Date of Award
MA in History
Matthew S. Hopper
This paper examines the education, events, and experiences of the Wright brothers in order to determine how they developed the necessary skills to engineer the first viable aircraft. Without high school diplomas, and with no advanced formal education, the Wright brothers were able to develop aircraft that far exceeded the capabilities of aircraft designed and built by professional engineers that had worked on the problem of flight for much longer and with substantially larger research budgets. I argue that the Wright brothers’ success resulted from their experiences in the printing and bicycle industries as well as their formal and informal educations at school and in the home.
In the printing business it was their experiences designing and building printing presses, printing newspapers, and operating a job printing shop that taught them how to build machinery and work efficiently and methodically. These same skills were perfected as the Wright brothers managed their second business venture: The Wright Cycle Exchange.While working at the bicycle shop the Wrights learned to be proficient machinists as well as expert mechanics and frame builders. This industry provided them with many skills such as brazing and machining that would be directly applicable to aircraft fabrication. In addition to these skills, building bicycle frames and wheels taught them practical material limits and structural design that informed their aircraft design decisions. Moreover, bicycle design influenced their approach to aircraft control and aerodynamic theory that gave them an edge over other aeronautical experimenters in their race to the sky.
When these skills were combined with their rigid religious upbringing, the Wright brothers were uniquely prepared to solve the complex problem of practical human flight. It was the combination of their fabrication skills, understanding of material limits, dogged determination, methodical testing procedures, and their unique approach to aircraft control that was informed by their experiences with bicycles that made them the first in flight.