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What You Didn’t Know About The Wright Brothers

People | May 2, 2019

Photograph shows the first powered, controlled, sustained flight. Orville Wright at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Source: (alamy.com)

You’ve heard the history lessons that tell us that, in 1903, brothers Wilber and Orville Wright became the first humans to fly when they lifted off from a sand dune in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a plane they built in their Ohio bicycle shop. It is a neat and tidy historical tidbit, but there is more to the story. Here is what you didn’t know about the Wright Brothers and their history-making flight. 

Milton Wright, the family patriarch. Source: (wright-brothers.org)

There Were More Wright Brothers

When the history books talk about the Wright Brothers, it leads us to assume that Wilber and Orville were the only two children their parents had. In truth, their parents, Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Koerner Wright had seven children, most of them boys. Reuchlin and Lorin were the oldest, followed by Wilber. Then came twins, Otis and Ida, who sadly died in infancy. Orville was next, and then Katharine, the only surviving Wright daughter. 

Before aviation, the Wright brothers owned a printing company. Source: (wrightbros.org)

High School Dropouts

Although Wilber Wright did complete four years of high school, he never received his diploma because the family moved before the graduation ceremony. Orville never made it to his senior year of high school. Their father pushed for practical, hand’s on educational experiences rather than book learning and encouraged his sons to learn trades and gain marketable skills. While still a teen, Orville joined his brother Wilber in founding a printing company and then a bicycle shop. 

Susan Wright. Source: (wright-brothers.org)

Mother Knows Best

Susan Katharine Wright, the daughter of a carriage maker, had a gifted mechanical mind. While her children were growing up, she built toys for them and even made her own household appliances to help ease her workload. As young men, Wilber and Orville often consulted with their mother about mechanical designs and stated that her help and guidance was invaluable. 

Alphonse Penaud's toy helicopter. Source: (airandspace.si.edu)

A Flying Toy

In 1878, Milton Wright gave his children a wondrous flying toy. It was a toy helicopter created by Alphonse Penaud. Made of bamboo, cork, and paper, it worked when a twisted rubber band uncoiled and launched the helicopter high in the air. The blades of the helicopter kept the toy aloft as it spun around, eventually landing softly on the ground. All the Wright children were thrilled with this toy, but Wilber and Orville were particularly obsessed. They spent long hours observing the flight of the toy helicopter and learning about aerodynamics. Both brothers credit this simple toy with igniting their love of aviation. 

Wilber and Orville Wright. Source: (thehenryford.org)

Neither Brother Ever Married

Although their other brothers married, neither Wilber nor Orville ever did. Once Wilber quipped that the brothers were married to their work. Later in life, Orville lived with his younger sister, Katharine, a spinster. When she finally decided to marry, Orville was furious and refused to attend the wedding. They reconciled when Katharine was on her death bed, having fallen ill from pneumonia. Later historians speculated that the brothers were gay, however, others believe they both had Asperger’s syndrome. 

Otto Lilienthal, the Glider King. Source: (tonsoffacts.com)

Urged on by a German Engineer

The Wright Brothers often tinkered with aircrafts in their bicycle shop, but they began developing their airplane in earnest after Germany’s Otto Lilienthal, who the media called the Glider King, started attracting international news coverage for making glider flights. The Wright brothers were convinced they could fly for longer stretches with a mechanical airplane. 

First flight. Source: (monovisions.com)

A Lucky Coin Toss

When the Wright Brothers traveled to North Carolina to test their airplane for the first time, they had a decision to make. Which one of them would pilot the plane into the history books? They did the only fair thing…they flipped a coin. Wilber won, but his attempt to fly ended in failure and some minor damage to the plane. After it was fixed, it was Orville’s turn. On December 17, 1903, he successfully flew more than 120 feet, staying aloft for 12 seconds. 

Source: (youtube.com)

Their Dad Wouldn’t Let Them Fly Together

Milton Wright had one rule regarding his sons’ aviation hobby—he didn’t want them to fly together. He was adamant that he would not lose two sons at once to an aviation accident. He allowed them to break this rule one time. On May 25, 1910, Milton watched as Orville piloted a plane with Wilber as his passenger. They flew for six minutes above Dayton, Ohio. After they were safely back on the ground, they invited their father to take his first and only flight. The 82-year old Milton Wright was allegedly so excited by the thrill of flight that he yelled, “Higher, Orville! Higher!”

Orville Wright piloted the plane involved in the first aviation fatality. Source: (thoughtco.com)

Not Every Flight was Successful

After their successful first flight, the Wright brothers worked on improving airplane design. On September 17, 1908, Orville piloted the brother’s new two-seater Wright Military Flyer in a demo flight with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge of the Army Signal Corps as his passenger. During the flight, the propeller came loose, sending the plane hurling towards the ground. Orville suffered a broken back, broken leg, and broken ribs and was hospitalized for six weeks. Selfridge died of his injuries, making him the first fatality in an aviation accident. 

Neil Armstrong carried pieces of the Wright brothers plane with him to the moon. Source: (biography.com)

Neil Armstrong Took a Wright Brothers Memento to the Moon

When astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon in July of 1969, he paid homage to the Wright brothers by bringing along a small piece of fabric from the left wing of the Wright brother’s plane, as well as a small piece of wood from the aircraft’s propeller. He kept these as good luck pieces in the inside pocket of his space suit. 

Tags: aviation | the Wright Brothers

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.