It’s hard to imagine a world without airplanes. There was a time where people took long voyages on boats to travel from one place to another. Nowadays, we can book a flight and end up in an entirely different country in just a few hours. The Wright brothers were essential figures in the world of aviation. Orville and Wilbur Wright made history as the first people to build and fly an airplane successfully. The brothers devoted their lives to their passion and paved the way for every airplane flight that has been made ever since.
But how did they get started? What sparked their interest in aircraft? How did they even get these flight tests going in the first place? Interestingly, before making a name for themselves in the air, the Wright brothers’ job involved another mode of transportation, but this one was firmly on the ground: They owned a bicycle business. So how did they go from wheels to wings? Here are some amazing facts about these incredible innovators whose determination changed the way we travel forever.
Giving People Wings
“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.
When you think about it, traveling around the globe on an airplane is a crazy concept. We were born into a world of airplanes, so it seems pretty standard to us. But having an aircraft travel the skies at thousands of miles per hour (without falling) seemed nearly impossible. The creation of the first airplane created a world where you could book a flight and be on a different continent in just a few hours. We might still be taking boats if it weren’t for the Wright brothers.
The Wright brothers’ lifelong passion for conquering the air came from a toy they got from their dad when he took a trip to France. It was a rough helicopter model made from rubber bands, a stick, and primitive propellers. After playing with it too many times, the brothers broke it but ultimately built something even better to replace it.
When they were young kids, the Wright brothers loved playing with kites outside, something people used to do… in the olden days. The brothers actually built their own kites as well. It was part of their early efforts to defy gravity. They gave a lot of credit to their mom because they inherited her talents in building and repairing.
From Wheels to Wings
Back in 1890, the name “Wright” was associated with bicycles, not airplanes. As soon as bicycles took the country by storm, the Wright brothers left the print industry and adapted to the new market. They formed the Wright Cycle Company and opened up a repair shop for bikes. Reportedly, they weren’t so passionate about bikes; they did it for the money. We’ll get to their actual passions later.
The Wright brothers moved into the new realm of flight after an example set by Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer dubbed the “Glider King” in the 1890s, because of his experiments with glider flights. Once the Wright brothers read about Lilienthal’s exploits, they decided to challenge him.
Lilienthal wasn’t only the source of the Wright brothers’ inspiration, but his story also became a cautionary tale for them. Sadly, Lilienthal lost control of a glider in 1896, while he was about 49 feet in the air and fell to his death. Despite investing their bicycle business money to try gliders, they quickly stopped using traditional gliders because of these dangers.
In the late 1890s, the Wright brothers came up with a concept where an aircraft could be controlled by a pilot, like how someone who rides a bike controls the movement and direction. This helped solve the glider problem while still ensuring that a manned flight could work.
One of the main reasons the Wright brothers were so successful can be attributed to their complementary characteristics. Orville, the youngest of the brothers, was an enthusiastic go-getter who cheerfully took on any challenge. Wilbur was the smart one, known for his intellect, as well as being serious and reserved. The brothers brought out the best in each other with their own individual skills and talents.
The brothers executed their famous flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This is because they were told to find a place with a lot of wind and a soft landing. The sands in Kitty Hawk were perfect. Plus, it was pretty much isolated over there, giving the brothers the privacy they needed, regardless of how the tests turned out.
The Family Tree
Wilbur Wright was the middle child in a family of five. His father, Milton Wright, was a descendant of Samuel Wright, an Englishman who immigrated to Massachusetts in 1636. Their maternal family was connected to the Vanderbilts, one of the wealthiest families who made their fortune during the Gilded Age.
As it turns out, the Wright brothers had a few other siblings: Reuchlin, Lorin, Katharine, and the twins Otis and Ida. Tragically, the twins died in infancy, but the others played huge roles in the brothers’ lives. Katharine also had a major role in their careers.
