The 1899 Kite

The first aircraft to employ wing warping. The Wright brothers’ first flying machine was a toy, built when both brothers were still children. Although it flew, it was evidence more of their mechanical curiosity and aptitude than a precocious interest in flight.

What Came Before?

The Wrights’ curiosity led them to study the work of many brilliant pioneers and early flying machines. The Wrights acknowledged the work of their predecessors often, giving credit to those they admired and who had inspired their own progress. Their highest praise went to those who approached flight scientifically. Absorbing the lessons of the past was the Wrights first critical step in their discoveries. The 1899 kite both borrows and departs from their aeronautical ancestors.

Sir George Cayley: Sir George Cayley was mentioned by Wilbur Wright in the first sentence of his first letter to the Smithsonian in 1899, the year the kite was built and flown. Writing almost 30 years later, Orville said of the eccentric English baron, “To my mind, Sir George Cayley was the first of the important pioneers.”

That the Wrights recognized Cayley is a testament to his unprecedented scientific approach to flight. Cayley was the first to describe, in clear, reasoned language, the essential problems of flight. In his revolutionary article “On Aerial Navigation” published in 1809 and 1810, Cayley stated “The whole problem is confined within these limits–to make a surface support a given weight by the application of power to the resistance of air.”

Cayley’s work consisted of years of careful observation and measurements of birds and bird flight, experimentation with whirling arms, and actual practice with fixed-wing glider models and full-sized, man-carrying machines. Like most of their other predecessors, the Wrights ultimately used little of Cayley’s results, relying instead on their own data and experience. But Cayley’s approach set a precedent for careful scientific study which they always acknowledged.

Cayley’s groundbreaking experiments were the basis for most of the serious experimenters of the 19th century.

Alphonse Pénaud: Like Sir Cayley, Alphonse Pénaud was mentioned in Wilbur’s first letter to the Smithsonian requesting information about flight. His name is mentioned frequently in the Wrights’ papers, often with reference to the “Pénaud tail”. Orville called him “one of the greatest minds to wrestle with the problem of flight” (McFarland, p. 1153). Although the Wrights used almost none of his actual work in their experiments, his visionary work proved the possibility of controlled, powered flying machines.

In 1880, known mostly for his flying toys rather than as a brilliant inventor, Pénaud killed himself at the age of 30. Nine years before, he had created what he called the “planophore”, a rubber-band powered monoplane with an adjustable center of gravity, tapered wings set at a dihedral angle, and rear-mounted pusher propeller. It was the first stable heavier-than-air machine that could fly. He had also built and flown ornithopters and helicopters, one of which was given to the Wrights as children in 1878.

Octave Chaunute: The closest thing the Wrights had to a mentor, Chanute was both an inspiration and a sounding board for the Wrights’ ideas and investigations. After Octave Chanute died in November 1910, Wilbur Wright wrote, “If he had not lived, the entire history of progress of flying machines would have been other than it has been…”(McFarland, p.1013). Wilbur spoke from great personal experience. He had written to Chanute in 1899 about his“affliction with the belief that flight is possible to man,” and Chanute responded with information and advice and seemingly limitless patience, encouraged the Wrights in their efforts, and perhaps most importantly, took them seriously. He was a sounding board for their work for the remainder of his life.

As an accomplished civil engineer, Chanute brought considerable authority and experience to the problem of designing a flying machine. In 1896, he designed and flew a biplane glider whose wings were held together with a wire bracing structure which he had borrowed from the design of railroad bridges. Known as the “Pratt Truss”, it held together the glider’s lightweight framework with considerable strength. Although the Wrights adapted the design to their system of control, the 1896 glider is the direct ancestor of the 1899 kite.

Samuel Pierpont Langely: Typically cast as a competitor of the Wrights, Langley in fact was an important inspiration to the Wrights, who always held him and his pilot, Charles Manly, in high regard.

