Throwback Thursday: The Wright brothers, fathers of modern aviation

“It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.” This is something Wilbur Wright said almost a hundred years ago, but that still stands true. Wilbur Wright, with his brother Orville Wright, developed the first successful airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and together they are considered the fathers of modern aviation.

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Born four years apart—Wilbur Wright in 1867 and Orville Wright in 1871—to Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Koerner, they were playmates and shared an intellectual curiosity with an aptitude for science. They grew up in a small town in Ohio and were inseparable until the death of Wilbur in 1912. Their personalities were perfectly complementary: Where Wilbur was studious, more mature in his judgments, and more likely to see a project through, Orville was full of ideas and enthusiasm.

Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop of the United Brethren and for his preaching he had to travel. From one of his travels, he brought back a small model helicopter for his boys. Made of cork, bamboo, and paper, and powered by a rubber band to twirl its blades, the model was based on a design by the French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. This was the start of the lifelong love of aeronautics and flying for the Wright brothers.

In later years, around 1891, the exploits of one of the great glider pilots and famous aeronautical engineer of the late nineteenth century, Otto Lilienthal, had attracted the attention of the Wright brothers. After Lilienthal’s death in a glider crash in 1896, the two brothers became interested in gliding experiments and decided to educate themselves in the theory and state of the art of flying. They moved to Kitty Hawk, known for its strong winds, to start their own experiments with flight.

Upon observing the birds of Kitty Hawk in flight, they found that they angled their wings for balance and control. The brothers tried to emulate this to develop a concept called “wing warping.” They added a movable rudder, and on December 17, 1903, they succeeded in the first free, controlled flight of a power-driven, heavier-than-air plane. Wilbur was the one who flew the plane for 59 seconds, at 852 feet, which was a remarkable achievement. But this achievement of the Wright brothers was not appreciated. In fact, the press, as well as their fellow flight experts, were not willing to believe them.

Wilbur moved to Europe in 1908, in search of success. It was in France that Wilbur found a much more welcoming audience. There he made a lot of public flights, and flew officials, journalists, and statesmen. And after a year, Orville joined Wilbur in Europe, along with their younger sister Katharine.

The Wright brothers became huge celebrities in Europe, hosted by royals and heads of state, and were constantly featured in the press. They began to sell their airplanes in Europe and became wealthy businessmen, filling contracts for airplanes in both Europe and the United States.

Neither Wilbur nor Orville had any formal education. It was through their curiosity that they found modern aviation.

If you know about any other famous personalities in manufacturing, let us know.

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