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[Inventions That Changed the World] The Wright Brothers’ Conquest of Air

[Inventions That Changed the World] The Wright Brothers’ Conquest of Air

KIM Jae-Yun

Nov. 9, 2011


Welcome to our video program. I'm Jae-Yun Kim from the Industry and Strategy Department I.

Aircraft are one of the world's most complex machines. Today's aircraft consist of more than 4 million different parts, and are themselves parts of a complex transportation infrastructure that shuttles five billion people around the world every year. Aircraft have changed daily life, and have expanded the borders of human exploration as far as outer space.

The first working airplane was invented and flown by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. In 1903, their first aircraft flew for 12 seconds above the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Scientists have devoted themselves to studying flight from Leonardo Da Vinci onwards, and in those 12 seconds, that dream came true.

Samuel Pierpont Langley is often mentioned as a footnote to the Wright brothers. A prominent astrophysicist, professor, and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Langley received a grant of US$50,000 from the US War Department to build a flying machine.

The resources of the Wright Brothers, in contrast, were extremely modest. Both of them were bicycle repairmen, and neither had formal scientific training, making their chances of success seem remote. They received no financial support. It was unreasonable for the Wrights to believe they could succeed where highly trained engineers and scientists with much greater resources had failed. All the odds were stacked in favor of Langley. Yet it was the Wright brothers who ultimately invented human flight. How was this possible?

The first key is to look at the task from a different perspective. Langley believed the key to flight, like in cars, was in the engine. According to him, developing a high thrust- generating engine and fitting it on a glider would make flight possible. Langley employed a rotary engine manufacturer to develop a high-efficiency engine for airplane use. After two years of failure, he developed a 50-horsepower engine in 1903.

The Wright brothers on the other hand sought flight control. To them, changes in the direction and speed of wind would make precise control difficult, even with a good engine.

After more than three years of research, the brothers worked out a system for three-axis control that is still used in airplanes today. The three-axis movement had an elevator to pitch the aircraft laterally, a rudder to yaw it vertically, and wing-warping to roll it around its longitudinal axis. Achieving stability proved harder than they thought. Pilots at the time relied on shifting the body right and left, but true flight in this manner would not work in extreme air conditions.

The brothers then took an idea from birds. While watching pigeons fly, Wilbur and Orville noticed that the birds kept adjusting the positions of their wings even in strong steady winds. The brothers began working to make an aircraft wing that could twist and turn like a bird's, and incorporated wing-warping. This became the origin of today's aileron fitted at the trailing edges of the upper wings of an airplane. The brothers invented a basic concept of flight control that is still used today.

While the Wright brothers considered airplanes as a completely new system, Langley and others approached planes more as an automobile in the sky. The brothers redefined the most crucial portion of the whole system, instead of taking an incremental approach.

This different approach is visible in the places they chose to conduct experiments. The Wrights asked the US National Weather Service to choose a site with the toughest wind conditions. Experimenting at a site with the toughest conditions would allow them to recognize problems when they failed, and find new solutions. Langley on the other hand conducted his experiments in calm air over the Potomac River to avoid fatal accidents.

On December 8, 1903, Langley flew a 50-horsepower Aerodrome, but the flight ended in failure. Nine days later, the Wright brothers launched their 12-horesepower flying machine, called the “Flyer,” and became the first to achieve human flight.

The second point was the issue of “scaling.” When the size of anything grows, it often faces new and unexpected problems. Langley made successful experimental flights with a model one fourth the size of Aerodrome. He thought the launch of a full-sized version would be successful given its high-performing engine. The Wright brothers experimented with a full-scale model from the beginning, knowing that doubling the size would induce problems in the engine and the aircraft itself. This reflected their experience as boys when they made toy helicopters for fun.

This shows that indiscriminately applying models to reality is likely to fail, as systems that work on one scale are not guaranteed to work on another. For example, in the display industry, developing a small ultra high definition display does not automatically mean that one can easily produce a large one with the same resolution.

The final point is the attitude toward problems. Langley approached flight as a task, believing that simply gathering the most talented people would result in the building of an aircraft. To the Wright brothers, however, flying was a dream. They willingly underwent difficulties even without financial support, and took great pleasure in each accomplishment made. When faced with a problem, they spent days in heated discussions. All this was possible due to their enthusiasm.

While Langley gave up airplane development following his failures in October and December in 1903, the Wright brothers spent three years going through thousands of failures, traveling from their hometown in Ohio to Kitty Hawk near the Atlantic Ocean.

The Wright brothers' did not, however, receive proper credit for their accomplishment until World War II. The Smithsonian did not acknowledge them, and even held an exhibition crediting Langley as the world's first inventor of manned flight. The Wright brothers' Flyer was exhibited in a scientific museum in the UK, not in their home country. It was not until the 1940s that the Smithsonian acknowledged their achievements. In 1969, a piece of fabric and wood from the Wright Flyer was taken to the surface of the Moon by the crew of Apollo 11.

The invention of aircraft represents a victory of novel lateral thinking over conventional and incremental linear thinking. Achievements like flight are the result of the commitment and tenacity of people like the Wright brothers.

Thank you for watching. I'm Jae-Yun Kim.

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