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Setting the Stage

As myths, legends, and actual experiments attest, mankind always has been fascinated with the idea of flying. Dreams of soaring like the birds inspired many throughout the ages to construct human "wings" or other flying contraptions, but these failed dismally. Beginning in the 1780s, hot-air balloons successfully carried passengers, but these lighter-than-air vehicles merely drifted with the wind. Finally, in the 19th century, a few experimenters made some progress towards inventing a heavier-than-air flying machine. After so many failed attempts, however, many concluded that the effort was a waste of time. Undaunted by the odds, two brothers from Ohio took up the quest that had eluded mankind for thousands of years.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and his younger brother Orville (1871-1948) displayed mechanical ability and an aptitude for experimenting. Their initial interest in flight began in 1878 when their father gave them a toy helicopter activated by a twisted rubber band. Fascinated by the toy, the brothers built several versions of it. As a teenager, Orville Wright started his own printing business using a printing press he and Wilbur made out of spare parts. By 1889, Wilbur had joined him in the business. In 1892 they turned their attention to cycling and opened the Wright Cycle Company. The brothers sold and repaired bicycles and then began producing their own line of bikes. Their expertise as bike mechanics proved instrumental in solving the problem of human flight.

Wilbur and Orville's interest in flight resurfaced in 1896 when they read of the glider accident that killed Otto Lilienthal, a German gliding pioneer. After studying the subject, the Wrights concluded that the key to flying was devising a system to control a flying machine in the air. They also decided that they must learn to fly an unpowered glider before piloting a machine with an engine.

By the fall of 1900, the Wrights had designed their first full-size glider and were ready to test it. They needed a place with steady winds of 15 to 20 mph, hills for launching, soft areas for landing, and isolation for privacy. Research indicated that Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, met these criteria. The Wrights traveled from Dayton, Ohio, to the Outer Banks several weeks each year between September 1900 and December 1903 to conduct their flight experiments.

 

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