Wilbur Wright was in the printing business in Dayton, Ohio with his brother Orville. When the bicycle craze swept the US in the 1890’s, the brother’s opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. With the newly invented automobile and motorcycle, when you had problems with your vehicle, the usual two choices you had were the blacksmith or the bicycle shop. Bicycle men quickly became small motor experts and many early aviators started in bicycle shops. The Wrights had been interested in flight since reading about the experimental work of Otto Lilienthal in Germany. They gathered as much data as they could from current designers and developers and started their own experimentation in 1899. Wilbur seems to have been the driving force behind the effort writing of “my” machine and “my” plans before Orville became fully involved.
In 1900 the brothers journeyed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to begin their manned gliding experiments. The remote secluded area saw the Wrights performing gliding experiments from 1901 to 1903 but not the powered flights. In 1903 after experimenting with propellor design, the Wrights wrote to several engine manufacturers but none could meet their needs. They turned to their shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, who built an engine to their specifications in just 6 weeks. To keep the weight low enough the engine block was cast from aluminum, a rare practice for the time. After a brief 3 second flight earlier in the week, on December 17, 1903 after winning a coin toss Orville Wright made 2 flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27MPH lasting 12 seconds at a speed of only 6.8 MPH.
Photograph of the first manned powered flight at Kitty Hawk – December 17, 1903
The only witnesses were 3 members of the local life station, a lumber salesman and a boy of 16. The feat was met with skepticism and vaguely reported in the newspapers. Their hometown paper, The Dayton Journal, refused to print the story. The Wrights invited the press for a demonstration a month later, but their two attempts at flight failed that day. Scientific American was offered the story but turned it down, wondering how newspapers, “alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances to escape their notice.” A newspaper publisher said years later “Frankly, none of us believed it.” With its importance never fully realized, the event was soon forgotten.
The Wrights were concerned with selling their invention to a “great Government” and protecting their copyrights. They refused to allow photographs of their flights. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights “FLYERS OR LIARS?” This suspicious protective attitude and litigious inclination distracted the Wrights from technological advance and alienated other aviators in particular and the public in general. (Their main rival Glenn Curtiss once stated that if a man jumped in the air and flapped his arms, he would be sued by the Wright brothers.) Since 1910 the Wrights were forever in court fighting patent wars with Curtiss and other airplane designers. Wilbur led the fight in the court battles traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss, who was creating a large company to manufacture aircraft. In April 1912 Wilbur contract typhoid fever in Boston.
On May 30, 1912 Wilbur Wright died in Dayton, Ohio. Orville Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur’s premature death, which occurred in the wake of his exhausting travels and the stress of legal battles. Wilbur never married stating once that he “did not have time for both a wife and an airplane.”
Wilbur Wright, dead at 45 – May 30, 1912