The Bicycle That Flew at Kitty Hawk

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

The Wright Brothers first successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 utilized a direct link to bicycles for solving the mysteries of flight. The connection between a bicycle and an airplane represented a new paradigm that was the key that would lead them to success.

The other significant aviation experimenters, although more highly respected in scientific circles, were stuck in an old paradigm that blinded them to a productive path to success. They knew that their gliders lacked control in flight but were blinded by their paradigms to solve the problem. Otto Lilienthal, the famous German glider experimenter, attempted control of his gliders by shifting his body, a limitation that resulted in his death. Octave Chanute, the American experimenter and historian, and Samuel Langley, Smithsonian Secretary and others tried to design a craft that would exhibit automatic stability by allowing the wings and tail to pivot freely in response to wind gusts.

The Wrights, using a different paradigm, foresaw that the key to manned flight was control by a pilot who could control an unstable airplane just as a bicycle rider learns to control an unstable bicycle. Both vehicles require a constant series of conscious and unconscious moves to maintain balance and control.

The Wrights were not afraid of instability, in fact they welcomed it because with pilot control the machine could be made to go where the pilot wanted to go.

This reasoning ultimately led the Wrights to solve the riddle of flight where so many others had failed. The others, trapped in their old paradigms, had concluded that man’s reflexes were too slow to respond to wind gusts. They believed a pilot was only necessary when a change of direction was desired.

The Wrights concluded that man was an intimate part of the airplane and was necessary to make continuous adjustments to maintain balance of an unstable machine as when riding a bike.

Axes of Movement

Bicycles have two axes of movement to worry about in order to maintain balance. These are performed by moving the handlebars and by leaning the body. Others had mostly ignored the roll dimension, so critical to bicycles, as critical to airplanes. James Means, editor of the Aeronautical Journal (1896), is one who saw the connection. “To learn to wheel one must learn to balance.” Those who harbored the old paradigm didn’t get the message.

The Wrights’ realized that an airplane is more complicated than a bicycle because there were three axes of movement to maintain balance. The pilot must control (1) roll, (2) yaw (nose left and right) and (3) pitch (nose up and down). The axes of movement must be performed in synchronization just like riding a bicycle.

Their insight led them to search for a built-in mechanical means to enable the pilot to execute the necessary aerodynamic changes to maintain balance in the three dimensions with a minimum of physical effort. This lead them to the critical breakthrough concept of wing warping as a means to control the roll dimension by the torsion of the wing tips.

Wing warping along with synchronization of the elevator for pitch control and the tail for yaw control provided control in all three dimensions.

Other experimenters were familiar with the use of an elevator and tail. They used the tail to steer left and right in a flat plane. The elevator was used to steer up and down.

The most revered American aviation expert was Langley. He designed a movable tail and an elevator on his Great Aerodrome. Both were spring mounted to compensate for wind gusts and the pilot could also move his body to make adjustments. However, his aerodrome could only hope to make straight flights.

The Aerodrome never even got that chance because it crashed into the Potomac River on launching from a house boat just nine days before the Wrights’ first successful flight on December 17, 1903.

The Wrights were way ahead of their contemporaries. It would be 1908 before the Wrights’ system of control would be understood and accepted by the worldwide aviation community

The Bicycle Business

The Wrights became interested in solving the problem of flying when the famous German flight experimenter, Otto Lilienthal, lost control when a gust of wind tipped his glider and he died after the glider crashed on August of 1896. They pondered over why Lilienthal had failed.

At the time, the Wrights owned one of fourteen bicycle shops in Dayton, Ohio. They established their first shop at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton in 1892 for rental and repair. Wilbur was 25 and Orville was 21.

It was a time when bicycles were popular and touted as a “boon to mankind” and “a national necessity.” Prior to that, the Wrights were in the printing business and published a local newspaper. Orville’s interest in newspapers dated back to the eighth grade in school where he published a school newspaper.

Unfortunately, their newspaper business was not doing well financially, but fortunately for the world, they became interested in the bicycle business because people were constantly asking them to repair their bikes. Even then, the Wrights had a reputation for having exceptional mechanical skills.

They were active bicyclists themselves, buying their first bikes in 1894, and leaders in a Dayton bicycle club called the YMCA Wheelman. Orville won a number of medals for winning bike races. He considered himself a “scorcher.”

