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Wilbur Wright
American Co-Inventor of the
First Successful Airplane

1867 - 1912

I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville
that man would not fly for fifty years.

                                                             —Wilbur Wright

Wilbur Wright was born April 16, 1867 on a small farm near Millville, Indiana. Along with his brother Orville, he invented and built the first successful controllable airplane.

Even as children, mechanics fascinated the brothers. After reading about the death of pioneer glider pilot Otto Lilienthal in 1896, they became interested in flying. They began serious reading on the subject in 1899, and soon obtained all the scientific knowledge of aeronautics then available. By the fall of 1903, they had constructed a powered airplane with wings 40.5 feet (12 meters) long and weighing about 750 pounds (340 kilograms) with the pilot. They designed and built their own lightweight gasoline engine for the airplane.

On December 17, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they made the world's first flight in a powered, heavier-than-air machine. With Orville at the controls, the plane flew 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds. The brothers made three more flights that day. The longest, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260 meters) in 59 seconds.

The Wrights believed that airplanes would eventually be used to transport passengers and mail. When the Wrights first offered their machine to the U.S. government, they were not taken seriously, but by 1908 they closed a contract with the U.S. Department of War for the first military airplane.

Wilbur died in 1912, just as the airplane was beginning to make great advances. Orville worked on alone and in 1913 won the Collier Trophy for a device to automatically balance airplanes. In 1915 he sold his interest in the Wright Company, and continued work on the development of aviation in his own shop. In 1929, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his and Wilbur's contributions to the advancement of aeronautics. He died on January 30, 1948. Orville was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City in 1965.

The original plane flown near Kitty Hawk is now in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Basic principles of that plane are used in every airplane.

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Copyright © 1995-2016 Robin Chew
Article written by Robin Chew - April 1996