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“A Machine of Practical Utility”

June 2024
3min read

While lauded for their 1903 flight, the Wright brothers were not convinced of their airplane’s reliability to sustain long, controlled flights until October 1905

On the morning of October 5, 1905, Amos Stauffer and a field hand were cutting corn when the distinctive clatter and pop of an engine and propellers drifted over from the neighboring pasture. The Wright boys, Stauffer knew, were at it again. Glancing up, he saw the flying machine rise above the heads of the dozen or so spectators gathered along the fence separating the two fields. The machine drifted toward the crowd, then sank back to earth in a gentle arc. The first flight of the day was over in less than 40 seconds.

By the time Stauffer and his helper had worked their way up to the fence line, the airplane was back in the air and had already completed four or five elliptical sweeps around the field, flying just above the level of the treetops to the north and west. “The durned thing was still going around,” Stauffer recalled later. “I thought it would never stop.” It finally landed 40 minutes after takeoff, having flown some 24 miles and circled the field 29 times.

Farmer Stauffer had been watching the goings-on in that Ohio cow pasture for two years, but he had never seen anything like this. Neither had anyone else. The 1905 Wright Flyer was the final link in an evolutionary chain of seven experimental aircraft: one kite (1899); three piloted gliders (1900, 1901, 1902); and three powered airplanes (1903, 1904, 1905). Each machine was a distillation of the lessons learned and the experience gained with its predecessors. The flight of October 5, 1905, was proof that the Wrights had achieved their goal of developing an aircraft that could be flown reliably over significant distances under the pilot’s complete control. Six years of trial and error, discouragement and hope, disappointment and exhilaration, risk to life and limb, and brilliant engineering effort had ended in triumph.

Over a century later, the basic question remains. Why Wilbur and Orville? When the brothers began their aeronautical research in the spring of 1899, they seemed unlikely candidates to achieve the age-old dream of navigating the air. They were not college-educated men. Wilbur, 31, and Orville, 28, were living in their father’s house while operating a neighborhood bicycle sales and repair shop, where they had just begun to build cycles, one at a time.

Yet these two apparently ordinary small businessmen were intuitive engineers, possessed of unusual talents, insights, and skills that perfectly suited them to the problem at hand. They had an instinctive grasp of the process of innovation—and a rare ability to imagine a machine that had yet to be built and to visualize how it would function. They could move from the abstract to the concrete with relative ease, as in the fall of 1901, when they designed a pair of wind-tunnel balances as mechanical analogues of the algebraic equations they had to apply to calculate the performance of the aircraft they were designing.

The passion that the brothers brought to solving difficult technical problems was another essential key to their success. It was what got them up in the morning and kept them going when the difficulties seemed impossibly daunting. “Isn’t it astounding,” Orville wrote to a friend in 1903, “that all of these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!!”

The 1905 Wright Flyer was the final link in an evolutionary chain of seven experimental aircraft

Their first taste of success came on the morning of December 17, 1903, with four powered and controlled flights made on the sand flats south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they had flown, the Wrights realized that their best flight of the day, 872 feet in 59 seconds, would not sound impressive to a world that had waited millennia for a flying machine.

Determined to solve the remaining problems, they transferred operations to a borrowed cow pasture eight miles east of their home in Dayton, where they flew for the next two years with scarcely anyone noticing. Without the steady winds and the long, sandy slopes of the Outer Banks, however, progress was slow. Finally learning to catapult themselves to flying speed, they began to stretch their time in the air, improve the design of their aircraft, and build their piloting skills.

As their flights grew ever longer in September and October 1905, local citizens and area journalists finally realized that something extraordinary was taking place in the sky over Torrence Huffman’s pasture. Satisfied, the Wrights decided to stop flying altogether, worried that public demonstrations would reveal too much of their technology to potential rivals. They did not fly again until the spring of 1908, by which time they had a valid patent and contracts in hand for the sale of their machine. That August Wilbur stunned Europeans with his first public flights at the Hunaudières racetrack near Le Mans, France. A month later Orville demonstrated their machine to U.S. Army authorities at Fort Myer, Virginia.

Doubts about the Wright claims that had circulated during the years they had spent on the ground were immediately swept away. Wilbur and Orville Wright emerged as two of the first heroes of the new century. They were the inventors of the airplane in a much truer sense than Alexander Graham Bell can be said to have invented the telephone or Thomas Edison the motion picture.

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