The prospects for constructing a flying machine appeared
to be much more favorable after the invention of the internal-combustion
engine late in the 19th century. Several people before the Wrights had
worked on the problem, and their contemporary Samuel P. Langley, secretary
of the Smithsonian had reached the point late in 1903 of testing a powered,
man-carrying airplane. In two widely publicized tests, in which the craft
was launched by catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac his plane failed
to fly and dived into the river. The progress of the Wrights was not publicly
known, but they were feeling the competition.
Orville and Wilbur had begun work on their Flyer
in the fall of 1902. Their plan was to install an engine and propellers
on an improved version of the 1902 glider. They assumed that they could
adapt an automobile engine and that the marine technical literature would
provide the basis for designing efficient propellers.
After trying unsuccessfully to obtain a suitable
engine from manufacturers they decided to design and build their own.
This was not a particularly difficult decision for them, because they
had already built a gasoline engine to power machinery in their bicycle
shop. By March, 1903, they had what they sought: an adequate engine that
developed 12 horsepower and weighed 15 pounds per horsepower. They had
not tried to create an exceptional engine, and their result was far inferior
to the engine built for Langley by his engineering assistant Charles Manly.
Then the brothers were surprised to find that the
available propeller theory provided only one useful result: for a given
output of power the best efficiency is obtained by passing the largest
possible amount of air through the propeller. (This principle accounted
for the rather large diameter of their two propellers: 8.5 feet.) The
most significant consequence of their discovery was that they were forced
to work out their own methods for designing propellers.
No theory existed for the detailed design of any
kind of propeller. The Wrights employed their knowledge of airfoils to
develop what later became known as blade-element theory, based on the
idea that a small segment of a propeller blade is treated as a section
of wing. Since the propeller is rotating and the airplane is moving, each
such little wing is exposed to a different velocity and therefore generates
different lift and drag forces. The thrust of the propeller and the power
absorbed by it are found by summing the lift and drag contributions from
all such blade elements.
The Wrights' analysis showed them how to design propellers
with an efficiency of 70 percent or better at a time when the propellers
of other investigators had an efficiency of less than 50 percent. With
the brothers' superior propellers they were able to power the 1903 Flyer
with their relatively modest engine. Their work on propeller design was
their greatest analytical accomplishment, but for them its only value
lay in the practical consequences. They never published their ideas and
analyses, and modern propeller theory is traceable to other sources.
WING-WARPING SYSTEM devised by the Wright brothers
as a means of executing turns is depicted. At the top is a front view
of the wings; each of the eight bays between struts is fitted with truss
wires, whereas only four of the bays at the rear have them. Thus the outer
edges of the rear wings could be moved (bottom) by the wires attached
to the hip cradle. The same system of wires also actuated the cranks that
moved the vertical taiL In order to make a turn, say to the right, the
pilot would warp the right wings up and the left wings down.
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