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December 17, 2012 12:04 PM   Subscribe

109 years ago today, on December 17th 1903, Orville Wright lay down and flew 120 feet at 10 feet per second on the Wright Flyer.

Though not the first flying machine, the Wright Flyer was one of several craft developed by the businessmen and engineers Wilbur and Orville Wright.

The spruce wood plane, using bicycle mechanics, undertook four flights on that day. Its four-cylinder engine developed a touch under 16 horsepower for 15 seconds, then dropped to less than 12 horsepower. That first flight was only three times the length of the wing span of the plane. The final and longest flight measured 852 feet (260 m) and took 59 seconds. The plane was then wrecked by wind, and never flew again.

Debate continued for many years as to the significance of the flights, and whether this was the first powered and controlled flight of an aircraft.

Less than 66 years later, man took off, journeyed, landed and set foot on the moon.

More in the Smithsonian Press book The Wright Flyer: An Engineering Perspective. Or make your own model using foam trays and toothpicks.
posted by Wordshore (25 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
It seems utterly implausible, that there are still people alive today who were born before airplanes.
posted by Wordshore at 12:05 PM on December 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


For most, it’s a day to celebrate a pivotal milestone in aviation history. But here at the National Archives and at other archives, libraries, and museums it’s a reminder of the threat that cultural institutions face on a daily basis.
posted by ddbeck at 12:13 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...man took off, journeyed, landed and set foot on the moon" and then--in the most impressive move of the sequence--returned home again.

I've flown a lot (for me) in the past week, and was just reflecting yet again on what an amazing (and yet now utterly pedestrian) activity even commercial flight is. Ignoring the TSA, of course.
posted by postel's law at 12:14 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder what they used airports for before they invented flight?
posted by mazola at 12:26 PM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems utterly implausible, that there are still people alive today who were born before airplanes.

Not only that, think about how positively common it was for there to be people alive whose life spanned the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11.
posted by kmz at 12:28 PM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder what they used airports for before they invented flight?

Shoe shines.
posted by Etrigan at 12:30 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder what they used airports for before they invented flight?

Tearful reunion/separation scenes in movies.
posted by kmz at 12:31 PM on December 17, 2012


Connecting this with the cheetah thread earlier today, the big cats run almost ten times as fast as that first Wright flyer flew.
posted by postel's law at 12:31 PM on December 17, 2012


"The Wright Brothers' Aeroplane", Century Magazine, Sept. 1908, Orville and Wilbur Wright (text). Commissioned by Century Magazine as an exclusive account of the first flight. It took the brothers 4 years to write (they were better at some things than others).

"Some Aeronautical Experiments" (1901), Wilbur Wright (text). Based on a speech given by Wilbur a few years before the first flight while still working with gliders.
posted by stbalbach at 12:34 PM on December 17, 2012


If you are in the Bay Area, head on over to the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos and you can see a life size reproduction of the Wright Flier, plus many early gliders and airplanes.

If 100 feet you go from earlier gliders to a 747 (out back, you can sit in the pilot's seat)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:37 PM on December 17, 2012


The Wright Bros first flight would have taken them half the distance of a 747's length.
posted by mazola at 12:45 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


... think about how positively common it was for there to be people alive whose life spanned the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11.

My grandmother was one such person. In her lifetime she saw the arrival of cars, commercial recording, motion pictures, radio, television, airplanes, and space flight. She missed out on seeing the personal computer by only a few years.
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:58 PM on December 17, 2012


Ten feet per second?! Why didn't his ribs cave in?
posted by Abiezer at 1:02 PM on December 17, 2012


To get an idea of the technical achievement - the first operational combustion powered submarine, capable of diving to 100 feet and operating independent of the surface, was built in 1864.

It would be almost 50 years before we could fly after that... and it wasn't for a lack of people trying.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:05 PM on December 17, 2012


When I was a kid in the 60s, I met an elderly shopkeeper in Colington, NC who had delivered groceries to the Wrights as a boy. He described them as quiet, serious men engaged in experiments in the most spartan of conditions. He made them vivid and real and life-sized for me. I made sure to shake his hand, since he'd shake the hands of both brothers.

Years later I took a tour of the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY, and mentioned that fact to the guide. With a patient smile, our guide explained that yes, the Wrights were first to fly, but that Glenn Curtiss was the true father of modern aviation, as the Wright's flex-wing approach was utterly impractical for any but small applications.

