FOR centuries, men dreamed of flying. But a man does not have muscles powerful enough to lift his own weight into the air. In 1781, James Watt invented a steam engine that produced rotary power, and in 1876, Nikolaus Otto furthered the idea and built an internal-combustion engine. Now man had an engine that could power a flying machine. But who could build one?
The brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had wanted to fly ever since they learned to fly kites as boys. Later, they learned engineering skills by building bicycles. They realized that the key challenge of flight was to design a craft that could be controlled. A plane that cannot be balanced in the air is as useless as a bicycle that cannot be steered. Wilbur watched pigeons in flight and noticed that they bank into a turn, as a cyclist does. He concluded that birds turn and keep balance by twisting their wing tips. He hit upon the idea of building a wing that would twist.
In 1900, Wilbur and Orville built an aircraft with twistable wings. They flew it first as a kite and then as a piloted glider. They discovered that it needed three basic controls to adjust pitch, roll, and side-to-side movement. However, they were disappointed that the wings did not produce enough lift, so they built a wind tunnel and experimented with hundreds of wing shapes until they found the ideal shape, size, and angle. In 1902, with a new aircraft, they mastered the art of balancing the craft on the wind. Could they mount an engine on it now?
First, they had to build their own engine. With knowledge gained from the wind tunnel, they solved the complex problem of designing a propeller. Finally, on December 17, 1903, they started the engine, the propellers whirred, and the craft lifted off into an icy wind. “We had accomplished the ambition that stirred us as boys,” said Orville. “We had learned to fly.” The brothers became international celebrities. But how did they manage to power themselves into the air? Yes, nature played a part.
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The Wright “Flyer,” North Carolina, U.S.A., 1903 (reenacted photo)