The 16th April 2017 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Wilbur Wright, one half of the famous Wright Brothers, who between them launched humanity into the era of modern aviation.
They were largely self-taught engineers who began a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio in 1892, and shortly after designed and built their own machine. It was around this time that they also became seriously interested in designing a flying machine, and began a series of landmark experiments, drawing on their mechanical experience from their bicycle shop and a printing shop they had owned previously.
The constructed their own glider, and in 1900 began an extensive series of trial and error tests around the sand-hills of Kitty Hawk, a coastal location in North Carolina. They succeeded in designing a workable set of aviation controls that allowed a pilot to fly the aircraft, although the machine was often unstable and difficult to operate.
The next step was to produce an engine that had a power to weight ratio sufficient to keep the aircraft aloft, in doing so designed and built an aluminium engine block in their bicycle shop. They also designed and manufactured their own propellers, made from laminated spruce construction.
After three years experimentation they made their first powered flight on 14 December 1903, with Wilbur at the controls of the Wright Flyer 1. The flight only lasted a few seconds but was followed by longer flights on 17 December, with both Wilbur and Orville taking turns at the controls. On the last flight of the day Wilbur piloted the aircraft more than 240 metres at about 3 metres above the ground, before crashing in the gusty winds. The flight time was 59 seconds.
During 1904 and 1905 the brothers further developed their Flyer into what is now recognised as the first heavier than air flying machine that was capable of sustained and controlled flight. The incredible and rapid development of the aeroplane followed across the next 4 years, and in 1909 Louis Bleriot, piloting a French-designed aircraft called the Bleriot X1, achieved the first powered flight across the English Channel.
Image: The Wright Flyer I in action, 17 December 1903, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur watching from nearby, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.