Riding in the 1908 Wright Machine

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

The Wright brothers can best tell the story of how the Wright machine takes off and makes a flight. They wrote about the experience in a 1908 issue of Century Magazine. It is quoted below.

“In order to show the general reader the way in which the machine operates, let us fancy ourselves ready for a start.

The machine is placed upon a single rail track facing the wind, and is securely fastened with a cable.

The engine is put in motion, and the propellers in the rear whirr. You take your seat at the center of the machine by the operator. He slips the cable, and you shoot forward.

An assistant who has been holding the machine in balance on the rail, starts forward with you, but before you have gone fifty feet the speed is too great for him, and he lets go. Before reaching the end of the track the operator moves the front rudder (note: they called the elevator, the rudder at that time) and the machine lifts from the rail like a kite supported by the pressure of the air underneath it.

The ground under you is at first a perfect blur, but as you rise the objects become clearer. At the height of one hundred feet you feel hardly any motion at all, except for the wind which strikes your face.

If you did not take the precaution to fasten your hat before starting, you have probably lost it by this time.

The operator moves a lever, the right wing rises, and the machine swings about to the left, yet you do not feel the sensation of being thrown from your seat, so often experienced in automobile and railway travel. You find yourself facing the point from which you started.

The objects on the ground now seem to be moving at much higher speed, though you perceive no change in the pressure of the wind on your face. You know then that you are traveling with the wind.

When you near the staring point, the operator stops the motor while still high in the sky. The machine coasts down at an oblique angle to the ground, and after sliding fifty or a hundred feet comes to rest.

Although the machine often lands when traveling at a speed of a mile a minute, you feel no shock whatever, and cannot, in fact, tell the exact moment at which it first touched the ground.

The motor close beside you kept up an almost deafening roar during the whole flight, yet in your excitement you did not notice it till it stopped.”

The same article the Wrights discussed some of the difficulties met with by experimenters in constructing a machine that will have good stability.

“The balancing of a flyer may seem, at first thought, to be a very simple matter, yet almost every experimenter had found in just this the one point which he could not satisfactorily master.

Many different methods were tried. Some experimenters placed the center of gravity far below the wings, in the belief that the weight would naturally seek to remain at the lowest point. It was true, that, like the pendulum, it tended to seek the lowest point; but also, like the pendulum, it tended to oscillate in a manner destructive of all stability.

A more satisfactory system, especially for lateral balance, was that of arranging the wings in the shape of a V, to form a dihedral angle, with the center low and the wing-tips elevated.

In theory this was an automatic system, but in practice it had two serious defects: first, it tended to keep the machine oscillating; second, its usefulness was restricted to calm air.”

The Century Magazine in their comment on the above mistakenly maintains the wrong paradigm popular at the time that a successful design of a machine will incorporate automatic equilibrium.

The Magazine states the following: “The Wright machine has demonstrated that it can fly in a wind as great as 20 miles an hour, while none of the other aeroplanes have ever flown in a wind of half this velocity. In this one point alone it is far superior to all other aeroplanes; and doubtless, in time, the brothers will perfect it so that it will have automatic equilibrium and thus be capable of use by almost any individual.”

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