Today, we think about first airplanes. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
This Christmas, my wife gave me a
model of the Wright Brother's first airplane. I assembled
it on the dining-room table, launched it, and it really
flew. Now we near the hundredth
anniversary of Kitty Hawk and I'm rereading How We
Invented the Airplane by Orville Wright. Written as
a court deposition in 1920, it was annotated and
published by historian Fred Kelly after Orville's death.
It opens a fine window into the genesis of the airplane.
For years I've heard from people championing other
airplane inventors. But as you pursue claims from
California, Texas, Connecticut,
they all blur into badly documented flights that led
nowhere. Brazil credits Santos Dumont who built an
airplane independently three years after the Wrights.
Long after Kitty Hawk the Smithsonian Institution, which
had funded Langley's two failed
attempts at flight, still called him the
inventor of the airplane.
But the Wright Brothers systematically built and
documented a long series of controllable kites, gliders,
and powered aircraft. They did their own wind-tunnel
studies. Orville's article calls out a parade of prior
workers: Leonardo, Cayley, Maxim, Bell, Lilienthal, Langley,
Chanute, and many more. He knew
perfectly well they hadn't been working in a vacuum.
They'd been one in a series, perhaps the last in the
series, of the people who'd brought the airplane into
To pilot the first Wright airplane, you lay on the bottom
wing, looking out between the two horizontal stabilizers
in front. Two side-by-side rudders were mounted in the
rear. Two propellers, behind the wings, pushed the
machine through the air. To guide the airplane in flight,
the Wrights used a system of pulleys to control the
rudders and warp the wings. (Moveable ailerons had to
wait three years for Santos Dumont.)
The Wrights made four flights on December 17, 1903. Then
they went back to Ohio to build a better airplane. During
the next two years, they made a hundred and fifty eight
flights. They were eventually staying aloft for over half
an hour. Now the pilot was seated, and they'd added a
During 1906 and
1907, they only built, they didn't fly. They dickered
with the US Army and foreign buyers. They couldn't
convince the Army that flight was really possible until
1908. Then the Army finally signed a contract for the
first military airplane.
While the who-was-first question wrongly dogs
invention, the Wright Brothers justly do wear a crown --
but not for defining the instant when the airplane
appeared. There are no such instants -- not for the light
bulb, not for the computer, not for flight.
Both Wright Brothers had been serious tinkerers and
builders from earliest childhood. And they'd first been
drawn to flight in 1895. They began serious work on the
airplane in 1899 and, ten years later, they were selling
commercial airplanes in Europe and America. It was a very
long haul and they were in it -- all the way from the
dream, to the marketplace.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.