Orville and Wilbur Wright, more commonly known as “The Wright Brothers”, were among, if not the most influential American engineers of the 20th century. Pioneering the field of aviation and achieving the first successful manned flight by airplane on December 17, 1903, the legacy of the brothers’ work is incalculable. In 2017 a total of 36.8 million flights took place, carrying a total of 4.1 billion people through the skies. An estimated 39,000 commercial and military aircraft exist today, out of a historic total of more than 150,000. Starting from humble origins in the American Midwest, the Wright Brothers worked together to fundamentally impact the very existence of humanity.
Here are 16 facts about the Wright Brothers that you should know:
16. Susan Catherine Wright, née Koerner, was the daughter of a carriage maker, spending her formative years learning to use tools and passed this knowledge and passion onto her curious children
Susan Catherine Koerner (b. 1831) was the wife of Milton Wright and mother to the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Meeting in 1853 at Hartsville College, where Susan was a literature student and Milton served as a supervisor, they married in 1859. Despite their religious fanaticism, with Milton serving as a preacher, and later bishop, of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, both shared a common passion for science. The Wright household possessed two libraries: one devoted to Milton’s interests in theology, and a second on a more varied range of subjects. As Orville later credited his parents, “we were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity”.
During her early life, Susan spent hours in her father’s carriage shop learning to use tools and tinkering; with a house of her own, as an adult, Susan regularly crafted appliances for the home and her family, including a hand-fashioned sled for her children. Due to Milton’s itinerant work schedule, Susan was habitually the sole adult influence for much of the brothers’ upbringings and encouraged her love of innovation. Sadly, Susan died on July 4, 1889, of tuberculosis, fourteen years before her sons would succeed in their legendary flight.
15. Milton Wright, Orville and Wilbur’s father, brought home a toy model helicopter in 1878, igniting the interests of his young children and inspiring them to study in detail the true-to-life aeronautical design of his gift
Milton’s position as Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ demanded consistent travel to perform his duties. Upon his return from prolonged absences, it became routine that the family patriarch would produce a small gift for his seven children. In 1878, when Wilbur was 11 and Orville 7, Milton brought home a toy helicopter for the pair; this toy was anatomically designed on the real-life creation of French aeronautical inventor Alphonse Pénaud. Made from bamboo, cork, and paper, with a rubber band to power the rotor, the device was approximately a foot in length.
Captivating the young brothers’ attention the pair played with the toy until it broke, at which point they deconstructed the model and crafted new ones themselves. Continuing to obsess over the toy, Orville was caught working on the construction of one by a teacher during class; when asked to explain himself, Orville replied that one day he and his brother were going to build one large enough to carry them both into the sky. In their later lives, both brothers would frequently reminisce about their father’s gift, identifying it as a crucial formative experience that ignited their passions in the subject of aeronautics.
14. Neither of the Wright Brothers received their high school diplomas and forwent future formal education
In spite of this passion for learning and parental encouragement, neither Orville nor Wilbur Wright received their high school diplomas. Orville, as noted above, frequently had problems with authority during his formal education. In addition to the described incident regarding his lack of attention during classes, he was expelled from elementary school due to unspecified mischievous behavior. Electing to not finish his studies, Orville, at the age of 18, dropped out of high school after his junior year; instead, the younger brother chose to enter the world of business.
Wilbur, on the other hand, fully intended to complete his studies. The quieter and more intellectual of the pair, the elder brother was prevented from accepting his diploma after finishing four years of high school due to the family’s sudden relocation from Richmond, Indiana, to Dayton, Ohio, in 1884. In spite of this transition, Wilbur planned to attend Yale University but was hit in the face by a hockey stick whilst playing an ice-skating game in 1885. Knocking out his front teeth, the previously athletic Wilbur became noticeably depressed, withdrawing from the world and becoming housebound. It was not until the death of his mother in 1888, for whom Wilbur personally cared for in her last months, that he was able to break the depression and regain his ambitious passions. Wilbur was posthumously awarded his diploma on April 16, 1994, his 127th birthday, in recognition of his accomplishments.
13. Working together throughout their adult lives, the Wright Brothers founded a printing company before moving into the manufacture and sale of bicycles in the 1890s
Founding a printing shop, using a printing press the pair had designed and built themselves, in March 1889 the brothers launched a weekly newspaper: the West Side News, for which Orville was listed as the publisher and Wilbur as the editor. Lasting only four months, transitioning their publication during this time into a daily periodical called The Evening Item, the duo pivoted towards commercial printing, printing the works of renowned poet Paul Laurence Dumber as well as other publications including the Dayton Tattler. In December 1892, seeking to profit from the national bicycle boom, the Wright Brothers returned to their passionate roots in mechanical engineering and opened a bike repair and sales store.
