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The Wright brothers
Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1905
Nationality American
Other names Will and Orv
The Bishop's boys
Known for Inventing, building, and flying the world's first successful motor-operated airplane, the Wright Flyer
Home town Dayton, Ohio
Parent(s) Milton Wright
Susan Catherine Koerner Wright
Relatives Katharine Wright (sister)
Signature of Orville Wright    Signature of Wilbur Wright
Orville Wright
Born (1871-08-19)August 19, 1871
Dayton, Ohio
Died January 30, 1948(1948-01-30) (aged 76)
Dayton, Ohio
Cause of death Heart attack
Education 3 years high school
Occupation Printer/publisher, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer
Wilbur Wright
Born (1867-04-16)April 16, 1867
Millville, Indiana
Died May 30, 1912(1912-05-30) (aged 45)
Dayton, Ohio
Cause of death Typhoid fever
Education 4 years high school
Occupation Editor, bicycle retailer/manufacturer, airplane inventor/manufacturer, pilot trainer

The Wright brothers, Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912), designed, built, and flew the first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air airplane on December 17, 1903. They had been experimenting for many years with gliders and other vehicles before their first powered flight. They are also known for making the first way to steer an airplane. They designed the aircraft in Dayton, Ohio, and their first test flight was in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Early life

Orville (left) and Wilbur Wright as children in 1876

The Wrights grew up in Dayton, Ohio. They were two of seven children born to Milton Wright (1828–1917), a clergyman of English and Dutch ancestry, and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831–1889), of German and Swiss ancestry.

There were many books in their house, and they were encouraged to ask questions and find out about whatever they thought was interesting. Sometimes their father would ask them to argue for a topic, then switch sides and argue for the opposite point of view.

In 1878 their father brought home a toy helicopter for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about 1 ft (30 cm) long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the spark of their interest in flying.

They went to high school. Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year. Wilbur finished high school but did not receive his diploma because the family suddenly moved to from Richmond, Indiana, to Dayton, Ohio. The diploma was awarded to him posthumously on April 16, 1994, which would have been his 127th birthday.

They did not go to college; they started a newspaper instead. After that, they started a shop to build and repair bicycles.

Learning how to fly

By the 1890s, the Wrights were interested in flight, especially the gliders of Otto Lilienthal. They started working on making airplanes in their bicycle shop. They thought controlling a plane was one of the big problems of flight. Lilienthal and others had been killed when they could not control their aircraft. The Wright brothers fixed the problem by inventing control surfaces, such as a rudder that would work in the air.

They observed the movement of birds' wings and built wings that could be twisted a little and moved up and down slightly, to control flight. They called this steering system wing-warping.

From 1900 to 1902, they built gliders in Dayton and tested them in Kitty Hawk, where there were strong and steady winds. They also made small versions of the wings and built a wind tunnel for model airplanes to test how well different wing shapes would lift an airplane.


In 1903, they built a powered airplane that had propellers and a small engine. The Wright Flyer airplane first flew successfully on December 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This was the first time people ever flew a powered airplane they could control. Before that, people flew in balloons or gliders, or for a very short time in planes they could not control. The two brothers continued to make changes to their design and had a very good plane by 1905.

First flight2
First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903 - Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright running beside it.

The Wright Brothers kept their discovery largely secret for a couple of years, until they showed it to the world in 1908 (They had filed a patent on their steering system March 23, 1903.)

After that, they started a company to build airplanes. They had a patent war with Glenn Curtiss, filing lawsuits against each other over who really invented the airplane steering system. The Wrights believed that Curtiss' aileron system was too similar to their own steering system and that he had copied them. During the patent war, Wilbur died. Orville continued working to keep his reputation as the first man to fly. Later he sold the airplane company and became an elder statesman of aviation. He died in 1948.

