Wilbur and Orville Wright didn’t care much for attention. The inventors of the plane became instant international celebrities after they demonstrated their machine publicly. They were watched by thousands of people as they flew into the air.

A worldwide search for information about self-made engineers was a constant struggle by the general public. Was that what they were like? Was that what they were doing? What were they doing?

The fame that the Wright brothers sought was not for them. Some of the information spread about them was incorrect, and they disliked the media’s sometimes-not-so-flattering caricatures of them. Still, they wanted to preserve their legacy—a prudent pursuit, as more than a century later, the pair’s story continues to captivate the public.

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With 32-year-old Orville Wright at the controls and lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle, which operated the wing-warping mechanism, history was made December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk. On the ground is Wilbur Wright, who ran alongside holding the wing to help balance the aircraft before takeoff. 

John T. Daniels LOC via Wikimedia

Now, their lives and achievements are back on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space MuseumThe building is undergoing a major renovation and reopened on October 14. The Ausstellung “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age,”It is the famous Wright Flyer, which you can see right in front of your eyes.

The 1903 airplane has charisma, says the museum’s Peter JakabSenior curator and expert on Wrights, Jakab says that people tend to become silent when they view the wooden-and-fabric aircraft that made history by completing the sustained flight. “People often recognize that they’re standing in front of something special.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention

In 1948—45 years to the day after that flight—the Flyer went on view at the Smithsonian. British Ambassador Oliver Franks was present at the ceremony. : “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”

While it might sound nice to say the Wrights were born inventors and geniuses who had always been drawn to aeronautics, that’s not really the case. The brothers experienced many setbacks in their youth growing up in the Midwest. They were able to achieve their goals through ingenuity and initiative. “These two people, working largely on their own, created something that profoundly changed the world,” Jakab says.

Printing and bicycle-makers

Wilbur Wright, child photo, 1876

Wilbur Wright in c.1876, 

LOC from Wikimedia

Orville Wright, 1876

Orville Wright, c. 1876

LOC from Wikimedia

Wilbur and Orville, before making history, were in one way quite ordinary children. As the pair grew up in Dayton, Ohio, they weren’t immediate prodigies.

“If you were a neighbor of the Wright brothers, say, when they were coming of age in the 1880s or so, you would have thought that these Wright boys aren’t really going anywhere,” Jakab says.

They were smart—Wilbur thrilled to intellectual challenges, and Orville You could take them apart to figure out how the technology worked—but they didn’t meet the typical benchmarks of success. Though Wilbur had a good education and Orville was well educated, neither of them graduated high school.

Wilbur was playing a ice hockey game similar to ice hockey. Had hoped to attend Yale UniversityHe sustained injuries to his teeth and face, as well as complications. While his face healed quickly, he began to feel depressed. Struggle with digestive and heart problems. Wilbur lost his sight between that and taking care of their mother who was ill from tuberculosis. Instead of attending college, he chose to stay in Dayton.

During this period, the brothers bonded, as they’d never really been close. Due to their four-year age difference, Wilbur gravitated to Orville and older brothers to be close to Katharine.

However, the Wrights’ eldest brothers had already left home. they were struggling to survive on their own. They were confronted with economic difficulties. Depression in the 1880sWilbur the young Wilbur and Orville “had no real reason to believe that they wouldn’t struggle as well,” Jakab says. The father of Jakab instilled strong family values in the boys while they lived at home. He also instilled a distrust for the outside world in the children. This respect for family sustained the inventors throughout their intertwined careers and as they created the world’s first airplane.

Wilbur and Orville Wright

Wilbur and Orville Wright at their home in Dayton, Ohio, in 1909.


They discovered that they were a natural entrepreneur. Their printing business was started by the Wrights, who produced editions for various newspapers and church pamphlets, as well as catalogs of bike parts. They published The Dayton Tattler, a local newspaper oriented toward the African American community and edited by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who went on to become a Famous poet. Dunbar was with Orville Friends at schoolThey kept in touch with each other as young adults.

The Wrights learned how to use tools as a child, which they got from their mother. Her mother was always the one fixing things in the home, breaking the stereotypical for women of the time. “The father couldn’t hammer a nail in straight, but their mother, who was the daughter of a carriage-maker and a wheelwright, she learned to use tools as a young woman,” Jakab says.

In 1892, about three years after her death, Wilbur and Orville opened a bicycle repair shop and applied their handiness to the two-wheeled transportation craze that was sweeping the country. There were hundreds of manufacturers at that point. There are more than a million bikesEvery year in the United States. They began manufacturing their own bikes in 1895. The brothers’ small scale facility produced handcrafted, rather than mass-produced bikes.

