On May 22nd, 1906, the Wright brothers patented their “Flying Machine with a motor”, an event which heralded the beginning of the age of air travel. This huge achievement, which went on to influence every aeronautical invention since, began with some basic observations of nature.
After years of studying the motion of birds in flight, in 1899 Wilbur and Orville Wright wrote a letter of request to the Smithsonian Institution for information about conducting their own flight experiments.
The brother’s detailed ornithological research led them to believe that they could use the way that birds soared into the wind, and how the air flowed over the curved surface of a birds wings to create lift, to help them design the perfect aircraft.
Combining this research about the way bird’s wings re-shaped themselves to make the most of the air currents, with the information and ideas from the Smithsonian Institution, the Wright Brothers designed their first small aircraft.
Flown as an unmanned kite to test their solution for controlling the craft by wing warping, this initial craft was a small, biplane glider. It was to become the first of many unmanned gliders the Wright brothers designed over the next three years.
The steering and manual control of flying their crafts was the hardest problem to solve, and the brothers decided to consult with inventor Octiave Chanute, and studied the hang gliding flights of Otto Lilenthal in their hunt for the perfect solution.
Orville and Wilbur’s first successful full sized glider test eventually came at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in 1900. This biplane glider weighed just 50 pounds, and had a wingspan of 17 foot. Using the wing-warping system the brothers had developed from watching birds in flight, the glider was tested unmanned, before becoming the first full sized pilot glider.
It was due to the success of this short glider flight, that the Wright Brothers refined the crafts controls and landing gear, and went on to build an even bigger aircraft.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.