The Wright Cycle Exchange, later known as the Wright Cycle Company, quickly garnered a reputation and from 1896 the brothers designed and sold their own bikes; among the features offered were an oil-retaining wheel hub and coaster brakes – both commonplace features of the modern industry today. Using the profits from the company to finance their experiments in aviation, the pair even built a six-foot wind tunnel on the second floor of their shop where they conducted tests on over 200 scale-model wing designs. After the success of their aviation endeavors, the company was closed in 1909; the building was moved in 1937 to the Greenfield Village Museum by Henry Ford to be preserved.
12. The Wright Flyer was constructed in 1903, using rudimentary materials, mostly wood, and enjoyed a top speed of 30 miles per hour
After extensive testing of gliders near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, from 1900-1902, the Wright Brothers finalized the design for their Flyer I: “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard”. Only allowing for a crew of one, the pilot of the Wright Flyer was required to lie on their stomach atop the lower wing to reduce drag. From this exposed position, the pilot could steer the aircraft using wires attached from his hips to the rudder.
Constructed from giant spruce wood as the primary material, the Wright Flyer had a wingspan of 40 feet and 4 inches, a height of 9 feet, and was 21 feet and 1 inch in length. With a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour, the historic aircraft was launched from a runway known as the “Junction Railroad”: a rudimentary track of 2x4s. Unable to find a suitable engine from an automobile for their prototype, the Wright Brothers hired their nephew to construct a gasoline engine of their own design; the chain drive powering the propellers was, also, made entirely by hand.
11. Wilbur won a coin toss to earn the chance to be the first human to fly but stalled the aircraft in his attempt, leading to Orville achieving that historic milestone three days later
Assembling their make-shift runway at Big Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk, on December 14, 1903, the brothers tossed a coin to determine who would have the privilege of attempting the first run. Wilbur won the toss, but in his attempt he mistakenly pulled up too sharply and stalled the plane. Only achieving an abortive 3 and a half seconds in the air, and causing minor damage to the craft, this effort, described by Wilbur as “only partial success”, is not considered the first flight but rather the first test.
Returning on December 17, at 10:35 am Orville achieved 12 seconds of flight across a distance of 120 feet: a speed of 6.8 miles per hour. Continuing throughout the day to take turns, the Wright brothers made a total of four flights. Each was in a straight line, with no turns attempted and ending with an unintended bumpy landing. Achieving distances of 120, 175, and 200 feet, the last effort, piloted by Wilbur, lasted for 59 seconds and traveled 852 feet. Wilbur’s assessment after his initial failure was proven correct, determining that “the power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully”.
10. Despite its legendary accomplishment the Flyer I only ever flew on December 17, 1903, being heavily damaged in winds and retired by the Wright Brothers
In the course of the last flight by Wilbur on December 17, as noted by Orville “the frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in a condition for flight again in about a day or two”. Hoping to repair the front elevator supports, with the goal of a four-mile flight to Kitty Hawk village, a sudden gust of wind lifted up and flipped the aircraft. Despite the efforts of those present to hold the aircraft down, it was overturned multiple times, suffering critical damage and rendered beyond quick repair.
Instead of engaging in prolonged repairs on their legendary machine, the Wright Brothers decided to refine their creation with a mind towards achieving fully controllable flight. Their Flyer II accomplished this goal in 1904, making 105 flights, including some lasting in excess of five minutes and capable of turning in full circles. This design was improved further with the Flyer III, constructed over the winter of 1904-1905, in which Wilbur successfully completed a 39-minute circling flight traveling a distance of 24-mile on October 5, 1905.
9. Attempting to garner the attention of the press for their accomplishments, newspapers were unwilling to report on the event until a leaked and highly exaggerated version was published in Virginia against the brothers’ wishes
Sending a telegram to their father celebrating their accomplishment at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers requested that he “inform press” of their success. However, despite considerable effort by Milton Wright, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, claiming that the flights achieved on December 17 were too short to be important or newsworthy. Meanwhile, Jim Gray, a telegraph operator involved in transmitting their initial message home, asked permission to pass the story to his local newspaper. The brothers refused, but Gray leaked the story to the Virginian-Pilot who concocted and distributed a highly inaccurate version of the events of December 17.
Claiming that the Wright Flyer had soared “three miles in teeth of high wind…under perfect control”, the newspaper reported that the brothers had “the power to steer it and speed it at will”. Offering a blatantly false interpretation, the story continued “the invention hovered above the breakers and circled over the rolling sand hills at the command of its navigator” before it “gracefully descended…rested lightly upon the spot selected”. Most egregiously, the article named Wilbur “the chief inventor” and first flyer. Reprinted across the country, the brothers responded with a statement calling the article a “fictitious story incorrect in almost every detail” and seeking to correct inaccuracies; this effort was largely in vain, as the story did not generate noticeable public excitement in the United States anyway.
