Bike Racers Invented the Airplane

Wilbur Wright working in the bicycle shopLibrary of Congress

Huh, I thought that the bicycle leading to the invention of the airplane was well known, but as Margaret Guroff shares in a lengthy article for Fast Company, excerpted from her book, there’s much more to the story. Like, many early barnstormers were bicycle racers first.

That’s right! Bike racers brought America the airplane. Later, they fixated on aero bicycles, but that’s a topic for another post.

The Wrights, by contrast, had an insight that came straight from cycling. They understood that a plane didn’t need to be stable. Like a bicycle, it could be inherently unstable and could be flown in the same way a bicycle is “flown”: by a rider making constant, tiny, unconscious adjustments. “It has been a common aim of experimenters with the aëroplane to solve the problem of equilibrium by some automatic system of balancing,” stated the brothers in a 1908 “as told to” story in McClure’s. “Our idea was to secure a machine which, with a little practice, could be balanced and steered semi-automatically, by reflex action, just as a bicycle is.” The Wrights studied the movements of soaring birds and designed a steering system that copied the way birds torque the tips of their wings when they turn. In the Wright Flyer, the pilot steered by pushing on levers that warped the plane’s wings. (Wilbur first got the idea for the wing-warping system while idly twisting an empty inner-tube box.)

Buy The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life from Amazon for 18.40 hardcover of 14.72 on Kindle. It includes more stories, and is a lively cultural history, explaining how the bicycle transformed all avenues of American life.