Orville Wright Explains the Relation of Bird Flight to the Wright Brothers Inventive Process.
From time immemorial, the inspiration of birds has caused inventive people to look to the skies to attain human-controlled flight. Then came the Wright Brothers. In 1898-9, while running their bicycle business, Wilbur and Orville Wright began to study the problems of mechanical and human flight. After reading extensively, and studying bird...
From time immemorial, the inspiration of birds has caused inventive people to look to the skies to attain human-controlled flight. Then came the Wright Brothers. In 1898-9, while running their bicycle business, Wilbur and Orville Wright began to study the problems of mechanical and human flight. After reading extensively, and studying bird flight and the work of aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal (who died experimenting with an airplane in 1896), the brothers became convinced that human flight was possible and decided to conduct some experiments of their own. During that time, Wilbur related, he observed a flock of buzzards banking and rolling, turning in that fashion and adjusting to rapidly changing winds. Until then, airplane designs had been unsuccessful and could do no such thing. The Wright Brothers, however, believed that the pilot must have complete control and that lateral movement, banking, was essential. They were convinced that anything a bird could do ought to be achievable by technology.
They started work, first adapting the airplane design of Octave Chanute, and then developing a unique concept that allowed the plane to be turned and controlled using “wing warping” (where wings themselves bend in different directions using a system of pulleys). As Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum has stated, “Wing warping was one of the first great conceptual breakthroughs that the Wright Brothers had”. So just a year after Wilbur watched the buzzards, the Wrights had their first flying glider ready to be tested. Experiencing problems with winds, in 1902 they invented the first wind tunnel where accurate aerodynamic data could be obtained, and systematically utilized it in their airplane design. In March 1903 they filed for a patent for a flying machine, and on December 17, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first free, controlled, and sustained flights in a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine. It is hard to imagine a more important invention than the airplane.
The relationship between inspiration and invention in the Wright Brothers has been the subject of many books and much debate. Was there more inspiration as provided by observing and mimicking birds in flight, or more unique invention in their concept? We know from Wilbur’s vision of the buzzards that their movements showed him the capacity of birds to control their movements at all times. But had the Wrights independently suspected this before? Here Orville graphically answers these questions, showing the Wright Brothers’ inventive process and balancing the factors. This letter is quoted in many books on flight, invention and general inspiration. Until now, the location of the original of this letter had been lost to time.
Typed Letter Signed, Dayton, Ohio, December 27, 1941, to Horace Lytle of the J. Horace Lytle Company, “Your letter of November 26th was duly received, but having become buried among other papers, it has just come to my attention again. I can not think of any part bird flight had in the development of human flight excepting as an inspiration. Although we intently watched birds fly in a hope of learning something from them I can not think of anything that was first learned in that way. After we had thought out certain principles, we then watched the bird to see whether it used the same principles. In a few cases we did detect the same thing in the bird’s flight. Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. After you once know the trick and know what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for.” This letter of one of the greatest inventors of all time is of such import that it is quoted on the back cover of “The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright.”
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