(Photos courtesy of Wikipedia)
(April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912)
(August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948)
The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were the two youngest boys of Milton and Catherine Wright’s seven children. The family moved around often during the boys’ childhood due to Milton’s profession as a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ; however, the family moved back to Dayton, Ohio in 1884. Neither brother earned a high school diploma nor went to college, but they were both avid readers and always interested in the mechanics of movable parts. The brothers opened their printing press in 1889, which was designed and built by Orville, with assistance from Wilbur. Orville dropped out of high school to launch their new weekly edition newspaper, West Side News. By 1890, the brothers switched the newspaper to a daily edition and renamed it The Evening Item. Orville also printed Paul Laurence Dunbar’s weekly newspaper, Dayton Tattler.
In 1892, the brothers opened a bicycle shop to repair and sell the widely popular bicycle. The first shop was called the Wright Cycle Exchange, but changed its name to Wright Cycle Company. In 1896, the brother designed and manufactured their own model of bicycle, the elite Van Cleve and the cheaper model, the St. Clair. The income from the bicycle shop funded the brothers’ work on a flying apparatus.
The brothers started testing their gliders in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1900, with different models built and tested through 1900, 1901, and 1902. The brothers built a wind tunnel in Dayton to work on their gliders. On September 18, 1901, Wilbur gave a speech at the Western Society of Engineers; this is the first time the brothers spoke publicly about their invention. His speech was printed and published. By 1903, the brothers worked out a model of the Wright Flyer and tested it at Kitty Hawk. The first flight was on December 17, 1903 with Orville piloting the Flyer. Both brothers took turns flying the engine powered Flyer to an audience of five witnesses. Orville restored the original Wright Flyer, with it traveling around to different locations for display. In 1948, it went to its permanent home at the Smithsonian Institution.
By 1904, the brothers created a second flyer and tested it at Huffman Prairie, an 85 acre open area that saw the brothers make over 100 air flight tests on the new design. However, the early successes of the airplanes went virtually unnoticed by the public. Fearful of losing their designs, the brothers did not have a patent nor could they sell their design. At this time, the U.S. government, France, Britain, and Germany all refused to purchase or fund the Wright airplane.
In 1908, the brothers finally signed contracts with the U.S. and French, but they had to prove their design worked. To demonstrate their worth, the brothers split up to perform public demonstrations of their airplane. Wilbur traveled to Europe, whilst Orville demonstrated their plane in Washington D.C. The demo flights were a success and the brothers became world famous once the news spread. However, the brothers had a setback when Orville and Thomas Selfridge suffered a plane crash in Virginia on September 17, 1908. Selfridge passed away from his injuries, but Orville thankfully survived with broken legs, ribs, and a fractured hip. Their sister, Katharine, stayed with him for two months while he recuperated.
By 1909, the three Wright siblings traveled to Europe to work and demonstrate their airplane. The brothers started the first flight school to train three pilots for the French government. After demonstrating the airplane across Europe, they returned to meet President William H. Taft and eventually returned home to Dayton, where they were greeted to a two-day homecoming celebration. On July 27, 1909, the brothers met all of the U.S. requirements and were paid by the U.S. Army for their success. The brothers again opened a flight school and trained three U.S. military pilots for air flight.
After their success in air flight, the brothers began to fight for proper financial compensation from companies that illegally used their designs. One man in particular, Glenn Curtiss, refused to pay license fees to the brothers, but he was not alone; many other unscrupulous businesses illegally used their designs. From 1904 and on, the brothers engaged in countless legal battles to receive proper compensation for their patent. By 1910, Wilbur took the lead in the legal battles, extensively traveling to and from Dayton to deal with legal issues. In fact, his family members believe the stress and strain of the legal battles led to his untimely death in 1912 from typhoid fever. He was only 45 years old when he died on May 30, 1912. By 1914, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Curtiss, but the legal battles continued until 1917, when during WWI, the Manufacturers Aircraft Association pressured the U.S. government to form cross-licensing for aeronautical patents. By 1929, the Wright and Curtiss companies merged to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. It is still operational and manufactures materials for the aerospace industry.
Before Wilbur’s passing, the family agreed to build a grand new home in Oakwood, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. The house was completed in 1914 and was called Hawthorn Hill. The family moved out of their original Dayton home of 42 years at 7 Hawthorn Street, including Milton. He was active with his children and died peacefully at the new home in 1917. Orville and Katharine lived in the new home until she married Henry Haskell in 1926. Orville refused to attend the wedding and cut off all communication with her until she grew ill from pneumonia. She passed away in 1939.
Following Wilbur’s passing, Orville took over the presidency of the Wright Company. With little desire to be a businessman, he sold the company in 1915, which changed its name to the Wright-Martin Company. Orville piloted his last flight in 1918 and officially retired from business. He served on numerous aviation boards, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (he served for 28 years) and the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce. He was awarded the inaugural Daniel Guggenheim Medal for the promotion of aeronautics in 1930 and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1936. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Orville’s birthday to be known as National Aviation Day in America. In 1944, Orville took his last airplane flight; he rode in a Lockheed Constellation, which was piloted by Howard Hughes and Jack Frye. His last major project in conjunction with the Wright Flyers was the restoration of the 1905 Wright Flyer III. In his retirement, Orville was involved in local philanthropy. In 1937, he took part in the planning of a new library in Oakwood and personally underwrote the bond for the construction of the library. The Wright Memorial Public Library opened in 1939 and is named after the Wright Family. Orville passed away from a heart attack at age 76 on January 30, 1948. The brothers are buried at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, Dayton, Ohio, Section 101, Lot 2533.
- Wright, Orville & Wilbur - The Early History of the Airplane (1922)
- Wright, Orville - How We Invented the Airplane (1953)
- Wright, Orville, Marvin McFarland, & Wilbur Wright – The Papers of Wilbur and Orville (1953)
For More Information
- The Wright Brothers - Wikipedia
- The Wright Brothers - Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
- The Wright Brothers - Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park