Today, bicycles known to have been made by the Wright brothers are exceedingly rare—in fact, As few as fiveExistence of these species is known. One The museum can be viewedThe display case highlights the bike’s unique features, including its curved handlebars for racing and saddle seat. It dates back to 1898. The original price was $42.50. Inflation adjusted, the current value is approximately $1,500.

a bicycle in a display case reads

The Wright brothers, based on their roots in a bicycle shop, created a linkage that allows for chain-and-sprocket transmission to power their plane.

NASM Jim Preston

How to design a flyer that is reliable

The brothers’ pivot from ground to air transportation was likely driven largely by Wilbur. Wilbur was still making bikes. “was still casting around for something that he could work on to test his mettle,” Jakab says. “Aeronautics was a new technology that people were starting to make some progress on. So, he got interested in flight.”

At the start, the brothers didn’t intend to invent the airplane. They didn’t even plan to become famous. The two men simply reviewed the articles of others about aeronautics in hopes that they would be able to make a contribution. They were shocked to discover that there had not been much progress in this field.

Orville and Wilbur recognized that the flight experimenters faced three obstacles to their progress. The three main roadblocks to progress were a lack of a control system, good wings design, and an appropriate propulsion system. From there, solving these problems became the brothers’ goal.

They were able to balance their wings during flight for the first time. They realized that the angle of the wing against the oncoming air was key in producing lift—and angling one wing more than the other gave them control of the glider. “To do this, they came up with the elegant method of simply twisting the wings in opposite directions to achieve the differing amounts of lift on either side,” Jakab says. This “wing warping,”They called it “control” and they seemed to have solved the problem.

Their design was confirmed using an unpiloted device known as a a Wright KiteThe brothers constructed a number of full-sized gliders in order to test how far they could wingwarp. Wilbur, Orville and their friends packed up and headed to Kitty Hawk in North CarolinaTo make their first flight test, they flew to, which is known for strong winds.

1902 image of Wrights' glider

The Wright brothers tested their designs using a Wright Kite (nonpiloted aircraft). They then built several gliders that would test wing-warping. (Above: In 1902, Orville is in the pilot’s position of one of the experimental gliders, with Wilbur on his left.)

Bettman via Getty Images

Their first glider didn’t produce nearly as much lift as they had expected. The brothers built an even larger model for the 1901 year to be tested, and it was just as bad. Confused by the way their calculations didn’t align with their real-world performance, the brothers ran numerous experiments. They Created a wind tunnelThis device has allowed for the testing of up to 200 different types of wings.

Not only did their tests correct a widely accepted figure in aeronautics—the inaccurate Air pressure – Smeaton coefficient, which had been throwing off their calculations—but they also settled on the most effective wing shape, solving the second problem.

In 1902, while working on their third glider, the brothers added a movable rudder that could be manipulated by the pilot in the same motion as the wings. Their 1902 glider won the title “The Best Glider”. “world’s first fully controllable”Flying machine

After achieving this feat, the brothers decided to set their sights on another goal: creating a powered aircraft.

There were problems. For one, the Wrights still didn’t have an engine. They also didn’t have a way to propel their planes forward.

Exhibition on how Wrights figured out airplane design

The Wrights were able to fly by demonstrating the art of wing design and control, as well as how to build a propulsion system for flight.


Wilbur Wright and Orville took the opportunity to fix both these issues by returning to their bike shop roots. Charlie Taylor was their bicycle shop mechanic and the Wrights built their engine. The basic four-cylinder gasoline engine “was kind of crude even for the standards of the day. But that was not a huge concern for the Wrights. They just wanted a basic engine that was going to give them the minimum horsepower that they needed to get off the ground,” Jakab says. “But the real breakthrough in propulsion were the propellers.”

Originally, the Wrights had considered using a ship’s propeller for the air. When they realized that wouldn’t work, they came up with the innovative idea of turning an airplane wing on its side and rotating it to generate thrust. The plane would move forward by the horizontal lift created by the wing. A pair of propellers were connected to the engine using a system that looked like a bicycle chain.

By the end of 1903, their powered airplane was ready to test. Four times the Wright Flyer was flown, and the pilots were switched by the brothers on December 17. Wilbur, who was lying on his stomach, piloted that fourth flight. This was the longest—and thus most significant—of these attempts. It lasted 59 seconds, covered 852 feet and proved the Flyer could make a sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air flight.

Captured on filmJohn T. Daniels captured the moment. The aerial age was born.

Beyond Kitty Hawk

Although the Wright brothers were able to make history with their plane, it was still a proof-of-concept. It could make straight-line flights, but the design didn’t yet have any practical use for society.

The aircraft was refined over the following years. In 1905, Wilbur flew a new-and-improved version for 39 minutes, completing 30 wide aerial circles that totaled 24.5 miles.

