The Wright brothers discovered man-made flight 116 years ago. Their impact can still be felt in Dayton and on campus. Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
On a cold and gusty day in December 1903, near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers from Dayton achieved something man had thought impossible. Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle mechanics turned inventors, proved powered flight was a reality.
That day, however, no newspapermen crowded the beaches hoping to catch the action. Nor did any reporters come in the days that followed. In fact, the only witnesses to the event were a 19-year-old lifeguard, a few seagulls and a camera lens. The brothers sent a telegram to their father in Dayton, telling him of their achievement; the next day, the message appeared in the local news – to little interest and no acclaim. Humans had dreamed of wings since ancient times, but everyone knew man would never fly. The Wright brothers were left to celebrate their success on their own.
Now, more than 100 years later, circumstances couldn’t be more different. Aviation has changed life as we know it, and Wilbur and Orville’s work lives on at airfields and in research labs where men and women study the mechanics of flight. Organizations from breweries to libraries have paid tribute to the brothers’ work through their monikers, and even the University of Dayton Flyers nickname indicates Dayton’s aviation heritage.
As Dec. 17 approaches, it is important to recall that heritage – and to reflect on the impact the Wrights’ ingenuity has had on the world: past, present and future.
In the history books, Wilbur and Orville are remembered as the inventors of the first powered, controlled and heavier-than-air piloted flying machine. How did they succeed where others didn’t?
To start with, the Wright brothers approached the problem of flight differently than their predecessors.
“They understood that the airplane was a system of systems,” said Dr. Janet Bednarek, professor of aviation history at UD. “It wasn’t a matter of just getting something up in the air…they understood that any machine that didn’t have [control, propulsion and lift] all working together wasn’t going to be a successful airplane.”
In other words, the Wright brothers didn’t just focus on getting up in the air – they thought about what would happen once they were there.
They also questioned everything. When their prototype’s wings – built according to specifications from gliding pilot Otto Lilienthal – didn’t generate enough lift, they constructed a wind tunnel and performed experiments on more than two hundred different wing shapes to find a better design. In the end, they replaced Lilienthal’s data with their own.
To solve the problem of control, the Wright brothers literally thought outside the box. One day, standing in the back of his bicycle shop, Wilbur picked up an empty cardboard innertube box and absentmindedly began twisting it between his fingers. Soon, he noticed something interesting.
As the box twisted, its tips changed shape. When one corner of the box turned down, the diagonal corner turned up, inclined at a greater angle. Applied to an aircraft, a greater angle could generate more lift and roll the machine to the right or left, allowing a pilot to turn. The Wright brothers called this concept “wing warping.”
The discovery of wing warping was a turning point in aviation history. Even today, aircraft operate on a similar principle – though physical twisting has been replaced by new technology.
Given this breakthrough, one might expect the Wrights became instant celebrities. But, their desire to keep the plane a secret until they could obtain a patent meant it would be several more years before the brothers received recognition for their success.
“The Wright brothers were not the only people in the world that were trying to invent an airplane,” Bednarek said.
To the Wrights, keeping the machine confidential was paramount.
Secrecy had its consequences, however, and the Wright brothers’ reluctance to fly without a patent led to widespread doubt about their work. Moreover, the United States government was not initially interested in aviation.
“The center of innovation shifted very quickly from the United States to Europe…the European governments were investing in [flight],” Bednarek said.
By the first World War, things began to change. The U.S. government established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, forerunner to NASA, and eventually the United States regained its lead in aircraft design.
Today, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base continues what the Wright brothers began.
“That is so crucial to the Dayton economy…and also to UD…it’s because of our close connections with the military that UDRI got started,” Bednarek said. “Our strong engineering programs here, our strong research institute, all of that really kind of traces back to the Wright brothers and the civic leaders who wanted to capitalize on the fact that this was the home of the people who invented the airplane.”
The University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) was founded more than 60 years ago, and since that time has been involved in everything from wind tunnel testing to impact physics. Its research staff has worked on projects concerning landing gear, transparencies (aircraft canopies), turbine engines and hypersonics. Some, such as hypersonics, are recent additions to the field of aviation, while others, like wind tunnels, have existed since the Wright brothers’ time.
Just as the Wrights took their work to Kitty Hawk for research and testing, UDRI also is spreading out beyond the city.
“UDRI is not just limited to the campus anymore,” said Matthew Davies, a mechanical engineer in UDRI’s Applied Mechanics Division. “We have offices at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Robins’ Air Force Base in Georgia and in Ogden, Utah at Hill Air Force Base.”
Despite this, more than 660 research staff still call Dayton home.
What makes the Dayton area so special? Certainly, inventors such as the Wright brothers have contributed to its heritage. But even before that, Wilbur and Orville credited their success to a Midwestern upbringing.
“They felt that the Midwestern culture, the milieu, the value of education, of being an inquiring person, that really did help them in their work,” Bednarek said.
It seems that idea lived on at UD – perhaps part of the inspiration for becoming the Flyers.
With the invention of the airplane, Wilbur and Orville became part of the national story on American ingenuity. Beyond the machine, the Wright brothers taught the world that imagination, hard work and perseverance are essential to innovation.
116 years ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright proved the impossible was possible. Now it is up to the next generation of Daytonians to carry on their legacy.