"The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through."—Orville Wright
Orville and Wilbur Wright earned their place in history as the first people to successfully build and fly an airplane. Safe to say that they spent the rest of their lives devoted to aviation, paving the way for every airplane flight that’s ever been made since then. But after those first flights, what became of them in their own lifetime? How did they even get to those flight tests in the first place? What were these brothers all about? Read these 42 high-flying facts to find out more about these two amazing aviators who changed the world forever.
The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in conquering the air came from a toy which their father got for them after a trip to France. It was a crude model of a helicopter, made of rubber bands, a stick, and primitive propellers. The brothers would eventually break it after playing with it too many times, but they would eventually manage build something a bit better to replace it!
In the 1890s, the name "Wright" wasn’t associated with airplanes, but with bicycles. When the phenomenon of bicycles took the US by storm, the Wright brothers abandoned the print industry and quickly adapted to the new market. They opened a shop repairing bicycles and formed the Wright Cycle Company. It was reportedly always a cash grab for them rather than a passion project, but more on their actual passions later.
As children, the Wright brothers experimented with kites while they played outside (something that people used to do before Netflix and iPhones). The brothers would build their own kites in their early efforts to defy gravity.
The Wright brothers gave a lot of credit to their mother, whose own skill with building and repairing things was said to have been passed on to her sons—I'd say they proved that pretty handily!
The Wright brothers moved into the new realm of aviation thanks to the example set by Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal was a German engineer who was known in the 1890s as the "Glider King" due to his experiments with glider flights. We like to think that the Wright brothers were reading about Lilienthal’s exploits in the papers one day, looked at each other, and simultaneously said “Challenge accepted!”
Despite being their inspiration, Lilienthal also ended up serving as a cautionary tale for the Wright brothers to remember. In 1896, Lilienthal sadly lost control of a glider while flying about 49 feet in the air, falling to his death. The Wright brothers, after they used the money from their bicycle business to try gliders, would soon give up on traditional gliders due to this lack of control in flight.
One reason why the Wright brothers proved to be so successful is speculated to have been their complimentary characteristics. Orville, the younger brother, was known to be an enthusiastic go-getter who cheerfully tackled challenges. Wilbur was known for his great intellect and being much more reserved and serious. Just like how they say opposites attract, the two brothers each brought their own talents to the table, making an effective team.
As history records, the Wright brothers performed their famous flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This was because they had been recommended to find a place with lots of wind and a soft landing (for obvious reasons). The sands of Kitty Hawk provided as soft of a landing as they were going to find. Kitty Hawk's isolation also provided the brothers with much-needed privacy, regardless of how the tests turned out.
Despite their ability to create an airplane and successfully fly it in the early 20th century, neither one of the Wright brothers had graduated high school! To be fair to Wilbur, he did finish four years, but he never got a diploma because the family made a last-minute decision to move from Indiana to Ohio.
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Born in the US, the Wright brothers’ paternal family was descended from Samuel Wright, an Englishman who immigrated to Massachusetts in 1636. Their maternal family was connected to the Vanderbilts, a very wealthy Dutch-American family who made a fortune during the Gilded Age.
In the late 1890s, the Wright brothers came up with the idea that an aircraft could be steadied and controlled by a pilot in much the same way that someone riding a bicycle controls its movement and direction. This helped solve the problem of a glider while also ensuring that manned flight could work.
Wilbur Wright was an athletic youth who was planning to attend classes at Yale after high school. However, while he was playing hockey one day in either 1885 or 1886, he was struck in the face with a hockey stick and lost his front teeth. After the accident, Wilbur became a completely different person, staying home for the following few years as he retreated into reading books from his father’s book collection and looking after his mother, who was suffering from tuberculosis during this time.
When he was 15, Orville Wright dropped out of high school to start up his own newspaper. Eventually, Wilbur joined his brother in running The West Side News, which later became called The Evening Item. While the brothers did make it a profit off of this newspaper, they would eventually leave it behind to repair bicycles. Imagine living in a world where you'd abandon your successful newspaper to become a bike mechanic!
During the time when the brothers were focusing on commercial printing, they took on an old friend and classmate of Orville's as a client—Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first well-known black writers in the US, who gained an international following with his writing. Dunbar spent time editing a weekly newspaper called the Dayton Tattler, which the Wright brothers printed.