Although the brothers applied for patents, they didn’t seek out press coverage for their accomplishments. In fact, for the next two and a half years, as the patenting process played out, they looked for customers for their new invention, but they didn’t fly at all. “It kind of goes back to that family mindset,” Jakab says. “They didn’t trust the outside world.” The brothers didn’t want to reveal their work—or have anyone copy it—until they had all their patent protection and contracts in place.

The Wrights were soon frustrated by the insufficient publicity and began to be accused of being the Midwesterners’ champions. Europeans, operating on incomplete details that they’d heard about the brothers’ planes, tried and failed with the design. These men believed they had never flown.

Wilbur displayed their plane to France in 1908 to dispel these myths. He proved what Orville and he had done. His plane was a huge success, making him an international celebrity. “You could argue that the Wright brothers were really the first modern celebrities,” Jakab says.

Wilbur visited France and Italy and met with royalty. Orville stayed home to demonstrate and work for a military contract. But in 1908, with Army observer Thomas E. Selfridge as a passenger, Orville’s aircraft crashed. Selfridge died from the accident, and Orville sustained injuries that never fully went away—he suffered from back problems and sciatica pain for the rest of his life. But after more flight trials with a new airplane, the Wrights secured a contract from the Army in 1909.

Eventually, Orville and Katharine, the inventors’ younger sister, joined Wilbur in Europe to close out the tour. When they returned home, the brothers were met with a hero’s welcome: celebrations, medals and Recommendation by President William Howard Taft himself.

These products were sold to both the U.S. Army & Navy and foreign militaries. The novelty was a success and many enthusiasts organized flight shows and competitions, attracting large audiences to see the show.

But the brothers’ momentum came to an abrupt halt when Wilbur came down with typhoid fever in 1912. At 45, he died a month later. Orville, without his brother died one month later at the age of 45.

“Who knows what would have happened if Wilbur had survived and the brothers continued, but without Wilbur, Orville just kind of lost his enthusiasm,” Jakab says. “It was a great blow to him.”

The Wright Flyer

The Smithsonian holds the Wright Flyer, one of its most famous artifacts. Peter Jakab, the curator of The Wright Flyer, stated that people tend to become silent when they visit it. “People often recognize that they’re standing in front of something special.”

NASM Jim Preston

“It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”

Their legacy should be preserved

Orville “kept pretty much to himself for the rest of his life,” Jakab says. He was uncomfortable with strangers and didn’t like to speak or be seen in public. In fact, although Orville lived until 1948—nearly a century past the advent of sound recording, some 50 years after radio and 20 years beyond the first televisions—there is no known recording of Orville’s voice. “That was kind of reflective of his personality,” adds Jakab.

Instead, Orville committed himself to quietly preserving the pair’s legacy. Many people claimed that the Wrights were the only ones who had ever achieved flight. Orville tirelessly worked to eliminate these claims and show time and again their place in history.

People still point to other people as being the first one in flight, even today. Richard Pearse has been credited for many things by New Zealanders. But Pearse, when he was alive, said that he didn’t begin his experiments until after he had heard of the Wright brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk. Some others were also able to take off for shorter distances. “hops,”However They all flew planes capable of sustained flight but none of them did..

The Wright brothers’ feat was “under the control of the pilot. It was a powered flight,” Jakab says. The aircraft took off at the same height and landed, which indicates that its technology was sophisticated enough to maintain altitude while it flew. But what really defines Wilbur and Orville’s achievement, Jakab says, is that their invention incorporated the technology that evolved into the vehicles that fly today. The aircraft’s control system and its aerodynamics are, fundamentally, the same as those in modern planes.

“The Wrights were always focused on that: not simply just to get off the ground first, but they wanted what they would refer to as a ‘machine of practical utility.’ In other words, an airplane that could take off and fly as long as the fuel supply lasted [and] ultimately carry a payload or passengers,” Jakab says. “They designed something that could evolve.”

And that it did—building on the Wrights’ original design, other innovators propelled aircraft technology forward. Human flight is a key element in shaping the 20th- and 21st century. It can transport cargo, passengers or allow for future explorations of space.

Orville didn’t live to see it all, though. He died in 1948 at age 76 after suffering two heart attacks over a period of four months.

The legacy that he had worked hard for remained. It reached new heights in 1969. NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong felt a kinship with the Wright brothers—after all, he too was an Ohioan (born and raised in Wapakoneta) and a human flight pioneer of a different variety. Armstrong took pieces from the Wright Flyer on his Apollo 11 trip, making him the first man to walk on the moon.

Today, these fragments are found in the National Air and Space Museum collections. These artifacts connect two pivotal moments in human exploration and technology.

The time between these monumental achievements—a span of just 66 years—is another testament to the age of innovation that the Wright brothers initiated. In other words, Jakab says, it’s “essentially one human lifetime, [from] the first flights to walking on another world.”

“The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Who were the Wright Brothers? | At the Smithsonian

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