In November 1910, Wilbur reflected on the work of Samuel Pierpont Langley in a letter to Octave Chanute: “When scientists considered it discreditable to work in the field of aeronautics he possessed both the discernment to discover possibilities there and the moral courage to subject himself to the ridicule of the public and the apologies of his friends… his accounts of the troubles he had encountered and overcome put us on our guard and enabled us to entirely avoid some of the worst of them… we have always found a study of his writings very profitable, especially at a time when we were trying to find out what the real sticking points of flying were.” (McFarland, p.737)

Wilbur’s admiration for Langley was genuine. Despite a controversy which surrounded Langley and the Wrights for over 25 years, the Wrights always held his work in high regard, and his character with the utmost respect. Like the Wrights, Langley had not gone to college, yet was one of the most respected scientists in the country, having developed a significant body of research in astronomy and as an effective Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Langley achieved his goal of demonstrating the possibility of powered flight. His aerodromes remain outstanding examples of ingenuity and craftsmanship, as is the engine created for his Grand Aerodrome and modified by Charles Manly, his assistant and pilot. Although his methods in his flying experiments relied greatly on trial-and-error, his thorough and accurate documentation of his work was of incalculable value to the Wrights. It is ironic that in this, the Wrights did not follow his lead.

Proving a Concept

1899 Kite Roll

The kite was made for reason: to test an idea Wilbur had about control, based on a twisted inner tube box. The tests of the kite were brief, and, except for a few small boys running for cover, were unwitnessed by anyone except Wilbur. However, as the Wrights’ first successful aeronautical experiments, they had a huge impact on the brothers’ future.

The tests of the kite were brief, and, except for a few small boys running for cover, were unwitnessed by anyone except Wilbur. However, as the Wrights’ first successful aeronautical experiments, they had a huge impact on the brothers’ future.

In order to demonstrate the kite clearly, we have produced simulations based on the Wrights’ descriptions of the kite’s performance. At The Wright Experience, we offer a full demonstration of the kite, and the revolutionary principles established at the outset of the Wrights’ work.

The Design Evolves


The 1899 kite lingered for a number of years in the Wright’s workshop, and was finally destroyed about 1905 (McFarland, p. 1183). Like many of their machines, the Wrights made no drawings for the kite. Wilbur sketched the kite in 1912 as part of a patent lawsuit, but the drawing is incomplete, with many details of the kite’s construction missing.

1900-1902: The Wright brothers’ gliders were the direct descendents of the kite, and significantly advanced and refined the control system begun by the kite. The Wright brothers’ next flying machines were the gliders. These machines were the most direct result of the 1899 kite. Indeed, many of the tests on these machines were in flying the glider as a kite, so that the Wrights could make accurate measurements of the gliders’ performances under known conditions. The resulting analyses of these tests were crucial in the Wrights’ developing understanding of aerodynamics.

1903-1905: The Wrights’ first powered machines also built upon the kite’s foundation, with each control surface based on the principles first used in the kite. The Wrights’ first powered machines carried on from where the gliders left off, but were also directly influenced by the kite. By this time, though, the Wrights had modified the wing warping system so that only the trailing edges of the outer portions of the wing were flexible. The rest of the airframe was rigid.

1908-1913: The Wrights’ most advanced aircraft were the final efforts they made in aircraft design, yet retained their fundamental reliance on the previous machines’ control system. As the Wrights developed both their airplane designs and business, the wing-warping system begun by the kite became the focal point of the patent lawsuits which consumed much of the Wrights’ time and money. The controls became adapted for use by two pilots, and continued in all the Wrights’ designs. Eventually the system was abandoned by aircraft manufacturers, including the Wright company, for the use of ailerons.

Today: Dual-control kites are common today, and the wing-warping principles introduced by the 1899 kite are being explored for use in high-performance jets.

As stated in a NASA press release of March 27, 2002, wing warping has made a comeback:

“As the first aircraft sporting the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission’s official logo, a modified NASA F/A-18 is poised to begin investigation of Active Aeroelastic Wing (AAW) technology–a 21st-century, high-tech twist on wing warping for flight control pioneered by the Wright brothers almost a century ago. The aircraft was displayed Wednesday during rollout ceremonies at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.”

“The overall goal of this $41 million program is to demonstrate improved aircraft roll control through aerodynamically-induced wing twist on a full-scale manned supersonic aircraft.”

The wing-warping system developed by the Wrights was aerodynamically sound and remarkably effective, especially for the slow speeds at which the Wrights flew. The evolution of this revolutionary system for supersonic flight is a fitting tribute to the humble kite of 1899.

The 1899 kite became the basis for all the Wrights’ designs, and was truly their first aircraft. We constructed a reproduction of the 1899 Kite in Virginia and it was flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in October 1997. To our delight, our kite’s performance matched the written descriptions of Wilbur Wright’s tests.