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The Inventors - Orville and Wilbur Wright


Orville and Wilbur Wright

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Wright Brothers -- Chasing the Sun
Excerpt from episode 1 of “Chasing the Sun” about the Wright Brothers and their first flight. (3:03, sound)

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The Pilots
Louis Blériot
Harriet Quimby
Dean Smith
Antoine de Saint Exupery
Charles Lindbergh
Howard Hughes
The Airline Builders
Donald Douglas
Lockheed Brothers
William Boeing
The Passengers
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Ellen Church
The Inventors
Orville and Wilbur Wright
Frank Whittle
The Executives
Juan Trippe
Herb Kelleher
Frank Lorenzo


The Wright Brothers

Wilbur, left, and Orville methodically tested their plane designs in a wind tunnel at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, many efforts were underway to become the first to fly. Most inventors of the day were impulsive and undisciplined. They would build a plane one day and try to fly it the very next day, with their results either disastrous or simply unproductive. The Wright Brothers, on the other hand, were much more scientific and methodical in their approach. As bicycle mechanics, the brothers believed in testing out their ideas laboriously before proceeding with further advancements. To help gauge their progress, they built a wind tunnel - the first one built for the purpose of checking an aircraft wing design. In the years preceding their first flight, the Wrights successfully conducted almost a thousand flights in gliders before they felt ready to begin production of a motor-powered flyer.

After years of development, Orville and Wilbur Wright finally were ready to test their first powered plane, the Wright Flyer. On the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur stood on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and actually flipped a coin to see who would be first to try out the flyer. Orville won. That first flight lasted only 12 seconds and covered only 120 feet, but it was historic - the world's first powered, controlled flight. The two brothers took turns and actually made other successful flights that day - the longest lasting 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet.

The Wright Brothers

Wishing to establish a patent for their plane, Orville and Wilbur Wright retreated to their bicycle shop where they kept their flyer out of public view.

Rather than calling attention to their historic feat, though, the Wright Brothers actually concealed their invention, opting to retreat to their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Fearing a rival inventor might make off with their design if they observed the plane in flight, the Wright Brothers became obsessed with obtaining a patent for the Wright Flyer. Over the next five years, the Wright Brothers rarely flew - and if they did, it was for themselves, not at public demonstrations.

While Orville and Wilbur isolated themselves, other aviators began taking to the skies and - unlike the Wright Brothers - found widespread press coverage for their achievements. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont made headlines in Europe with his brief 1906 flight in France. On July 4, 1908, American Glenn Curtiss won a silver trophy and national acclaim for flying his plane, June Bug, over one kilometer at a public exhibition. The praise being heaped on these aviators was like a thorn in the side for the brothers, who already were flying much longer distances at much greater heights than their aviation counterparts.

Wilbur Wright

Wilbur Wright amazed French spectators with his incredible aerial demonstrations in 1908.

Once the Wrights had been granted their patent, they finally felt secure enough to begin proving to the world that they, indeed, were the true pioneers of aviation. The place they chose was France. Many Europeans as the time were skeptical of the reports made about the Wright Brothers' ability to fly. They wanted to see the Americans take to the skies for themselves. Wilbur Wright set sail for France along with an unassembled version of one of their planes. On August 8, 1908, in front of a cynical crowd of French reporters and public dignitaries, Wilbur Wright climbed into his flyer and put on an aerial display which stunned the spectators. The French were only accustomed to seeing flights which lasted only a few brief seconds. The Wright Flyer could stay aloft for minutes, even hours. In a later demonstration of the Wrights incredible flight skills, Wilbur Wright was able to circle his plane for more than two and a half hours. Arriving under a cloud of skepticism, the Wrights left France hailed as masters of aviation.

In the years following their triumphant from France, the Wright Brothers officially formed their own aircraft company. But instead of focusing on improving their original biplane design, the Wrights chose to launch lawsuit after lawsuit against rival plane-makers, such as Glenn Curtiss. The Wrights claimed that these competing manufacturers infringed upon the patents they owned. The legal battles continued for years. The case was eventually decided in 1914. While the courts sided with the Wrights, their victory was ultimately a hollow one. Wilbur Wright had died of typhoid fever two years earlier. Orville Wright, in the meantime, was in the midst of selling the company he and his brother built. In the years ahead, other plane designers and manufacturers would pick up where the Wrights had left off, continuing to soar higher, faster and farther.

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