright Brothers and other people who were trying to invent a
heavier than air flying machine was that the Wright Brothers understood that since flight
involved so many variables, such as the shape of the wing, the shape of the rudder, the strength
of the materials etc. that they had to find a way to test each design component as much as
possible in isolation without changing the others.
Planes and gliders were so expensive to build, that previous inventors would change more
than one component looking for the magic formula, but since there were so many variables,
they could never tell what they were doing right and what they were doing wrong. The Wright
Brothers constructed a wind tunnel which allowed them to test their designs many times over,
changing only one or two components. The Wright Brothers learned from each failure.
Another major difference between the Wrights and their contemporaries was their concept
of learning how to fly a controllable machine first, then adding power to sustain it. This
obvious and sequential process was adopted in part from the method of Otto Lillenthal of Germany.
To accomplish this the Wright Brothers first attempted to avail themselves of the existing
knowledge of flight, corresponding with enthusiasts from many countries as well as Octave
Chanute, a successful railroad engineer and gliding experimenter from Chicago. After the
success of the Wrights initial gliding experiments, Octave Chanute invited Wilbur to deliver
a paper to the Western Society of Engineers located in Chicago while he was president of the
After thousands of glider flights the Wright Brothers had perfected an airframe design
and were ready to mount an engine to sustain flight. Along with Charles Taylor their mechanic,
they designed and built their own lightweight engine and successfully made the first heavier
than air man carrying powered flights on December 17, 1903, just 100 years ago.
Many people didn't believe that two unknown bicycle mechanics from the heartland of America
had succeeded where all of the experts had failed. It was therefore hard for the Wright Brothers
to gain recognition as the inventors of the air plane. They patented the important components of
their design and eventually gained the recognition they deserved.
The Wright Brothers made the first plane used by the U.S. Army, exceeding the government's
specifications for a plane that would travel forty miles per hour and stay aloft for one hour.
Many people used their designs without paying the patent fees and the Wright Brothers were
involved in prolonged patent litigation against large airplane manufacturers. The Government
forced a settlement during the First World War so that the dispute would not get in the way
of aircraft production.
Chicago and The Wright Brothers
Chicagoland can be justly proud of its place in creating and building aviation.
Octave Chanute, Chicago resident, a successful railroad engineer and an early pioneer in
aviation, built and flew gliders of his own design in the nearby Indiana Dunes. He was an early
and frequent correspondent with Wilbur Wright owing to his reputation as the pre-eminent aviation
authority in the United States. He assisted Wilbur in obtaining scientific papers on flight, and
in wing design (the wing truss system known as the Pratt Truss was a common way to make strong
railroad bridges of light weight).
As President of the Western Society of Engineers, Chanute, along with McCormick and others
formed an aviation association that had a long history of promoting aviation ultimately leading
to the formation of such well known airfields as Midway Airport, Orchard Field (now O'Hare airport)
and numerous general aviation airfields in the Chicago area.