The Wright brothers, it turns out, had several other siblings besides each other. There was Reuchlin, Lorin, Katharine, and the twins Otis and Ida. While the twins tragically died in infancy, the others played large roles in the brothers’ lives. In the case of Katharine, she would also play a huge role in their careers.
In a very touching tribute to the Wright brothers’ monumental achievement of manned flight, astronaut Neil Armstrong carried a piece of fabric and a piece of wood from the original 1903 Wright Flyer in his pocket when he made that "giant leap for mankind” on the Moon. No doubt the brothers would have loved that.
Naturally, due to the fact that the Wright brothers performed their famous experiments in both Ohio and North Carolina, each state has tried to claim credit (for bragging purposes, we guess). Ohio, in particular, is gung-ho about being called the “Birthplace of Aviation.” To be fair, they not only claim ownership of the Wright brothers, but also two astronauts who have been into space. By contrast, North Carolina puts “First in Flight” on their license plates.
One man who inspired the Wright brothers was Samuel Langley. While he was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Langley developed “an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft.” The successful flight of this aircraft led Wilbur to ask the Smithsonian for literature on aeronautics in 1899. Convinced of the fact “that human flight is possible and practical,” the brothers got the books and began their journey into history. But little did they know at the time, this interaction with the Smithsonian would take a very dark and ironic turn (more on that later).
Tragically, Wilbur Wright would pass away from the effects of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45. Orville died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 76. Both of them would pass away in the town of Dayton, Ohio, which was also Orville's birthplace.
In 1900, the Wright brothers designed a biplane glider based on designs which were partly done by the French-American engineer Octave Chanute, who even corresponded with the brothers. See, there really was a time when scientists actually wanted to help each other out!
From 1900 to 1902, the Wright brothers tested biplane gliders at Kitty Hawk, with the wingspan of each progressive model getting bigger and bigger. While the first glider they made was tested by being flown as a sort of monstrous kite, they moved on to a 32-foot long manned glider which flew for 26 seconds, going 622 feet through the air.
On the 22nd of May 1906, the Wright brothers were granted a US patent for a “flying machine.” However, an important distinction the patent made was that it claimed “a new and useful method of controlling a flying machine, powered or not.” This led to a decades long fight between the Wrights and other aviation pioneers, stalling the development of powered flight.
As you can expect, given their pioneering role in aviation, the Wright brothers were also responsible for opening the first civilian flight training school. It was opened in Montgomery, Alabama in 1910.
Despite their success and their subsequent popularity for their achievements in aviation, the Wright brothers’ reputation was tainted for their patent lawsuits. They actually continued long after Orville Wright sold his patent rights and retired from his company, and the legal battles scared a lot of potential engineers and aircraft makers away from the market, just as the First World War was building a demand for planes. Critics blamed the brothers for this stagnation due to lawsuits, pointing to Europe where people were working in more open communication with each other. Honestly, it sounds like nothing’s really changed since then.
At one point, Wilbur had gone to Europe and became a wild success flying passengers in his plane. On the 7th of October, 1908, among Wilbur’s passenger was his business agent’s wife, Edith Berg. Berg became the first American woman to fly as a passenger in an airplane, and she certainly wasn’t the last.
Throughout their lives, neither brother married or started a family, as they were devoted to their work. Wilbur once quipped that he didn’t have enough time for a plane and a wife.
After the death of his brother and father by 1917, Orville relied more and more on his sister, Katharine. It was she who organized his “social schedule, correspondence and business engagements” on top of managing the household.
One of the planes designed by the Wright brothers was initially called the Wright Brothers Model B. After it became their most commercially successful airplane, it was remodeled and renamed the Model EX. However, it ended up getting another name when Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first private citizen to buy the Model EX, had the plane renamed the Vin Fiz Flyer as part of a deal with the company which produced the grape soft drink known as Vin Fiz.
Speaking of that deal with Vin Fiz, the arrangement was that the company would sponsor Clabraith Perry Rodgers’ coast-to-coast flight across the US in his Wright Brothers Model EX (now named the Vin Fiz Flyer). It was the first coast-to-coast flight ever achieved, and it took Rodgers three months to accomplish. Kinda funny to have such a landmark event sponsored by what was essentially Grape Crush.
In 1909, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss sold an airplane to the Aeronautic Society of New York, refusing to pay licensing fees to the Wright brothers. This was in full defiance of a warning which the brothers had given him the year before due to Curtiss’ use of ailerons on his planes in the name of emulating the lateral control which the Wright brothers were trying to protect for themselves in their patent.
