Do you know what happened on December 17, 1903, the normal day more than a century ago? Yes. It’s the day when the Wright Brothers piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina. It’s the day when the Wright Brothers took to the sky and changed the course of history. It’s the day when a new era was coming. Do you know the history of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane? Maybe you do. But do you know the history of the first airplane has something to do with the invention of the bicycle? Maybe you don’t. And I would like to tell you something about it in my following words.
1. Their working experience in bicycle shop helped a lot.
They gained the essential mechanical skills for their success by working in their shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery for years. The experience of working in bicycle business made them believed that a flying machine could be controlled and balanced through enough practice just like a bicycle. From 1900 to the late 1903 when their first powered flights worked, they carried out a lot of glider tests which also improved their piloting skills. Their staff Charlie Taylor in the bicycle shop became an important part of the team and built their first airplane engine in close collaboration with the brothers.
Taking advantage of the national bicycle craze which was spurred by the invention of the safety bicycle and its substantial advantages over the penny-farthing design, the brothers opened a repairing and sales shop (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company) in December 1892and began manufacturing their own brand in 1896. They used this endeavor to finance their growing interest in flight.
The Wright Cycle Company managed to capture part of the market in Ohio. The Wright Brothers started their bicycle business—repair, retail and rental in the year of 1892, 4 years before they started to do their own designs and brand—the Van Cleve and St. Claire in the name of their ancestors. During the course, they had invented the hub which could self-lubricate. For avoiding the pedals from loosening, they innovated the use of machining the crank arm that is to pedal on the left side with left-hand threads.
2. The money they made helped a lot.
The Wrights used the money made from the Wright Cycle Company to finance their aviation experiments. In 1901 they fitted a third bicycle wheel horizontally above the front wheel of one of their bicycles and used the apparatus as a test platform to study airfoil design. And they built a wind tunnel which was six-foot high where they carried out many pioneering tests with more than 200 shapes of scale-model wings. They designed and built their gliders and their first aircraft which cost less than $1000. In 1909, they finished their bicycle business and started their aviation business.
3. Bicycle working principle helped a lot.
Their experience of working in bicycle business did help them in many aspects. For one thing, the equipment and methodology they used in bicycle design also worked on their aircraft. For example, you will notice that they used bicycle chains to connect the propellers with the engine if you have the opportunity to carefully observe the 1903 aircraft.
For another, what they gained from their bicycle experience was their ideas on aircraft stability. You want your aircraft to be statically stable; that is to say, when the aircraft is disturbed in flight ( winds or something), it will tend to return to its original attitude without interfered by its users. Think about it, when a wave hits a boat, and the boat may rock, but may not turn over because it's designed to stay upright. So many other aviation pioneers were doing a lot of work to make their designs very stable. But this is a price; if your plane resistant the interference caused by nature, then it will also resist the control inputs provided by the pilot. This plane can be really difficult to operate, and it is at least one of the causes of some of the crashes. But the Wrights worked on bicycles which aren't statically stable at all. If the rider doesn't input constantly, a bike would fall down in a hurry. Therefore, they made the decision of cutting the static stability a little bit and allowed the pilot do more work. Before they were able to make a stable and controllable aircraft, this gave them a chance to actually make one.
4. Their rigorous attitude made they successful.
The earliest aircrafts were very basic mechanically, with simple wheels, chains, wires, pulleys and fairleads to operate the various moving parts. These are all things bicycle enthusiasts well understand.
All the parts for the aircraft must be created from basic off-the-shelf components. The Wright brothers had a workshop and light machine shop which could be redesigned without many additional costs.
Not all aircraft experimenters at that time had practical engineering experience, but bicycle manufacturers understood how to use the mobile controls for the production of simple and rugged and lightweight framework.
What really made the brothers successful and other experimenters failed was their willingness to be rigorous (as opposed to merely enthusiastic) in their experiments. They kept abreast of the latest European designs. They used a simple wind tunnel for safe experimentation. They kept good experimental notes. They refined constantly the basic design until it worked successfully.
5. They were mechanical engineers.
There is another explanation that it is because that bicycle mechanics in the Wright Brothers time is like a high technology machine shop today. If you needed any machine repairing or made it would be done between the bicycle mechanics and the blacksmiths. In fact, the Wright Brothers were mechanical engineers somehow, so they could make their ideas come true at a fast speed and a low cost. They knew how to make things strong and light. And they believed that just like the bicycle, the aircraft needed someone to control it instead of flying itself.
We can say that without the invention of the bicycles and the wisdom and ingenuity of the Wright brothers, the plane would not have been invented so early. Thanks to them, we can enjoy our convenient life today. Let's pay tribute to them!