Wright Brothers – History of Flight

Articles relating to the history of the first flight.

Da Vinci’s Aerodynamics

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most creative genius of the Renaissance, had an enduring infatuation with flying during the period between 1488 to 1514, a time when Columbus discovered America. His obsession drove him to write a collection of manuscripts with over 500 sketches on the topic. Many of his ideas were a precursor of the modern airplane.

His most famous flying machine designs were ornithopters, or machines that were to be powered by man by flapping bat-like wings like a bird.

In one of his best known designs, a man lies face down on the body of the machine and flaps the wings by pumping the stirrups with his legs much like modern pedal powered airplanes.

Just as the Wright Brothers, da Vinci based his ideas on the study of bird flight. He observed that: “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, an instrument which is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements.”

Implicit in his statement is that da Vinci was searching for the governing laws upon which bird flight is made possible. Knowing these laws, he could then use them to design a machine.

He was the first person to understand the mechanics of bird flight. From his observations he came to realize that the up-and-down flapping of the bird’s wings did not contribute much to lift. What the flapping did do was provide thrust for propulsion.

Da Vinci was the first to consider the scientific concept of lift, the force that enables a flying machine to fly.

His initial concept of lift was wrong. He thought that a high-pressure, high-density region of air was formed under a lifting surface that in turn exerted an upward force on that surface.

Later in life he changed his ideas on lift to the correct modern concept that lift is created primarily because the pressure over the top of a wing is less that the pressure on the bottom of the wing as air flows over it.

He invented the first barometer and anemometer to use in his studies.

Da Vinci also concluded correctly that a flying machine could have fixed wings and have a separate mechanism for propulsion, a thoroughly modern idea.

Additionally, He understood the phenomenon of drag, the resistance that a body incurs when moving through air. He postulated that both lift and drag were proportional to the surface area of the body and velocity of the wind over the body.

He was partially correct on the relationships. The velocity function is actually “velocity squared.”

He further understood that streamlining the shape of a body would reduce drag. In this regard he said that the streamlined shape of fish aids them in maneuvering in water.

His sketches of various flow patterns of airflow around a body represent the first qualitative understanding of experimental aerodynamics.

Da Vinci was the first to recognize that when studying the flow of air over a body, it didn’t make any difference whether the body was moving through still air or whether the air was moving over a stationary body as long as the relative velocity was the same in both cases. This insight provided the basis for the use of wind tunnels as a tool in the of study aerodynamics.

Safety of the pilot was a concern of da Vinci. He invented the first parachute using the model of a kite. The kite is an old technology, having been invented in China around 1000 BC.

It is obvious that da Vinci made significant contributions to the state of the art of aerodynamics. Unfortunately, after his death in 1519, his contributions were not available for use by others until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By that time it was too late to add to what others had discovered.

The problem was that he never published his work nor constructed or flew any of his machines. All of his ideas were in his notes and these were difficult to interpret because he wrote in a reverse mirror-like fashion. After his death the notes were dispersed and essentially became lost from view. Most people know of him for his famous paintings of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

Sir George Cayley did not rediscover da Vinci’s ideas on lift and drag and the concept of a fixed-wing airplane until three centuries later in 1809. Cayley did not have the benefit of da Vinci’s notes.

By the time the Wright Brothers began construction of their 1900 glider, they had researched the available aerodynamic data of the day. It is not known whether they had in their extensive library any information on da Vinci.

The work of their predecessors did not furnish the Wrights with many answers but it did help them focus on the problems to be solved.

The Wrights, using a wind tunnel they constructed, contributed to the advancement of engineering knowledge on calculating lift and drag and design of airfoils.

Their most revolutionary contribution was the concept of wing warping for lateral control of a flying machine. Wilbur’s inspiration for this idea came from watching birds; much as da Vinci had done centuries before.

The Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont is popular this year in the United States. A replica of his 1906 airplane, the 14-bis, visited the Oshkosh AirVenture 2006.

In September, a replica of Dumont’s 1907 Demoiselle make public flights at the Dayton-Wright Brothers airport in Miamisburg, Ohio south of Dayton.

In 1904 after visiting the U.S. and learning of the Wright brothers success, Santos-Dumont returned to Paris to build his own machine. He originally moved to France to study engineering in the late 1800s.

In 1906 he created his 14-bis machine so named because it was first tested under his Airship (balloon) No. 14. On September 13, 1906 he achieved a “hop” flight of 23 ft in 7 seconds.

After repairs to the machine resulting from a crash landing on the previous flight, and the addition of a 50-hp engine, he flew 198 feet in seven seconds on Oct. 23. This flight won the Aero club of France’s Archdeacon Prize. The flight was recognized by the French as the first self-propelled heavier-than-air machine to take off in public and was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and coverage in the newspapers.