Ohio vs. North Carolina
Naturally, since the Wright brothers conducted their famous experiments in both Ohio and North Carolina, each state tried to take credit. Ohio is specifically intent on being credited as the “Birthplace of Aviation.” Not only do they claim ownership of the Wright brothers, but two astronauts who went to space are from Ohio. Meanwhile, North Carolina has “First in Flight” written on their license plates.
Even though they managed to create an airplane and fly it successfully in the early 20th century, neither one of the Wright brothers got their high school diploma. To be fair, Wilbur attended school for four years but never graduated because his family made a sudden decision to move to Ohio from Indiana.
Becoming an Introvert
Wilbur Wright was an athletic youngster who planned to attend Yale after high school. However, in and around 1885 or 1886, he was playing hockey and lost two of his front teeth after he was hit in the face with a hockey stick. Following the accident, Wilbur became a completely different person.
Wilbur stopped being active and stayed at home for the next few years. He withdrew into reading novels from his father’s book collection, and he took care of his mother, who was sick with tuberculosis at the time.
A Newspaper Career
At the ripe old age of 15, Orville Wright dropped out of high school to start his own newspaper. Ultimately, Wilbur merged with his brother, and together the siblings ran The West Side News, which was later called The Evening Item. The duo did make a hefty profit from the newspaper but later abandoned it to repair bicycles. Can you imagine a world where you would leave your successful newspaper to become a bike mechanic?!
While the Wright brothers were concentrating on commercial printing, they look on a client named Paul Laurence Dunbar, Orville’s old friend, and classmate. Dunbar was one of the first famous Black writers in the United States who gained international recognition for his writing. Dunbar edited the Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper printed by the Wright brothers.
Possible and Practical
Samuel Langley was another man who inspired the Wright brothers. During his time as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Langley established “an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft.” After the successful flight of his aircraft, Wilbur decided to ask the Smithsonian for more information on aeronautics in 1899.
After reading more literature on the subject, the brothers were convinced “that human flight is possible and practical.” The brothers got the books and were on the road to make history. What they didn’t know at the time was that their encounter with the Smithsonian was about to take a dark and ironic turn… but we’ll get into all of that later.
All Work, No Play
Sadly, Wilbur Wright passed away in 1912 at the age of 45 from typhoid fever. Orville died years later in 1948 at the age of 76 from a heart attack. Both of them passed away in Dayton, Ohio, which is where Orville was born. Throughout their lives, neither brother married. They couldn’t focus on starting a family because they were so devoted to their work. Wilbur once stated that he didn’t have enough time for a plane and a wife.
By 1917, after losing his brother and father, Orville began relying more on his sister Katharine. She organized his “social schedule, correspondence, and business engagements” in addition to managing the household.
Testing 1, 2, 3…
The Wright brothers designed a biplane glider in 1900, partly based on a design done by Octave Chanute, a French American engineer who corresponded with the brothers. The scientists were really able to help each other out.
The Wright brothers tested biplane gliders at Kitty Hawk from 1900 to 1902, with the wingspan of each advanced model getting larger and larger. The first glider they experimented with resembled a monstrous kite, then it became a 32-foot long manned glider that flew for approximately 26 seconds at 622 feet through the air.
And the Feuds Begin
On May 22nd, 1906, the Wright brothers were given a US patent for a “flying machine.” But the patent made an important distinction and claimed: “a new useful method of controlling a flying machine, powered or not.” This resulted in a decades-long feud between the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers, which ultimately stalled the development of a powered flight.
The Wright brothers were also responsible for opening the first civilian flight training school, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering their significant role in aviation. The school was opened in 1910 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Backlash and Controversy
Despite the success and popularity, they enjoyed for their aviation achievements, the Wright brothers’ reputation was tainted by their patent lawsuits. The suits went on long after Orville Wright sold his patent rights and retired from the company. The legal battles terrified potential engineers and aircraft makers, who didn’t want to get involved in the market, at the same time as World War I created a growing demand for planes.
The Wright brothers were blamed for stagnation by critics who pointed to Europe as an example of collaboration. In all honesty, it doesn’t look like much has changed since then.