Since then, I've had opportunities to visit both Wright and Curtiss museums, and always make sure to wear my Glenn Curtiss shirt to the former and my Wright shirt to the latter. Really stirs the pot.
posted by kinnakeet at 1:39 PM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ah, the worst is when an Ohio Native ("Birthplace of Aviation!") meets a North Carolina Native ("First in Flight!"). They make airplane shapes with their arms and sort of swoop at each other until one of them backs down in utter and abject shame.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2012 [9 favorites]


I love the Australian aviation fact - Harry Houdini undertook the first powered flight in this country -

Diggers Rest became the centre of attention in 1910 when American escapologist and adventurer Harry Houdini came to town with his Voisin biplane at the invitation of the Aerial League of Australia.

At that time several people were claiming to have made Australia's first powered flight, but the league was unconvinced and, on March 31, 1910, bestowed the distinction on Houdini after the American flew his bi-plane at a height of 30 metres round a 3km circular course.

posted by mattoxic at 2:08 PM on December 17, 2012


when an Ohio Native ("Birthplace of Aviation!") meets a North Carolina Native ("First in Flight!")

I like to call this the battle of the license plate slogans.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:09 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


ddbeck's link about the missing Wright patent reminds me of the Wright Bros Patent Debacle, the mess the inventors made trying to patent and license their inventions. Their failed efforts to claim a monopoly on all airplanes mired the US aviation industry for 10 years after their first flight. They didn't succeed in making any money, only stopping other innovation. The whole snafu only came to an end as World War I forced the US government to intervene and force a patent licensing system, in order to allow development of military aircraft.
posted by Nelson at 2:57 PM on December 17, 2012


when an Ohio Native ("Birthplace of Aviation!") meets a North Carolina Native ("First in Flight!")

Ah, yes, the ancient, or kind of old, battle over flight. I grew up a few miles from the field near Dayton that the Wright brothers tested the prototypes in, sledded down the hill they flew off of and had it drummed into my head early that they were "ours". I am still amazed at the bravery of early fliers when one sees the fragility of those early planes. Nice post.
posted by Isadorady at 4:00 PM on December 17, 2012


The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.

- Warren Buffett on investment in the airline industry.
posted by wcfields at 6:00 PM on December 17, 2012


As a point of comparison: it took 37 years from the first flight to get to jet powered flight, and 62 years from the first flight to get a man in space. It's been 51 years since man first went into space and 43 years since the Boeing 747 was introduced.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:10 AM on December 18, 2012


As a NC native, I just wanted to point out that this was not the first successful flight, many vehicles had traveled through the air prior to this.

This was the simply the first successful landing. Thus rendering both vehicle and pilot available for a second flight.

Although, it still took nearly 60 years before someone eventually coined the term "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."

Also, if you've ever been to Kitty Hawk, you'll know that their machine was equal parts 'airplane' and 'kite without a string'. I'm fairly certain that if held correctly, one could attain proper flight in there with a hotel bedsheet. Well starched of course.

The fact that the dunes are called 'Kill Devil's Hill' should tell you something about the area.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:57 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I also wanted to point out that the Wright brothers were the first to figure out not just to figure out left and right, up and down, like one would with a car or a bicycle. They were the first to figure out pitch and yaw, which are tremendously important principles once you are no longer firmly affixed to the surface of the earth.

Sadly, it was their fourth flight where they also identified the concept of roll. So two outta three aint half bad.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:02 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Their failed efforts to claim a monopoly on all airplanes mired the US aviation industry for 10 years after their first flight. They didn't succeed in making any money, only stopping other innovation.

I've researched that "patent war" closely, and you could hardly be wrong on more counts. The Wrights didn't seek a monopoly: they were quite ready to grant licences for reasonable royalties, and they made quite some money. And innovation, far from being halted, advanced quite rapidly during the first decade after their flight.
Their problem was that they had an extremely rigid morality and deeply-ingrained sense of what was right and wrong. They felt personally wronged by Curtiss and the AEA, whom they saw as thoroughly dishonest, and refused to grant them any licence. The bitterness became even more pronounced after Wilbur's early demise, which Orville blamed on the legal fight.
posted by Skeptic at 2:07 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


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