U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Commemorating a Century of Wings - An Overview

In the fall of 1999, USA Today and the Newseum, an Arlington, Va., museum devoted to the history of news gathering, announced the results of a year long poll in which 36,000 newspaper readers and a substantial number of journalists were asked to select the 100 most important news stories of the 20th century. The atomic bombing of Japan led the public list, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the landing on the moon and the invention of the airplane.

The journalists chose precisely the same top four stories, although they rated the moon landing above the attack on Pearl Harbor. The results of the poll did not surprise the professional historians who were consulted by the newspaper. Professor Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans agreed that Hiroshima was the “correct choice” for the top story, while Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. countered that the moon walk is what people will remember in 500 years. Almost no one seems to have noted the fact that the top three stories could not have occurred without the invention of the airplane.

Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948), printers and bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, took their first serious step toward the invention of the airplane in 1899. They were superb, self-trained engineers who developed an extraordinarily successful research strategy that enabled them to overcome one set of challenging problems after another, the full extent of which previous experimenters had not even suspected.

The Wright brothers moved toward the development of a practical flying machine through an evolutionary chain of seven experimental aircraft: one kite (1899), three gliders (1900, 1901, 1902) and three powered airplanes (1903, 1904, 1905). Each of these aircraft was a distillation of the lessons learned and the experience gained from its predecessors. It was not all smooth sailing; frustration and disappointment were as much a part of the process as the euphoria of discovery. In the fall of 1901, puzzled by the failure of their earliest gliders to match calculated performance, the brothers built their own wind tunnel and designed a pair of brilliantly conceived balances that produced the precise bits of data required to achieve the final success.

The brothers made the first four sustained, powered flights under the control of the pilot near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the morning of December 17, 1903. Over the next two years they continued their work in a pasture near Dayton, Ohio. By the fall of 1905, they had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot. The air age had begun. Unwilling to unveil their technology without the protection of a patent and a contract for the sale of airplanes, the Wright brothers did not make public flights until 1908, at which point they emerged as the first great international heroes of the century.

The invention of the airplane was a fundamental turning point in history. It redefined the way in which the U.S. fought its wars, revolutionized travel and commerce, fueled the process of technological change, and helped to shape a world in which the very survival of a nation would depend on its scientific and technical prowess.

Beyond all of that, flight remains one of the most stunning and magnificent human achievements. For millennia, the notion of taking to the sky was regarded as the very definition of the impossible. “If God had intended for human beings to fly,” it was said, “he would have given us wings.” Instead, we built wings for ourselves, and forever expanded our vision of the possible. The centennial of that event is surely worth commemorating.


Anderson, Jr., John D. A History of Aerodynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. An authoritative and readable study of how the airplane evolved. It links the theory of aerodynamics to the developmental history of flying machines, touching on all the major theorists and their contributions placed within the historical context in which they worked.

Baals, Donald D. and Corliss, William R. Wind Tunnels of NASA. SP-440. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1981.

Combs, Harry, with Caidin, Martin. Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989. The premier study of the brothers, their technological achievements, and the formative era of the aviation business.

_____________. A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane 1875- 1905. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. The definitive analysis of early American efforts. Gives due credit to Chanute's American ventures as well as the efforts of Langley and others who worked on flying machines.

DuFour, Howard R. Charles E. Taylor: The Wright Brothers Mechanician, 1868-1956, 1997.

Ethell, Jeffrey L. Smithsonian Frontiers of Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1992.

Freudenthal, Elsbeth E. Flight Into History: The Wright Brothers and the Air Age. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. Flight Through the Ages. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc., 1974.

____________. The Invention of the Aeroplane (1799-1909). London: Faber and Faber, 1966. A basic assessment of early pioneers, including Cayley, Lilienthal, Chanute, and others.

____________. The Wright Brothers: A Brief Account of Their Work. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1963.

Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Jakab, Peter L. Visions of a Flying Machine The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution, 1990. Describes the process of invention that encourages an understanding of and appreciation for the Wright's special genius. It offers important insight into the fundamental nature of technical creativity.

Kelly, Fred C. Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1951.

___________. The Wright Brothers, A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1943.

___________. The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright. New York. Ballentine Books, 1956. The authorized biography of the Wright brothers written by a contemporary of the Wrights.

