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Of all of Ohio's inventors, two young men from Dayton should soar high above all others. They became the epitome of American ingenuity, enterprise, and determination in their achievement to fly. Just a few weeks before the Wright brothers made their first successful slight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina with just a few spectators, another inventor, Sam Langley, with the blessings and financial support of the United States government, made a callosal failure in his attempt before 100s of spectators.
The Wright brothers spent about $1,000 of their own money to design, build, fabricate and transport their machines, including the numerous test kites to the east coast for testing. They bought fabric by the yard, they picked up wood at their local lumber yard, they ordered a large block of aluminum from a refinery in Pennsylvania and made an engine that worked. All of this was done between themselves, and one employee that helped them in their bicycle shop.
Sam Langley's "aerodrome" had both the federal government and the Smithsonian Institute's backing behind him. This federal government sponsored failure spent more than $70,000 and when Langley's pilot finally decided the weather was exactly right, all of the days media were there to cover the event. Perhaps with the reviews that came in the next day, he may have wished he had taken his aerodrome to Kittyhawk where only a few lifeguards lived. And the only media covering Kittyhawk was a 5x7 view camera the brothers had bought to document their efforts. To cover the cost of that camera, the brothers agreed to sell other cameras in their bicycle shop back in Dayton.
That one photograph taken on December 17, 1903 by John Daniels, a member of the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station would become one of the greatest photographs ever taken. But in 1903, no-one but the Wright family ever saw the image. It wouldn't be until much later that interest in the Wright brothers would recognize exactly what they had achieved.
In that famous photograph, you can see several things. First, Orville is flying the plane. Wilbur is running along side the plane. Underneath the flying machine, is a long straight line which is the rail the with some metal strapping on top. This rail is what the machine rode on. Directly in the middle is what looks like a stool. It is actually a support to hold up the right wing to keep it from tipping while they get the machine ready. To the right of that is a box, a shovel, a metal can with a hammer and nails. The box has the electric coil used to spark the plugs as while the propellers are rotated. The shovel was used to bury parts of the rail to keep it in position.
On the morning this image was taken at Kill Devil Hills, there was a strong headwind and it was cold enough to freeze the standing water in and around the camp. Both brothers have heavy sweaters on under their coats. The first flight which took off at 10:35 was extremely erratic as they described it. The wind was giving them fits. It lasted just 12 seconds and went 120 feet from where it first lifted off the ground.
After that first flight, the group picked up the machine and carried back to the starting point, secured it, and went back to the shed to warm up. After about 20 minutes they noted the wind had died down. It was Wilbur's turn. With less wind, his flight was more stable and it went 175 feet. The took the plane back for another go while the wind remained stable. This time Orville took the control and managed to go 200 feet. On the fourth and last attempt, Wilbur flew just over a half mile and was in the air almost 1 minute.
As the brothers were discussing whether to take another trip, a gust of wind came up and tossed the plane across the sand. John T. Daniels who had taken the photograph of the first flight, had been steadying the plane as the brothers discussed whether to fly again or not. A strong blast of wind came up so fast that Daniels could not let go quick enough becoming tangled in the wires. He was tossed head-over-heals with the plane. Finally both he and the plane stopped tumbling and the brothers were able to reach the tangled mess of broken spars in time to free Daniels a bit bruised and scraped, but nothing broken. The plane was a different story. Almost all of the ribs in the wings had splintered and the chain guides used to power the propellers were bent. It would be the last time the plane would ever fly. In fact, the plane would remain in storage in Dayton until many years later when the plane was repaired for a long-term display at the Kensington Science Museum in London beginning in 1928.
In the years after the historic flight at Kitty Hawk, a feud developed between the Wright Brothers and the Smithsonian Institute. Remember, the Smithsonian helped sponsor the failed Langley plane. They nonetheless insisted that plane could fly and more than 10 years later, changes were made to the Langley flyer and another attempt was made at flight. With those changes in place the plane did fly. However feeling somewhat vindicated, the Smithsonian wanted to put the Langley Flyer on display in the Institute, but they insisted the plane be restored to its original configuration. On the placque underneath the plane the described the Langley flyer as the "first" heavier than air plane to fly, which completely ignored the Wright Brothers success.
In a letter published in 1928 in the U.S. Air Services, Orville explained his reasons for sending the 1903 Wright Flyer to England. Orville cited the research data they had accumulated prior to the flight. The data of their test flights. In 1910 the brothers had offered the Wright Flyer to the Smithsonian for display, but the institution did not want it. He also cited several court cases in which the brothers sued infringers on their patents and how the judge had determined them to be the "pioneers" of practical flying.
The original Wright Flyer, which is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, would not return until after Orville's death in 1948.
Despite owning multiple cameras and taking 1000s of images during their lifetime, the brothers were extremely shy about having their own photograph taken. In fact, there are extremely few images of them either together or individual. Once the fame of their accomplishment became known, photographers attempted to photograph the plane and the brothers, but they would go out of their way to insure these photographic attempts were thwarted.
The Wright Brothers acquired a high quality camera manufactured by the Gundlach Optical Company (Korona-V). While Kodak had come out with a new roll film camera, the Korona-V took only a single photograph on a 5x7 inch piece of glass which had a light-sensitive coating. Orville paid $85 for the camera with one film holder, camera body, shutter and lens, and carrying case. The shutter was activated by squeezing a rubber ball that operated a cylinder that lifted a lever which tripped the spring-loaded shutter. After their historic flight John Daniels was asked if he took the photograph. In the excitement, he couldn't remember if he had squeezed the bulb or not.
Many of the images the Wright brothers took of their test kites and powered flights were damaged in the 1913 flood that devastated much of south and southwest Ohio.
In 1900 Wilbur and Orville had made the decision to spend the necessary time and resources to build a powered air machine. Realizing that it would require much testing, the decided there were three requirements: sandy ground to help reduce injuries when they crashed; steady wind when they tried to fly, especially with their first kites; and, some privacy. The brothers were limited in their travels to the Midwest and even that was modest. Their search began by asking others that had been studying flying for far longer than the brothers.
The first contact went out to Octave Chanute, a civil engineer and a lifelong student of flying. His experiments with flying would be initially adopted by the Wright Brothers. When asked by the brothers about their requirements, Octave suggested that perhaps either coastal Florida or California might fit their requirements. California was out because it was too far to travel. Florida didn't seem to have any sandy hills. Octave then suggested perhaps they should investigate the coastal regions of South Carolina.
Wilbur then sent an inquiry to the United States Weather Bureau regarding prevailing winds around the country. To their astonishment, the bureau provided monthly wind speeds from all 100 bureau weather stations around the country. With this information, one place stood out: coastal South Carolina on a narrow strip of sand known as the Outer Banks where a Life-Saving Station was located called Kitty Hawk. At the same time the weather bureau realizing that Kitty Hawk seemed to fit the brothers needs as well, contacted the postmaster at Kitty Hawk and suggested he write the brothers and describe Kitty Hawk.
Retired Kitty Hawk postmaster William Tate sent a descriptive letter to Wilbur in mid August, 1900, suggesting that Kitty Hawk might be exactly what he was looking for to conduct experiments with their flying machine. Of prime importance was the details of the sandy hills, the lack of trees or other obstructions and the isolated nature of Kitty Hawk. He then gave directions on how to reach the Outer Banks and the best time to be there was September and October. By the end of August that same year, the brothers had built a test kite and Wilbur was the first to leave to make preparations for their testing that would take place in September when Orville would arrive. Three years and a few months later, the Wright Brothers would be making their first powered test flights from this place.