More than two men propelled the world to progress

December 15, 2003|by Chris Copley

This past autumn, under a gray sky in North Carolina, I stood with my children on sacred ground and wept.

My family was on an October road trip, heading south along the Atlantic coast, checking out colleges for my teen daughter and seeing a part of the country my kids and wife have never seen before.

Realizing that we would be in the neighborhood of Kitty Hawk, N.C., where, nearly 100 years ago to the day, Wilbur and Orville Wright accomplished what is widely accepted as the first completely successful flight of a flying machine, I wanted to visit the U.S. Park Service exhibit.

As a boy, I felt a connection to the Wright brothers. Like me, they were Ohioans - they were from Dayton; I grew up in Columbus. Like me, they were sons of a Methodist minister. And like me, they were shy of the spotlight but had bigger-than-life ambitions.


As a child, I was taught the essential points of the Wright brothers legend - how the brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton but visited windblown Kitty Hawk several years in a row to practice with unpowered, airplane-like kites and eventually, on Dec. 17, 1903, to make several flights in the world's first flying machine.

Looking back, it seems easy, predictable, inevitable. Of course, it was not. And they were not the only people trying to figure out how to make a machine fly.

The challenge of developing a flying machine was front-page news in Europe and the United States in the latter decades of the 1800s. Many inventors - some prominent, some unknown - built unpowered gliders or powered machines they thought or claimed would fly.

Englishman George Cayley is credited with establishing the basic concept for a flying machine. In his 1809 book "On Aerial Navigation," he suggested it should have a wing to generate lift and a separate device to provide propulsion. In the 1850s, Cayley built and tested a full-size flying machine, reportedly lifting a 10-year old boy off the ground while gliding down a hill. But he had no strong, light engine to properly power his machine.

Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, was a pioneer of unpowered flight. He built and flew many gliders, launched by running and leaping from hilltops and controlled them by adjusting his body weight, much as hang-glider pilots do today.

French inventor Clement Ader claimed that he made the world's first flight in October 1890. While aboard his steam-engine-powered flying machine, the Eole, Ader said he flew approximately 160 feet at a low altitude - less than a foot off the ground. He never successfully repeated the flight for witnesses. Historians are divided on the truth of Ader's claim.

Octave Chanute, a French engineer who immigrated to America, wrote a widely read summary of cutting-edge aviation development in 1896. He corresponded with the Wrights and became one of their mentors. Chanute even visited the brothers' encampment at Kitty Hawk.

Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish inventor who became head of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., also pursued the challenge of aviation. He spent summers in the 1890s at his cottage in Nova Scotia, Canada, building kites and testing aerodynamic rigs that could lift people into the air. But he did not succeed in building a true flying machine until 1907, when Bell and four other inventors formed the Aerial Experiment Association; they built four airplanes over the next 18 months.

Samuel Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institution, was another early aviation pioneer. He built a working model of an unmanned flying machine with 14-foot wings, powered by a steam engine. In October 1903, two months before the Wright brothers' first flight, Langley attempted to fly a full-size version of his "aerodrome," as he called it. With a wingspan of 48 feet, the aerodrome was launched from a catapult on top of a large houseboat on the Potomac River. The machine snagged on its catapult cable, however, and crashed into the river. A second attempt in early December also failed. Langley gave up his flight research.

And New Zealander Richard Pearse, a farmer with an inventive mind, built a powered, single-wing machine that accomplished several short flights in front of witnesses in 1902 or 1903. But Pearse's machine had no control systems; it "flew" for long hops in a straight line.

Claims also have been made by Danish and English historians that inventors in their countries had flown - to some degree or other - in a machine. But none are accepted as true flight.

I told my children about the other inventors and their flying machines as we stood in the U.S. Park Service exhibit hall in Kitty Hawk. They asked me why the Wright brothers are recognized as the inventors of the airplane.

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