1899 Wright Kite
 

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his was Wilbur's first recorded experiment in aeronautics, flying a biplane kite to investigate whether or not an aircraft could be rolled around its longitudinal axis by twisting the wings. Later, Orville described the kite as a model glider: "This model consisted of superposed planes [i.e., a biplane] measuring five feet from tip to tip and about thirteen inches from front to rear. The model was built and, as I remember it, was tested in the latter part of July, 1899.... I was not myself present."

Orville may have been mistaken about the kite measurements; in his first letter to Octave Chanute (13 May 1900), Wilbur describes the kite: "My experiments hitherto with this apparatus have been confined to machines spreading about 15 square feet on surface..." Wilbur had studied Chanute's 1896 biplane glider and indicated that his kite was built along the same lines. Chanute used an aspect (wingspan to chord) ratio of 4:1, as did Wilbur when he later built the 1900 Wright glider.  It's likely that Wilbur used this same aspect ratio for the 1899 kite,  giving it a wingspan of 72 inches and a chord of 18 inches.

The 1899 Wright Kite specifications:

  • 6 ft (1.8 m) wingspan
  • 1.5 ft (46 cm) chord
  • Camber unknown
  • Separation unknown; probably 1.5 ft (46 cm)
  • Rear elevator, size unknown
  • Length unknown, probably 3 to 4 ft (91 to 122 cm)
  • Weight unknown, probably 3 to 4 lbs (1.4 to 1.8 kg)

Whatever its dimensions, this was a steerable kite with four control lines attached to the front corners of the biplane assembly.  These lines were attached to two sticks. When Wilbur angled the sticks in opposite directions, the wings moved like a scissors (as viewed from the top). This movement twisted the wings of the kite, turning one set of wingtips up and the other set down. This in turn caused the kite to roll, proving that a manned aircraft could be rolled in the same manner.

The brothers originally referred to this as wing twisting, but Chanute later dubbed is "wing warping" and the name stuck. Orville took credit for the idea of wing warping, but credited Wilbur with inventing the implementation of wing warping while twisting a cardboard box. The Wrights used the same "scissors action" helicoidal wing warping on three full sized gliders built between 1900 and 1902. After concluding his experiment, Wilbur hung the kite in the bicycle shop and scavenged pieces for other projects. In 1905, the brothers burned its remains with other trash.

See more images of the 1899 Wright Kite in our Virtual Hangar.

References:

  •  Wright, Orville, "How We Invented the Airplane." (from depositions in Montgomery vs. U.S. 13 Jan 1920 and 2 Feb 1921; in Kelly, Fred C. (editor) How We Invented the Airplane, an Illustrated History. Dover Publications, New York, 1953, p 12-13).
  • Kelly, Fred C. The Wright Brothers, a Biography. Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1943, p 49.
  • McFarland, Marvin W. (ed) The papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1953, pp 8-12, 1183; Orville's illustrations of the 1899 Kite are on pages 9-10.

 [Submitted by Joe W. McDaniel]
 


Wilbur built this kite in 1899 to test whether warping the wings would roll the craft right and left. The kite was controlled from the ground by four cables attached to two  sticks.


Flying a replica of the 1899 Wright Kite.

Click the image above to see a short video of the 1899 Wright Kite in flight.

The kite had a small horizontal tail attached to back middle strut. This was the last flying machine built by the Wrights to have a horizontal tail in the back until over a decade later, when the Wright Company began to manufacture the Wright Model B airplane.

Rolling the kite. Note how the wings move with a scissors action – the top wing has moved clockwise (as viewed from the top) while the bottom wing has moved counterclockwise. This action imparts a helicoidal twist to the flexible wings, turning one set of wingtips up in the airstream and the other set down.

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