August 19, 2009
Today marks the 137th birthday of Orville Wright, the younger and spunkier of the two brothers credited with inventing modern flight. Orville was only 29 years old when the brothers manned the first motorized flight in 1903.
Although they were extremely intelligent, neither of the brothers graduated from high school. Orville chose to take a rigorous college prep program his junior year, and when he realized he wouldn’t qualify for graduation at the end of four years, he stopped attending. He had other ventures to pursue. First, he designed and built a printing press with his brother Wilbur’s help. Then, a few years after the brothers bought bicycles in 1892, they opened up Wright Cycle Company. In 1895, they started manufacturing their own line of bikes. The top-of-the-line Van Cleve sold for $65. The St. Clair, a less expensive model, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and is one of only five known Wright brothers’ bikes.
In fact, when designing their planes later on, the Wright brothers would piggyback off of the ideas central to creating a good bicycle. That, and the lessons they learned experimenting with kites. Their first break came in 1899 with the successful flight of a kite that implemented their “wing-warping” balance system.
On December 17, 1903, a few years after beginning their flight tests in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the 1903 Wright Glider made the first manned, powered flight. Orville piloted the flight, as Wilbur had won the coin toss to man the first flight days earlier. The glider was only in the air for 12 seconds, but it was a sustained flight. The fourth and longest flight they made that day was 59 seconds and carried Wilbur over 852 feet. Unfortunately, later that day, the plane was severely damaged and never flew again. It has been restored and is currently the centerpiece of the National Air and Space Museum‘s Wright brothers exhibit. Also in that exhibit are reproductions of the 1899 kite and the 1900 and 1902 gliders.
Although he flew his last flight in 1918, Orville was very much involved in aviation for the rest of his life, serving 28 years with National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor. He went on to earn 11 honorary degrees from universities in the United States and Europe and received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal, which was established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Not bad for a high school dropout from Ohio. He died of a heart attack in 1948.
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