The Wright Brothers and William Brewster

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, Ph.D.

There is a connection between Elder, William Brewster, and Orville and Wilbur Wright. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright

  1. William Brewster (ca 1559 - 1643)
    Mary Wyrral(?) (d 1627)

    2. Patience Brewster (1600 - 1684)
    Thomas Prence (1600 - 1673)

    3. (1) Rebecca Prence, (2) Margaret Perry
    Edmond Freeman III (1655 - 1720)

    4. Edmond Freeman IV (1683 - 1766)
    Sarah Skeffe (d 1742)

    5. Edmond Freeman V (1711 - 1800)
    Kezia Pressbury (1688 - 1764)

    6. Edmond Freeman VI (1737 - 1813)
    Martha Otis (1717 - 1790)

    7. Sarah Freeman (1762 - 1848)
    Dan Wright, Sr. (1757 - 1832)

    8. Dan Wright, Jr. (1791 - 1861)
    Catherine Reeder (1800 - 1860)

    9. Milton Wright, Bishop (1828 - 1917)
    Sarah Catherine Koerner (1831 - 1889)

    10. Wilbur (1867 - 1912) & Orville Wright (1871 - 1948)

William and Mary Brewster arrived on the Mayflower, their daughter Patience arrived on the Anne in 1623. Thomas Prence arrived on the Fortune in 1621. Prence was elected Governor in 1634, Assistant Governor in 1635 and after Bradford died in 1657 Prence served as Governor until the end of his life. Rebecca Prence, daughter of Thomas Prence, was the first wife of Edmond Freeman III. After Rebecca died, Edmond married Margaret Perry. Their son, Edmond Freeman IV, was the ancestor of the Wright brothers. Thus the Wright brothers are related to William Brewster, but not descendants of Brewster.

Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) were raised in Dayton Ohio, the sons of a Bishop of the United Brethren Church. They did not attend college but began working in a printing shop upon completing public school. Bicycles were a popular source of pleasure and travel at the end of the 19th century. The Wrights were bicycle enthusiasts with an intuitive understanding about machines. They were familiar with the rapid advances being made in bicycle technology. In 1892 they opened a shop to repair and sell bicycles and later expanded it to manufacture bicycles. They were inspired about flying after reading magazine articles in 1896 about the hang-glider flights of Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) in Germany. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution asking for available literature on flight.

The essentials of flight were learned by experimentalists using man-carrying kites and gliders. Lilienthall discovered that the leading edge of a wing section had to be curved upward (camber) to achieve lift. Octave Chanute (1832-1910), an eminent designer of railroad bridges in America, experimented with gliders during the 1890's and concluded that structural soundness could be achieved by double-decked wings (biplane) connected by vertical struts under compression and diagonal wires under tension, e.g Pratt truss. The Wright's adopted Chanute's biplane design. Chanuet recognized the Wrights brilliance and discipline, and shared his knowledge through an exchange letters lasting for 10 years.

Wing Warping

The principal obstacle in early attempts to fly was the inability to execute a turn in a controlled fashion. Lilenthall was killed in 1896 failing to master this maneuver. Unlike ships that float and turn by means of only a rudder, flight requires the pilot to simultaneously turn and maintain lift. Such turns are called banking. The Wrights observed that buzzards executed banked turns by twisting one wing upward while twisting the other wing downward. They concluded pilots needed to be able to "warp" the wings while maintaining lift. How to warp wings came to Wilbur by chance in 1899 when he was fiddling with a small cardboard box with its ends removed. He discovered that the top and bottom surfaces of the box could be warped by squeezing the diagonally opposite four corners of the box between his thumb and forefinger. (Try this with the cover of a box of small wooden matches.) Thus that a biplane could execute a banked left-hand turn by twisting downward the outboard edge of the left wing while twisting upward the outboard edge of the right wing. The Wrights drew on their experience with wire-spoked bicycle wheels. Bicycle wheels do not resemble stout spoked-wheels used on horse-drawn carts that have to withstand bending, tension and compression. Rather, a light-weight bicycle wheel uses many wires under tension connecting points on the wheel rim to tangential points on the wheel hub. Drawing on this knowledge they realized that wings could be warped by applying tension to diagonal wires of the Pratt truss.

