The Century Before: 1899 to 1903
The Road to Kitty Hawk

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ites and flying toys have been around for thousands of years. But the science that led to the invention of the airplane is fairly recent, dating to just 1799. There were two scientific investigations into fixed-wing aviation prior to that time, but they led nowhere. About 875 CE, scientist/inventor Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas built a set of fixed wings and made a free flight in Cordova, Spain. In the 1480s, artist/inventor Leonardo Da Vinci studied mechanical flight. In both cases, however, no one preserved or continued the work of these brilliant men. Only a few short references in Islamic histories document the flight of Ibn Firnas. Da Vinci's notebooks in which he recorded his work in aviation were scattered and only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, too late to be of any use.

It wasn't until Sir George Cayley designed, built, and flew several fixed-wing flying machines between 1799 and 1853 that aviation took root as a scientific endeavor. Cayley's published writings laid a foundation for the scientists that followed him, upon which they built a body of knowledge about mechanical flight. This, in turn, inspired the work of the Wright brothers. This timeline summarizes the events that led from Cayley's work in 1799 to the Wrights' first powered flights in 1903.

  • The First Airplanes, 1799 to 1853 – Experiments prove the feasibility of a flying craft with fixed (instead of flapping or whirling) wings to generate lift.
  • Powering Up, 1854 to 1879 – Designers begin to test various types of engines to propel their airplanes.
  • Airmen and Chauffers, 1880 to 1898 – Two schools of thought arise on control. Should airplanes be balanced in the air by skilled pilots, or should designers create craft that are inherently stable?
  • The Road to Kitty Hawk, 1899 to 1903 – The Wright brothers experiment with a series of gliders, teach themselves to fly, and make the first controlled and sustained flights.





Winter and Spring The Wright brothers consider methods to twist the wings of an aircraft or change the angle of attack, simultaneously increasing the lift on one side of the aircraft while decreasing the lift on the other.  All the methods they can imagine, however, seem too heavy or too complex.

May 30Wilbur Wright writes the Smithsonian asking for published materials on aeronautics. He is answered by Richard Rathbun, who sends four pamphlets and a list of other publications.

JuneWilbur Wright sells a customer a bicycle inner tube, then toys with the small rectangular box that it came in while he talks to the customer. Wilbur notices that when he squeezes together the opposing corners, the box assumes a helicoidal twist. In his mind’s eye, he sees the top and the bottom of the box as the wings of a biplane with the ends twisting in opposite directions.

June through August Samuel Langley and Charles Manly make additional flights with Aerodromes Nos. 5 and 6.

July — The Wright brothers build a biplane kite with a wingspan of 6 feet (183 centimeters) and control lines to twist the wings in flight. When tested by Wilbur, it works as planned.  Unable to contain his enthusiasm, he pedals miles out into the country side to find Orville, who is on a camping trip with friends. Immediately the brothers begin planning a man-carrying version using data tables developed by Otto Lilienthal to achieve the necessary lift.

September 30 Percy Pilcher dies in a crash of his Hawk, just as he is preparing to test a powered airplane.

November 27 — Looking for a place to test-fly a glider, Wilbur Wright writes the United States Weather Bureau and inquires about locations with high winds. The weather bureau sends him the Monthly Weather Review fpr August and September, including wind tables for 150 different locations in the United States.

Wilbur's letter to the Smithsonian requesting information on aeronautics.

The floating workshop from which Langley launched his Aerodromes.

Wilbur's drawing of his 1899 kite.

Percy Pilcher with his Hawk glider in 1898.

The Monthly Weather Review for September, 1899.

To see an animated demo of Wilbur's inner tube box experiment, click on the image.

Langely Aerodrome No. 5.

Flying a replica of the 1899 kite.

The patent drawing of Pilcher's powered plane. By the time he built it, the design had evolved to a triplane with straight, rectangular  wings.


Spring and Summer — The Wrights plan and build parts for their first glider.

May 13Wilbur Wright writes Octave Chanute and asks for advice concerning where to test a glider. Chanute suggest several places, among then the barrier islands on the Eastern seaboard. Wilbur consults the wind tables in the Monthly Weather Review and finds Kitty Hawk, North Carolina sixth on the list.

