Wilbur and Orville Wright

The Wright brothers developed the first successful heavier-than-air flying machine that incorporated wings to create lift; propulsion to produce forward thrust; and movable surfaces to control pitch, roll, and yaw, thus making modern aviation possible.

Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1992. Thirtytwo of Wright’s speeches delivered over a six-decade period, organized according to theme and subject matter. Wright’s responses to questions from the audience are of special interest. Illustrated. Index. Secrest, Meryle. Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. A thoroughly researched biography, in which a number of previous misconceptions are corrected and much new information about Wright’s background, his life, and his works is presented. Illustrated. Copious notes, bibliography, and index. Storrer, William Allin. The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. An oversized book that contains plans, drawings, photographs, and commentaries on every structure built by Wright. Includes zip code locations. An essential resource. Twombly, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and

His Architecture. New York: Wiley, 1979. Remains one of the most perceptive studies of Wright and an invaluable guide to his designs. In addition to photographs, the book contains drawings, sketches, and floor plans. Illustrated. Notes and index. Includes list of Wright’s published works. Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography. Wilmington, N.C.: Pomegranate, 2005. First published in 1932 by Longmans, Green. While it contains numerous factual inaccuracies, which scholarly biographies have corrected, the autobiography is valuable in that it shows how Wright viewed himself and his work.

Born:August 19, 1871; Dayton, Ohio Died: January 30, 1948; Dayton, Ohio Primary field:Aeronautics and aerospace technology Primary invention:First successful heavier-than-air aircraft, the Wright Flyer

Born:April 16, 1867; near Millville, Indiana Died:May 30, 1912; Dayton, Ohio

Early Lives Wilbur and Orville Wright were born in 1867 and 1871, respectively, to Milton and Susan Koerner Wright. Wilbur was born near Millville, Indiana, shortly before the Wright family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Orville was born. They had five brothers and sisters. Their father was a bishop in the United Brethren Church; he was a strong, self-confident man who believed utterly that, with enough hard work, a person could achieve anything he or she set out to do. He encouraged his children to explore whatever made them curious. Wilbur and Orville often credited this early environment with allowing them to pursue their passion, flying, and with giving them the work ethic to persist until they were successful.

Wilbur was an outstanding student, and there were plans to send him to Yale. However, when he was eighteen, he was struck in the face by a stick during a game of hockey. He lost several teeth, and he also developed a heart condition. Whereas he had been an outgoing young man before the accident, after it he became withdrawn and very quiet. He did not attend college, instead choosing to stay at home and nurse his mother, who subsequently died of tuberculosis in 1889. Upon her death, Wilbur and Orville’s sister Katharine took over the task of caring for the family. Except for the four years she spent at Oberlin College, she was a homemaker for Orville, Wilbur, and their father, a role she continued for Orville until 1926, long after the deaths of Wilbur and her father.

Orville did not finish high school. During his junior year, he left school to open his own printing business, publishing his first newspaper in 1889. Wilbur joined him in this endeavor; although the newspaper business failed quickly, the print shop prospered. At about the same time, however, the brothers became interested in bicycles, and soon they were not only riding bikes but also repairing bicycles for their friends. In 1892, the brothers founded the Wright Cycle Company, and they were very successful in this venture. In 1899, however, they began work on what became the passion of their lives: the quest for flight.

Lives’ Work Across the world, many engineers and scientists were racing to develop the first heavier-than-air flying machine. In Europe, Otto Lilienthal was the best known, and his work with hang gliders aroused intense public scrutiny. In 1896, however, one of his gliders went into a stall, and Lilienthal crashed to the ground, mortally wounded. His work, and his death, aroused the interest of the Wrights. In their search for information, they contacted the Smithsonian Institution and received books and brochures describing the work of two Americans, Samuel Pierpont Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and Octave Chanute.

The brothers recognized almost at once that the key to solving the problems of mechanical flight were threefold: They would need sturdy yet flexible wings to provide lift; they would need some sort of engine to provide forward motion, or thrust; and they would need to be able to control the machine in flight. The Wrights were careful engineers who were able to identify and borrow the technology developed by others. Their own experiments began with a biplane glider with a wingspan of five feet. They flew this model as a kite and tested their idea that wing warping would allow them greater control than straight wings.

