By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Wright Brothers built and piloted the first motor-operated airplane. Many of their experiments took place in Ohio. Ohio’s new license plate accidentally reversed their plane.
Ohio has been nicknamed “The Birthplace of Aviation” due to the extensive flight experiments performed there by Wilbur and Orville Wright, who pioneered heavier-than-air flight. The midwestern state recently unveiled a new license plate in their honor, featuring a lovely pastoral landscape and one of the Wright Brothers’ early planes, trailing a banner adorned with the state’s nickname.
Unfortunately, the plane is backwards, making it appear that the banner is trailing from the nose instead of the tail.
The mistake is understandable, since the Wright Brothers designed their first plane in a way that looks like a modern biplane reversed. Ohio officials are rectifying the error before mass-producing the plates.
In his video series The Industrial Revolution, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, detailed the Wright Brothers’ legacy.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio, which is why their planes came to resemble bicycles in the respects of being open and lightweight. Despite lacking college educations, they were very well-read and intelligent men who studied aviation history extensively before taking flight.
“Their experiments took place quietly between 1900 and 1905 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,” Dr. Allitt said. “For the first three years, 1900 through 1902, they did very extensive glider tests. Kitty Hawk was suitable from their point of view because it was remote from prying journalists; it was soft and sandy for landing, and it was consistently windy.”
According to Dr. Allitt, the Wright Brothers were secretive and didn’t want to receive any press until they had ironed out all the wrinkles of their inventions and patented them. Unlike their rivals in Europe, the Wright Brothers had no government sponsorship and hoped to earn a profit from flying.
Among their important early inventions was a set of controls that could help them keep their plane level and, according to Dr. Allitt, “enable it to rise, fall, and turn in a controlled and correctable way.” This was something that gliders had struggled with up until that point.
Flying, but Not Backwards
How did the graphic designers of Ohio’s new license plate make their crucial mistake? The answer lies in the design of the Wright Brothers’ first plane.
“The date of their first flight was December 17, 1903 […] with Orville Wright at the controls,” Dr. Allitt said. “The plane had a lightweight gasoline engine, turning twin propellers that they’d carved out of wood, mounted at the back of the wings to push rather than the normal later design of forward-projecting propellers, which pull the plane through the air.”
Again, this design is almost a perfect opposite of the more popular biplanes and propeller planes of more recent years: twin propellers at the back, with wings just in front of it, and a body in front of the wings that culminated in two horizontal elevators, which resemble tiny wings and control the pitch, at the very front of the plane.
“These first few flights in 1903 and early 1904 were made into a strong wind, the plane going at just about 10 or 15 miles per hour and just a few feet above the ground, but of several hundred feet in duration, and it was properly controlled.”
Public demonstrations and worldwide fame followed. They got caught up in litigation over the licensing rights to their patents, and American rival Glenn Curtiss ended up selling more airplanes to the American government during World War I than the Wright Brothers did, but their legacy in flight remains.