8. Due to the reticence of the Wright Brothers to reveal their valuable invention until it was patented and protected from theft, the world largely refused to believe in their accomplishments until years later
Due to this limited press attention, the accomplishments of the Wright Brothers were not believed by many at the time. The publisher of the Dayton Daily News, James Cox, later commented that “none of us believed it”, with this opinion perpetuated throughout journalistic circles. Editors and scientific journals doubted the “alleged experiments” of the duo, who deliberately kept the press at arm’s length from their activities to prevent competitors from stealing their creation before they could patent and sell it. Demanding a signed contract of purchase prior to demonstrating the capability of their aircraft, the U.S. government, having already sunk $50,000 into the failed Langley Aerodrome, initially refused to cooperate with the pair.
By 1906, after sustained criticism the European aviation community was overtly hostile to the unverified claims of the Wright Brothers. France labeled the brothers “bluffeurs” and Ernest Archdeacon, the founder of the Aéro-Club de France, snobbishly proclaimed “the French would make the first public demonstration of powered flight” and not bicycle repairmen from America. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune published an article headlined “Flyers or Liars?”, whilst the New York Herald dismissively stated: “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It’s easy to say, ‘We have flown”.
7. The first fatal flying accident occurred on September 17, 1908, when a plane piloted by Orville crashed, killing his passenger and badly injuring himself
After not flying in 1906 and 1907, spending the years attempting to convince people of their achievements and sell contracts, the brothers divided in an effort to demonstrate to the world the veracity of their claims; Wilbur would fly in Europe, whilst Orville would on the East Coast of America. Dispelling public apathy and disbelief almost overnight with stunning displays of technology and flight proficiency, Wilbur performed figure-eights across France and, in 1909, circled the Statue of Liberty in front of one million New Yorkers. Concurrently, on September 17, 1908, Orville invited Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge to ride along as an official observer to encourage interest from the U.S.
After a few minutes of flight, at an altitude of approximately 100 feet, one of the propellers suddenly shattered. Sending the aircraft plummeting to the ground near Fort Myer, Virginia, Selfridge suffered a fractured skull from which he would die later that evening in hospital. Orville, meanwhile, suffered a broken left leg, in addition to four broken ribs and, only identified years later, three hip fractures and a dislocated hip. Instead of losing his nerve, Orville remained committed to his work, commenting that “the only thing I’m afraid of is that I can’t get well soon enough to finish those tests next year”.
6. The Wright Brothers only flew together once after promising their father they would not, with Orville even taking their aged father on a short flight in 1910
From the very beginnings of their work in aeronautics, Milton Wright was concerned for the safety of his children. Nonetheless, Milton believed in and encouraged their vision, making them promise that they would never fly together so that in the event of a fatal accident he would only lose one son and the other would live on to continue their dream. With the permission of their father, this promise was broken just once – May 25, 1910 – when Orville embarked on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his passenger. After successfully completing that flight, Orville invited his watching 82-year-old father to become one of the first humans to fly.
Reaching an altitude of 350 feet, the delighted bishop reportedly kept shouting to his son “higher, Orville, higher!” The flight, the only one of Milton’s life, lasted just seven minutes but was recorded as one of his happiest moments. The concern of their father was well founded, with the 1903 Wright Flyer highly unstable. Modern testing has determined that the aircraft was almost unmanageable by anyone other than the Wrights, who had undergone extensive training for their unique design. On December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the original flight, pilot Kevin Kochersberger crashed in his attempt to repeat their accomplishment using a replica plane.
5. Despite patenting their inventions, the Wright Brothers were forced to spend years fighting court cases over the theft and resale of their intellectual property
Attempting to patent their invention in 1903, their initial application was rejected. Submitting a revised patent for “new and useful Improvements in Flying Machines”, U.S. Patent 821393 was granted on May 22, 1906. Among the features protected was “wing-warping”: the adjusting of a plane’s wings to create lateral control and allow for a coordinated turn. Despite this, several rival aviators sought to steal and sell similar creations, most notably Glenn Curtiss. After a one-kilometer flight by Curtiss in 1908, the brothers warned him not to infringe upon their patent any further; nonetheless, Curtiss did just that, refusing to pay license fees to the Wrights and selling an airplane equipped with patented designs to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909.