Lift and Drag

The Wrights needed to quantify lift and drag with the speed and direction of the wind in order to select the dimensions of a cambered wing. Their first experiments were conducted with a small test apparatus mounted on the handlebar of a bicycle. Model wings were mounted on moveable arms in a structure containing weights and levers. When peddled outdoors at a constant speed the model wing assumed certain positions and the weights provided values of lift and drag force. To improve the accuracy and pace of experiments, the Wrights perfected the windtunnel. The test apparatus mounted on the bicycle was now placed inside a rectangular duct and air was drawn through the duct by a fan powered by an internal combustion engine. Knowledge gained about the design of the fan and internal combustion engine were used later to design an engine and propeller for their biplane.

Kites and Gliders

In 1900 the Wrights began experiments with tethered man-carrying kites. They conducted these flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina because the winds in the autumn were strong and steady. From 1900 to 1902, they built and tested three biplanes launched into the wind from sand dunes. The Wrights perfected a particular cambered wing, 32 ft long and 5 ft wide that provided ample lift for a manned biplane. They added a pair of smaller moveable wings (elevators) to the nose of the glider to assist ascent and descent, and a moveable vertical a rudder in the rear of the plane to assist turning. In 1902 they conducted man-carrying glider flights and mastered the skill of maintaining directional stability because they employed the skills to ride bicycles. There is a symbiosis between man and machine for both riding a bicycle and maneuvering a glider. The Wrights concluded that the pilot should lay prone in a moveable hip cradle in the center of the lower wing. When the pilot shifted his hips laterally, tension was applied to diagonal wires to warp the wings. Hand levers controlled the rudder and elevators. To maneuver a glider in flight, pilots had to use their bodies just as bicycle riders lean to the right or left to make turns, or to keep from falling. It seems obvious now, but until the Wrights, many people thought one had only move the body to adjust the plane's center of gravity where in reality it was the as the center of lift that had to be adjusted. The subtle warp of a soaring bird's wings which adjusted the center of lift was difficult to discern. Later the need to move the body was replaced by rotating up or down the trailing edge of wings called ailerons.

Propeller and Engine

The Wrights realized an "air screw" was needed to propel the biplane similar to the way a ship's propeller moves a ship. Since air is considerably less dense than water, simply scaling-up the design of a ship's propeller was inadequate. The Wrights theorized that a propeller was a rotating a wing in which the lift became the thrust to propel the biplane. Since the speed of the air over the propeller increased in the radial direction, the propeller surface had to twist toward the tip. The Wrights designed and constructed a wooden propeller that is fundamentally the same as used today. Powered flight also required an engine to drive the propeller. Prior to their experiments the only available engines were heavy unsatisfactory steam engines. Fortunately by 1902, important improvements were being made in internal combustion engines used in automobiles. The Wrights studied this technology, and designed and built a 12-HP engine weighting 160 pounds to power two pusher propellers linked to the engine by bicycle chains.


The Wrights were not the only ones interested in flying. Nine days before the Wrights successful flight, Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, under contract with the US Navy launched an airplane from a houseboat in the Potomac River. After launch by catapult, the plane flopped ignominiously into the river. On December 17, 1903, Orville piloted a biplane weighing 750 pounds, named the Flyer slightly larger than their 1902 glider. With the plane's undercarriage resting on a 2-wheeled jettisonable cradle fitted with pneumatic bicycle wheels rolling along a 60-ft wooden track, the "Flyer" took off under its own power into a 20 MPH wind and for 59 seconds flew a distance of 852 ft.

Summary & Conclusion

The invention of the airplane transformed transportation as dramatically as the invention of the Internet transforms communications today. Pictures of the first powered flight are stirring but obscure the Wright's genius, systematic invention, e.g the creation of a machine's components on a timely basis which when combined produces an invention of enormous importance. The Wrights accomplished powered flight without a formal engineering education. On their own, they learned and applied aerodynamic fundamentals. Their bicycle business was successful and they financed their experiments without outside financial assistance. The Wrights were astute businessmen who appreciated the concept of patents where ideas are converted into property with financial value. Since it was not possible to patent the concept of flying, they patented the specific design of the Flyer, wing warping and several components of internal combustion engine. In 1905 they built a biplane that could turn, circle, ascend, descend, execute figure-eights and remain aloft for over one half hour. After demonstrating powered flight, they entered into contracts with the US Army. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[email protected], Kistler Family,, July 2003
Culick F. E. C., The Origins of the First Powered, Man-carrying Airplane, Scientific American, Vol. 241, No 1, pp 86-100, July 1979
Stratton, E. A., Plymouth Colony, Ancestry Publishing, Utah, 1986
Wright, O., How We Invented the Airplane, David McKay Co., NY, 1953