To the Moon
In a heartwarming tribute to the Wright brothers’ colossal achievement of manned flight, astronaut Neil Armstrong kept a piece of fabric and a piece of wood in his pocket from the original 1903 Wright Flyer when he made that “giant leap for mankind” on the moon. I think it’s safe to say the brothers would have loved that.
At a certain point, Wilbur made his way to Europe and became a huge success flying people in his plane. On October 7th, 1908, flight, one of his passengers, was Edith Berg, his business agent’s wife. Berg was the first female to ever fly in an airplane. Obviously, she wasn’t the last.
Sponsored by a Fruit Juice Company
One of the planes that the Wright brothers designed was originally called the Wright Brothers Model B. It didn’t take long for it to become their most commercially successful airplane. It was later remodeled and renamed the Model EX. However, it was eventually got another name when it was it was purchased by Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first private citizen to buy the Model Ex.
As part of a deal with a company that produced a grape soft drink called Vin Fiz, he renamed the aircraft Vin Fiz Flyer. The arrangement was that the company would sponsor Clabrarith Perry Rogers’ coast-to-coast flight across the United States in his Wright Brothers Model EX… now called the Vin Fiz Flyer. It took Rogers three months to accomplish, but it was the first coast-to-coast flight ever achieved.
You’ve Been Served
Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss sold an airplane to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909 and refused to pay licensing fees to the Wright Brothers. This was a rebellion move after a warning the brothers gave him just one year prior when Curtiss’s use of ailerons on his planes by rivaling the creative control which the Wright brothers were trying to protect in their patent.
After the brothers began suing foreign aviators visiting the United States with their own planes, someone who was 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 may sound, the Wright brothers won the case against Curtiss in 1913.
Doing It Right
The brothers wanted to add an engine to their plane models in 1903. That year, they were continuously meeting gasoline manufacturers hoping to find the one that fit their needs. After more than ten manufacturers were unable to provide the precise engine that they wanted, the determined brothers decided to just build one themselves.
They wanted it done right. So, they recruited a mechanic named Charlie Taylor to build a four-cylinder aluminum engine exactly as they had drawn it, and he brought their vision to life. It only took him six weeks to complete.
The Battle of the Museums
The Smithsonian Institution wanted to help out their former secretary, Samuel Langley, in 1914. He created the Langley Aerodrome in an attempt at manned aircraft, but it didn’t achieve results. The Smithsonian made several adjustments to the aircraft and made outstanding claims about the Aerodrome being “the fire machine ‘capable’ of manned flight.”
Needless to say, Orville Wright was livid when he found out about these claims. Orville allowed the London Science Museum to rent the Wright Flyer in 1925, in the interest of “correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution.”
Over My Dead Body
Orville spent almost the rest of his life, not allowing the Smithsonian to get their hands on the Wright Flyer because of their false claims undermining the Wright brothers’ achievement. It was only in the 1940s when the Smithsonian finally came clean about their scheme, that Orville finally donated the aircraft. The Wright Flyer was finally brought to the Smithsonian for preservation just one year after Orville’s death.
President Woodrow Wilson appointed Orville Wright to join the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1920. Yes, this is the organization that would later be replaced by NASA. It was definitely quite the promotion for Orville.
Almost Too Late
The dynamic between Orville and his sister Katharine changed in the 1920s when she reunited with her college sweetheart, Henry J. Haskell. Orville felt betrayed by Katharine upon learning about her renewed romance. He felt so hurt that he didn’t even show up at his own sister’s wedding. Orville cut all ties and didn’t speak to her for years. Katharine tried to keep in contact with her brother but was rejected every time.
In 1926, Katharine got sick with pneumonia, and she tried speaking to Orville one more time before her death. Orville was finally convinced by their brother Lorin who managed to talk some sense into him. Orville visited Katharine in Kansas City and was reportedly by her bedside when she passed away in 1926.
A Vow to Their Father
The Wright Brothers never flew a plane together at the same time throughout their careers. This was because they had made a promise to their father when their passion for aviation began: Wright Sr. was worried about accidents that could come with flying and was terrified about losing both of his sons in one swoop.
