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Wilbur Wright (left) and Orville Wright (right)

The Wright Brothers

Whenever people talk about the great geniuses, they do not usually say much about the Wright Brothers. Yet the Wright Brothers created one of the greatest technical achievements in human history - sustained, and controlled heavier than air flight by humans. Also, building a functioning airplane required them to make a series of major breakthroughs.

Wilbur Wright was born on 16 April 1867 and Orville Wright was born on 19 August 1871. They became interested in flying when their father brought home a small flying toy. This interest however, stayed relatively dormant for a long time. Orville and Wilbur Wright dropped out of High School and eventually started a printing business. They also started publishing newspapers including The Tattler which served the African American community. However, the newspapers did not survive so they went back to being printers. Eventually, they decided to capitalize on the bicycle craze and opened up a bicycle shop which turned out to be very successful.

In 1899, they again became interested in the problem of powered flight when they heard of Otto Lilienthal's death while testing a glider, and of the successful flight of the unmanned Aerodrome by Samual Langley. They requested information about windy locations and settled on Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They also broke down the problem of sustained flight into three major components - Lift, Control, and Thrust. Unlike many other aviation pioneers however, the Wright Brothers considered control to be the most critical factor.

Solving the Lift Problem
In 1900 and 1901, they had built 2 gliders for testing. These gliders were also operated as unmanned kites in order to test the amount of lift generated as well as to test the flight controls. However, the results were extremely disappointing. The airfoil was based on those used by Otto Lilienthal who most experts thought was right. The Wright Brothers suspected that Lilienthal was wrong but they had to test their suspicion. To conserve time and resources, they built a wind tunnel along with a Wright Balance for testing the airfoils. The Wright Balance was a precision instrument made from scrap parts and was a major breakthrough that allowed them to precisely measure the relative amount of lift produced by various airfoils. The final design for their airfoil was a major breakthrough in efficiency. In fact, today's engineers using state of the art computers can only improve upon their airfoil by about 1 to 2 percent.

Solving the Control Problem
In 1902, they built a glider with the improved wing design. This allowed them to stay airborne long enough to test the flight control system. They used an elevator to control pitch, and wing warping to control bank. They added a rudder to control the adverse yaw that occurs when the glider changes bank angle. This triple axis control system is very much like the one used on airplanes today.

Solving the Thrust Problem
Solving the thrust problem required an efficient propeller combined with an engine that was both light enough and powerful enough to sustain the aircraft in flight. Because ships were using propellers for a long time, the Wright Brothers assumed that there would be an established theoretical basis for calculating the performance of propellers. However, their research revealed that there was none. Subsequently, they made another intellectual leap by considering a propeller to be a rotating wing that is producing lift in the forward direction resulting in thrust. The resulting propellers that they built had a peak efficiency of about 82 percent. This is impressive when considering that fixed pitch propellers of today have a peak efficiency of about 85 percent.

The Wright Brothers contacted many engine manufacturers in an attempt to find an engine with sufficient power to weight ratio. However, none of the manufacturers had any engines that met their requirements - at least not for an acceptable price. Undeterred, the Wright Brothers decided to build their own. In order to minimize weight, they made the engine as simple as possible. However, one of their biggest breakthoughs in weight reduction was in making the crankcase out of aluminium. The resulting engine was powerful enough and light enough to power their flier.

The First Flights
The Wright Brothers used their recent innovations to construct the Wright Flyer. On 17 December 1903, Orville Wright made the first powered and controlled flight which lasted 12 seconds. They made a total of 4 flights that day with the longest made by Wilbur Wright lasting 59 seconds. The first Wright Flyer was eventually destroyed by a wind gust. However, they built a second flyer and evenually a third flyer which could stay airborne for very long periods and this firmly established the age of aviation.

It is clear that the Wright Brothers were geniuses. The technology at the time was not ready for their ambitions, so they used their ingenuity to make it ready. They mastered aerodynamics, structural engineering, engine design, and flight testing among many other skills. Their accomplishments are even more impressive when we consider that their great knowledge in all of these areas was largely self taught and that they performed these feats in a relatively short time.

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