The Wright Brothers


 Wilbur and Orville Wright did not just build the first airplane, but also made a visual account of its creation. Chandni Gajria uncovers the documentation of 20th century’s greatest invention.

Orville Wright (1871-1948)

Orville Wright (1871-1948)


“Our first interest began when we were children. Father brought home to us, a small toy actuated by a rubber spring which would lift itself into the air.” – Orville Wright


Wilbur Wright (1867-1912)

Wilbur Wright (1867-1912)




“There is no sport equal to that which aviators enjoy while being carried through the air on great white wings.” – Wilbur Wright


How many times have you looked up at the sky and observed birds flying? “If birds can glide for long periods of time, then… why can’t I?” asked aviation pioneer Orville Wright to himself. Perhaps this curiosity and wishful thinking was what led to the invention of the aircraft in the first place. But what makes this development even more significant are the photographs made by its inventors, the Wright brothers— Wilbur and Orville. Most of the photographs were made by the two from 1898–1911. These negatives provide an added understanding of aviation technology, apart from the letters and diaries of the Wright brothers.

Ohio, 1905: Front view of flight number 23. Orville is at the controls, making two complete circles of the field in 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Ohio, 1905: Front view of flight number 23. Orville is at the controls, making two complete circles of the field in 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Initial Spark
Wilbur and Orville Wright were two of the seven children born to Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Koerner. The brothers’ interest in flying arose around 1878, when their father brought a toy helicopter home. The foot long helicopter was the invention of French aeronautical engineer Alphonse Pénaud and was made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor.

Kitty Hawk, 1911: Orville and spectators looking up at glider in flight.

Kitty Hawk, 1911:Orville and spectators looking up at glider in flight.

The Power of Photography
The brothers’ first attempt at flight began by building a glider, which was going to be flown both as a kite and as a piloted flight. At the same time, they meticulously started documenting the process through photography, consistent with their trial and errors. The brothers purchased their first camera, the Korona V, around the same time these experiments started. The camera, then priced at USD 85, was one the most expensive cameras of its time. At times they even used flash techniques to shoot indoor scenes at the camp.

Ohio, 1927: Orville, Major John F Curry, and Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who came to pay Orville a personal call at Wright Field.

Ohio, 1927: Orville,Major John F Curry,and Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who came to pay Orville a personal call at Wright Field.

 “The airplane stays up because it does not have the time to fall.” – Orville Wright

Early Attempts
Because of its remote location and sandy terrain, Kitty Hawk in North Carolina was finalised as the test site for all the flying experiments. The brothers had built a full-fledged 100-pound glider with refined controls. Though this was the largest glider ever built, the wings did not have enough strength to lift its own weight. Disappointed, the brothers believed that man will never experience flight in their lifetime.

Ohio, 1904: The Wright brothers with their second powered machine.Ohio, 1904: The Wright brothers with their second powered machine.

Ohio, 1904: The Wright brothers with their second powered machine.

 “I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” – Wibur, in a letter to Octave Chanute

Success and Disaster
Months after successful glide tests, the brothers designed a motor for a new powered aircraft. Weighing 700 pounds, this aircraft was called the Wright Flyer I. On 17 December 1903, after two attempts, Orville finally managed the first piloted controlled flight at 120 feet in 12 seconds. To photograph this historic moment, Orville preset the camera on a tripod and had John T Daniels, a spectator at the camp, to release the shutter. The Wright brothers allowed passengers to fly with them since 14 May 1908. However, disaster struck on 17 September 1908, when an aircraft flown by Orville, crashed. While Orville survived the crash, his passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, did not, making him the first airplane crash casualty of the world.

Kitty Hawk, 1903: Wilbur lying flat in a damaged machine after an unsuccessful trial.

Kitty Hawk, 1903:Wilbur lying flat in a damaged machine after an unsuccessful trial.

Not Just a Visual Record
Photography played a major role throughout their experiments. Both brothers were so keen to learn about photography that they set up a darkroom in the backyard of their home to develop their glass plate negatives. Orville was so scrupulous about the pictures they made, he even maintained a record of the time, date and place of an exposure, along with the aperture setting, type of plate used and subject matter for each image. They also photographed their lab, engines and the models of the aircraft and even their accidents.

Kitty Hawk, 1903: First flight at 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 am.

Kitty Hawk, 1903: First flight at 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 am.

Their Fight For Patent
In 1906, the brothers were granted a patent for their plane. Many early aviators like Glenn Curtis built a similar aircraft that emulated the patented one. The legal battle that followed took a toll on Wilbur’s health. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever and in 1912, he passed away. Orville took over the case which he finally won. In 1918, Orville flew for the last time. In 1948, a heart attack took his life.

Kitty Hawk, 1901: Orville at the left wing end of the glider.

Kitty Hawk, 1901: Orville at the left wing end of the glider.

Destruction of the Negatives
After Orville’s death, a majority of their pictures were given to the Library of Congress and the rest are now at the Wright State University, USA. Although the photos are credited to the Wright brothers, a few significant ones were made by their friends or sometimes by their mentor, French aviation engineer Octave Chanute. At their home, the brothers kept a collection of photos, proof of their pioneering work.

Unfortunately, during a flood in 1913, many negatives were damaged, and some lost for good. Very few early researchers have documented their inventions in such great detail as the Wright brothers did. Not only do their photos provide a wonderful insight into the beginnings of aviation, modern-day scientists can also get inspired to bring their ‘impossible’ creations to reality.

“In the photographic darkroom at home we pass moments of as thrilling interest as any in the field, when the image begins to appear on the plate and it is yet an open question whether we have a picture of a flying machine, or merely a patch of open sky.” said Wilbur Wright.

Tags: Aerial Photography, Chandni Gajria, wright brothers, photography's beginning, negatives, flight, Great Masters