Miracle at Kitty Hawk: Unpublished Letters of the Wright Brothers (Part I)

"One gets a certain thrill from discovering something others had not known," Orville Wright remarked to Fred C. Kelly, who was then working on a biography of the Wright brothers. After Orville's death, the family gave Mr. Kelly exclusive access to the Wright letters now in the Library of Congress. "I think," he writes us, "that they are the most important unpublished letters now available anywhere in the world. They deal with a subject that has brought a greater effect on the world than anything since the discovery of America." The Atlantic will serialize them in three installments, of which this is the first. Kelly is also the author of Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
KITTY HAWK, October 14, 1900

We have been having a fine time. Altogether we have had the machine out three different days, of from two to four hours each time. Monday night and all day Tuesday we had a terrific wind, blowing 36 miles an hour. Wednesday morning the Kitty Hawkers were out early peering around the edge of the woods and out of their upstairs windows to see whether our camp was still in existence. We were all right, however, and though wind continued up to 30 miles, got the machine out to give it another trial. The wind was too strong and unsteady for us to attempt an ascent in it, so we just flew it like a kite, running down a number of strings to the ground, with which to work the steering apparatus. The machine seemed a rather docile thing, and we taught it to behave fairly well. Chains were hung on it to give it work to do, while we took measurements of the "drift" in pounds.

In the afternoon we took the machine to the hill just south of our camp, formerly known as "Look Out Hill," but now as the "Hill of the Wreck."

Well, after erecting a derrick from which to swing our rope with which we fly the machine, we sent it up about 920 feet, at which height we attempt to keep it by the manipulation of the strings to the rudder. The greatest difficulty is in keeping it down. It naturally wants to go higher and higher. When it begins to get too high we give it a pretty strong pull on the ducking string, to which it responds by making a terrific dart for the ground. If nothing is broken we start it up again. This is all practice in the control of the machine. When it comes down we just lay it flat on the ground and the pressure of the wind on the upper surface holds it down so tightly that you can hardly raise it again.

After an hour or so of practice in steering, we laid it down on the ground to change some of the adjustments of the ropes, when, without a sixteenth of a second's notice, the wind caught under one corner and, quicker than thought, it landed 920 feet away, a complete wreck. When it started I was standing at a rear corner holding one of the uprights. It just took me off my feet and landed me in the heap 929 feet away.

We had had a number of interesting experiences with it before, performing some feats which would almost seem an impossibility. We dragged the pieces back to camp and began to consider getting home. The next morning we had cheered up some and began to think there was some hope of repairing it.

The next three days were spent in repairing, holding the tent down, and hunting; mostly the last, in which occupation we have succeeded in killing two large fish hawks each measuring over 5 feet from tip to tip; in chasing a lot of chicken hawks till we were pretty well winded; and in scaring several large bald eagles.

This is a great country for fishing and hunting. The fish are so thick you see dozens of them when-ever you look down into the water. The woods are filled with wild game, they say; even a few "b'ars" are prowling about the woods not far away.

But the sand! The sand is the greatest thing in Kitty Hawk, and soon will be the only thing. The site of our tent was formerly a fertile valley, cultivated by some ancient Kitty Hawker. Now only a few rotten limbs, the topmost branches of trees that then grew in this valley, protrude from the sand. The sea has washed and the wind blown millions and millions of tons of sand up in heaps along the coast, completely covering houses and forest. Mr. Tate is now tearing down the nearest house to our camp to save it from the sand...

You can't get dirty. Not enough to raise the least bit of color could be collected under a finger nail. We have a method of cleaning dishes that has made the dish rag and the tea towel a thing of the past.

We need no introduction in Kitty Hawk. Every place we go we are called Mr. Wright. Our fame has spread far and wide up and down the beach.
KITTY HAWK, October 18, 1900

We spent half the morning yesterday in getting the machine out of the sand. When we finally did get it free, we took it up the hill, and made a number of experiments in a 925-mile wind. We have not been on the thing since the first time we had it out, but merely experiment with the machine alone, sometimes loaded with 75 pounds of chains. We tried it with tail in front, behind, and every other way. When we got through, Will was so mixed up he couldn't even theorize. It has been with considerable effort that I have succeeded in keeping him in the flying business at all. He likes to chase buzzards, thinking they are eagles, and chicken hawks, much better.
November 16, 1900

My brother and myself spent a vacation of several weeks at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, experimenting with a soaring machine...

