17 December 2015

The Wright Day For A Couple Of Bike Mechanics

You probably know what happened on this date in 1903:  the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

It's often said, inaccurately, that the flight the Brothers made that day was the "first" flight.  Actually, people had flown for centuries before that in gliders, hot-air balloons and other airborne vehicles.  But those flights were wholly dependent on the speed and direction of the wind; they had no other power source and therefore could be kept up only for very limited amounts of time.  Other would-be inventors tried to make airplanes or gliders with wings that flapped or could otherwise be made to propel or steer them.  Needless to say, they proved unsuccessful.

The real innovations in the Wright Brothers' plane were that its wings were fixed,  it was powered by something other than the wind and that controls (which the Brothers invented) regulated the course of the flight. 

That control--known as the three-axis control-- may have been the most important innovation of all:  It's still used on all fixed-wing aircraft, from crop dusters to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A 380. It's the reason that every one of those planes can keep their equilibrium, a.k.a. balance, throughout a flight.  If an aircraft can't be balanced, it can't fly.

Now...Think of another vehicle that can't move forward unless it's balanced.

Since you're reading this blog, the bicycle is probably the first such vehicle that came to  mind.  So, it should come as no surprise that the Brothers were bicycle mechanics and, later, manufacturers.  They studied motion and balance using bicycles in their homemade wind tunnel. Knowing this shatters the common misperception that when Shimano and other bicycle parts manufacturers, as well as bicycle makers, were making "aerodynamic" equipment, they were following the lead of the aerospace industries.  In fact, as we have seen, the Wright Brothers and other inventors were studying the aerodynamics of the bicycle eight decades before Shimano or other companies paid heed.

So...The next time you see an aerodynamic bike or part, you can thank (or blame) Orville and Wilbur Wright.


  1. I have read in many places, but never seen it documented, that the Wright Brothers came up with the idea of reverse threads on left pedals.

    Yes, they did work out the control system of fixed-wing aircraft. There is another strata to their thinking that is very basic: the idea that a fixed-wing heavier-than-air flying machine should show it's aerodynamic characteristics only when it is in motion. Earlier attempts at flying machines were based on the idea that the machine should basically float in the air and the operator would only have to get in, start it up and steer the machine. Others came up with the Zeppelin and other solutions that made the machine buoyant in the air. The Wright Brother's concept was a machine that is unstable, that you have to actually pilot, FLY, in three dimentions at speed and not just steer. This concept of course is central to the two-wheeled bicycle and demonstrates a very deep level of understanding.

    When people sometimes say that cycling is close to flying, it maybe is not just a figure of speech.


  2. Leo--The final sentence of your comment should have been my title!

    I, too, have come across the claim that the Wright Brothers came up with the idea of reverse threads on left pedals. Like you, I cannot document it.

    Your description of aircraft dynamics is very interesting and useful. Thank you!