Humans dreamed of flying thousands of years before any individual ever imagined it would be possible. Dreams of flying occurred in all civilizations and eras, to people of both genders and all ages. There is something in the human soul that longs to free oneself from gravity, to leap into the air, and speed along with the ease of the wind. Dreams of flying may be intoxicating...or terrifying. Just like flying itself.
The mere thought of people flying probably took hold in prehistoric societies. Surely hunters wished to soar above the earth to spot their prey. And primitive warriors, about to engage in tribal warfare, must have wanted wings to see whatever lay on the other side of the next hill.
It is amazing that human flight was delayed until 1783 for lighter-than-air and 1903 for heavier-than-air flight. The materials with which to make balloons had been available for thousands of years. Simple gliding flight might have been possible for an equally long period, had there been someone with the insight to adapt the basic model provided by soaring birds into wood and fabric.
Perhaps more surprising than the delay in achieving balloon flight was the 120-year interval between the Montgolfier brothers' efforts in 1783 and the success of the Wright brothers in 1903. During that 12-decade period, there were numerous advances in science, and many brilliant individuals put their minds to accomplishing powered flight. It would seem, in retrospect, that with a concentrated effort to build on the ideas of Sir George Cayley and others, flight might have been achieved. Octave Chanute, a nineteenth century patron of flight, hoped to be the driving force behind such a group effort. He saw himself as a central clearinghouse for ideas on flight and hoped that some magic combination of personalities, brains, and ideas would solve the problem of heavier-than-air flight.
Chanute was in fact correct--it was a magic combination of personalities, brains, and ideas that solved the problem of flight, but in the persons of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Instead of the collective effort that Chanute envisaged in which his own ideas might be combined with those of Otto Lilienthal, Clement Ader, John Montgomery, the Wrights, Augustus Herring, and Samuel Pierpont-Langley to create--at last--a flying machine, it was the synergistic effort of the two quiet, reserved, and very businesslike brothers from Ohio that solved the mystery of flight.
If the 120-year interval between balloon flight and powered flight is remarkable for its length, the four years in which the Wright brothers worked to create a successful aircraft is even more remarkable for its brevity. In that time, they went from inquisitive inventors seeking information about the experiments of others to the forefront of aviation, completely outstripping all competition. At the time of their great success at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, the Wrights were at least a decade ahead of their most advanced competitors and light-years ahead of the others.
The Wright brothers obtained this lead in part by virtue of their systematic, scientific approach, but the real advantage they possessed--the one that no other experimenter had even begun to achieve--was their insight into the basic problems of flying an airplane. They were able to calculate very precisely what would be needed in terms of lift, power, and most important, control. Unlike every other experimenter of the time, the Wrights understood that an aircraft would have to be flown in three dimensions. It was not going to simply be steered with an oar like a rowboat or chauffeured about the sky with the turn of a steering wheel. They also knew they would have to learn to fly, and they became proficient at piloting their gliders before they ever attempted powered flight.
Unfortunately for the Wrights, and fortunately for the horde of soon-to-be competitors, their basic understanding of flight would be partially revealed to anyone who watched them fly. It was obvious to the knowledgeable that the Wrights were controlling their aircraft in three dimensions, about the three axes of flight, and that their piloting was expert. All that remained for would-be competitors was to adopt the general Wright design and either copy their control system directly or cobble together one that derived from it but appeared different enough that it could be defended in court.
Trouble for the Wright Brothers
As brilliant as the Wright brothers were as engineers, scientists, and pilots, they were hopelessly naive when it came to business and law. The Wrights patented their control system and presumed that those who used their patented system in other aircraft designs would pay a reasonable royalty. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Wrights became embroiled in legal battles that sapped their collective strength and led to stagnation in their design process. In the meantime, hundreds of others took their basic ideas and, in many instances, improved upon them. The ten-year lead they had possessed in 1903 had dwindled to perhaps three or four years by 1908 and had disappeared entirely by 1912, the year of Wilbur's death. By that time, the basic Wright design to which they had clung was not only obsolete, but it had also gained a reputation as a pilot killer because of a long string of fatal accidents. The Wrights as inventors were passé, but all of Europe and some of America was ablaze with competitors, who daily coaxed their craft to new records in height, speed, altitude, and distance. New manufacturers, such as Glenn Curtiss, Louis Blériot, A. V. Roe, and many more, appeared with new designs and new approaches.
The Wrights had set the century of flight on fire in 1903, altering the course of world history. Orville would live until 1948: He had the opportunity to witness the introduction of jet aircraft, supersonic flight, and huge passenger planes. On a more personal level, he, unlike Wilbur, would live to see their true achievement--an invention that changed the course of history--recognized all over the world. For more about the history of flight check out World War I Flight.