Once they had the basic design of the glider, they bridges. Nevertheless, by the end of September, 1900, both brothers and their glider were at Kitty Hawk. They had very successful tests with the glider. The Wrights returned to the Outer Banks in 1901 with a new and improved glider, but all in all it was a very discouraging season for them. After a near catastrophic wreck, the brothers returned to Dayton, not at all sure that they would accomplish their goal. The Wrights vigorously analyzed their data. They built a wind tunnel to test out a variety of wing constructions. In 1902, they returned to the Outer Banks. This time, they met success as they tested the new glider. All that remained was to design an engine that could fly the plane. Their own bicycle shop mechanic Charles E. Taylor successfully accomplished this task, and by the winter of 1903 they were ready to return to Kitty Hawk. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers took off into history. They completed a total of four flights, the longest one covering a distance of two hundred feet at an altitude of ten feet. In the years that followed, the Wrights were very quiet about their ongoing testing and improvements to their aircraft as they were attempting to patent their machine. They did not want others to steal their technology because they believed that there was a great future in aviation. By 1906, patent in hands, they began public demonstrations of their craft. In 1908, the Wrights quieted all scoffers when Wilbur demonstrated the improvedWright Flyer in France.

In 1909, the brothers incorporated the Wright Company, setting up an airplane manufacturing factory and a flight school in Dayton. With the first commercial flight in 1910, the Wrights demonstrated the potential of their invention.

Wilbur Wright contracted typhoid fever in 1912 and died at age forty-five. His brother grieved deeply, and knew they had to build one large enough to hold a human pilot and to find a location with specific requirements to allow them to test it. They needed a lot of wind and plenty of open space. Through correspondence with the U.S. Weather Bureau, they determined that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, would fill their needs. Once the glider was constructed, Wilbur determined to go ahead and make arrangements for them. It was a long journey. Located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Kitty Hawk could only be reached by boat, since there were no within three years he sold the Wright Company. Orville’s last flight was in 1918. He became a spokesperson for aviation, ultimately serving on the board of the agency that became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He died of a heart attack in 1948.


The Wright brothers did not invent the airplane by themselves. They built on the work of other aviation pioneers, who sometimes even sacrificed their lives to further the study of human flight. The Wrights were, however, the first experimenters to approach the study of flight in such a systematic way. Through rigorous testing and endless attention to detail, the Wrights were the first of the early aviators to define the essential problems of flight.

The Wright brothers correctly identified control as the key problem to solve, and they did so. Since 1903, aeronautics has continued to build on their painstaking tests with their Dayton wind tunnel and their Kitty Hawk flights. In addition, the Wright brothers understood even in 1903 that machine-powered flight was not just some curiosity but rather the wave of the future. They knew that once developed, flying machines would change the course of civilization. Their vision made possible the first steps of aviation history. It is fitting that Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to step on the Moon, carried with him a piece of the fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer.

—Diane Andrews Henningfeld

Further Reading

Anderson, John D. Inventing Flight: The Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. An account of the technical developments that led to the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight on December 3, 1903, by a noted aeronautical engineer. Traces attempts at flight from the Middle Ages forward, demonstrating the knowledge that the Wrights inherited. Crompton, Samuel Willard. The Wright Brothers: First in Flight. Milestones in American History. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. A short, easy-to-read introduction to the Wright brothers and their contributions to aviation. Includes an excellent chronology as well as a bibliography including books, articles, and Web sites. Provides biographical information and photographs; sidebars highlight other pioneers of aviation.

Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. An excellent biography by a well-known Wright scholar. Particular emphasis on family life and personalities of the Wrights, suggesting reasons for their perseverance in the quest for flight. Crouch, Tom D., and Peter L. Jakab. The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2003. An oversized book filled with many photographs of the Wrights and their experiments written in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Kitty Hawk flight. An indispensable volume for anyone studying in the subject. Also includes an excellent bibliography. Freedman, Russell. The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. New York: Holiday House, 1991. Although written for young readers, this book includes a good summary of the Wrights’ invention. Among the many photographs included are those taken by the Wright brothers themselves; the text also includes information concerning how and when the photos were taken. A list of places to visit encourages young students to learn more about the Wrights. Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville. New York: Alfred A.

Knopf, 1987. A complete, well-researched and executed biography of the Wrights, following the brothers from their births to their deaths. Also includes detailed descriptions of their competitors. Written by a member of the team who edited the Wright brothers’ papers for the Library of Congress. Extensive bibliography. Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. New York: Free Press, 2004. Popular history of the Wright brothers and their quest to fly. Additionally highlights Samuel Pierpont Langley, Alexander Graham Bell, and Glenn H. Curtiss. Details the technological problems faced by the Wrights as well as the intense competition they endured before and after their famous Kitty Hawk flight.


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