1900: The Wrights' First Efforts

In 1900, the Wright brothers decided to try their hand at building an airplane. At the time, it seemed a great deal of skill would be necessary to fly, so they sought an arrangement where practice would be easy. Wilbur initially proposed to build a 150 foot tower with a pulley at the top. A rope, attached to the glider, would pass over the pulley and be tied to a counterweight, supporting part of the weight of the craft. Wilbur believed this arrangement would permit the pilot to practice the skills needed to fly even if the craft was not yet fully airworthy. Octave Chanute wisely recommended against this course of action, instead encouraging the brothers to find a place with lots of sand (for soft landings) and strong prevailing winds, to minimize the effort in moving the glider from the point of landing back to the point of takeoff.

Wilbur also felt it important to find a remote place where their experiments could be conducted without a great deal of fanfare, mindful of the media circus that had plagued Chanute during his experiments in the dunes of Indiana. Wilbur found the perfect spot in Kitty Hawk on the outer banks of North Carolina.

After carefully studying the literature, the brothers designed a biplane glider. They patterned their glider after the sturdy Chanute/Herring craft, including the Pratt trussing, a lightweight means to strengthen the wings of the glider. The glider was designed with a wingspan of 20 feet. Wilbur was unable to find adequate spars for the wings, so the actual dimensions of the craft were: 17' 5" wingspan; 5' chord; total surface area of 177 feet including the forward rudder. The wing camber was 1/23, with the peak of curvature only 3-4 inches from the front of the wing. The craft weighed only 50 lbs.

Wilbur arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 13, 1900, while Orville followed on September 27. The two brothers camped in a tent close to Kitty Hawk. The glider was finished during the first week in October. Initially it was tested as a manned kite, where one brother and Bill Tate held the ropes while the other brother lay onboard, manipulating the controls. Later, it was tested as an unmanned kite, with chains being used for ballast.

Click on grid for 5" wide picture

The longest glides of the season were made on Saturday, October 19th from Big Kill Devil Hill. No precise records of these glides were kept, but they appear to have been at least partially assisted by the ground crew, who would run alongside the glider and hold down a wing if the machine turned upwards. The longest glides were between 300 and 400 feet in length.

Only four pictures were taken of the 1900 glider. Two show the glider being flown as a kite. One shows an early view of the glider on the ground, with Tom Tate holding a drumfish in the foreground. The final picture shows the glider after an accident. The Wright brothers took several photographs of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, commensurate with their attitude that the trip to Kitty Hawk was partly a vacation as well as a serious and thoughtful effort to develop a heavier-than-air craft.

"Although the hours and hours of practice we had hoped to obtain finally dwindled down to about two minutes, we were very much pleased with the general results of the trip, for setting out as we did, with almost revolutionary theories on many points, and an entirely untried form of machine, we considered it quite a point to be able to return without having our pet theories knocked in the head by the hard logic of experience, and out own brains dashed out in the bargain."

Wilbur Wright

In 1901, things did not look so rosy.

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