The Wright Brothers, Biomimicry, and the Birth of Aviation

December 14, 2023
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On December 17, 1903, on a windy North Carolina day, the Wright brothers made history by achieving the first powered, controlled, and sustained flight. The Wright brothers were actually part of a trend that currently dominates many fields of design and innovation, from architecture to medical technology, to farming: biomimicry. 

Biomimicry: From Birds to Aeronautics

Whereas many before them had failed, Orville and Wilbur Wright were successful because of their acute observation of birds in flight. Many of the Wright brothers’ predecessors had studied birds – most famously, Leonardo da Vinci. Another predecessor, Otto Lilienthal, published Birdflight as the Basis for Aviation in 1889. It was Lilienthal’s death in 1896, caused by injuries sustained while crashing his glider, that was the catalyst for the Wright brothers, who had found success manufacturing bicycles, to delve into aeronautics. Lilienthal’s biomimicry (he was constantly photographed with his “wings”) was a foundation for the Wright brothers; they focused on the technical aspects of gliding, whereas most other aviators were preoccupied with developing engines for flight.

The American brothers soon overtook the German’s research, and sharpened their focus on wing warping – the angles at which birds tip their wings in flight. This procedure was something upon which Orville Wright meditated and pinpointed as key to their success. Wing warping allowed the brothers to have better control over their first flying device – a kite – and they applied it to piloted aircraft. 

The Wright Brothers’ Accomplishments

The Wright brothers’ strategy would be considered cutting edge in today’s world, where biomimicry is only becoming more popular, and certainly took the world of the early 20th century by storm. Archie Butt, aid to President Taft noted in June of 1909 that “the world seems mad to honor” the Wright brothers.[1] The following month, Butt accompanied Taft to witness the Wright Brothers demonstrate their plane for the military at a base close to Washington, DC. Taft, who had never seen the plane fly, was  “enthusiastic as a boy.” Wilbur Wright gave the president a tour of the plane and explained how it worked. Taft was “greatly interested,” according to Butt.[2]

The Wright brothers’ demeanor sharply contrasted with their celebrity status. Butt recalled a high-profile reception honoring the Wright brothers. Over a thousand people were in attendance, many of them ambassadors and other dignitaries, and President Taft presented the brothers with medals. Butt had heard that the brothers were unassuming but he was taken aback by the disconnect between their mannerisms and their intellect: “Wilbur Wright is thin, clean shaven, and studious looking, while Orville Wright wears a mustache and looks habitually embarrassed. They are both so simple and direct in their manner that one wonders if they are really the two persons who are the center of the scientific watchers of this age and have been received and decorated by the great potentates of the world.”[3] 

Despite the Wright brothers’ accomplishments embodying the American dream – they were not trained as engineers, did not come from an affluent family, lived a simple life, and yet achieved greatness – their success seemed to startle their compatriots. Butt observed, “I met a man from Dayton last night who told me that in Ohio, for years, [the Wright brothers] were considered to be half cracked, and that it was not until of late, after Europe had crowned them as victors, that they were taken seriously. Indeed, the President referred to this himself, and wondered when the time would come when America would accept its own without waiting for the verdict of the rest of the world.” One hundred and twenty years after their flight at Kitty Hawk, America unambiguously champions the Wright brothers as the fathers of flight. 

Wright Brothers’ Curated Manuscript Collection

This curated manuscript collection is comprised of letters from Orville Wright describing various aspects of his and Wilbur’s accomplishments in aviation, ranging from mere weeks after the 1903 first flight to over a quarter of a century later. In addition to a detailed description of how the study of birds impacted the Wright brothers,  these letters also highlight the mistakes made during the first flight, and the nature of their sister Katherine’s role in her brothers’ experiments.

  1.  Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide, Vol. 1, Doubleday Doran and Co., 1930, p. 116
  2. Ibid, p. 158
  3. Ibid, p. 117

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