When the Wright brothers and their 'flying machine' were new

The aviation industry started in Dayton, Ohio, and today, the city cherishes that history. CNET's Daniel Terdiman visited as part of Road Trip 2013.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

A replica of the original Wright Flyer, the first airplane ever to fly, at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

DAYTON, Ohio -- The list of American innovation is long and storied: the first mass-produced car; the telephone; the personal computer. And, of course, the airplane.

Kitty Hawk, N.C. may be the first place that comes to mind when people think of the Wright brothers and the invention of powered, manned flight, but this southwestern Ohio town has a much deeper claim to the brothers and their invention of what they called, in their patent, a "flying machine."

How the Wright brothers won the race to invent the airplane (pictures)

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A lifelong fan of airplanes and aviation, I couldn't resist the opportunity to come to Dayton on Road Trip 2013, and learn about the Wright brothers and how they changed the world, most famously on December 17, 1903, but also over the course of many years from 1901 to 1909 and beyond.

This town's reverence for the Wrights is on display almost everywhere, and many of its biggest institutions owe their existence, or at least their names, to the brothers: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park; and more.

To learn about this early history of the brothers, and the airplane's invention, I stopped in on the national historical park, which actually comprises five locations around town. And for Wright brothers fans, it offers a rich, multifaceted story that requires stopping at each spot in order to understand the full story.

The tour starts at the park's visitor center and highlights the brothers' early history running printing and bicycle businesses. But naturally, the first stop also starts visitors' education into how Orville and Wilbur Wright came to lay claim to one of the most important inventions ever. At the core, it boils down to the idea -- which is disputed by supporters of Gustave Whitehead, who is said by some to have made the first powered flight in 1901 -- that the Wrights were the first to hit on the magic trio of innovations: three-axis control; lift and drag; and delivering power to the machine.

Daniel Terdiman

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At the time of the Wrights' invention, there was a hot race to get the first powered aircraft aloft. And what might have cinched it for the brothers from Dayton was their background as bicycle makers. They knew, after all, that turning a bike required more than just moving the handlebars; you also have to lean into the turn. They applied the same concept to flying, understanding that a plane has to have a certain degree of instability, something that others, who tended to think of aircraft like boats, hadn't tried.

A big part of their eureka moment was also that they understood the concept of a propeller. They understood that a propeller is just a wing turned 90 degrees, and by using one, they were able to get better performance out of their 12-horsepower engine than one of their chief rivals, Samuel Langley, was getting from his 50-horsepower motor.

The Wrights were also lucky to live in a boom town that offered just about everything they needed to build their flying machine. From iron works to hardware to power tools, engine coatings, fabric for the wings, and more, all was available right at their fingertips in Dayton.

What wasn't available, however, was the isolation to practice their initial flights in secrecy. And that's why the Wrights went elsewhere to make the first flight. They'd written to the National Weather Service asking for a location with a constant wind, and had the Indiana Dunes and Kitty Hawk suggested to them. The former, however, offered no privacy, so while the latter had no road access, they chose the North Carolina location.

Still, the brothers did all their work in Dayton, toiling away at developing a machine they thought would fly, and taking advantage of the fact that their father had made a lot of money and could support them. For four years, when they shuttered their bicycle shop at the end of the summer season, they moved onto their airplane experimentations, taking everything they needed with them to Kitty Hawk before finally striking gold in 1903.

And while the invention of a flying machine was a notable achievement, what everyone involved in the race to get there first was really after was the airplane market. There were clearly riches to be had by being the inventor -- something that was proven by the Wrights themselves becoming quite wealthy -- and the ones to score that wealth would be the ones that perfected manned, powered, and controllable flight.

The Wright Flyer that really took off
In that regard, some would argue that though their original 1903 Wright Flyer was a crucial innovation, it was their 1905 Wright Flyer III that was the more important development. That plane -- the second Wright Flyer was a disaster and was scrapped -- showed that the Wrights had mastered their design and that they were ready to strike a deal with the U.S. Army.

And while Kitty Hawk had offered them privacy and the ability to experiment without worrying about prying eyes, they appear to have decided that their 1905 work didn't need to be taken to North Carolina. Instead, they worked on the Wright Flyer III in a boggy cow pasture on the edges of Dayton that is now known as the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. There, on October 5, 1905, the Wright Flyer III took air for 39 minutes, a flight that was longer in duration than all other flights to that point combined.

This plane was the basis of their patent, which was written broadly to include three-axis control and withstood numerous challenges, although many refused to accept it. By 1908, though, the Wright brothers were poised to win their Army contract. The Army demanded just one thing: While the Wright Flyers had until then carried only a pilot, who lay flat, they would have to modify the plane to carry a passenger, and have both people be able to sit up straight.

The modified Wright Flyer III became the first plane to carry a passenger.

Given how valuable the airplane business was at that time, the Wrights were worried about having competitors copy their designs. As a result, they had the pillars of the Wright Flyer III -- which were made from wood -- painted silver. Their idea was that anyone who saw the plane and wanted to steal the design would conclude that metal had been used and would build a much too heavy machine.

The Wright brothers' first flight, on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Public domain photograph by John T. Daniels

Eventually, the Wrights agreed to take investment from a consortium led by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a move that led to the capitalization of the Wright Company, and the brothers' eventual wealth.

However, Wilbur Wright died in 1912 at the age of 45 and didn't get much of a chance to enjoy his riches. Orville Wright lived to be 76, dying in 1948, and he was able to weigh in on how the brothers' legacy would be presented. He worked out deals with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to display the Wright Flyer I, and he oversaw how the Wright Flyer III would be shown to the public in Dayton.

These days, Dayton has lost much of its luster, but it's not hard to think back to the early part of the 20th century and see what an exciting place and time it was. The invention of the airplane was so exciting, in fact, that when the brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk, the man they'd hired to take a photograph couldn't remember later if he'd clicked the shutter or not. Fortunately for the rest of us, he did.