Were Did Wilbur Fly His Kite?

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Dayton Celebration Events

In 1899 Wilbur flew a kite in a park near his home to test his idea of wing warping. The success of this experiment led to further experimentation at Kitty Hawk and the invention of the airplane.

While I was in Dayton for the Inventing Flight celebration I decided to find the location of this park. It is not marked on the map and there is no marker at the location. Ed, a good friend of mine who lives in Dayton, and I took on the challenge.

Before I proceed further with the search, let’s review what occurred in 1899.

Wilbur for some time had been “afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” He knew that the German, Otto Lilienthal and Englishman, Percy Pilcher had died because they couldn’t control their gliders by shifting the weight of their bodies.

Wilbur looked for a better way to achieve control by watching how birds obtained control. He observed that they did it by changing the lift on one side and then the other by twisting their wings.

Orville thought about the possibility of building a mechanical mechanism into a flying machine to twist the wings. The brothers gave up on this idea because they couldn’t figure out to build such a mechanism strong enough, but also light enough to be practical.

The breakthrough came one day when Wilbur was talking to a customer in their bicycle shop and was absentmindedly twisting a bicycle tube box. It immediately occurred to him that they could build a box kite type glider with similar structure that would be sturdy but also have flexible wing tips.

Orville tells how it worked. “He (Wilbur) demonstrated the method by means of a small pasteboard box, which had two of the opposite ends removed. By holding the top forward corner and rear lower corner of one end of the box between his thumb and forefinger and the rear upper corner and the lower forward corner of the other end of the box in like manner, and by pressing the corners together the upper and lower surface of the box were given a helicoidal twist, presenting the top and bottom surfaces of the box at different angles on the right and left sides.”

Wilbur proceeded to build a large box kite. It consisted of two 5-foot wings, 13-inches wide constructed in a biplane configuration. The wings were trussed and braced in such a way that they could be twisted in the desired way by four control lines connected to two sticks, one in each hand. A fixed elevator was attached to the trailing edge.

Wilbur ventured to a local field with a group of neighborhood boys to try it out. It worked. He could make it turn left or right and dive or climb.

Orville, who was not present during the demonstration, said later, “We felt that the model demonstrated the efficiency of our system of control.”

The brothers now thought of bigger experiments involving man-carrying machines. The following year they made their first trip to Kitty Hawk.

Back to the search for the location of where Wilbur flew the kite.

I initially thought the location might be Riverside Park that is along the Miami River and not far from the Wrights’ home. But on further research the location was said to be near a seminary near Euclid Ave and First St. At that location there were homes and a small business building. The seminary was long gone.

I found out later that Bishop Milton Wright had recommended that the seminary be established.

A short block north of there was a large school building next to a park known as John Ahlers Park in West Dayton. The park looked like a good place to fly a kite. We went in the school and found a teacher who was packing school supplies. He knew nothing about what we were looking for. He did tell us the school was about to be torn down.

We went outside and walked around the park and in so doing noticed that the Paul Laurence Dunbar House was just down the street (Edison St.). We decided to walk down to the Dunbar House to see if they knew anything about Wilbur flying his kite in the neighborhood. At the house we were fortunate to be greeted by Ms La Verne Sci, the director. She was waiting for a group of visitors to arrive. We popped the question to her. She was quick to respond that the Ahlers Park was the place.

In hindsight it makes sense that Wilbur would fly his kite in open field near the seminary that his father had help establish.

We also learned from Ms Sci that Dunbar had chosen this location for his house because the seminary in the neighborhood had attracted an intellectual community at the turn of the century.

We had visited the Dunbar house the day before and didn’t realize that the park was where Wilbur flew his kite just up the street. Which raises the question, why are there no makers identifying this significant location in the history of flight?

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