August 3Wilbur Wright writes to the weather station at Kitty Hawk, asking for information on weather and lodging.

August 16 Joseph Dosher, the chief of the Kitty Hawk weather station, responds to Wilbur’s letter. Dosher also refers Wilbur’s letter to William Tate, the county commissioner and former postmaster. Tate also writes Wilbur, providing more details about Kitty Hawk

September 13Wilbur Wright arrives in Kitty Hawk, stays with the Tates, and begins to assemble a glider.

September 28Orville Wright arrives with camping gear, food, and a mandolin. He also brings a camera, the first ever seen in Kitty Hawk. The brother stay in a 12-foot by 22-foot tent, about a mile from the Tates. They assemble a biplane glider with movable front elevator — they have located the elevator at the front. They begin to test the glider as a kite. Orville begins a humorous correspondence with his sister Katharine, whom he is very close to. Wilbur will not let Orville fly until he’s sure the glider is safe.

October 10 — The Wrights experience a setback when the wind picks up the glider and smashes it.  But they rebuild the aircraft and resume their tests. 

October — The Wrights send 10-year-old Tom Tate, William’s nephew up on the glider as they fly it like a kite. Later on, just before they leave to go back home, Wilbur makes about a dozen free flights.

October 23 — The Wrights break camp and head for Dayton. The are puzzled by failure of glider to produce the lift they had calculated, but they are encouraged by success of the wing warping and elevator controls.

A nautical map of Kitty Hawk, NC from 1900.

Kitty Hawk Bay in 1900.

The Wright brothers' camp near Kitty Hawk in 1900. Wilbur is "washing" a pan in the sand.

The 1900 Wright glider after the wind wrecked it.

Before they left Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers made a series of free flights with a pilot aboard. Above is a  reenactment of one of these flights.

The US Coast Guard Lifesaving Station at Kitty Hawk,. NC doubled as the US Dept. of Agriculture Weather Station.

Bill Tate (left, seated), his wife, daughters (right, seated)(, and a friend (right,standing) on their porch in Kitty Hawk.

The Wright brothers flew their first glider mostly as a kite.

Tom Tate posed in front of the 1900 glider with a large Drum fish that he had caught.

Wilbur Wright publishes a technical paper on gliding in British and German journals.

Ferdinand Ferber, France, builds and tests a crude copy of a Lilienthal glider, but it is unsuccessful.

The Wrights plan another trip to Kitty Hawk and begin to build their second glider. Because the first didn't produce enough lift, this glider will have a much larger wing area and a deeper camber.

Octave Chanute asks the Wrights to work with Edward Huffaker and George Spratt (of Pennsylvania) to test a glider  in Kitty Hawkt hat Huffaker is building for Chanute.

June — The Wrights hire Charlie Taylor to run their bicycle shop in their absence.

July 10Wrights arrive at Kitty Hawk and establish camp at Kill Devil Hills four miles to south, then build a shed to serve as a hangar. They are plagued by mosquitoes and Edward Huffaker. Orville writes to Katharine that he can’t decide which is worse, the mosquitoes or Huffaker.

July 27 — The Wrights test their glider with Huffaker and Spratt helping. It doesn’t fly as well as their first glider, once again it does not produce the expected amount of lift. It also shows a pronounced tendency to dive or climb. The Wrights begin to suspect that Otto Lilienthal's lift tables are wrong. The diving/climbing problem, they deduce, is caused by their wing design. The deep camber causes the center of pressure to reverse itself quickly as the wing's angle of attack changes. This in turn causes the nose of the glider to pitch up or down. The brothers truss the glider wings to take some of the curve out of the ribs and reduce the camber.

August 4 Octave Chanute arrives at the Wright’s camp.

August 8 — The Wrights test their trussed 1901 glider and it performs reasonably well, although it isn't as responsive to its controls as the 1900 Wright glider. Orville makes his first flights.

August 9 — When Wilbur Wright attempts a turn, the glider behaves oddly. The increased drag on the "high" wing (the wing generating the most lift) causes the glider to yaw in the opposite direction of the intended turn. The Wrights are perplexed.

