Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with in December 1903 launching the first aircraft off the ground on the beach of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
It is not so widely known that their uncle, a protestant bishop, (their father was one, too, by the way) only a short time before, in a statement that swept America, had publicly announced that "of course" man would never fly.

Some other interesting factoids:
  • The Wright brothers were actually from Dayton, Ohio, where they ran a bicycle shop. Their first plane was called the "Wright Flyer", named, bizarrely enough, after one of their bicycles.
  • During their final 84 days of constant work at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk to get their plane working, they mostly lived off beans.
  • Neither of the Wright bothers was married.
  • They never called their invention "airplane", they called it "flying machine"
  • Dayton, the brother's hometown, showed so little interest in their invention that it only gave them a parade 6 years after the event.
  • Early pilots were often called "aeronauts", or "aviators", with the "a" pronounced short like in "navigator".
The two American brothers, Wilbur and Orville, who made the first successful sustained powered airplane flights. They accomplished this feat in December of 1903 at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Wilbur was born in 1867 and Orville -- four years his junior -- in 1871. Neither finished high school, but Wilbur might have went to Yale if not for an injury he suffered when he was 18. In 1892 they opened a bicycle shop, The Wright Cycle Company, in Dayton, Ohio. The business prospered, but the two brothers started devoting their combined energies to flying.

Building on the work of men like Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, and Samuel Langley the Wrights began experimenting with gliders. They often found that the data collected by others was erroneous or incomplete so they began performing their own wind-tunnel tests. They also began modifying existing designs to their own specifications.

They made their first trip to Kitty Hawk in 1900. Over the next couple of years they would return often and make hundreds of flights in their gliders.

While the problems of lift and thrust had been pretty much solved by this time, the Wrights were using these flights to work on the problem of lateral control. The Wrights solved this problem through use of wing-warping linked to a moveable tail structure. This innovative design put them years ahead of their competitors.

Finally, in 1903, they were ready to place an engine on their aircraft. Unable to find a suitable engine they built one themselves. Their first attempt on December 14th in their airplane the Flyer with Wilbur at the controls was unsuccessful. Three days later Orville was able to keep the plane aloft for 120-feet. Later, Wilbur recorded the longest flight of the day -- 820-feet in 59 seconds.1

The Wrights did not gain instant acclaim or fame from their achievement. They continued working on and refining their machines back in Ohio. By 1905 they could stay aloft for more than a half-hour. A patent was granted for their plane in May of 1906, but not until 1908, after they signed a contract with the Army, did they put on a public exhibition -- Wilbur in France and Orville in New York City.

Having a military contract, the brothers formed the American Wright Co. in 1909 to build airplanes. But Wilbur would not live much longer. He succumbed to typhoid fever on May 30, 1912.

Orville Wright would make his last flight in 1918. He would serve as Director of the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory and was appointed a member of the U.S. Naval Consulting Board and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, but for the most part lived the rest of his life quietly in Dayton, Ohio. Orville passed away on January 30, 1948.

1. The Flyer would not fly again. She was damaged beyond repair following this flight.

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