Wilbur didn’t race. He would rather take long, slower rides. He did, however, act as a “starter” for Orville. His lack of interest in racing was the result of a hockey injury he received in high school when a hockey stick hit him in the jaw and knocked out several teeth. Bicycle racers are prone to fly headfirst over the handle bars in an accident.

In the spring of 1895, they opened the Wright Cycle Company at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton. In 1896, they first began to make mostly handcrafted bicycles under their own brand names of the St. Clair and the top-of-the-line, the Van Cleve. Each was built up from raw tubing and brazed with a machine the Wrights had developed themselves. Each frame was brush-painted with five coats of either black or carmine enamel. They built wheels with either wooden or metal rims.

This is the location is where they first decided that human flight was possible and discussed the possibly of pursuing the riddle of flight. It was Wilbur that started the discussion. He felt trapped in the business world that was not using all his potential.

As a side note, the Frank Hamburger family lived at 26 South Williams St. and owned a hardware store nearby on 1107 West Third St. During the Dayton flood of 1898, the hardware store basement was flooded. Orville and Wilbur did business with the hardware store and when it became flooded the brothers helped Hamburger rescue the supply of nails stored in the basement which would have become rusted in the water.

The brothers would accept no compensation from Hamburger for their help, but they did accept some free hardware items from time to time.

One of the chief features of their bicycles was a wheel hub of their original design that only needed oiling every two years. They also invented a pedal that wouldn’t become unscrewed while pedaling. The only items that the Wrights didn’t make were the tires, handle bars and seats.

“We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.”

The brand name Van Cleve comes from John Van Cleve who was a pioneer ancestor of the Wrights on their father’s mother side of the family. The St. Clair was named after General Arthur St. Clair who was the first governor of the Northwest Territory.

The Wrights built several hundred bicycles of both brands. The bikes cost around $50. They never made more than $3,000 a year in the bicycle business but it was enough to finance their flying experiments. The total costs of these experiments through 1903 were only $1200. The bicycle business was doing well enough that they gave up their printing business in 1899. They had already delegated most of printing work to Ed Sines by that time.

Their first customer for a bicycle was William Lincoln, a third cousin to President Abraham Lincoln.

They stopped making their own bicycles in 1904 so that they could devote full time to the airplane business. They continued to repair and sell other brands of bikes and hired others to do the work.

Their bicycle shops were located in six different locations over the years as the business grew. In 1897 they moved both the bicycle and printing business into their sixth and last shop located at 1127 West Third Street. This is the historic “Cycle Shop” where the first airplane were invented, designed and constructed. The building along with the Wrights’ home on Hawthorn St. was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936 and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

Few of the bicycles survive today because many were destroyed or damaged in the flood of 1913. There are two Van Cleve bicycles at Carillon Park in Dayton and one ladies Van Cleve at the Air Force Museum. There is one St. Clair that resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This is the only St. Clair made by the Wrights that survives.

One day a customer came into the bicycle shop when the wind tunnel was running and asked what that wind tunnel had to do with making Van Cleve bicycles? Orville answered, “It has nothing to do with the Van Cleve except that the Van Cleve paid for it.”

It was a St. Clair bike that the Wrights fitted with a horizontal wheel to test wing foils prior to building their wind tunnel in 1901.

Bicycle manufacturing turned out to be the ideal preparation for engineering an airplane. They designed their airplane to accomplish these objectives and in the process incorporated in their design bicycle parts such as: the oversized sprocket and chain that drove the propellers, a frame structure similar to the tubular steel double-triangle frames used in their bicycles, and the bicycle chain that was used in the wing warping linkage.

There were other bicycle-related uses. They laid on the wing instead of sitting upright in order to reduce drag just as bicycle riders do in a race. They used two modified bicycle hubs as wheels on the unattached dolly that was used to ride the launching monorail during takeoff. The twisting of an inner tube box resulted in developing the structural solution for implementing wing warping.

Their bicycle business provided them with the machine tools and skills for building their gliders and airplanes. They learned to work with sprockets, spikes, tires, metals, lathes and drills.

The Wrights also knew that one had to learn how to fly an airplane, the way one learned to ride a bicycle. To learn to ride a bicycle, one must learn to balance; to learn to fly, one must learn to balance — through constant practice. The first flight in 1903 went 120 feet, the second 175 feet, the third 200 feet, and final flight went 852 feet. They were learning. In the process they invented the concept of an airplane pilot.

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