The Early History of the Airplane

"The Early History of the Airplane", by Orville and Wilbur Wright (The Project Gutenberg).

“The Early History of the Airplane”, by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Few weeks ago I read “The Early History of the Airplane”, by Orville and Wilbur Wright (find it in The Project Gutenberg). It is a short book or rather a compilation of 3 articles by the brothers (30 pages in the e-reader version I used). The 3 articles are:

  1. The Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane, by Orville and Wilbur Wright.
  2. How We Made the First Flight, by Orville Wright.
  3. Some Aeronautical Experiments, by Wilbur Wright.

In these articles they provide some insight into how they became attracted to the problem of heavier-than-air self-powered controlled flight, what were the difficulties they faced, what schools of thought there were at the moment (1), who influenced them, what results and experiments from others they relied upon, the experiments they performed, the results at which they arrived… and, yes, they describe their first and subsequent flights.

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the field or the historic event, with the sole warning that the book sometimes goes a bit on the technical side (though nothing that cannot be endured for just 30 pages!).

Let me share some passages of the book to offer some insight into the quest:

“[…] yet we saw that the calculations upon which all flying machines had been based were unreliable, and that all were simply groping in the dark. Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations. Truth and error were everywhere so intimately mixed as to be undistinguishable. Nevertheless, the time expended in preliminary study of books was not misspent, for they gave us a good general understanding of the subject, and enabled us at the outset to avoid effort in many directions in which results would have been hopeless.”

We have to bear in mind that the problem was yet to be solved, they were exploring uncharted territory… what route to take?

“To work intelligently, one needs to know the effects of a multitude of variations that could be incorporated in the surfaces of flying machines. The pressures on squares are different from those on rectangles, circles, triangles, or ellipses; arched surfaces differ from planes, and vary among themselves according to the depth of curvature; true arcs differ from parabolas, and the latter differ among themselves; thick surfaces differ from thin, and surfaces thicker in one place than another vary in pressure when the positions of maximum thickness are different; some surfaces are most efficient at one angle, others at other angles. The shape of the edge also makes a difference, so that thousands of combinations are possible in so simple a thing as a wing.

We had taken up aeronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper. […]”

On the other hand, one may think that after all combustion engines were already in use in cars, propellers were used in ships…

We had thought of getting the theory of the screw-propeller from the marine engineers, and then, by applying our tables of air-pressures to their formulas, of designing air-propellers suitable for our purpose. But so far as we could learn, the marine engineers possessed only empirical formulas, and the exact action of the screw-propeller, after a century of use, was still very obscure. As we were not in a position to undertake a long series of practical experiments to discover a propeller suitable for our machine, it seemed necessary to obtain such a thorough understanding of the theory of its reactions as would enable us to design them from calculations alone. What at first seemed a problem became more complex the longer we studied it. With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sidewise, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting-point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions. Contemplation of it was confusing. After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other’s side, with no more agreement than when the discussion began.”

Nevertheless, they managed to overcome all those difficulties in just 2 years…

“The first flights with the power machine were made on December 17, 1903. Only five persons besides ourselves were present. These were Messrs. John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, and A. D. Etheridge, of the Kill Devil Life-Saving Station; Mr. W. C. Brinkley, of Manteo; and Mr. John Ward, of Naghead. Although a general invitation had been extended to the people living within five or six miles, not many were willing to face the rigors of a cold December wind in order to see, as they no doubt thought, another flying machine not fly. […]”

… but it flew!

These are all excerpts from only the first of the three articles included in the book. There are many more things for you to discover in the book about the engine constraints, the control and stability of the machine, the position of the pilot, the rail system used for the take-off run

(1) The two schools being distinguished by at which side of the problem they dedicated the attention: power flight (Langley, Maxim) versus soaring flight (Lilienthal, Mouillard and Chanute).

NOTE: For enthusiasts of aviation history, some other books or studies the brothers went through:

  • “Bird Flight the Basis of the Flying Art” and articles by Otto Lilienthal.
  • “Empire of the Air”, Louis Pierre Mouillard.
  • “Progress in Flying Machines”, Octave Chanute.
  • “Experiments in Aerodynamics”, by Samuel Pierpont Langley.


Filed under Aerospace & Defence, Books

2 responses to “The Early History of the Airplane

  1. Pingback: My 2014 reading list | The Blog by Javier

  2. Pingback: Summary of (my) 2014 | The Blog by Javier

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