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.
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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