Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867-1910) are probably the most famous American pioneers in aeronautical research. They designed and flew the first powered aircraft to carry a human being. 

It is often supposed that the Wright brothers invented the airplane in a burst of Yankee ingenuity. They have been portrayed as independent, mechanical tinkerers in their bicycle shop, whose achievement had little to do with systematic scholarship and research. But in a 1906 interview (the year they patented their airplane), the Wrights complained about the way in which they were described in newspapers, noting that “Nearly every writer has characterized us as mechanics, and taken it for granted that our invention has come from mechanical skill. We object to this as neither true nor fair. We are not mechanics; we are scientists” (Oppel, 1987, p. 18). The Wright brothers were referring to their years of study of theoretical principles of flight, their knowledge of the many forms of aircraft, and the many experiments of lighter- and heavier-than-air flights by their predecessors. The Wrights used careful development, experimentation, and testing in their Ohio workshop and on the windy sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Wrights built on the work of several scientists and engineers. More than a hundred years earlier, starting in 1797, George Cayley developed mathematical principles of mechanical flight. Cayley built and flew models and full-sized gliders. He also established the “fixed wing” concept for aircraft, a major departure from the earlier (and later) flapping-wing contraptions. In 1809, he published his important work, On Aerial Navigation, and later Cayley published descriptions of a future flying machine, including its lift surfaces, stabilizer, engine, and propellers. 

In 1889, Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, published Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation. Lilienthal became the first person to make controlled, heavier-than-air flights. Between 1891 and 1896 he made more than 2000 successful glides in his biplanes and monoplanes. In 1896, with relatively light gasoline-powered engines available, Lilienthal was working on a design for a powered airplane. Unfortunately, he was killed in the crash of one of his gliders before he could develop a powered airplane. 

Octave Chanute, a civil engineer, had followed Lilienthal’s work and developed a number of gliders of his own. In 1894, he published an important text, Progress in Flying Machines. In 1901, he gave the Wrights his expert advice and enthusiastic support.

On hearing of Lilienthal’s death, the Wrights increased their own efforts. They studied the technical writings of Chanute, Lilienthal, Langley, and others. As they perfected their gliders, based initially on Lilienthal’s designs, and raced to achieve powered flight, they learned that Samuel Langley, a physicist at the Smithsonian Institution, was also close to success. Langley, backed by the U.S. government, had successfully flown a small-scale model of a steam-driven airplane in 1896 and a larger gasoline-powered model in 1902--the first (unpiloted) flights of powered, propeller-driven, heavier-than-air machines. All was set in December 1903 for Langley to test his full-sized, human-piloted, gas-powered airplane. The test failed, however, and the press concluded that heavier-than-air flight would not be developed for hundreds of years. But just nine days later the Wright Flyer I, propelled by a 12-horsepower engine and piloted by Orville, flew successfully at Kill Devil Hills.

A long process of scientific and technological advances led to the work of Lilienthal, Chanute, Langley, and the Wrights. That history included the early work of Leonardo da Vinci in the 1500s, the successful lighter-than-air flights from France to England in the late 1700s, the improvement of wing and propeller designs by Blanchard in 1797, several books on the mathematics and physics of mechanical flight published from 1780 to the 1890s, and the development of the gasoline engine. 

The Wright brothers developed powered flight within the context of this vast array of scientific and technical development. Building on the work of many others, they added the final developments that made powered flight possible. Their experimentation was neither mere tinkering nor their own solitary invention, but rather was based on knowledge of all of the preceding work. Their achievement is a good example of how science and technology build upon previous discoveries to expand our knowledge base and to create new technologies.

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