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The Wright Brothers: Air Pioneers

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• Part 2: The Long Struggle
Part 3: Victory and Dark Secrets

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Part 1: A Childhood of Curiosity

Orville and Wilbur Wright were born tinkerers. From a very early age, they were fascinated by how things worked and how things were put together. They read about all kinds of subjects, including mechanics. Their mother was the family mechanic and encouraged them to learn everything she knew.

They built their own printing press and then sold the business to open a bicycle shop. It is here where the story begins to get fascinating.

The bicycle was introduced in France in the 18th Century (1790s). It was a little wooden horse with a front wheel attached. You couldn't steer it very well, but you could make it move and carry you down the street.

In 1817, a German man named Karl von Drais invented a bicycle that had a large front wheel. (It was thought that the larger the front wheel, the faster the bike would go. This was true, to a certain extent, but not because of the size of the wheel.) Von Drais called this invention the "dandy horse."

But this bicycle still didn't have pedals. Those would come from the mind of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Scotland. And it was from England that the last innovation approaching modern bicycles would come.

In the 1880s, the "safety bicycle" arrived. At once, it had three new elements: a chain, a rear wheel that had a sprocket, and wheels that were the same size. Not long after that, the use and improvement of bicycles increased rapidly.

In the early 1890s came the invention of pneumatic tires. These were rubber tires filled with compressed air. This was done so the air pressure inside the tire would keep the tire rolling around the bicycle rim.

Next came the idea of different speeds. A larger gear meant a lower gear; a smaller gear meant a higher gear. (The higher gears, then as now, required more effort to pedal but made you go faster.)

Finally came the idea of putting the gears right under the pedals, in a part of the bike called the derailleur. This made it much easier to pedal and shift gears.

Into this 1890s bicycle craze stepped Orville and Wilbur Wright. They opened their own bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892. Wilbur had bought his first bicycle in the 1880s. It was a highwheeler. Both he and Orville were fascinated in how it worked and were determined to help make it better. They both bought safety bicycles, and Orville even began to enter bicycle races. The family business came first, however.

They sold and repaired bicycles, and their shop made a good bit of money. A great many people wanted bicycles in those days because the automobile hadn't been invented yet and the train was too expensive for many people. But the Wrights wanted to make their own bicycles. They worked on their own designs, in the back of their shop, for a few years before reaching success.

In 1895, they introduced the Van Cleve. (It was named for an early settler of Dayton.) The following year came the St. Clair. Both models sold very well. But the Wrights weren't done tinkering.

To each bike they sold, they added a "self-oiling hub," so the gears wouldn't need to be oiled every few miles, as was the case with other bicycles of the day. In 1900, they added pedals that don't come unscrewed. (Bicycles today still use this idea.)

The success of the bicycle shop allowed Orville and Wilbur to buy lots of materials to use in their experiments with flight. They were still fascinated by things that flew, like kites and birds, and they now turned their attention to making a machine that people could fly.

It was here that the bicycle came in handy again. One day, Wilbur squeezed an empty bicycle tube box flat. He noticed how it looked when he twisted in his hands. (The flattened box is the exact shape of the two-winged glider that the Wrights would produce just a couple years later.)

You can also see the bicycle chain that the Wrights used as a propeller on their plane. (It should be pointed out here that the Wrights had to invent the propeller as a means of propulsion.) The double-triangle design of the plane also looks a lot like a bicycle.

And one day in 1902, Orville and Wilbur took turns pedaling one of their own bicycles down a city street as fast as they could go—with a third wheel attached in front. The wheel was mounted flat on the handlebars. It spun freely, with two metal plates on top of it. One plate was flat, and the other was curved. This setup allowed the Wrights to measure air resistance, another key to building an airplane that would work.

Next page > The Long Struggle > Page 1, 2, 3

 Graphics courtesy of ArtToday

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