Then on Nov. 12, the bis-14 was fitted with primitive ailerons and achieved several flights, the longest being 722 feet in the time of 21 seconds at an altitude of 20 feet.

The machine, however, was impractical and Santos-Dumont flew it only one more time.

Octave Chanute wrote to the Wright brothers telling them about Santos-Dumont flights. Wilbur responded in 1906 with the following remarks: “When we see men laboring year after year on points we overcame in a few weeks, we do not believe there is one chance in a hundred that anyone will have a machine of the least practical usefulness within five years.”

In 1910 the Wrights brought suit against Santos-Dumont for infringement on the Wright’s French patents.

Santos-Dumont’s next machine was the 1907 Demoiselle (meaning dragonfly). It was the world’s first light plane. The pilot sat below the wing just to the rear of the engine. The engine powered a two-blade wooden propeller rotating just ahead of the leading edge of the wing.

Flight demonstrations of a replica of this machine were conducted during its stay in Dayton.

Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil on July 20, 1873 to a family made wealthy by the coffee business. He had multiple sclerosis that caused him to retire from flying in 1910. He returned to Brazil and committed suicide on July 23, 1932.

Santos-Dumont was a popular man as an aerial showman even though he contributed little to aeronautical engineering. When the hometown Dayton Herald carried the story of “first flight” on Dec 17, 1903, it carried the headline: Dayton Boys Emulate Great Santos-Dumont. The Herald made the mistake of comparing balloon flights with the first flight of a flying machine.

In 2007 Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville Wright visited with Mario Villares, grandnephew of Santos-Dumont in Brazil. Lane said that she admires Santo-Dumont’s passion for flight. She said that he saw flying in so many ways.

Fly Like a Bird

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

On July 8, 2006 a manned, engine powered airplane with flapping wings took-off and flew for the first time. It went for a distance of about 1,000 feet in 14 seconds at a height up to four feet before crash landing.

Man has dreamed about flying like a bird throughout history. Daedalus and Icarus are famous in Greek history for trying to fly like a bird and weren’t successful. Leonardo da Vinci designed a machine to mimic a bird but never flew it. On July 8, 2006 two guys from Ohio were finally successful.

No, their names were not Orville and Wilbur Wright. They names are Jim DeLaurier and Jeremy Harris. They met at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, located across the street from Ohio State University. DeLaurier is an Aeronautical Engineer and Harris is a mechanical engineer.

They are both retired now although DeLaurier, who in recent years was a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Toronto’s Aerospace Institute, still maintains his laboratory and advises students, some of who helped build the ornithopter.

The machine weighs 760 pounds and is powered by a small jet engine that produces 60 pounds of thrust.

On the fateful day the pilot Jack Sanderson, tried several times to get off the ground but failed. On the fourth attempt, with the wings flapping, the machine rose, touched down a couple of times and then rose and flew.

Harris envisioned 38 years ago building an ornithopter, an airplane that has flapping wings like a bird. DeLaurier, a colleague at Battelle, joined him in the endeavor that became an obsession for both men.

The Wright brothers flew with fixed wings that could be warped over a hundred years ago. Their longest flight was 852 feet in 59 seconds on their fourth flight of the day. Their Flyer served as the model that became the modern airplane of today.

It is not expected that a flapping machine will experience similar success. It does represent what creative engineering can achieve. Da Vinci would be proud of Harris and DeLaurier.

The ornithopter, appropriately named Flapper, will be placed in the Aerospace Museum at Downsview Park, Toronto.

The Wright Brothers were not always revered in Dayton as they are now. Here are some examples:

First Flight News: When Loren Wright presented the telegram from Orville and Wilbur describing their first flight on Feb. 17, 1903, the editor of the Dayton paper didn’t publish the news because he didn’t he didn’t see anything significant enough to publish.

The City of Dayton didn’t get around to publicly honoring the Wrights until it held a homecoming celebration on June 17, 1909, six years after the first flight.

The Wright Family Homestead, 7 Hawthorne St., where Orville was born, was sold to Henry Ford in 1936, then dismantled and moved to Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Wright Cycle Shop, 1127 West Third St., the Wright brothers’ fifth bicycle shop, where the Kitty Hawk Flyer was built also ended up in Greenfield Village.

Orville Wright’s Laboratory, 15 N. Broadway was demolished in 1976 for a gas station that was never built. A nice park containing a statue of Orville and a false front of the laboratory has been built in recent years. It also contains an operating ATM machine.

Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood was the home of Orville, Katharine and the bishop beginning in 1913. The National Cash Register Company bought the house after Orville’s death in 1948. That action saved the house but it is not open to the public except for rare occasions.

The first Wright Aircraft Company manufacturing building was built in 1910 on West Third St., further west of the fifth bicycle shop. A second building was built a year later. It was in these two buildings that the American aviation industry was born. Delphi now owns them and Delphi is currently in serious financial trouble. The buildings, pictured below, are still in use and in good condition. The Wright buildings are not open to the public and were not even during the Wright centennial celebration in 2003. Will the city be able to save these historic buildings if Delphi puts them up for sale?

