The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, had two older brothers, Reuchlin (1861-1920) and Lorin (1862-1939), and a younger sister Katharine (1874-1929). They were the children of Bishop Milton Wright (1828-1917) and Susan Catherine (Koerner) Wright (1831-1889). Wilbur Wright was born near Millville, Indiana on April 16, 1867. Orville Wright was born at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio, August 19, 1871.
Their father settled the family in Dayton, where he was editor of a newspaper published by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. His various jobs as a minister in that church led to the family moving frequently, but they didn't sell the house on 7 Hawthorn Street, and kept returning.
The Wright house provided an excellent setting for the children's intellectual and creative development. Orville wrote of his childhood: "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."One activity Bishop Wright initiated was for debates in which two family members would each defend one side, then switch and defend the other side. The house had two libraries: Books on theology in the bishop's study, while the downstairs library had a large and diverse collection. Reading in the family library played a big role in the development of the Wright brothers' interest in flight.
In 1878, when Orville and Wilbur were ages 7 and 11, their father brought them a toy "helicopter." It was based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. Made of cork, bamboo, and paper, with a rubber band to twirl its twin blades, it was a little bigger than an adult's hand. They later said this sparked their interest in flight. During the next few years, Wilbur and Orville tried to build these themselves, but the bigger they made them the less well they flew. Somewhat discouraged, the brothers turned to kites.
The family moved from Richmond, Indiana back to Dayton in June 1884, less than a month before Wilbur would have graduated from high school. The next year he attended Central High School in Dayton for additional studies, in Greek and trigonometry.
During the winter of 1885-1886, Wilbur was hit in the face with a hockey stick while playing an ice-skating game, resulting in his losing his front teeth. The injury did not seem particularly serious, at least at first. But Wilbur, who had been athletic and healthy until then, began to be withdrawn. As the Bishop later said, "In his nineteenth year when playing a game on skates at an artificial lake at the Soldier's Home near Dayton, Ohio, a bat accidentally flew out of the hand of a young man... and struck Wilbur, knocking him down, but not injuring him much. A few weeks later, he began to be affected with nervous palpitations of the heart, which precluded the realization of the former idea of his parents, of giving him a course in Yale College." Wilbur remained homebound for the next four years, possibly suffering as much from depression as from his vaguely-defined heart disorder. Wilbur cared for his mother Susan during this time, who was dying from tuberculosis. He also read extensively from the family library.
In 1889, with Wilbur's help, Orville designed and built a printing press, and the brothers began publishing a weekly and then a daily paper. In 1892 they opened a bicycle shop, and in 1896 started manufacturing their own brand. Orville invented a self-oiling wheel hub. That year German aviator Otto Lilienthal died in a glider crash, but his pioneering work showed that manned flight was feasible. French aviation researcher Octave Chanute collected data and brought together young aviators to experiment with gliders on the sand dunes at the Lake Michigan shore. The Wright brothers interest in flight was renewed, and they set about to learn everything they could about the subject, gathering and reading whatever they could, and later designing experiments of their own.
To provide adequate lift for large gliders, the Wright brothers needed to find a place with more wind than was typical anywhere near Dayton. In November 1899, Wilbur wrote to Willis L. Moore, Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, asking about high wind conditions throughout the country. The first rural place on the list Moore sent back was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. During the years 1900, 1901, and 1902, Orville and Wilbur experimented at Kitty Hawk with kites, gliders, and a wind tunnel they built to test wing design. The Wright brothers developed the first effective airplane, and made the historic first airplane flight in 1903.
In 1905, the Wright brothers built an airplane that could fly for more than half an hour at a time. In 1908 Orville made the world's first flight of over one hour at Fort Myer, Virginia, in a demonstration for the U.S. army, which subsequently made the Wright planes the world's first military airplanes. That same year Wilbur made over 100 flights near Le Mans, France; the longest one, on Dec. 31, a record flight: 2 hours, 19 minutes.
The brothers never married. Wilbur Wright died at age 45 of typhoid. Orville Wright died of a heart attack at age 77.
May 30, 1912
This morning at 3:15, Wilbur passed away, aged 45 years, 1 month, and 14 days. A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.
- from the Diary of Bishop Milton Wright
(1871 - 1948)
Impulsive and Optimistic
More impulsive than his contemplative, thoughtful older brother, Orville had boundless curiosity and energetically pursued a range of interests. His mind was quick, and he was always coming up with new inventions. While pursuing the airplane was initially Wilbur’s idea, Orville’s enthusiasm and optimism were often what carried them through to solutions of difficult technical problems.
A Born Inventor
Orville showed an interest in technology and science early in life. He was always performing experiments and dismantling things to find out how they worked. He fit the stereotype of the budding inventor far more than Wilbur.
A Restless Student
Orville was as bright as his brother, but he could be mischievous in the classroom and did not always apply himself fully. His work habits improved in high school. But instead of following the prescribed junior-year curriculum, he opted for a series of advanced college preparatory courses. As a result, he would not qualify for his high school degree at the end of his senior year, so he decided not to attend school that term. He never graduated.