The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane
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Russell Freedman’s biography for young readers The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (1991) relates the events of the early twentieth century that led to the first successful airplane flight. The Wright Brothers was a Newberry Honor Book in 1992 and won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Golden Kite Award in 1991. In 1998, Freedman received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his body of work, and in 2007 he received a National Humanities Medal.
The book starts by relating the Wright brothers’ successful flight through the eyes of onlooker Amos Root who has come over 200 miles to see it. Wilbur Wright, the pilot, lays flat on the lower wing of the plane to steer it. The flight lasts a minute and a half before the plane lands safely. Amos returns home to Ohio to write a news story about the flight.
The next chapter returns to the Wright brothers’ childhood. The boys were inseparable from a very young age and spent all their time together. Neither of them ever married, and they did not waste time smoking and drinking with others their age. Both brothers were handy and had good mechanical knowledge, and so, in their early twenties, they opened a bicycle shop.
Wilbur Wright was a quiet dreamer with the ambition to create new inventions, while Orville Wright was more talkative and energetic. Together, they made a great team, both contributing equally to the bicycle shop. They attributed their mechanical skill to their mother, who loved to work with her hands and their work ethic to their father.
The brothers hear of a German inventor who is conducting gliding experiments in which he is able to fly using a glider attached to his body. The inventor is killed during one of his experiments, making him one of many would-be inventors who had died while attempting to fly. By the 1890s, when the Wright Brothers begin exploring methods for flight, the field of aeronautics had become a popular one. However, the vast majority of early prototypes were gliders rather than engine-powered airplanes.
When the Wright brothers began experimenting, they learned that one thing holding back progress in aeronautics was a lack of viable ways to control the airplane during flight. They set to work solving this problem in their own prototype. The brothers left home for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a town where weather conditions were optimal for testing gliders. Their early prototype shifted the position of the pilot, allowing him to control the direction of the glider by shifting the wings. The Wright brothers had several successful flights, but during a planned exhibition of the glider, the weather caused them problems and the test was unsuccessful.
Eventually, Orville realized that the glider’s tail would also have to move to assist in steering. After the brothers made this adjustment, the glider functioned well during every flight. With this first problem solved, the Wrights now had to figure out how to attach an engine to their glider. After careful research, they learned that no motors that fit their specifications were currently available and they would have to build one themselves.
After about six months, the Wrights build an engine they can use and take it to Kitty Hawk to attach it to their glider. Their second test flight is successful, with the plane staying up for twelve seconds. It is the first self-propelled airplane flight in history.
The Wright brothers immediately begin working on a better prototype that can stay in the air longer and make sharper turns. Once they are confident in the invention, they begin looking for financial backers to mass produce it. Eventually, the US War Department agrees to issue a contract after a successful demonstration. The Wrights are nervous about demonstrating their machine publicly since others might steal their ideas. Finally, they are issued a contract for their glider.
Orville remains behind in the United States to work on the next generation airplane, while Wilbur goes to France to oversee the production of their current model. Wilbur’s test flights in Europe are popular, but Orville becomes the bigger celebrity when he debuts the new model airplane in the United States.
After Orville is involved in and recovers from a crash, he and Wilbur tour Europe and the U.S., becoming celebrities in the process. They sign a new contract with the United States government for their airplanes. They continue to make improvements to their invention until Wilbur’s death from illness in 1912. After his brother dies, Orville sells his interest in the business and retires.
Orville never pilots another aircraft again, though he lives to see airplanes become an important part of travel, warfare, and commerce before his death from a heart attack in 1948.
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