The machine had neither horizontal nor vertical tail. Longitudinal balancing and steering were effected by means of a horizontal rudder projecting in front of the planes. Lateral balancing and right and left steering were obtained by increasing the inclination of the wings at one end and decreasing their inclination at the other. The short time at our disposal for practice prevented as thorough tests of these features as we desired, but the results obtained were very favorable and experiments will be continued along the same line next year.

uring the winter of 1900-1901 the Wrights went ahead with plans, determined before they had left Kitty Hawk, that their next experiments would be with a larger glider—large enough to be flown as a kite, with an operator aboard, in the kind of winds they could usually expect. The 1901 glider was of the same general design as the first one, but with considerably more area, for greater lifting power. They increased the curvature of the wings to conform to the shape on which Lilienthal had based his tables of air pressures. The front and rear edges of the wings were about 7 feet apart and the total span 22 feet. With the rear corners of the wings rounded off, and a section 20 inches wide removed from the middle of the lower wing, the lifting area was 290 square feet. The machine weighed 98 pounds, nearly double the earlier one. This was a much larger machine than anyone had ever dared try to fly. Although several glides on the day of the machine's first trial exceeded in distance the best of the year before, it was soon evident that in a number of respects the machine was not as good as the first one. With the wing camber recommended by Lilienthal, it could not glide at a slope as near to level as the 1900 machine had done.

When their friend Chanute had learned, during a visit to Dayton in June, that no doctor was available near their camp, he thought the brothers were taking big risks. He said he knew a young man in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, George A. Spratt, who had been making studies in aeronautics and who had had medical training. If the Wrights would board him at camp, Chanute said, he would pay Spratt's traveling expenses to Kitty Hawk and would feel compensated by the pleasure given, for Spratt had never seen gliding experiments. Chanute also asked if they would be willing to have with them E. C. Huffaker, a technical man, of Chuckey, Tennessee, who was building a glider for Chanute that he wanted to have tested. The Wrights consented. For a time, too, Chanute himself, on their invitation, was with them.

July 30, 1901

The most discouraging features of our experiments so far are these: The lift is not much over one third that indicated by the Lilienthal tables. As we had expected to devote a major portion of our time to experimenting in an 18-mile wind without much motion of the machine, we find that our hopes of obtaining actual practice in the air are decreased to about one fifth what we hoped, as now it is necessary to glide in order to get a sustaining speed. Five minutes' practice in free flight is a good day's record. We have not yet reached so good an average as this even.

The good points as indicated by the experiments already made are these: —

1. The machine is strong. It has suffered no injury although very severely used in some forty landings.

2. With less than an hour's practice we succeeded in getting a free flight of over 800 feet at an angle of 1 in 6. Many of our failures in other attempts were due only to the fact that the hill was not steep enough to really get a fair start. The machine starting so close to the ground that the least undulation caused the rear ends of the rib to touch the ground and thus prevent the machine turning up to sufficient angle to rise again.

3. We have experimented safely with a machine of over 300 square feet surface in winds as high as 18 miles per hour. Previous experimenters had pronounced a machine of such size impracticable to construct and impossible to manage. It is true that we have found this machine less manageable than our smaller machine of last year, but we are not sure that the increased size is responsible for it. The trouble seems rather in the travel of the center of pressure.

4. The lateral balance of the machine seems all that could be desired.

Wilbur Wright said, on their way home after the 1901 gliding experiments, that he didn't think man would fly in a thousand years. In a way, though, as Orville Wright said long afterward, it was encouraging to learn that the work of predecessors could not be relied upon. It meant that more knowledge was needed, rather than that flight was impossible.

CHICAGO, ILL., August 23, 1901

I have your welcome letter of the 22nd and am glad to know that you got through your experiments without accident. I think you have performed quite an achievement in sailing with surfaces wider than any which I dared to use, and on which a change of incidence by a wind gust would make so great a difference in the center of pressure.
DAYTON, OHIO, September 1, 1901

Well, after you left camp, conditions which you know were none too pleasant in some respects became even worse, as they were no longer relieved by your funny stories and pleasant company, so four days after you left we also broke camp and returned home...

I enclose a few prints. That of the Huffaker machine you will please not show too promiscuously. I took it as a joke on Huffaker but afterward it struck me that the joke was rather on Mr. Chanute, as the whole loss was his. If you ever feel that you have not got much to show for your work and money expended, get out this picture and you will feel encouraged.