Mid-AugustChanute, Huffaker, and Spratt depart the Wright camp

August 20 — The Wrights, discouraged, break camp. Wilbur comments to Orville that it could a thousand years before manned flight is a reality. Later, Wilbur remembers his dark mood, "We doubted that we would ever resume our experiments...At this time, I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but it would not be in our lifetime."

September 18 — At Chanute’s request, and sister Katharine's insistence, Wilbur Wright delivers a paper to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, Illinois. Wilbur suggests to the group that the Lilienthal data on lift and wing shapes is wrong.

Fall and Winter — The Wrights build a wind tunnel and conduct their own research on wing surfaces, testing over 200 shapes. They find that Otto Lilienthal was, in fact, correct in his measurements of lift and drag. The lift problems that plague the Wrights are due to another important number used to design airplanes. It is called Smeaton's Coefficient and it is essential to calculating the pressure of the wind on a wing. Jonathon Smeaton, the author of the coefficient, had been wide of the mark when he proposed its value in 1758.

Ferdinand Ferber tests his Lilienthal-type glider.

Kill Devil Hills, south of Kitty Hawk, NC.

Orville shows the 1901 Wright glider. At the time, this was the largest gliding machine anyone had ever attempted to fly.

Dan Tate (left) and Edward Huffaker (right) launch Wilbur (center) aboard the 1901 glider.

For safety, Wilbur attempted to follow the slopes of the dunes when gliding, often flying only a few feet off the ground.

Huffaker built an experimental glider to Chanute's specs, but, substituted cardboard tubes for wood in the airframe. The glider all but dissolved in the first rain.

The Wright "lift balance" measured the lift produced by a wing shape.

The "drift balance" measured the ratio of lift to drag. 

Charlie Taylor (left) and Orville Wright (center) at work in the Wright Cycle Company.

The Wright camp at Kill Devil Hills. Octave Chanute (left), Edward Huffaker (left center) and Orville Wright (right center) are seated, Wilbur Wright (right) is standing.

Wilbur and Orville fly their 1901 glider as a kite.

Wilbur flying the trussed 1901 glider. The trussing enabled the Wrights to make some respectable straight-ahead flights, but the glider did not behave well in turns.

Wilbur and the 1901 glider after a hard landing.

A replica of the Wright wind tunnel. The original was discarded.

Both balances were designed to be read from the top, looking down through the window in the top of the wind tunnel.

The Wrights plan their third glider, this time with a much greater scientific understanding of aeronautics and wing design.

Ferdinand Ferber, learns of Octave Chanute's work from a published lecture, contacts Chanute, and Chanute tells Ferber of the Wright brothers. Ferber begins to correspond with the brothers and builds a copy of their 1901 glider as he understands it from the photos Chanute has sent him. Although Ferber is aware the Wright glider had roll control, he judges it useless and does not include it in his own aircraft. His flight tests are less than satisfactory.

August 28 — The Wrights arrive in Kitty Hawk, repair their shed and build an extension.

September 8 — The Wrights begin to assemble their new glider. It has a fixed tail that the brothers hope will overcome the wing drag that caused the 1901 glider to yaw in the opposite direction of the intended turn.

September 19 — The Wrights begin testing the 1902 glider. Its performance and control response is much improved over their previous gliders, but when making a slow turn the fixed tail causes the turn to become tighter and tighter. The glider spins in on one wing in a frightening maneuver the brothers dub "well-digging."

September 23Orville Wright crashes and nearly destroys the 1902 glider, but the Wrights rebuild it.

September 29Wrights resume tests with repaired glider.

September 30George Spratt and Lorin Wright arrive at camp for a visit.

October 2Orville Wright suggests converting the fixed tail to a movable rudder to eliminate the well-digging problem. Wilbur agrees and they do so. They connect the rudder control to the wing warping system.

October 5  — Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring arrive at the Wright camp, bringing with them another glider, this one built by Charles H. Lamson.  It has oscillating wings that Herring and Chanute hope will make it stable in the air.

October 8 — The Wright's modified glider work perfectly, with no tendency to spin or "well-dig." It outperforms the Lansom glider by a wide margin.