To honor his wishes, the Wright Brothers always made sure that when of them was in the air, the other would stay firmly on the ground. Thankfully, airplanes are almost harmless nowadays and happen to be the safest form of transportation. But of course, dangerous elements were involved in the earlier days.
A Crash Landing
One of the saddest aspects of being one of the first people to successfully fly an aircraft is the risk that they could also be the first person to be involved in a fatal flying accident. The Wright brothers were already courting the US Army by September 17th, 1908, with their new two-person airplane named the Wright Military Flyer. Naturally, a demonstration was required, so Orville brought Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge into the air as a passenger.
Unfortunately, the propeller “disintegrated” just minutes into the flight and the aircraft crashed to the ground, leaving both men severely injured. Selfridge died of his injuries while Orville was hospitalized for six weeks. Orville was lucky to recover, but he spent the rest of his life dealing with the effects of the accident, including a back injury and broken ribs.
A Proud Dad
Okay, let’s backtrack to the promise the Wright brothers made to never fly together. There was one exception. On May 25th, 1910, the brothers got their father’s blessing and permission to take a six-minute flight together. After that flight, Orville took their dad on his one and only flight into the air.
At this time, their father was 82 years old. Even though he was initially concerned about the risks involved with flying, he was so excited when he was in the air. In fact, he was so excited that he reportedly kept urging Orville to fly them higher!
Three Is Not a Crowd
In 1909, when the brothers went to France, they brought their sister Katharine along. Katharine wasn’t only there for a trip. Her magnetic and charismatic personality helped break the ice instead of her introverted brother. All three of them made a name for themselves and became famous, but Katharine reportedly provided the “human side of the Wrights.”
In addition, the siblings were awarded the Légion d’Honneur while they were in France. Katharine Wright is one of the very few women to ever receive that honor. Despite having a strained relationship with her brother at the end of her life, she certainly played a role in their success.
Heads or Tails?
In order to decide which would be the first to test the Wright Flyer in the sands of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the brothers tossed a coin. Wilbur won, but his first try on December 14th, 1903, wasn’t unsuccessful and caused significant damage to the aircraft. Three days later, Orville laid flat on his stomach on the lower wing of the plane (in a coat and tie) and took the controls.
At 10:35 a.m., the Wright Flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur ran along the side to balance the delicate craft. The plane left the ground for 12 seconds before touching down in the soft sands 120 feet away. The brothers switched off every day, and, with each flight, the distance increased. Wilbur’s final flight lasted almost a minute at an 852-foot distance.
The Wright Flyer’s Last Flight
On December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers made four flights. While Orville and Wilbur were discussing their final flight, a huge gust of wind caused the plane to flip several times. The aircraft experienced damage, particularly to its ribs, motor, and chain guides. It was beyond repair, and The Wright Flyer never flew again.
Eventually, it was taken to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum where it found a permanent home- even though Orville didn’t initially want to donate the flyer to the institution because of Smithsonian’s Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s claims about how his experiment was the first machine that was able to sustain free flight.
A Brotherly Bond
The Wright brothers might as well have been twins. They shared such a strong sibling bond and did almost everything together. They shared the same home, ate meals together, and even had a joint bank account. They were both interested in music and cookies. And, as we mentioned, neither brother ever got married.
Orville explained that it was Wilbur’s job as the older brother to tie the knot first. Wilbur, however, claimed he “had no time for a wife.” Either way, the duo became incredibly successful businessmen. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a wife or kids to share it with, but at least they had each other.
The Dream Team
Despite how similar they were, the Wright brothers were also very different. Each one had his own distinct traits that complimented the other, which is ultimately what made them such a wonderful team. Wilbur was the more serious brother; he had an incredible memory, and his brain was always filled with a million thoughts.
Orville, on the other hand, was the youngest brother. He was positive, upbeat, talkative, fun, but he was also a little shy in front of other people. Wilbur headed the business endeavors that would have never been possible without Orville’s mechanical and entrepreneurial knowledge.