A pair of self-taught engineers working in a bicycle shop, they made the world a forever smaller place

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Wilbur and Orville Wright were two brothers from the heartland of America with a vision as sweeping as the sky and a practicality as down-to-earth as the Wright Cycle Co., the bicycle business they founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892. But while there were countless bicycle shops in turn-of-the-century America, in only one were wings being built as well as wheels. When the Wright brothers finally realized their vision of powered human flight in 1903, they made the world a forever smaller place. I've been to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and seen where the brothers imagined the future, and then literally flew across its high frontier. It was an inspiration to be there, and to soak up the amazing perseverance and creativity of these two pioneers.

The Wright brothers had been fascinated by the idea of flight from an early age. In 1878 their father, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, gave them a flying toy made of cork and bamboo. It had a paper body and was powered by rubber bands. The young boys soon broke the fragile toy, but the memory of its faltering flight across their living room stayed with them. By the mid-1890s Wilbur was reading every book and paper he could find on the still earthbound science of human flight. And four years before they made history at Kitty Hawk, the brothers built their first, scaled-down flying machine--a pilotless "kite" with a 5-ft. wingspan, and made of wood, wire and cloth. Based on that experiment, Wilbur became convinced that he could build an aircraft that would be "capable of sustaining a man."

While the brothers' bicycle business paid the bills, it was Wilbur's abiding dream of building a full-size flying machine that inspired their work. For many years, he once said, he had been "afflicted with the belief that flight is possible." The reality of that obsession was a lonely quest for the brothers in the workroom behind their bike shop, plotting to defy gravity and conquer the wind. Yet that obsessive kind of world-changing belief is a force that drives you to solve a problem, to find the breakthrough--a force that drives you to bet everything on a fragile wing or a new idea. It was a force that led the Wright brothers to invent, single-handedly, each of the technologies they needed to pursue their dream.

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