Lawrence Blake, Superintendent of the Dayton Heritage National Historical Park provided the latest information on this question.

The National Park Service in 1992 studied the Wright Company Factory buildings for inclusion within the Dayton Aviation Heritage Historical Park. The study concluded that the buildings were outstanding examples of a particular type of resource and potentially, they offer exceptional value in illustrating and interpreting cultural themes of our nation’s heritage. However, the Park Service did not recommend inclusion in the park primarily because the buildings were inaccessible to the public.

Note: Delphi would not let me in the gate to photograph the buildings during the Centennial. The picture above was taken on Sunday through the chain link fence while no was there.

Since 1992, ownership of the property has shifted from General Motors to the Delphi Corporation. It is currently part of a complex of manufacturing buildings still in operation. Delphi has not made commitments for the future of the plant, which includes the Wright Company buildings, but has indicated a strong interest in the preservation of these buildings.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (P.L 108-447) included a provision directing the National Park Service to update the previous study, and to specifically include an analysis of alternatives for incorporating the Wright Company factory buildings as a unit of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

The National Park Service initiated a Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company factory buildings in January 2005 with the active participation of Delphi and the Aviation Heritage Foundation. A draft Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment is scheduled for release and a 30-day public review in January 2006. A public meeting will be held in Dayton during the public review period.

The Special Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company Factory buildings will be completed later in 2006.

Community organizations and individuals in Dayton have been actively supporting this 5th site of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park.

Hidden Images

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

If you have seen the classic Wright brothers’ photographs, the chances are you didn’t see everything revealed in those pictures. Now you can see them in an exciting new book by Larry Tise, Hidden Images: Discovering Details in the Wright Brothers Photographs, Kitty Hawk, 1900-1911.

This unique illustrated history brings to the reader previously unseen vivid images that allow a much more comprehensive understanding of the trials and errors endured by the Wright brothers during the historic years of early aviation.

Orville and Wilbur were skilled amateur photographers who had their own photo lab in their home in Dayton. They documented their aeronautical experiments and their surroundings with a profusion of pictures reflecting their serious tasks as well as their enjoyment of taking a vacation.

Now, through advances in technology, readers can see many details of their first cautious flights as well as a glimpse into the lives and the people who surrounded the Wright brothers during their stay at Kitty Hawk.

I have seen most of these pictures before, but I never noticed the hidden images contained in them. Here are a few examples:

The basic 1900 picture of their Kitty Hawk camp shows a tent on a lunar-like landscape. The hidden images that Tise brings out lets you see inside the front opening of the tent to reveal a neat cot piled high with folded blankets. Details of the outside of the tent reveal the tent reinforcements including diagonals on top, beams along the base on the side and a rope to a tree.

A long-range shot from their 1900 camp of buildings around the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station reveals hidden images of the many details of the lifesaving station, including a dog house, and the weather station where a telegram was sent home in 1903 of the Wrights’ success.

Another great photo is the 1902 glider flying off Big Kill Devil Hill with the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station complex barely seen on the horizon.

A hidden photo of an enlargement of the life saving station reveals a group of buildings around the station.

These are only a few examples. All together, there are over 100 pages of photographs with hidden images.

Tise also includes brief narratives introducing each year of photos. I was pleasantly surprised to find new information that I hadn’t read before in some of these narratives.

Some examples are:

I knew that Orville didn’t make speeches but I didn’t know that he stopped giving them in 1914. His last one was at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

I knew the Wrights weren’t entirely pleased on the occasion of being awarded the Langley Medal by the Smithsonian Institution for achievement in aerodynamic investigation and its application to aviation. The Smithsonian gave Langley priority over them for his role in developing flight. Tise provides the following commentary:

“The Smithsonian’s declaration about Langley’s priority drove Wilbur and Orville to total distraction. They bit their tongues and made brotherly eyebrow-raising and winking gestures of disrespect when they received the first Langley Medal awarded by the Smithsonian on 10 February 1909, for advancing the science of aerodromes (Langley’s word) in its application to aviation by their successful investigations and demonstrations of the practicality of mechanical flight by man.”

During the visit to Kitty Hawk during 1908, only a few of the many photographs the Wrights’ shot came out. It seems that a hole was punctured in the bellows of the camera and was not discovered until their return to Dayton when they developed the pictures.

The author, Dr. Larry E. Tise, is an historian and authority on the Wright brothers. He is currently the Wilbur and Orville Visiting Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University. He also served as consulting historian for the NC First Flight Centennial Commission.

Born in Winston-Salem, NC, he has degrees from Duke University (AB, 1965; MDiv, 1968) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PhD, 1974). This is his third book.