Orville and Wilbur Wright
PEOPLE have always had a desire to fly. There is an old Greek story of Daedalus, who made wings of wax, with which he and his son Icarus tried to fly over the sea. Daedalus told Icarus not to go near the sun, lest his wings should melt. Icarus was a knowing youth. He ventured too near the sun, his wax wings melted and dropped off, and he fell into the sea and was drowned.
There is also the familiar story of an American boy, named Darius Green, who tried to fly. Said Darius to himself:
Darius was, however, no more successful than Icarus of old, though he did escape the fate of Icarus, falling in his father's barnyard.
The first man who tried seriously to learn how to fly was a German named Lilienthal. He built a wing-shaped machine. With this fastened securely under his arms, he would make a running start and glide from the top of high hills or tall buildings. He thus worked for five years, studying how to master air currents and the difficulties of flight; but he never succeeded in floating more than a few minutes at a time. One day, when floating about fifty feet from the ground, his queer machine was caught by a sudden gust of wind, which hurled it to the ground, killing Lilienthal.
Another pioneer of aerial flight was an American, Professor Langley, of the Smithsonian Institution. Although he gave the latter years of his life to the study of this subject, and actually constructed a power-driven machine, he never succeeded in flying more than three quarters of a mile at any one time.
Professor Langley's experiments, however, attracted much attention, and French and English scientists with the finest technical training began to work on the problem of aerial navigation. But the first to succeed in flying in a heavier-than-air, power-driven machine were two American young men, with only a high school education, with no scientific training, and with very little money to carry on their work,—the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur.
The Wright brothers were born at Dayton, Ohio. They were always interested in mechanical things, and owned and conducted a successful shop for the repair of bicycles. Their attention was first called to the flying machine by reading, in 1896, of the death of Lilienthal. They began to work on a flying machine as a mere matter of sport.
They had no money to spend on experiments, nor did they care to risk their lives in trying to fly before they knew how. Accordingly they spent much time in watching birds fly, and in discussing the principles of flight. They read all the books they could find on the subject, and studied all the different flying machines that had been made.
The first flying craft constructed by the Wright brothers—and they always made their own machines—was a glider, which they flew like a kite. It was controlled by levers worked from the ground by ropes. They were thus able to study the principles of flight, and how to control a flying machine suspended in the air.
Their next machine was a man-carrying glider, which they used, much as Lilienthal had done, to glide in the air from high hills. It was easy enough to glide along on the air, but it was very difficult to balance the glider and to control its course. In order to experiment safely, they went in 1900 to a secluded place in North Carolina, where there were high sand hills which offered good opportunities for gliding, and a soft place on which to light, should they fall. During the next two years, they made about a thousand gliding flights, some of these as much as six hundred feet long.
Their next step was to find a way to propel the glider. During 1903 they were busy on a suitable gasoline motor, but it was not until December that they were ready for their first attempt to fly in a motor-propelled machine. For the trial trip, they went again to the secluded place in North Carolina. The brothers were confident that their machine would fly, but they made no predictions, and had little to say.
"The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was, nevertheless, the first in the history of the world, in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked. The second and third flights (the same day) were a little longer, and the fourth lasted fifty-nine seconds, covering a distance of eight hundred and thirty-five feet over the ground against a twenty-mile wind."
What had started as a sport, thus developed with the Wright brothers into a serious scientific study. By 1905, they had so mastered the motor that they were able to make a flight of twenty-four miles, at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour. Up to this time they had worked in comparative quiet, and without being written up in the newspapers and magazines. But their long flights now began to attract the attention of the world.
In 1908, Wilbur took a machine to France. The French newspapers printed cartoons of him, with a long neck, a beak, and talons for fingers; they also made fun of his shabby-looking machine. Nevertheless, this same Wilbur was not long in breaking the world's record, with a flight of fifty-two miles, being in the air ninety-one minutes. A few days later he won a prize of twenty thousand francs. In addition to this, the French government soon afterwards gave the Wrights an order for thirty machines.
At the very time that Wilbur was breaking world records and winning prizes in France, Orville was making famous flights at Fort Myer, Virginia, flying for more than an hour at a time, and repeatedly ascending with a passenger.
The summer of 1909 witnessed the greatest triumphs in aerial navigation. Bleriot, a Frenchman, crossed the English Channel in his monoplane. Soon afterwards, Zeppelin sailed two hundred and twenty miles in his dirigible balloon, and Orville Wright carried a passenger from Fort Myer to a point in North Carolina. An American airplane, the NC-4, was the first flyer to cross the ocean, in 1919. The English dirigible R-34 accomplished a like feat a few weeks later.
Air craft are now a regular part of the equipment of all armies, and airmen are able to perform almost unbelievable feats as army scouts.
There is something thrilling about riding in a flying machine and making a highway of the air. But the first successful air craft was perfected, as we have seen, by the Wright Brothers, two unromantic Americans who never allowed themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm. They never talked about themselves or boasted about what they were going to do. They avoided notoriety and claimed no genius for themselves, yet their silent and persistent work counted in the end, and they are sure of a place of honor in the history of aerial navigation.