There are many facets to the Wright brothers and their persistence, commitment, and dedication to their “project.”
As their understanding advanced, they used large kites controlled from the ground by thin ropes to test the performance of wing shapes and airfoils. They then used those results to build large gliders (again, controlled from the ground) to carry the investigation further and test schemes to solve the ultimate problem of real-time dynamic control of roll, pitch, and yaw, and not just attaining lift. When they reached a higher level of confidence, they built gliders that were large enough to carry a pilot and taught themselves the subtleties of piloting an aircraft using their wing-warping scheme.
They also recognized that the propeller was not a simple “airscrew” but actually functioned as a rotating wing that created forward lift, resulting in forward thrust. With this realization, they calculated how the propeller’s airfoil profile had to change as its distance from the central axis increased. Consequently, airspeed increased to achieve maximum efficiency (Figure 1).
They then hand-carved two 8-1/2-foot-long propellers from laminated spruce, which were 66 percent efficient when they tested them – again, firm evidence of their insight, analytical skills, hands-on dedication, and pursuit of test and measurement validation. This result was within one percent of what their calculations had predicted – a true blend of science, engineering, and execution.
Each impediment to progress was addressed logically and methodically. As no commercial gasoline engine met their needs, they designed and machined one using aluminum (Figure 2). That project was especially impressive since, at the time, aluminum was costly and brittle, and there was little experience in machining it. They devised a crude, lightweight, effective gravity-fed carburation scheme, and sparker ignitor to save weight.
If that’s not enough to establish their credibility as engineers and scientists, their many letters with pointed technical queries and insightful comments to leading researchers attracted enough attention that Wilbur was invited in 1901 to present a paper at the Western Society of Engineers (a major professional organization) in Chicago. His direct, no-nonsense paper details what was understood, the nature of the unsolved problems, and areas needing progress. The paper was published in the society’s journal with the deceptively simple title “Some Aeronautical Experiments” and is now posted online (see References) as a facsimile image as well as a readable text file.
Yes, they were certainly highly skilled mechanics and had to be. They planned, designed, and fabricated nearly all the needed wooden and metal parts, except for items such as the chain that connected the flyer’s engine to the propellers. They single-handedly organized multiple trips (expeditions) by rail and ferry to isolated, windy Kitty Hawk, North Carolina bringing crates with everything they could possibly need: wood, tools, fabric, food, and tents. (Kitty Hawk was very remote; if you needed anything even as modest as a screw or glue, it was a two-day round trip.)
My concern is that calling them “bicycle mechanics” makes it sound as if they were a pair of casual tinkerers who did a little of this and that and eventually and almost accidentally stumbled onto the secret of powered, piloted, controlled flight. While it is true that they were highly skilled mechanics, and that was an important element in their success, they brought much more to the challenge of controlled flight.
The facts are that they implemented the basic tenets of good engineering practice along with the formal scientific method. The reality is that it often takes all three disciplines to act serially as well as recursively to achieve dramatic success, whether done by an individual or a team.
On the lighter side, if you need a question to ponder or to argue about with friends after a hard day’s work, think about this: commentators often remark that it took just 66 years to go from that first Wright brothers flight in 1903 to the moon landing in 1969 – undeniably factually true. But in the strictest sense, rocketry and moon landings do not require aircraft and controlled flight.
If there is no direct technical relationship between the two functions in the scientific sense, would rocketry and the lunar landings have occurred anyway? Or would they have occurred but on a much longer time frame? To what extent did the build-up of aeronautical knowledge and aircraft flight drive a speed-up in academic insight, new manufacturing techniques, faster transport of people and products, and many related developments that accelerated rocketry development? You can discuss and debate this among yourselves!
David McCullough, “The Wright Brothers”
Wilbur Wright, presentation at Western Society of Engineers (1901), “Some Aeronautical Experiments”
NASA, “Wright Brothers Make History at Kitty Hawk”
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, “A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation”
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, “The 1901 Wright Wind Tunnel”
Project Gutenberg, “The Wright Brothers’ Engines and Their Design”