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It all began with a toy helicopter


The following inscription is on the Wright Brothers’ 1903 “Flying Machine” that is now displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.:

The original Wright Brothers aeroplane is the world’s first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight; it was invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, and flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903. By original scientific research, the Wright Brothers discovered the principles of human flight. As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were two of seven children born to Milton and Susan Wright. Their father was Bishop Wright in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. In 1878 on one of his church-visitation trips, he bought and brought home a toy helicopter for his two young sons. The toy was made of paper, bamboo, and cork with a rubber band used to power its rotor.

Wilbur and Orville played with that helicopter until it broke; then they built their own. Years later they pointed to their experience with that toy as the beginning of their interest in flying.

In 1889, after his junior year, Orville dropped out of high school to start a newspaper and printing business. With Wilbur’s help, he designed and built his own printing press. In 1892, with the booming national bicycle craze, the brothers switched their interests and opened a bicycle repair and sales shop and began manufacturing their own brand of bicycles. They used their bicycle enterprise to fund their growing interest in aviation.

When the two brothers completed building their first glider in 1902, they knew they had finally resolved their design problems. Their glider was the first fully controlled heavier-than-air craft built and they knew their glider would fly. Essentially they knew they had invented an aeroplane; the forerunner of their 1903 biplane.

While other aviators searched in vain for “inherent stability,” Orville and Wilbur created a method that allowed the pilot to control an airplane. Their real breakthrough began with their ingenious invention of “wing-warping” followed by their system for 3-axis control; a system that is used still today on fixed-wing aircraft.

Since their successful flight on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers are credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. That first flight from level ground, into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour, was piloted by Orville. The flight was about 10 feet high for 120 feet at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour. The flight lasted 12 seconds.

Nine months before that famous “first airplane flight,” Orville and Wilbur Wright filed a patent application for their “Flying Machine.” Once their patent was awarded, the aviation world started copying the Wright Brothers’ designs. And, since that eventful day, the world has witnessed the remarkable progress that’s been made in the development of powered flight.

Poet Stephen Vincent Benet may have written the world’s finest tribute to the Wright Brothers’ giant feat when he wrote “Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.” His poem ends with these inspiring words:

And finally, at Kitty Hawk

In Nineteen-Three (let’s cheer it!)

The first real airplane really flew

With Orville there to steer it!

And kingdoms may forget their kings

And dogs forget their bites,

But not till Man forgets his wings

Will men forget the Wrights.

Bishop Wright, thanks for giving Orville and Wilbur that toy “helicopter.”

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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