Family flights

On May 25, 1910, back at Huffman Prairie, Orville piloted two unique flights. First, he took off on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his passenger, the only time the Wright brothers ever flew together. They received permission from their father to make the flight. They had always promised Milton they would never fly together to avoid the chance of a double tragedy and to ensure one brother would remain to continue their experiments. Next, Orville took his 82-year-old father on a nearly 7-minute flight, the only powered aerial excursion of Milton Wright's life. The aircraft rose to about 350 feet (107 m) while the elderly Wright called to his son, "Higher, Orville, higher!".

Competing claims

First powered flight claims are made for Clément Ader, Gustave Whitehead, Richard Pearse, and Karl Jatho for their variously documented tests in years prior to and including 1903. Claims that the first true flight occurred after 1903 are made for Traian Vuia and Alberto Santos-Dumont. Supporters of the post-Wright pioneers argue that techniques used by the Wright brothers disqualify them as first to make successful airplane flights. Those techniques were: A launch rail; skids instead of wheels; a headwind at takeoff; and a catapult after 1903. Supporters of the Wright brothers argue that proven, repeated, controlled, and sustained flights by the brothers entitle them to credit as inventors of the airplane, regardless of those techniques.

The aviation historian C.H. Gibbs-Smith was a supporter of the Wrights' claim to primacy in flight. He wrote that a barn door can be made to "fly" for a short distance if enough energy is applied to it; he determined that the very limited flight experiments of Ader, Vuia, and others were "powered hops" instead of fully controlled flights.

State rivalry

Ohio 50 State Quarter features a photo of the 1905 Wright Flyer III, built and flown in Ohio, as well as Neil Armstrong
North Carolina 50 State Quarter features the famous first flight photo of the 1903 Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

The U.S. states of Ohio and North Carolina both take credit for the Wright brothers and their world-changing inventions—Ohio because the brothers developed and built their design in Dayton, and North Carolina because Kitty Hawk was the site of the Wrights' first powered flight. With a spirit of friendly rivalry, Ohio adopted the slogan "Birthplace of Aviation" (later "Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers", recognizing not only the Wrights, but also astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, both Ohio natives). The slogan appears on Ohio license plates. North Carolina uses the slogan "First In Flight" on its license plates.

The site of the first flights in North Carolina is preserved as Wright Brothers National Memorial, while their Ohio facilities are part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. As the positions of both states can be factually defended, and each played a significant role in the history of flight, neither state has an exclusive claim to the Wrights' accomplishment.

Notwithstanding the competition between those two states, in 1937 the Wrights' final bicycle shop and home were moved from Dayton to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, where they remain.

Later years


US pilots certificate back
The back of the US Airman Certificate with a picture of the Wright brothers.

Both Wilbur and Orville were lifelong bachelors. Wilbur once quipped that he 'did not have time for both a wife and an airplane'. The 1909 short silent film Wilbur Wright und seine Flugmaschine (which translates to Wilbur Wright and his Flying Machine) is considered to be the first use of motion picture aerial photography as filmed from a heavier-than-air aircraft. Following a brief training flight he gave to a German pilot in Berlin in June 1911, Wilbur never flew again. He gradually became occupied with business matters for the Wright Company and dealing with different lawsuits. Upon dealing with the patent lawsuits, which had put great strain on both brothers, Wilbur had written in a letter to a French friend:

When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.

Wilbur spent the next year before his death traveling, where he spent a full six months in Europe attending to various business and legal matters. Wilbur urged American cities to emulate the European – particularly Parisian – philosophy of apportioning generous public space near every important public building. He was also constantly back and forth between New York, Washington, and Dayton. All of the stresses were taking a toll on Wilbur physically. Orville would remark that he would "come home white".

It was decided by the family that a new and far grander house would be built, using the money that the Wrights had earned through their inventions and business. Called affectionately Hawthorn Hill, building had begun in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood, Ohio, while Wilbur was in Europe. Katharine and Orville oversaw the project in his absence. Wilbur's one known expression upon the design of the house was that he have a room and bathroom of his own. The brothers hired Schenck and Williams, an architectural firm, to design the house, along with input from both Wilbur and Orville. Wilbur did not live to see its completion in 1914.

