Uncommon History: A Wright Brothers Primer, Part 1

This Centennial of Flight finds me grateful to the Wrights for their ability to attack dangerous trial-and-error with analytical science and ultimately open the door to the world of flight we so enjoy. It was a longer road than most might imagine, full of fascinating history few people know…

We all know the story of how two bicycle-shop brothers from Ohio built and flew the first successful heavier-than-air aircraft from the dunes of North Carolina on December 17, 1903. From our vantage point of a century later, though, many of us fail to appreciate the meticulous work that led to the dawn of aviation … much of it done not by the Wrights themselves, but those who had come before.

This is by no means to diminish the exacting science and “out of the box” thinking done by the brothers Wright, for it was they (like all good scientists) who combined the knowledge and experience of their predecessors in new ways, invented a means of controlling bank for turns, and took the intuitive leap to add a moveable rudder, as an afterthought, that was the key to successful, three-axis control. Then, since no engine was available that met their need for lightweight power, they commissioned an expert to build one for them. Only then was the “miracle at Kitty Hawk” attainable.

Sir George Caley is considered the father of modern aerodynamics. In 1799 he designed an airplane that essentially set the standard for most successful aircraft to this day. He replaced moving, birdlike wings with a fixed monoplane wing, movable tail control surfaces, and a separate (from the wing structure) propulsion device. The 1799 machine would have used oar-like “flappers” under the wings for propulsion…if it had worked.

In 1853, Caley built a more successful towed glider design that carried the gentleman’s coachman aloft behind a team of horses, testing his employee’s loyalty and exhibiting some measure of stability, if not independent propulsion and control.

Caley also evaluated various wing designs with a device that was whirled around manually to simulate relative wind (similar to the U-Control airplanes many of us got nauseous with as a kid). With this crude “wind tunnel” testing, he made the first scientific observations of the effect of wing camber on lift.

Building on Caley’s work, Englishmen William Sanford Henson designed his Aerial Steam Carriage in 1842. The craft, first in history to feature propellers as the primary means of propulsion, called for a wingspan of 150 feet and a 25- to 30-horsepower engine driving two propellers.

Henson patented the device and partnered with countryman John Stringfellow to improve the engine. Meanwhile, Henson chartered the Aerial Transport Company with lofty plans of flying cargo to China.

Unfortunately for Henson’s investors, the Carriage was never built. Henson lost interest (as did the Company’s stockholders!) and left England for that home of fleeing malcontents, America. Stringfellow indeed improved the engine design and test-flew models with mixed success, including the first recorded triplane design.

In 1874 Felix Du Temple’s steam-powered monoplane became credited as the world’s first powered aircraft to fly with a man aboard. The tractor monoplane employed dihedral and other aerodynamic refinements for stability … and a retractable tricycle landing gear.

In Brest, France, the du Temple airplane lifted a few feet off the ground and flew with a sailor aboard as “pilot.” The flight originated on a downslope, not level ground, and there was no real control system for the passenger-pilot. Hence, this “first” is not considered to be the beginning of successful, manned flight.

Although his glider designs never flew, English scientist Frances Wenham is credited with inventing and using the first wind tunnel to study airfoil design. Wenham’s work helped define the “right” amount of wing camber for later, successful airplanes.

The first variable-pitch propeller, controlled by oil flow (like most modern variable-pitch props) and using data like that obtained in Wenham’s wind tunnel to determine optimum settings for takeoff, climb and cruise, was designed by Frenchman J. Croce-Spinelli in the 1870s.

Next time, it gets even more interesting as Lilienthal and Chanute move crucial steps forward toward controlled powered flight.