Wilbur and Orville Wright were American aviation pioneers. Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers from Dayton, OH, made history when they flew the Wright Flyer, the first manned, motorized, heavier-than-air “flying machine,” at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.
The Wright Brothers’ lifelong fascination in flight was sparked by a toy helicopter. Milton Wright, the boys’ father, brought home a rubber band-powered toy helicopter in 1878. This toy, designed by Alphonse Pénaud, a French aeronautical experimenter, did not fall to the ground as planned. Rather, it “flew across the room until it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered for a time before finally sinking to the floor,” according to Wilbur and Orville. They went so far as to try and make their own toy aircraft. Orville subsequently acknowledged that this childhood toy was the catalyst for their interest in flight.
Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867 at Millville, Indiana. In a family of five, he was the middle kid. His father was a United Brethren in Christ Church bishop. Milton Wright was his name. His mother’s name was Susan Catherine Koerner. Wilbur’s younger brother, Orville Wright, born in 1871, was his childhood buddy. Wilbur and Orville did not attend college, but Katherine, their younger sister, did.
Milton Wright, the Wrights’ father, was a Protestant bishop who was passionate about books and research. Susan, his wife, was a mechanical genius who majored in math, science, and literature in college and frequently constructed toys for the Wright kids. Novels, poetry, ancient history, scientific treatises, and encyclopedias adorned their home’s shelves. They instilled in their children the importance of reading widely and taking charge of their own education. When asked about their early interest in flight, the Wright brothers always stated they were interested “for fun,” and that their revenues will be used to fund future scientific research.
Wilbur was a talented and hard-working student who thrived in school. He had a vibrant personality and intended to attend Yale University after high school. An accident in the winter of 1885–86 upended Wilbur’s life. During an ice hockey game, he was severely injured when another player’s stick hit him in the face.
Despite the fact that Wilbur’s injuries had mostly healed, the tragedy had left him despondent. He did not complete high school, abandoned his college plans, and returned to live with his family. During this time, Wilbur spent a lot of time at home, taking care of his sick mother and reading books from the family library. Susan Koerner died of tuberculosis in 1889.
In 1889, the brothers established their own newspaper, the West Side News. Orville was the publisher, and Wilbur edited the periodical. The boys also shared a fondness for cycling, which was becoming increasingly popular across the country. Wilbur and Orville opened a bicycle shop in 1892, fixing and selling their own designs.
The brothers made money in a number of ways throughout their lifetimes. But it wasn’t until 1892, when they formed the Wright Cycle Company to sell bicycles, that they discovered a profitable business that also allowed them to pursue other interests. With the business working well, the brothers decided to create a repair shop and eventually start making bicycles. The brothers were restless, even though the firm was doing well. Two incidents in 1896 focused their energies: the death of Otto Lilienthal, a prominent glider experimenter, in a flying accident, and Samuel Langley’s successful unmanned launching of powered aircraft. These two men’s resourcefulness and imagination were brilliantly depicted. Fortunately, the bicycle company provided the cash for this new hobby, as the Wrights were never supported by anyone in flying, unlike others. The majority of the parts used in the first successful airplane were built in the backroom of their shop. Bicycle repair and manufacture also enhanced the brothers’ mechanical abilities. Wilbur and Orville frequently employed bicycle repair equipment and tools in the construction of their flying vehicles. Many of their scientific research took place in the backroom of their store, and the majority of the parts for the first successful airplane were created there.
Developing the Airplane
The Wright brothers, who were always working on new mechanical projects and keeping up with scientific research, were particularly interested in German aviator Otto Lilienthal’s studies. The brothers decided to start their own flight experiments after Lilienthal perished in a glider mishap. Wilbur and Orville went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which is known for its strong winds, to build their own design that worked.
Wilbur and Orville set to work on developing flying wings. Observing how birds twist their wings for balance and control, they developed “wing warping.” The Wright brothers flew the first controlled, power-driven, heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903. Wilbur soared 852 feet in 59 seconds.
The Wright brothers quickly learned that not everyone admired what they had done. Many in the media and among people who know a lot about flying didn’t believe what the brothers said. As a result, Wilbur left for Europe in 1908 in the hopes of persuading the public and selling airplanes.
Wilbur found a much friendlier audience in France. He flew on a few public planes and drove politicians, journalists, and heads of state. Orville and their younger sister Katharine accompanied their brother in Europe in 1909. The Wrights were instant celebrities in the country, hosting royals and heads of state and appearing in the press on a regular basis. Before going back to the United States in 1909, Wilbur and Orville Wright started selling their planes in Europe. The brothers built a successful business by filling aviation contracts in Europe and the United States.
Wilbur and Orville always shared credit for their inventions, and they remained friends throughout their lifetimes. Behind the scenes, though, the work was split up. Wilbur was the business brain and CEO of the organization, serving as president of the Wright corporation, thanks to his keen intuition.
Death and Legacy
Wilbur got sick in April 1912 while he was in Boston. He died on May 30 after being diagnosed with typhoid fever at his family’s home in Dayton, Ohio. In his diary, Milton Wright wrote, “A short life, full of consequences.” He had a mind that never gave up, a temper that never changed, a lot of self-reliance and a lot of humility, and he lived and died by doing what was right.
The Wright brothers were busy keeping up with scientific studies and working on numerous mechanical projects, with a interest in the work of German aviator Otto Lilienthal. The two brothers were naturally interested in flying aircraft because they read about them in the newspapers. As a result, the Wright brothers became self-taught engineers, with their desire to learn serving as one of the most important factors in their success.