We have been quite busy since returning home, putting in some new machinery and finishing a new gas engine on which we have been working for some time.

By Mr. Chanute's invitation I was up to Chicago a few days ago to address the Western Society of Engineers on our experiments. His faith in Lilienthal's tables is beginning to waver, though it dies hard.
DAYTON, OHIO, October 6, 1901

We have made the experiment of balancing a curved surface against a plane surface 66 per cent as large, placed normal to the wind, and find that instead of 5°, as called for in Lilienthal's table, an angle of 18° was required. The test was made by mounting the surfaces on a bicycle wheel turned over so that its axis was vertical.

We found it impossible to get satisfactory results with a natural wind, so we mounted the wheel on a spar projecting in front of a bicycle and made tests in an almost perfect calm. We rode at right angles to the wind so that the natural wind was first on one side and then on the other as the direction of the course was reversed.

That experiment with the bicycle was tried only once. They made their first wind tunnel of an old starch box. Then they rigged up a much better wind tunnel, about 6 feet long and 16 inches square (interior measurement), and for two months, toward the end of 1901, tested-more than two hundred types of wing surfaces. Among other things, they proved the fallacy of the sharp edge at the front of an airplane wing and the inefficiency of deeply cambered wings, which were then generally advocated by others. The immediate purpose of the experiments was to make sure, before Wilbur's Chicago speech was published, that he had not overstated in saying that all the published works relating to air pressures on curved surfaces were wrong. As the experiments continued, they marked a turning point in the efforts of man to fly, for they gave knowledge no one had ever had before, of how to design wings efficient enough to make possible a fIying machine. It is the design of the wings rather than the engine or propellers that enables a plane to lift itself in the air. If this were not so, a glider with neither an engine nor propellers could not fly.

DAYTON, OHIO, October 24, 1901

Since returning we have been experimenting some what with an apparatus for measuring the pressure of air on variously curved surfaces at different angles, and have decided to prepare a table which we are certain will be much more accurate than that of Lilienthal. Mr. Chanute has several times kindly offered to help bear the expense of these experiments but we have refused to accept money because we would be led to neglect our regular business too much if the expense of these experiments did not exercise a salutary effect on the time devoted to them.
DAYTON, OHIO, November 22, 1901

After almost numberless small changes we think our machine will now give results within 2 or 3 per cent of the real truth, and will give the same result at every test at any given angle. We are now engaged in making a large number of models of typical shapes and will measure them with the greatest care. The comparative lifts of different surfaces will be obtained with almost absolute correctness.
DAYTON, OHIO, December 15, 1901

We were pleased to receive your letter and the photograph of your new testing machine. It seems quite ingeniously designed and I think should give good results. As you say, the greatest trouble will probably be with the changeableness of the wind. If I understand you properly, the machine is intended for locating the center of pressure at any angle (or rather locating the angle for any center of pressure) and for finding the direction of the resultant pressure as measured in degrees from the wind direction.

I think I told you in my last that we had been experimenting with a "lift" measuring machine. We have carried our experiments further and have made a measurement of the lifts of about thirty surfaces. The results have rather surprised us as we find at angles of 7° to 15° with some surfaces a greater lift than Lilienthal gives in his table.
DAYTON, OHIO, December 15, 1901

I regret that we did not have time to carry some of these experiments further, but having set a time for the experiments to cease, we stopped when the time was up. At least two thirds of my time in the past six months has been devoted to aeronautical matters. Unless I decide to devote myself to something other than a business career, I must give closer attention to my regular work for a while. I hope at some later time to resume these investigations.
CHICAGO, ILL., December 19, 1901

I have read your letter . . . with absorbing interest. If your method and machine are reliable you have done a great work, and have advanced knowledge greatly. Your charts carry conviction to my mind and your descriptions and comments are very clear. I must especially commend the system by which you went about to ascertain the best form of surface, instead of trying haphazard experiments.

I very much regret, in the interest of Science, that you have reached a stopping place, for further experimenting on your part promises important results, yet my judgment cannot but approve of your decision, for I see as yet no money return for the pursuit, save from possible exhibition. If, however, some rich man should give you $10,000 a year to go on, to connect his name with progress, would you do so? I happen to know Carnegie; would you like for me to write to him?
Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3

These letters and more are available in Fred C. Kelly's book, Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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