“On His Way”

December 18, 1909

C Clyde Squires

“On His Way”

Holidays, Christmas; Symbols, Santa Claus; Transportation, Aircraft;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

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Although the Wright brothers had first successfully flown an airplane in 1903, their accomplishment did not gain widespread exposure and acceptance until their flight demonstrations in 1908 and 1909.  Until that time, cartoons in Harper’s Weekly reflected the assumption that future air travel would be via the lighter-than-air vehicles called dirigibles or airships.  This featured cartoon from December 18, 1909, signals a marked change in public perception about the possibilities of human flight in a heavier-than-air craft.   The cartoonist was obviously confident that the many viewers of this image, including children, would feel comfortable seeing Santa Claus, whose safe arrival at every household was essential, flying an airplane.

Hot-air balloons were successfully launched in eighteenth-century France, and innovations and refinements were added over the following century as the dirigible developed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, Sir George Cayley of Great Britain had articulated some of the basic scientific principles for heavier-than-air flight, and built a model glider.  In the 1890s, German Otto Lilienthal flew the first manned glider, but was killed in a crash in 1896.  It was Wilbur and Orville Wright who first successfully piloted a manned, motorized, controlled, heavier-than-air vehicle (airplane) at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.  That historic event was mentioned in only three newspapers.

Wilber (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) grew up primarily in Dayton, Ohio, although they moved several times across the Midwest because of their father’s work as a Protestant bishop.  They were educated in public schools and encouraged by their parents “to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity,” as Orville explained later.  Influenced strongly by their father, the Wright brothers were independent-minded, doggedly determined and persistent, and technically gifted.  Unlike their three siblings, Wilbur and Orville did not attend college or marry, but opened a print shop together in the late 1880s.  Their technical prowess was first manifested in the printing presses they designed and built, which earned them a reputation for producing high-quality prints.  In 1892, they also opened a shop for selling and repairing bicycles, and began building them (including a self-oiling model) in 1896. 

The Wright brothers’ interest in flight had been sparked by a childhood helicopter toy their father had given them, but it was rekindled in a serious fashion by glider pioneer Lilienthal’s death in a crash in 1896.  Liliental’s credentials as a professional engineer brought respectability to the idea that a heavier-than-air craft could fly.  He introduced curved wings to facilitate lift, and set an example for perfecting the fixed-wing glider before adding a power mechanism.  In the 1890s and early-twentieth century, dozens of men, primarily in Europe, entered the race to built a workable airplane, including the Wright brothers.  They read every book they could find on aviation (including Lilienthal’s experiments), corresponded with the Smithsonian Institution and Octave Chanute (an American engineer and expert on aviation), and used the profits from their print and bicycle shops to finance construction of an airplane.

The Wright brothers proved to be better able than others to determine logically which aviation ideas were sound and which were false assumptions, even if generally held, and to integrate scraps of knowledge into a larger framework of workable information.  Following the examples of Lilienthal, Chanute, and others, they began developing a glider.  The Wright brothers realized that an airplane would need a self-propulsion system, wings to sustain its flight, and a control system.  The latter distinguished them from most of their rivals, who were developing machines to fly in straight lines.  As avid bicyclists, the Wrights wanted the operator to manipulate the plane’s flight pattern through mechanical means, and settled on a device to lower one wing and raise the other for lateral control (later protected by patent). 

Throughout the development process, the Wright brothers focused on testing component parts and subsystems, rather than continually building and redesigning entire aircraft.  After experimenting with a large kite in Dayton in 1899, they relocated to Kitty Hawk, a small town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina having high dunes (for takeoff), strong winds (to facilitate flight) and sandy soil (for soft landings).  The results of their first glider tests in October 1900 were disappointing, but they gathered crucial information for improving the aircraft.  Moving their operation four miles south to Kill Devil Hills, they launched 50-100 test flights in the summer of 1901, with Wilbur as pilot.  They were still dissatisfied, but built a superior wind-tunnel to test and develop wing and tip shape, as well as the proper distance between the two wings, in order to solve problems with lift and control.  In the fall of 1902, both brothers flew test flights (over 700) of a third glider, with a movable rudder for control.  This time, the aircraft performed as expected, flying 622˝ feet in 26 seconds. 

With the wings and control of the glider functioning to their satisfaction, the Wright brothers developed a four-cylinder gasoline engine, and added twin propellers as rotary wings.  Having tested all of the component parts, they had no doubt that their airplane would fly.  On December 14, 1903, Wilbur manned the first test flight at Kill Devil Hills, but the engine stalled on takeoff, damaging the front of the airplane.  Repairs were made, and with the return of good weather on December 17, Orville made the first successful airplane flight in history, traveling 120 feet in 12 seconds.  Each brother made two flights that day, the longest being Wilbur’s second of 852 feet in 59 seconds.  Five local residents had watched the curious, world-altering event.  The Wright brothers continued to improve their design, and in the fall of 1905 were able to stay aloft for 39 minutes, executing circles and other navigational feats.  Through 1907, though, much of the public was unaware of, or disbelieved, the accomplishment.

In late 1905, the Wright Brothers received a patent for their lateral control mechanism, for which they charged a reasonable license fee for its use.  As aviators worked to replicate the Wright Brothers’ feat, some waged a smear campaign to minimize their achievement.  The most notable participant in a patent lawsuit was the Smithsonian Institution, which did not formally recant and apologize for its slander against the Wrights until 1942.  An American court did side with the Wrights, but the European aviation industry freely copied their design without compensating the brothers. 

In early 1908, the Wrights signed contracts with the U.S. Army and a group of French investors, and in May they made 200 test flights at Kill Devil Hills, including the first flight to carry a passenger.  In the late summer, Wilbur flew flights in Europe before amazed audiences, while Orville began trial flights in Virginia for the army.  Both brothers completed the army trials in 1909.  It was those flights in 1908-1909 that first made believers out of the public.

In November 1909, the brothers formed the Wright Company, opening an airplane factory in Dayton and an airfield nearby for flight instruction.  In 1910, they established the Wright Exhibition Company, but several deaths during exhibition flights caused them to suspend operations the next year.  In 1912, Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever, and Orville assumed control of the company until 1915, when he sold his interest to a group of investors.  He worked as an engineering consultant during World War I, and served as a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from 1920 until his death from a heart attack in 1948. 

Today, the Wright Brothers 1903 airplane can be seen at the Smithsonian, where the placard reads:  “By original scientific research, the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight. As inventors, builders and flyers, they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation.”

Robert C. Kennedy

“On His Way”
August 12, 2020

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