Beginning a protracted legal battle against Curtiss, as well as European companies seeking to file patents in their own countries for similar inventions, the Wright Company was ultimately successful in 1914 when a U.S. Court of Appeal upheld a verdict in their favor against Curtiss. Despite emerging victorious the lawsuits damaged public perceptions of the Wrights, who had previously been seen as friendly and, subsequently, were depicted as greedy. This was unfair to the Wrights, who, against the wishes of their company’s directors, refused to push for a legal monopoly and instead merged with Curtiss Aeroplane in 1929.
4. The Smithsonian Institution attempted to steal credit from the Wright Brothers to give it to their own employee, leading to a decades-long feud between the museum and the Wrights
The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1887-1906, Samuel Langley, attempted for years to achieve the first manned powered flight. Although ultimately failing, the Smithsonian nevertheless prominently displayed his Aerodrome as the first heavier-than-air craft capable of manned powered flight. After a prolonged challenge from the Wrights regarding their claim to that title, the Smithsonian secretly modified the Aerodrome in 1914 before offering it to Glenn Curtiss to fly and prove that it did indeed surpass their achievement. Furious, Orville loaned the restored FlyerI to the London Science Museum and vowed that it would never rest in the Smithsonian as long as they “perverted” history.
Eventually, in 1942 the Smithsonian published a list of 35 modifications the institution had made in preparation for the 1914 flight alongside a retraction of its claims regarding the Aerodrome. Offering a comprehensive apology, including an expression of regret for their role in a misinformation campaign against the Wrights, the Smithsonian acknowledged for the first time that “the Wright brothers were the first to make sustained flights in a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903”. Accepting the offer to give the aircraft “the highest place of honor” at the Smithsonian, Orville arranged for the sale of the Flyer I for a single dollar provided it was displayed with a prominent statement recognizing its accomplishment.
3. Sharing an immensely close brotherly bond, neither Orville nor Wilbur married and they lived and worked together for the duration of their lives
Collaborating together throughout their lives, typically working six-day weeks, the brothers lived in the same house, ate meals together, and even shared a joint bank account. Despite this, contemporaneous accounts depict two people who could not have been more different in personality. Wilbur was regarded as the more serious and intellectual of the pair, possessing a remarkably sharp memory and often withdrew into his own thoughts; Orville, on the other hand, was a talkative, boisterous, if nonetheless somewhat shy, individual. As a result, Wilbur often managed the business aspects of their activities, whilst Orville focused on the mechanical concerns.
Equally, despite sharing a close and loving bond between each other neither brother ever married nor begat children. Orville repeatedly responded to questions regarding their bachelor lives that, as the elder sibling, it was Wilbur’s job to get married first; meanwhile, Wilbur responded that he had “no time for a wife and an airplane” and so chose the latter. When their younger sister, Katharine, whom they had been very close to, got married in 1926, Orville saw it as a betrayal. Refusing to attend the wedding or communicate with her for years afterward, he eventually relented and visited his sister just days before her death on March 3, 1929, from pneumonia.
2. After the early death of Wilbur in 1912, Orville sold the Wright Company but never lost his passion for aeronautics
Traveling extensively around Europe to promote the business, the stress of building an aeronautical company took its toll on Wilbur. Falling ill during a business trip to Boston in April 1912, often attributed to the consumption of bad shellfish, Wilbur returned to Dayton in May where he was diagnosed with typhoid fever. Succumbing rapidly to his condition, Wilbur died on May 30, aged 45. His father, Milton, offered a eulogy regarding his eldest son, reminiscing that he had “a short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died”.
Taking over the presidency of the Wright Company, Orville was poorly suited to business management and sold the company in 1915 to serve as a scientific advisor on government commissions. Piloting for the last time in 1918, in recognition of his accomplishments the Lockheed Constellation piloted by Howard Hughes in 1944 stopped at Wright Field to offer Orville his last airplane ride. Expressing regret for the widespread military application of aircraft during World War II, stating that “we dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth”, Orville died on January 30, 1948; he is buried next to his brother.
1. In a show of respect for the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong carried with him to the Moon a piece of the original Wright Flyer
After retiring from the Wright Company in 1915, Orville served for 28 years on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics: the institutional predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In recognition of this continued contribution to scientific discovery and promotion, and for assisting with the advancement of aeronautics into aerospace, the crew of Apollo 11 – the first lunar mission – requested in 1969 that they be allowed to take a token of the Wrights with them.
Granted permission, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, a fellow Ohioan and the first man to walk on the surface of the moon, carried in his spacesuit pocket on July 21, 1969, a piece of fabric taken from the left wing of the original Wright Flyer; Armstrong also carried with him a small piece of wood from the airplane’s left propeller. Armstrong would later offer a eulogizing speech at the 100th anniversary of Wilbur’s death in 2012, praising the brothers’ “remarkable successes in achieving what the most highly educated aeronautical experts had been unable to do”.
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