At 10:35 AM, on December 17, 1903, two reserved and monomaniacal brothers were successful in lifting off the ground in their rickety invention on the dunes of Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were imitating birds; but they could already be considered odd birds themselves.
This triumph was witnessed by five others, and a famous photograph documented the event. The craft traveled through the air under its own power for 120 feet, at a height of up to ten feet. It skidded to a halt, and Wilbur Wright, the elder of the two, ran to meet his younger brother Orville at the landing point. Orville had gotten out of the plane, and was meticulously examining the landing skids, because the last attempt by his brother three days earlier had resulted in a crash that had damaged them severely. When Wilbur caught up to him, he waited a moment or two, and the two brothers shared a sedate and measured handshake to celebrate the success of their four-year journey to this moment. As his description of the event that created massive and continuing change to the evolution of humans and how we deal with the world, Orville wrote: “The next trial was made on the 17th of December, in a wind blowing 20 miles, and four more flights were made. The first of these covered a distance of about 100 feet, measured from the end of the track, and had a duration of about 12 seconds. The second and third flights covered about 175 feet, and the fourth flight 852 feet. This last flight had a duration of 59 seconds.” He then spends about two pages describing the track, the location of said track, how it was built into a depression in the sand, the instruments for measuring distance, wind speed, engine RPM, and how air time was measured independently because the stopwatch on the plane itself was broken. He says that the stopwatch was “a little disappointment,” and then names all the witnesses by full name and where they were from.
Nowhere in the description is the large numbers of exclamation points and “BOO-YAH”s that normal people might have written, because these were not brothers who thought or acted like this in any way. They had received a toy helicopter made of a rubber band, sticks, and paper twenty-five years previously, and after having presumably had some muted and well-mannered frivolity watching it spin slowly to the ground, these brothers went about trying to duplicate it and measure it to figure out how it worked. The two were mechanics and tinkerers, living with their parents and younger sister, and never marrying. Wilbur once said that “he did not have the time for both a wife and an airplane.”
It may have been this obsessive nature which allowed them to complete the task. Others had tried and tried and failed to achieve the goal of a controlled and piloted flight, but none had ever succeeded in anything but short unpowered glides, or fandom uncontrolled hops. Many had died in the attempt. The main difference was the Wright’s understanding that they did not know what they were doing. They researched everything that existed on the subject, and when they were unable to find answers to some of their questions, they decided to figure it out themselves. To this end, they flew gliders and searched for and finally found a place where the winds were favorable all fall and winter. Then they invented a wind tunnel to figure out how lift was generated, lived in a barn they built to manufacture gliders and experiment in, and spent years recording dry ledgers filled with results of their efforts. Slowly and surely, over and over again, they repeatedly attempted flying kites and gliders. They thought about the problem of powering their craft separately. They invented the contoured propeller, because of the sudden inspiration that the propeller was just a vertical wing to generate forward motion. Other experimenters had not been as persistent or singly focused, and they may have figured out part of the pieces first, but never the entire puzzle.
They discovered that the bird’s wingtips twist when they turn, and flex along their length to gain or lose altitude. So they went ahead and tried to figure out how to recreate and refine the airplane to duplicate those processes. Even after their flight, and its publication in the newspaper, they figured out how to steer gliders with the same stubborn and repetitive process, until they felt able to patent the design. They tried to write their own patent, but it was rejected. They hired a lawyer to write it for them, and quietly patented the elements of their invention. But they then waited for three years refining their design, while others claimed to have successfully flown. These pilots had completed something like short hops with their craft, but then the Wrights showed up at one of the first air shows in 1908 with a fully realized airplane that flew for nearly an hour, making graceful laps of the field, and rising upwards and downwards at will to land and take off again, proving that they were years ahead of all competitors.
These two odd brothers eventually created the foundations that led us to the ability to travel the world quickly and efficiently, starting a company and a flight school, and building planes and engines that changed a curious gadget into a way of revolutionizing travel, mail communications, transportation of goods, and eventually led arguably to our potential ability to visit other planets. They devoted their lives to providing something to mankind that they never regretted, save for the fact that it was used for war. But in general, they were interested in the making and the using of the airplane for the sake of doing so, and for the ability to give that feeling and utility to others.