The Wright brothers—you may have heard of them. But who exactly were they and what did they do?
The invention of the airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright is one of the great stories in American history. The Wright brothers’ invention not only solved a long-studied technical problem, but helped create an entirely new world.
Creating the First Heavier-Than-Air Powered Aircraft
The desire to fly is both ancient and universal. For centuries, humans took to the sky—by balloons, kites, and gliders. The Wrights took flight to the next level with the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. At the center of the story of the first heavier-than-air powered flight are two talented, yet modest, Midwestern bicycle shop owners who created a world-changing technology: the Wright brothers.
Orville and Wilbur Wright are typically portrayed as clever bicycle mechanics who somehow invented the airplane. They are referred to as if they were a single persona: “the Wright brothers”—one mind, one personality. However, Wilbur and Orville were, of course, in actuality two distinct individuals who brought unique talents and perspectives to their collaborations.
The success of the 1903 Wright Flyer is perhaps one of the most iconic stories from American history. But how did Orville and Wilbur Wright end up as pioneering aeronautical engineers? Even before they got interested in flight, the Wrights' unique combination of engineering knowledge and skill, creative abilities, and personality traits were evident in the business pursuits they took on in the years before they began their groundbreaking aeronautical research.
The Wrights’ specific research techniques, innate skills, and personality traits came together in a unique way and largely explain why they succeeded where so many others failed. The Wrights' basic design elements and approach to aeronautical engineering have been used in all successful airplanes ever since.
The 1903 Wright Flyer in 3D
If you were the Wright brothers, you would turn your attention not to perfecting your flying skills but securing a patent and finding customers for their groundbreaking invention. While the Wright brothers were negotiating the sale of their aircraft, they let no one witness a flight or even see the airplane until they had a signed contract in hand. They were right to safeguard their invention—aeronautical activity picked up significantly during the Wrights’ flying hiatus of 1906–1907.
Orville and Wilbur weren’t the first in their family to participate in a historical moment. In fact, the Wright brothers’ family story parallels many threads and movements in American history. Perhaps most importantly, the Wrights’ family helped to shape them into the enterprising aeronautical engineers we know them as today.
Welcome to the Aerial Age
The Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane, starting with the 1903 Wright Flyer, truly changed the world. Imagining what this new world would be like began as soon as the first airplanes took to the air in the early 1900s.
The 1909 Wright Military Flyer is the world's first military airplane. In 1908, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sought competitive bids for a two-seat observation aircraft. On June 3, 1909, the Wrights returned to Fort Myer with a new airplane to complete the trials begun in 1908, that were cut short by a crash. Satisfying all requirements, the Army purchased the airplane for $30,000, and conducted flight training with it at nearby College Park, Maryland, and at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1910. It was donated to the Smithsonian in 1911.
The Wright brothers made their first public flights in Europe and America in 1908, bringing their invention to the masses. Airplane companies soon began to field teams to demonstrate the flying machines they produced. The daring aviators who participated in exhibitions and air meets became huge celebrities. They created the first great public enthusiasm for the airplane as a symbol of human achievement as the airplane took its first steps toward becoming a world changing technology.
With the growing public fascination with all things flight related, the airplane soon became part of culture. In the 1900s, airplanes and flight themes began to appear on jewelry, games, in cartoons and illustrations, in art and literature, and more.
More than a century after they invented the airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright are still a part of our national cultural identity and the Wright Flyer remains an icon of ingenuity and technical creativity. Of course, when the Wrights built and flew their 1903 Flyer, it was not a national treasure. To them it was a research tool in their path toward a practical airplane. Its transformation into a priceless piece of American heritage, displayed in the nation’s capital, took some interesting twists and turns.
Take a virtual tour of the Museum's exhibition The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age! At the center of the story and the heart of the gallery is the original 1903 Wright Flyer, one of the most iconic artifacts in the Smithsonian’s collection.