Wright Brothers’ Success Built on Failure, Duke Professors Say

The Wright brothers owed the success of their Dec. 17, 1903 first flight, at least in part, to the many failures of aviation pioneers before them, according to Duke University professors.

Otto Lilienthal, for example, had died in an 1896 glider accident. The Wright brothers deduced from the failure that Lilienthal's attempt to control his craft by shifting his body weight was not the best way to attack the problem.

“Their use of elevators and rudders and warped wing surfaces enabled the Wrights to achieve what none before them had -- controlled, powered flight,” says Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Others had gotten off the ground in self-propelled, heavier-than-air craft, but the Wright brothers were the first to truly fly, agrees Alex Roland, a Duke history professor who specializes in the history of technology.

“When they got into the air, they knew not only how to get off the ground, but how to control the airplane in flight,” Roland says. “The proof of their priority is that we’re still imitating the Wright brothers. One-hundred years later, we’re still flying the way they flew and we’re not imitating any other claimants to priority.”

Wilbur and Orville Wright read all the relevant literature, experimented with kites, conducted hundreds of manned glider flights and tested their designs in a wind tunnel before that fateful day on the Kitty Hawk dunes, says Kenneth C. Hall, professor and chairman of Duke’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

“The Wright brothers’ real strength was that they were very methodical, they used the scientific method and they were very good mechanically,” says Hall, a pilot and expert in aeroelasticity and unsteady aerodynamics. “They knew that the accepted theory of the day was off.”

Unlike their less successful counterparts, the Wrights were able to combine the necessary elements: wing size, power (by building their own internal combustion engine) and control.

“As significant as the Wrights' craft was, it was far from the perfect flying machine,” says Hall, who hosted the 10th International Symposium on Unsteady Aerodynamics, Aeroacoustics and Aeroelasticity of Turbomachines at Duke in September 2003. “The plane was actually unstable.”

“Subsequent airplane designs have evolved by successively eliminating the shortcomings of what the Wrights had wrought,” says Petroski, the author of 10 books about engineering topics ranging from bridges and pencils to engineering errors. His most recent book, "Small Things Considered" (Alfred A. Knopf, September 2003), looks at the quest for perfect design.

“Indeed, all technology advances are made by inventors who identify the flaws in existing designs and come up with improvements,” Petroski says. “Slowly, over the course of years and decades, something like the Wright Flyer turns into a jumbo jet.”