October 17Augustus Herring leaves Kitty Hawk and visits Samuel Langley in Virginia, looking for work. He tells Langley of the Wright’s success with their new machine.

October 19Samuel Langley cables the Wrights, requesting information on their "special curved surfaces" and asking to come to Kitty Hawk. The Wrights decline.

October 28 — The Wrights break camp, already planning a powered aircraft.

Winter — The Wrights inquire at automobile companies for a suitable gasoline engine for their aircraft, but cannot find one that meets their needs. Charlie Taylor begins building an aircraft engine for the Wrights.

DecemberSamuel Langley asks Octave Chanute to help him get a foot in the door with the Wrights, but Chanute can’t get them to talk to Langley.

Ferber's 1902 glider was based on the Wrights' 1901 design.

Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1902, the Wrights added to the length of their wooden hangar to accommodate the longer wingspan of their new glider.

The Wrights kite their 1902 glider to measure its lift and drag. For the first time, the performance of the machine agrees with their calculations.

The 1902 Wright flight crew from left to right: Octave Chanute, Orville Wright, Wilbur Wright, George Spratt, Augustus Herring, and Dan Tate.

After some experimentation the Wrights convert the fixed tail of their glider to a movable rudder. This, together with wing warping and the elevator, makes the glider controllable in all three axes – roll, pitch, and yaw . For the first time, their machine can turn safely in the air.

The first Wright airplane engine was designed for simplicity so the Wright's mechanic. Charlie Taylor, could build it with the limited metalworking equipment they had on hand. Nonetheless it incorporated some innovations, among them one of the first aluminum engine blocks.

It's crude construction, however, led to a poor performance.

The interior of the Wright's camp building.

The 1902 Wright Glider initially had a fixed tail that the Wrights had hoped would solve the turning problem. It didn't.

Chanute brought a glider with "oscillating" wings and had Herring test-fly the machine. It did not perform well.

Wilbur soars out from the dune aboard the modified glider. Note the discarded Lansom machine at the bottom left.

Orville recovers from a right turn. Note the right wing tips are warped down and the rudder is angled to the left.

The cockpit of Langely's Aerodrome. By the end of 1902, the project was over a year behind schedule and Langley was out of funds.

February Ferdinand Ferber, France,  publishes an account of his gliding experience with a Wright-type glider in L'Aérophile.

WinterThe Wrights begin to design their first aircraft propellers. The calculations are complex and confusing, and there are many heated arguments.

April The Wrights complete their first set of propellers.

AprilOctave Chanute lectures the Aéro-Club de France on the gliding experiments of the Wright brothers. They are astonished at the Wrights' accomplishments and the news galvanizes a number of them into action. Chanute also gives the club the impression that the Wrights are his "pupils."

April In the magazine La Locomotion, Ernest Archdeacon, France, proposes a "gliding competition" for French aviation enthusiasts to encourage them to catch up to the Wright brothers. Archdeacon later subscribes 3000 francs to be used as prize money.

Summer Ferdinand Ferber, who has continued to test and improve his Wright-type glider, attaches a  6 hp motor and a primitive propeller to it. He attempts to fly the aircraft tethered to a crane, but the flight tests are unsuccessful.

August Octave Chanute publishes the details of the Wright brothers' 1902 glider in L'Aérophile.

August 8Samuel Langley successfully flies a quarter-scale gasoline-powered model of his man-carrying Great Aerodrome.

September 25 — The Wrights return to Kitty Hawk.

September 28Wrights practice flying with the 1902 glider and build a new hanger for the Flyer.

October 7Samuel Langley tests his man-carrying Great Aerodrome on the Potomac, with Charles Manly at the controls. The machine plunges into the river. Langley claims that the airplane snagged on its launch mechanism, but analysis of photos show that the wings are not strong enough to hold their shape. The front wing deforms seconds after launch, angling the Aerodrome down.

October 23George Spratt visits the Wright’s camp.

November 4 — When the Wrights test their assembled Flyer for the first time, it damages both propeller shafts. George Spratt takes the shafts back to Dayton with instructions for Charlie Taylor to rebuild them.

