Tag Archives: 1903

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

Was Orville Wright’s the first flight ever?

Last Monday, December 17, it was 109 years since the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. However, there was some skepticism in Europe about the flight. I had already read about that skepticism in the book “The Airplane: How ideas gave us wings“(1) (by Jay Spencer (2))

In the book, the reader gets the idea of the skepticism, of how in France there was also a race for performing the first flight and how it was not until the Wright brothers flew in Europe years later (1908) that people got convinced of that first flight in 1903. When I read about that, the idea that came to my mind was French chauvinism.

Let me now start connecting the dots…

Flyer I (picture by 350z33, available at Wikimedia)

  • Visiting the National Air & Space Museum, in Washington D.C., you could see a real scale Flyer I, the aircraft with which the brothers first flew. When you see the aircraft you first notice that the surface controls are at the front of the airplane, or that the airplane has no independent ailerons but the wing is bent at the tip…
  • Reading the book “The Airplane” there is chapter dedicated to the evolution of each configuration item of the aircraft. One of them is dedicated to the landing gear. In relation to the Flyer…

[…] European experimenters put the Wrights to shame by adopting wheeled undercarriages from the outset. The Wrights stuck with skids far too long, perhaps because they viewed their airplanes as scientific proof-of-concept vehicles first and practical machines second.

  • Last summer, when we visited the Aviodrome (3) museum in The Netherlands, we found another Flyer model of the Wrights. This one was a bit more complete: it showed the skids and how the airplane was propelled into the air thanks to a system composed of rails and a kind of catapult.
  • Finally, when reading about French aviation pioneers for the previous post in this blog, I got to read in the Wikipedia article about the Brazilian residing in France Santos-Dumont the following passage:

The Wrights used a launching rail for their 1903 flights and a launch catapult for their 1904 and 1905 machines, while the aircraft of Santos-Dumont and other Europeans had wheeled undercarriages. The Wright Brothers continued to use skids, which necessitated the use of a dolly running on a track. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France in 1905 to verify aviation records, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Supporters of Santos-Dumont maintain that this means the 14-bis was, technically, the first successful fixed-wing aircraft.

Thus, it was not just simple French chauvinism as the more simple explanation given either in “The Airplane” or Wikipedia article about the Wright brothers may point to, but there was at the time a discussion about the way in which the aircraft were indeed propelled into the air. That is a legitimate discussion, not chauvinism. (4)

Since I am not invested in either position, to me the first flight will always be the generally accepted of Orville Wright on December 17, 1903. That is the one I celebrate (see tweet below). However, you can see how sometimes to get a clearer picture and connect some dots it takes visiting 2 museums in DC and The Netherlands, reading a book and serendipity researching in the Wikipedia. 🙂

(1) “The Airplane” is a terrific book of which one day I hope to write a review. By the way I purchased the book at Boeing HQ in Chicago almost 2 years ago.

(2) Jay Spencer is also coauthor of “747” another great aviation book of which I wrote a review here.

(3) Aviodrome is a great museum north of Amsterdam, at the height of the Smithsonian institution National Air & Space Museum… if only it had free entrance as well. I will have to write about this museum too.

(4) That same federation did not accept as a first flight one made by the French Clément Ader in 1890, because it was an un-controlled flight.


Filed under Aerospace & Defence