Kirk, Steven. First in Flight: The Wright Brothers in North Carolina. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John Blair, 1995.

Leyes, Richard A. The History of North America Small Gas Turbine Engines. Reston, Va.: AIAA, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.

McFarland, Marvin W. (ed.). The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1953.

Miller, Ivonette Wright. Wright Reminiscences. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio: Air Force Museum Foundation, 1978.

Moolman, Valerie and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Road to Kitty Hawk. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. A colorful and heavily illustrated survey.

Scott, Phil. The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1995.

Stoff, Joshua. Picture History of Early Aviation, 1903-1913. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. The story of the first aviators and their aircraft in the United States and in Europe, told exclusively through photographs and their extensive captions.

Wright, Orville. How We Made the First Flight. Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Public Affairs. Aviation Education Program.

Primary Internet sites are

        To Fly found at different locations on http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/. This site has the photographs from the Library of Congress.

        First-to-Fly (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company). Many layers at http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/, with its photographs from Wright State University;

        Jim Hughes' narrative The Wright Brothers http://w3.one.net/~hughesj/wright/w_toc.html;

        Essays by William Wraga on the Curtiss-Wright Corporation web site. The site addresses both the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss. http://www.curtisswright.com/history.

Individual Internet references are listed below.

Alberto Santos-Dumont Father of Aviation. History of the Brazilian Air Force. http://www.mat.ufrgs.br/~rudnei/FAB/eng/sd.html.

Allen, Catherine Wallace. Wright Brothers at College Park. http://www.avstop.com/History/EarlyAviators/WrightBothers/WrightBrothersAtCollegePark.htm.

Bradshaw, Gary. Tale of the Airplane. To Fly. http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/Tale_of_Airplane/taleplane.html.

Early Flight Pioneers. Pre-World War I History. US Air Force Museum. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/preww1/preww1.htm.

First Flight. Today in History. American Memory. Library of Congress. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/today/dec17.html.

Hughes, Jim. 1902 Kill Devil Hill. http://w3.one.net/~hughesj/wright/w_1902.html

___________. 1903 Kill Devil Hill. http://w3.one.net/~hughesj/wright/w_1903b.html.

___________. The Wright Brothers. http://w3.one.net/~hughesj/wright/w_toc.html.

Inventors Gallery. http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/i/Inventor_Gallery.html.

Miller, Roger G. Signal Corps No. 1, Purchasing and Supporting the Army's First Airplane. AvStop Magazine Online. http://avstop.com/History/signal.htm.

Orville and Wilbur Wright. Allstar Network. http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/wright.htm.

Power: The Final Ingredient. http://wings.ucdavis.edu/Book/History/instructor/power-01.html.

Some Aeronautical Experiments. Wilbur Wright's speech to the Western Society of Engineers, September 18, 1901. http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/i/Wrights/library/Aeronautical.html.

Wilbur and Orville Wright. Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.Britannica.com.

Wilbur and Orville Wright. To Fly. http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/i/Wrights/Wrights.html.

Wraga, William. After the First Flight. Curtiss-Wright Corporation. http://www.curtisswright.com/history/1903-1909.asp.

___________. First Engine and Propellers. Curtiss-Wright Corporation. http://www.curtisswright.com/history/1901-1920.asp

___________. High Tide for the Wrights. Curtiss-Wright Corporation. http://www.curtisswright.com/history/1908-1909.asp.

___________. The Wright Brothers: Engineering Prodigies. Curtiss-Wright Corporation. http://ww.curtisswright.com/history/1900-1903.asp.

___________. Wing Warping, Ailerons, and Litigation. Curtiss Wright Corporation. http://www.curtisswright.com/history/1909-1917.asp.

Wright 1911 Modified B' Flyer. www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/early_years/ey2.htm.

The Wright Brothers, 1909-1910. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/preww1/pw13.htm.

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. http://www.first-to-fly.com/History

The Wright Brothers: Wilbur and Orville. Allstar Network. http:/www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/wrightbros.htm.

Wright Patent. http://hawaii.psychology.msstate.edu/invent/i/Wrights/WrightUSPatent/WrightPatent.html.