Wright Brothers: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the Wright Brothers and their contribution to aviation. We will highlight key developments in their lives, and we will understand their accomplishments in historical context.

The Rapid Advance of Aviation

It is mind-blowing to think that in only 66 years mankind went from inventing the airplane to landing a man on the moon! Aviation had made rapid advances. Think about it: at the beginning of the 20th century, people were experimenting with all kinds of flying machines, but couldn't figure out how to maintain controlled, sustained flight; and then by 1969, man had flown to the moon and returned to Earth safely. That is beyond crazy!

Let's examine the invention of the airplane. We will learn who invented it, how it was invented, and how this invention has affected society.

The Wright Brothers and the First Airplane

The Wright Brothers are generally credited with being the first to invent the airplane. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were many inventors around the world who were experimenting with flying machines. In France, Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont was a leading pioneer. So, we have to remember that in the early 1900s, at the same time Orville and Wilbur Wright were trying to develop their flying machine, it was kind of like a race to see who could be the first to invent the first true flying machine.

Some of these flying machines were pretty funny looking. Some looked like bicycles with flapping wings attached. There were all kind of really unusual designs. Gliders without motors had been around for some time, but it was the Wright Brothers who first invented a sustained and controlled powered flying machine.

The Wright Brothers walking in the early 1900s.
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Orville and Wilbur Wright had operated a bicycle shop before they became involved in aviation. Their bicycle shop was in Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers lived. In their free time, they began experimenting with gliders. They were particularly focused on how to maintain control. In order to control the craft, they developed a technology called wing-warping, in which a system of pulleys was used to warp the wings, allowing the craft to shift directions. Between 1900 and 1902, the brothers test-flew gliders, constantly making improvements in their design.

Orville Wright stands next to a 1901 glider.
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On December 17, 1903, the age of aviation was born when the brothers flew the first true airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They chose this site in North Carolina because it was known for its strong breezes and had sand dunes from which the craft could launch. The name of their aircraft was the Wright Flyer. Their first flight lasted only 12 seconds, traveling just 120 feet. However, later in the day, they managed to conduct a flight lasting 59 seconds that traveled 852 feet.

The Wright Flyer was a bi-plane design, meaning it basically had double wings, which allowed for greater lift at lower speeds. It was a primitive craft, constructed of wood and fabric. Today the Wright Flyer is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The maiden flight of the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
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Initially the brothers had difficulty establishing legitimacy. Europeans were particularly skeptical of their achievement, despite the fact that there was photographic evidence showing the Wright Flyer in the air. The Wright Brothers tended to be somewhat secretive about their invention because they were fearful their technology might be stolen. However, in time, people gradually came to realize the Wright Brothers were truly the inventors of the first real airplane.

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