Ethics & Religion
August 18, 2016
Wright Brothers - Who Persevered
By Mike McManus
Wilbur and Orville Wright were sons of a bishop who impressed them with
the importance of "courage and good character, worthy purpose and
perseverance." Their home had no indoor plumbing or electricity, but a
While still in high school, Orville began publishing a newspaper in a
print shop in the backyard. One article was on the 1889 death of their
mother. By 1893 they closed the paper but opened a bicycle business and
actually manufactured the popular item, earning a good living.
At age 25 Orville was struck by typhoid fever that hit 105 degrees,
leaving him close to death. It was a month before he could sit up in
bed. During this time he began reading about the German glider
enthusiast, Otto Lilienthal, who had designed, built and flew a dozen
They had wings like a bird, made of muslin stretched over a frame of
willow. He hung below. He went to steep hills, where he ran down a slope
into the wind, lifting him off the ground. Lilienthal had himself
photographed in action, as the daring "Flying Man" which appeared
worldwide. Unfortunately, he died on one flight.
Reading about Lilienthal aroused an intense interest in the brothers.
After reading books about flight, Wilbur wrote "One of the most
important letters of his life," according to David McCullough's
absorbing recent book, "The Wright Brothers."
Wilbur told the Smithsonian Institution, "I wish to avail myself of all
that is already known" about human flight. He was given a list of many
That motivated the brothers to design and build their own experimental
glider kite in 1899. Made of split bamboo and paper with a wingspan of
five feet, it had two wings for greater stability, and cords so an
operator on the ground could control wing warping. It worked to a
degree, but the brothers realized the time had come to work on a
What was needed was a place with steady, substantial winds. They wrote
the U.S. Weather Bureau and were advised the best place was the Outer
Banks of North Carolina. They built a full-sized glider with a 17 foot
wingspan, packed it up and shipped it to North Carolina.
The glider had to be dragged four miles to Kill Devil Hills. In
mid-October, 1900 Wilbur enjoyed flights of 300-400 feet, hitting speeds
of 30 miles an hour. But the next summer, the glider nosed straight into
the ground only a few feet from where it started. The curvature of the
wings was too great and had to be changed.
Back in Dayton they devised and built a small-scale wind tunnel - a
remarkable innovation used today. Theirs was a wooden box 6 feet long,
with a fan at one end run by a gasoline engine, since they had no
For two months the brothers tested 38 different wing surfaces made of
hacksaw blades hammered into a variety of shapes. It was a slow tedious
process, but they learned how to build wings that would fly.
That led to a new design with wings 32 feet long. They made 50 glides in
three days. Orville proposed that the rear rudder be hinged and linked
to the wing warping. That so improved the glider's control, they flew
"They knew they had solved the problem of flight" and "acquired the
knowledge and skill to fly." wrote McCullough. "Now they only had to
build a motor."
They did so, and took their first flight on December 17, 1903, and had
it photographed to document it.
Their pioneering changed world history. But not immediately.
They designed a catapult to enable their plane to take off without a
headwind. When they flew it in Dayton, the local newspaper refused to
cover the story.
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote President Theodore Roosevelt urging the
U.S. Government to consider support. It did not.
However, the French Government showed interest if flight were
demonstrated. Flights in France were covered by an amazed press.
"MARVELOUS PERFORMANCE" read one headline. On one flight Wilbur flew for
91 minutes, a record. He landed a contract.
A new version of their plane allowed the pilot to sit in a chair, rather
than lie flat, and to take a passenger. However, on one flight the
propeller broke and the plane crashed straight down from a height of 125
feet. A passenger was killed and Orville suffered a broken hip, leg and
four ribs. His sister nursed him back to health.
Their perseverance overcame many setbacks.
Norman Cousins once wrote, "Optimism doesn't wait on facts. It deals
with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time."
Overview of the Wright Brothers Invention Process
The Wright Brothers: Inventing a Flying Machine
Copyright (c) 2016 Michel J. McManus,
President of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist. For previous
columns go to
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