Mankind has dreamed of flying for centuries. However, it wasn’t until 1903 that a pair of brothers solved the impossible mystery of a heavier-than-air flight. And what’s more, they managed to do it with little to no scientific education on the matter!
So, how did this dynamic duo of ordinary bicycle mechanics design the first successful flying machine? We’ll discuss it in this post. Plus, the many hands-on resources we have available for teaching kids about the history of flight and the exciting, life-changing invention that would define the 20th century.
The History of Flight
Man’s fascination with flight is somewhat murky. However, we can clearly trace the idea of flying as far back as the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, where he and his father attempted to fly off the island of Crete by constructing wings made of feathers and wax.
As history progressed, many great empires tried their hand at flying contraptions, with China being credited for making the first kite, as well as sky lanterns and hot air balloons, which would later give birth to airships and zeppelins.
Over time, many inventors tried creating devices that would help man fly – whether it was a pair of bird-like wings to slip on each arm or a powered flying machine. However, there continued to be one problem stopping their inventions from being successful: heavier-than-air flight.
Who Were the Wright Brothers?
When it comes to famous American inventors, the Wright brothers are, without a doubt, at the top of the list. Their incredible accomplishment left many people wondering how two men who never graduated from high school managed to solve the complex problem of human flight.
It’s important to take some time to get to know the Wright brothers’ background and how they ended up where they did – mainly since much of their success stems from their childhood.
Wilbur (1867) and Orville (1871) Wright were born under the roof of Milton Wright, a minister who instilled in his children a love of intellectual pursuits. Their mother, Susan, had a considerable amount of knowledge for a woman of her day when it came to mechanics.
The boys’ love for inventing is said to be credited to their mother, who left everyone stunned with her DIY appliances and toys. As the boys grew older and worked on projects together, they would often look to their mother for mechanical advice.
Wilbur and Orville were the closest of the seven Wright children. Despite their very different personalities, the two complemented each other’s weaknesses perfectly, which would later come in handy as they studied aerodynamics and built their first airplane.
Their father sparked their interest in flight in 1878 when he brought home a helicopter toy that used a rubber band for taking off. The boys were so intrigued with the toy that they recreated it in various sizes and drew sketches of it.
As the boys grew older, they became fascinated with bicycles and opened their first business selling, repairing, and manufacturing bikes. Although business was going well, the brothers continued to be distracted by the idea of flight.
Around 1896, Wilbur and Orville began to take an interest in the accounts of flying machines. The brothers made the connection that many of these aircraft lacked a solid control system. Similar to a person on a bicycle, an aircraft needed a pilot to balance the machine properly.
With the cycling business being so lucrative, the brothers decided to invest in a new invention. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian requesting all of the literature available on the subject. They spent the next four years conducting research and developing theories and prototypes for a flying machine.
The Wright Brothers’ First Flight
On September 18, 1901, the brothers went to Chicago for a meeting with a group of engineers to discuss the construction of flying machines and why they hadn’t succeeded thus far.
They mentioned the importance of lateral control and how they believed this could be accomplished by shaping the wings and their pressure. By warping the plane’s wings, the machine could roll right or left, helping maintain a stable ride.
From here, the brothers tested their theory of wing-warping on a 5-foot biplane kite. Their kite proved to be successful. However, it didn’t take long before the brothers realized their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, wasn’t suitable for flying due to the lack of wind.
After writing to the National Weather Bureau requesting the windiest locations on the east coast, they found a place where the winds were strong, and the sand could act as a cushion in the event of a crash.
The answer was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The Wright Brothers’ First Flight Ever at Kitty Hawk
Once the brothers’ full-size piloted glider was finished, they headed to Kitty Hawk in 1900 for a trial test. The outcome proved to be successful. However, the poor performance lift wasn’t anything to celebrate just yet.
They returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 to test their new and improved glider, which had larger wings and other modifications. Unfortunately, the new glider performed even worse than the first and still lacked the lift and control they were looking to achieve.
Feeling discouraged, the brothers went back to the drawing board during the winter of 1901-1902. After testing equations and reviewing the data, they decided to put together another glider hoping that they could fix the issues – especially the plane’s problem with control.
With some modifications to the rudder, the brothers managed to build a three-dimensional control system. This design had never been done before and would become a crucial feature for future flying machines.
In 1902, Wilbur and Orville headed back to Kitty Hawk and successfully tested what the world would consider the first fully controllable aircraft.
A year later, they added a gasoline engine to propel the machine. After successfully testing this new model, the brothers, without a doubt, accomplished the impossible – human flight and the world’s first powered airplane.
They would name the plane “Wright Flyer.”
The Wright Brothers’ Success and Beyond
The plane needed some fine-tuning over the years, but by 1905, their aircraft made figure-eights in the sky and flew for more than half an hour. Confident in their invention, the brothers set out for a patent on their design.
Wilbur and Orville marketed their practical plane all across Europe and America. However, many people were still off-put by the idea of human flight – not to mention the inventors were two ordinary bicycle mechanics without a degree.
Their persistence finally paid off, and by WWI, the U.S. Army was using the Wright brothers’ plane in combat. The brothers opened their own business, the Wright Company. However, most of their money was made by audiences paying to watch pilots fly higher and faster.
Unfortunately, the aircraft business wasn’t treating them well and proved to be dangerous. Many pilots were dying trying to defy the odds, and Orville even found himself in a severe crash in which his passenger died.
To add to this stress, the brothers were dealing with legal problems in the courtroom. Other inventors were recreating their designs and selling new and improved airplanes. By 1911, the Wright brothers’ first airplane was no longer the best on the market.
In 1912, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 45. After his brother’s death, Orville lost interest in the airplane business and sold the company. He decided to go back to doing what he did best – inventing.
Teaching Your Kids About the Wright Brothers
As you can see, the Wright brothers led quite an exciting life. In a relatively short amount of time, they managed to change the world with their invention and accomplish man’s seemingly impossible dream of flying.
Teaching your children about the Wright brothers and their journey can be an exciting subject to learn about. Their story teaches the value of persistence and hard work and to never count someone out based on their educational background.
We cover the Wright Brothers in our Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression study. One of our projects includes a hands-on flipbook of the brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk and a really neat 3D paper airplane of their Wright Flyer. We also cover the dynamic duo in our timeline figures.
To learn more about why we recommend using timeline figures in your history studies, read our blog post, Teaching with Timelines.
Soar Into the Study of Airplanes!
We hope you enjoyed learning about the Wright brothers’ history and how they came to invent the world’s first successful airplane.
This exciting moment in history is a great way to kick off your studies on airplanes – especially since it only keeps getting better from here – from new and improved innovations to the race to achieve flying records.
To add to your studies on airplanes, be sure to check out our article on the history of Amelia Earhart, America’s famous female aviator!