November 5Octave Chanute visits the Wright camp.

November 8Samuel Langley asks the War Department for more money to rebuild and test his Aerodrome again. He gets it.

November 20Wrights receive the new propeller shafts, but find the drive sprockets come loose on the shafts when the Wrights "swing the props" to start the engine..

November 21 — The Wrights elect to use bicycle tire cement to glue the sprockets to the shafts. The cement works.

November 28 — After the Wrights make several tests, one of the new propeller shafts crack. Orville takes it back to Dayton himself to remake it.

December 8Samuel Langley tests his Great Aerodrome again. And again it fails. Charles Manly is almost drowned in the crash.

December 11Orville Wright returns to Kitty Hawk from Dayton with new shafts made of solid spring steel.

December 14 — The Wrights try to fly their machine with Wilbur at the controls. But he misjudges the effect of the elevator, the machine shoots up 15 feet, stalls, and plows into the sand 105 feet from the point of takeoff. Neither Wilbur or Orville consider this a true flight since the airplane was never under Wilbur's control.

December 17 — At 10:35 am, Orville Wright  makes the first powered flight in a fully controllable aircraft capable of sustaining itself in the air. The flight  lasts just 12 seconds and stretches only 120 feet (37 meters). In the next few hours, Wilbur and Orville make four flights, the longest 59 seconds and 852 feet (260 meters). After the fourth flight, a gust of wind rolls the aircraft over and smashes it. Wrights send a telegram to their father, Bishop Milton Wright, informing him of their success. Katharine cables Octave Chanute telling him of her brothers' first powered flights.

December 27 Octave Chanute invites Wilbur Wright to speak about his powered flights to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

December 28 Wilbur Wright declines Octave Chanute's invitation, saying, "We are giving no pictures nor descriptions of machine or methods at present."

The Wrights were the first to realize that propellers were wings that spun in a circle. Consequently, their props were cambered (curved) like wings.

Ernest Archdeacon sits astride his "Aeromotorcyclette," a propeller-powered motorcycle.

Chanute published these drawings of the 1902 Wright Glider, but in accordance with the Wrights' wishes, he did not elaborate on the control system.

To test the design of his Great Aerodrome, Langley flew this quarter-size model. It was the first successful flight of a gasoline-powered aircraft.

While the Wright brothers were constructing the powered Flyer, they made practice glides with the 1902 glider. They modified the rudder so it would behave more like the Flyer.

Langley's Great Aerodrome launches for the first time. The machine slid into the Potomac River "like a handful of wet cement" according to one newspaper account.

Samuel Langley (right) and Charles Manly (left), the pilot of the Great Aerodrome. Note the compass that Manly has sewn into his pants.

Orville inspects the reassembled Wright Flyer.

After the 14 December flight attempt, the front skids supporting the elevator cracked on impact. They were easily repaired.

The fourth and last flight of 17 December covered 852 feet (260 meters). The Wrights considered this the only true flight of the day because the Flyer remained aloft long enough to prove that it was capable of controlled and sustained powered flight.

Some of the many calculations the Wright brothers made while designing and testing their propellers.

One of several photos taken by Octave Chanute as he observed the Wright flying experiments in 1902.

Ferber tested a motorized version of his glider while it was attached to a counterbalanced crane to see whether the propulsion system could produce enough lift for flight and whether the controls were effective. It lacked both lift and control.

The Wright brothers building their Flyer at their camp at the base of Kill Devil Hills.

Workers assemble the Great Aerodrome on its launching track atop a specially-built floating workshop and hangar.

The completed 1903 Wright Flyer in front of its hangar. The Wrights had to remove the elevator (front) and the rudder (back) to stow the Flyer.

As soon as the Great Aerodrome left the catapult on 8 December 1903, the rear wings folded. The tail of the aircraft dropped and it slid backwards into the Potomac River.

The Wright Flyer on its launching track on 14 December. Because the winds were lighter than they would have liked, the Wright brothers set up the launching rail on the slope of a dune.

The Wright Flyer takes off from level ground for the first time on 17 December 1903.

The telegram that Orville and Wilbur sent to their father Milton announcing their success.

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