He became ill on a business trip to Boston in April 1912. The illness is sometimes attributed to eating bad shellfish at a banquet. After returning to Dayton in early May 1912, worn down in mind and body, he fell ill again and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He lingered on, his symptoms relapsing and remitting for many days. Wilbur died, at age 45, at the Wright family home on May 30. His father wrote about Wilbur in his diary: "A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died."


Orville Wright-1928
Orville Wright, 1928

Orville succeeded to the presidency of the Wright Company upon Wilbur's death. He won the prestigious Collier Trophy in 1914 for development of his automatic stabilizer on the brothers' Wright Model E. Sharing Wilbur's distaste for business but not his brother's executive skills, Orville sold the company in 1915. The Wright Company then became part of Wright-Martin in 1916.

After 42 years living at their residence on 7 Hawthorn Street, Orville, Katharine, and their father, Milton, moved to Hawthorn Hill in spring 1914. Milton died in his sleep on April 3, 1917, at age 88. Up until his death, Milton had been very active, preoccupied with reading, writing articles for religious publications and enjoying his morning walks. He had also marched in a Dayton Woman's Suffrage Parade, along with Orville and Katharine.

Orville made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 in a 1911 Model B. He retired from business and became an elder statesman of aviation, serving on various official boards and committees, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA).

Katharine married Henry Haskell of Kansas City, a former Oberlin classmate, in 1926. Orville was furious and inconsolable, feeling he had been betrayed by his sister Katharine. He refused to attend the wedding or even communicate with her. He finally agreed to see her, apparently at Lorin's insistence, just before she died of pneumonia on March 3, 1929.

Orville Wright served in the NACA for 28 years. In 1930, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1936, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation which designated the anniversary of Orville's birthday as National Aviation Day, a national observation that celebrates the development of aviation.

On April 19, 1944, the second production Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from Burbank, California, to Washington, DC, in 6 hours and 57 minutes (2300 mi, 330.9 mph). On the return trip, the airliner stopped at Wright Field to give Orville Wright his last airplane flight, more than 40 years after his historic first flight. He may even have briefly handled the controls. He commented that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than the distance of his first flight.

Grave of the Wright brothers, Woodland Cemetery chapel, Dayton, Ohio
The Wright family plot at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum

Orville's last major project was supervising the reclamation and preservation of the 1905 Wright Flyer III, which historians describe as the first practical airplane.

Orville expressed sadness in an interview years later about the death and destruction brought about by the bombers of World War II:

We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong ... No, I don't have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is, I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses.

Orville died at age 76 on January 30, 1948, over 35 years after his brother, following his second heart attack, having lived from the horse-and-buggy age to the dawn of supersonic flight. Both brothers are buried in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. John T. Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their famous first flight photo, died the day after Orville.

Orville Wright quotes

  • “If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.”
  • “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.”

Wilbur Wright quotes

  • “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.”
  • “Men become wise just as they become rich, more by what they save than by what they receive.”

Interesting facts about the Wright brothers

Aircraft certification of Ingenuity to fly on mars
Aircraft certification for the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, April 2021
  • None of the Wright children had middle names. Instead, their father tried hard to give them distinctive first names. Wilbur was named for Willbur Fisk and Orville for Orville Dewey, both clergymen that Milton Wright admired.
  • They were "Will" and "Orv" to their friends and in Dayton, their neighbors knew them simply as "the Bishop's kids", or "the Bishop's boys".
  • NASA named the first Martian take-off and landing area for the 2021 Ingenuity helicopter "Wright Brothers Field". The helicopter carries a small piece of wing fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer attached to a cable underneath its solar panel.
  • In 1969, Neil Armstrong carried a similar Wright Flyer artifact to the Moon in the Lunar Module Eagle during Apollo 11.

Images for kids

See also

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