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The Wright Brothers As Design Engineers

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2000 Annual Conference


St. Louis, Missouri

Publication Date

June 18, 2000

Start Date

June 18, 2000

End Date

June 21, 2000



Page Count


Page Numbers

5.659.1 - 5.659.7

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D. Joseph Shlien

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3225

The Wright Brothers as Design Engineers

D. Joseph Shlien Saginaw Valley State University


The first successful flight of an engine powered aircraft took place at Kitty Hawk, NC almost one hundred years ago, on December 17, 1903. This flight was a result of the pioneering work of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Although they barely completed high school, these brothers from Dayton, OH, have demonstrated that they can truly be considered design engi- neers. They proceeded through a rational engineering design process by a) studying the existing literature on flight, b) designing, building and testing of kites and tethered gliders, c) building their own wind-tunnel and testing various airfoils, d) flying their self-designed glider for many hours to get flight experience and finally, over a period of less than one year, e) they designed and built an engine, propellers and a successful aircraft, the Wright Flyer. Here, their design process procedures will be reviewed as an example for our students.


At the time the Wright brothers began their quest, many people were attempting to build a pow- ered “flying machine”. The Wrights succeeded while others failed as a result of their brilliance as engineers and because they approached the problem of powered flight in a highly rational way. Here their approach will be described as an example of rational engineering design.

Two memorable unsuccessful attempts by others will be described briefly before examining the Wright approach. In these cases, the lack of success can be attributed to failure of the use of a rational design process.

The first example is an aircraft built by Maxim (1894 - five years before the Wrights started their design pro- cess). He gathered pertinent informa- tion, but failed in the conceptualiza- tion phase: Instead of testing parts of his design in stages, he spent a great deal of money to immediately build his final aircraft (Fig. 1). It weighed Fig. 1. The first powered aircraft, built by Maxim in 1894 was four tons, was powered by a 180 hp steam powered and weighed 4 tons. For scale, notice the man steam engine and actually lifted off (colored yellow). The aircraft actually flew a few feet off the the ground a few feet, flying several ground for a distance of several hundred feet and then crashed. hundred feet until it crashed. After

Shlien, D. J. (2000, June), The Wright Brothers As Design Engineers Paper presented at 2000 Annual Conference, St. Louis, Missouri.

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