Inventing Flight on a Shoestring

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Inventing The Airplane

The Wright Brothers would never have won the race to fly a power-driven airplane if success had depended on money. While their American and European competition depended on large amounts of money contributed by government or other benefactors, the Wright Brothers relied solely on their own modest financial resources.

Frugal Brothers

During the five years of experiments from 1899 to 1903 the Wright Brothers, without any outside financial support, spent a grand total of under $1200.00. Their expenses included the construction of a large kite, three gliders, and one power-driven airplane. The money also covered the expenses of four extended trips to Kitty Hawk.

Their record of expenses includes such things as $5.50 for books on aviation in June 1899, train tickets to North Carolina for $22.50, $25 to build the 1900 glider and a $15 fee to the U.S. Patent Office in 1903.

Langley Fails

In contrast, their biggest competitor, Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, was awarded a $50,000 contract by the U.S. War Department, supplemented by a $20,000 grant from the Smithsonian, to build a power-driven airplane. Langley’s airplane failed dismally. It twice crashed into the Potomac River after being catapulted from a houseboat. The last failed attempt occurred only nine days before the first successful flight by the Wright Brothers. One reporter said Langley’s Aerodrome had the flying characteristics of a “handful of mortar.” The failure was bitterly disappointing to Langley who had devoted 17 years of his life to the development of an airplane. It had taken the Wrights only three and a half years of work to the first flight.

Wright Cycle Company

The Wrights financed their flight ambitions from the modest profits of their small business. The introduction of the safety bicycle (two wheels of the same size) had launched an industry that was experiencing phenomenal growth. In 1892, the brothers saw the opportunity to start a bicycle shop, the Wright Cycle Company, to supplement their printing business. It wasn’t long before the prospering cycle shop was their primary business selling brand name bicycles, parts, accessories and repairs.

Starting in 1896, they decided to manufacture their own brand of bicycles. The top of the line was the Van Cleve. This model initially sold for $60 to $65. By 1901 it was selling for $39.50. They also sold a lower-priced model, the St. Clair. It initially sold for $42.50. In addition, they sold bike tires for $3 and inner tubes for $1.25. These prices seem low by today’s standards, but in 1900 the average annual wage of a worker was only $440.

They hand-built their cycles to customer order to insure the highest quality. They contained a unique oil-retaining hub and coaster brake of their own design. Every bike was brush painted with five coats of paint.

The Wrights’ income was around $2,000 to $3,000 a year, most of which resulted from their bicycle business.

The Wright Brothers learned to be frugal from their boyhood years. Their family, while not poor, wasn’t flush in money either. Their father was a church Bishop and their mother stayed home to raise five children. The boys were required to earn their spending money. They collected scrap iron, organized their own circus, made their own toys, built and sold kites and built their own printing press.

Inventing on a Shoestring

Being frugal was an asset in solving the problem of flight. They had to use their brains to find a solution since they couldn’t afford the “trial and error” approach. They had a low threshold for guesswork. Instead, they were avid practitioners of the scientific approach that they used to cut to the heart of problems. They developed their own theories and meticulous calculations and applied them to design, build and test their ideas using low cost kites and gliders.

They developed the 3-axis control system of flight, made small airfoils out of brass blades and tested them in a wing tunnel they designed and built in order to determine the proper shape of a wing to provide optimum lift.

They designed the airplane, weighing 605 pounds, of lightweight materials enabling them use a small gasoline engine. With the help of their only employee, Charlie Taylor, they designed and built a 170-pound engine with accessories that produced 12 horsepower.

They developed original theory of airplane propeller design and hand made them to deliver optimum thrust effectively and efficiently.

Langley’s engine could develop 52 horsepower but his Aerodrome was unstable, uncontrollable and underpowered.

Price Inflation

In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the first flight on December 17, 2003, a reproduction of the Wright Flyer is currently being built to fly at Kitty Hawk on the anniversary. It is estimated that the cost of the reproduction will exceed $2-million.

As I am writing this article, there are new airframe components for a Wright Brothers’ airplane for sale on Ebay. First bid is for $25,000.

The Wright Brothers accomplishment was probably the greatest bargain in the history of mankind.

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