After the Wright brothers began suing foreign aviators visiting the US with their own airplanes, someone involved with Glenn Curtiss “derisively suggested that if someone jumped in the air and waved his arms, the Wrights would sue.” As funny as that is, zingers don’t win lawsuits. The Wright brothers won their case against Curtiss in 1913.
In 1903, the Wright brothers wanted to add an engine to their plane models, so they spent the year meeting gasoline motor manufacturers in an effort to find the one they needed. After more than ten of them proved unable to provide the exact kind of engine they wanted, the brothers ended up building one themselves! They recruited mechanic Charlie Taylor to build a four-cylinder aluminum engine based on their drawings. It only took him six weeks.
In 1914, the Smithsonian Institution wanted to help out their former secretary, Samuel Langley. Langley’s attempts at manned aircraft, the Langley Aerodrome, had failed to achieve results, but the Smithsonian made some adjustments to the aircraft and made grand claims about the Aerodrome being “the first machine 'capable' of manned flight.” When he found out about this claim, Orville Wright was livid. In the interest of “correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution,” Orville allowed the London Science Museum to rent the Wright Flyer in 1925.
Because of their false claims undermining the Wright brothers’ achievement, Orville spent nearly the entire rest of his life refusing to let the Smithsonian get their hands on the Wright Flyer. Only after the Smithsonian came clean in the 1940s with their scheme did Orville concede to donate the aircraft. A year after his death, the Wright Flyer was finally brought to the Smithsonian for preservation.
In 1920, Orville Wright was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to join the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, also known as NACA. And yes, this was, in fact, the organization which was eventually replaced by NASA. Safe to say it feels like it was a grand promotion for Orville!
The dynamic between Orville and Katharine changed in the 1920s when she reopened communications with her college sweetheart, Henry J. Haskell. When Orville found out about her renewed romance, he felt so betrayed that he refused to attend his own sister’s wedding—he actually went so far as to cut off all communication with her for years! Katharine continually tried to keep contact with her brother but was refused every time.
Two years after her marriage in 1926, Katharine became sick with pneumonia, and she tried once again to speak with Orville before she died. Orville was only persuaded by their brother, Lorin (who we hope took the time to slap Orville across the face a couple times). Orville visited his sister in Kansas City, and was allegedly at her bedside when she died in 1929.
Throughout their lives, the Wright brothers never flew a plane together at the same time. This was because of a promise that their father had made them make when they began dabbling in aviation: Wright Sr. was afraid that, given the accidents which came with aviation, he might lose both his sons in one fell swoop. Therefore, the brothers would make sure that one of them was always on the ground when the other was in the air.
In 1944, renowned billionaire, business mogul, and aviator Howard Hughes (who you might remember has been played by both Leonardo DiCaprio and Warren Beatty) paid a visit to the surviving Wright brother in Dayton, Ohio. In fact, Hughes even took Orville (who was by then in his 70s) on his final airplane ride.
One sad aspect of being the first men to successfully fly aircraft is the risk that they also become the first men to be involved in a fatal aviation accident. By the 17th of September 1908, the Wright brothers were courting the US Army with their new two-person airplane known as the Wright Military Flyer. Naturally, a demonstration was called for, so Orville Wright took Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge into the air as a passenger. Sadly, the propeller “disintegrated” just a few minutes into the flight, and the aircraft crashed back to the earth. Both men were very badly injured, with Selfridge dying of his injuries and Orville being hospitalized for six weeks. Despite his recovery, Orville spent the rest of his life suffering from the effects of his injuries from that crash, including four broken ribs and a back injury.
There was one exception to the Wright brothers’ promise to never fly together. On the 25th of May 1910, the brothers got their father’s permission to embark on a six-minute flight together. After this flight was finished, Orville would take their father on his first and only flight into the air. At this time, the brothers’ father was 82 years old! Despite his longtime risk aversion towards flight, he was reportedly so excited that he kept urging his son to fly them higher.
When the Wright brothers went to France in 1909, they brought their sister, Katharine, with them. Katharine wasn’t just there for vacation, however; her charismatic personality helped break the ice as opposed to her more introverted brothers. All three of them became famous, as Katharine was noted for providing the “human side of the Wrights.” All three of them were awarded the Legion d’honneur while they were in France. To this day, Katharine Wright is one of the few women to be awarded that honor.
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