Wright Brothers Biography

WilburBorn into a traveling bishop's family, Wilbur and Orville Wright were no strangers to transportation. Only a few years after Wilbur's birth in 1867 in Indiana, his parents Milton and Susan took their three sons to Dayton, Ohio, where their fourth son Orville was born in 1871, followed by Katharine in 1874. A bishop for a Midwestern Protestant sect called the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Milton was transferred every few years, mainly between Indiana and Ohio, so the Wright family rarely lived in one place for very long. Because of their frequent moving, Milton and his wife encouraged their five children to read and explore their interests, and the home's two libraries made both quite accessible.

One day in 1878, Milton brought home a special present for his boys that would change not only their lives, but history as well: a toy helicopter powered by a rubber band. Orville and Wilbur's fascination with the possibility of being able to keep something as heavy as a helicopter in the air spurred some early experiments with flight. However, they soon became discouraged when their products would not stay in the air.

When Wilbur was nineteen, while playing an ice skating game at a lake near Dayton, a bat accidentally slipped out of one of his teammate's hands, striking Wilbur in the face. Although the injury did not seem serious at first, a few weeks later Wilbur's heart developed an irregular beat. Because no treatment for his condition was available at the time, Wilbur was forced to sit out of a promising college career at Yale University. During his convalescence, his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and he spent his time at home caring for her until her death in 1889. As a result of his own illness and the sadness that surrounded him, he became very depressed.

The same year that their mother was dying, Orville and Wilbur started a printing business, producing a weekly publication, West Side News . In 1992, their famous bicycle business began, and from there they experimented not only with bicycle design, but aeronautical design as well. They began to turn their attention to an inventor who had designed a birdlike contraption to experiment with flight: Otto Lilienthal.

OrvilleAfter Lilienthal's death, the brothers decided to pick up where his research had left off. Even though Lilienthal had died testing one of his gliders, several of his earlier attempts had succeeded, proving to the Wrights that flying a heavier-than-air machine was possible. Unlike other inventors, the Wrights were more interested in manually controlling the aircraft than they were in experimenting with power-powered flight had already been proven. In 1899 they had tested their theories using kites and in 1900 built a machine that they believed would fly. They contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau to find out the best place to test their airplane and chose Kitty Hawk, a coastal town in North Carolina near Kill Devil Hills. However, the conditions at Kitty Hawk were not as conducive to flying a glider as they had thought, and they could not achieve enough height. They did, however, launch a successful glider flight at Kill Devil Hills.

To improve on their 1900 model, they constructed a wind tunnel in their bicycle shop to be able to measure lift coefficients. During this time they found that using longer, narrower wings would give them an effective lift.

The Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk in December 1903, where they tested their new engineered, engine-powered flyer. On December 17, Orville managed to keep the plane in the air for twelve seconds. It had several successful flights until at last it crashed, and they constructed a new, improved model in 1905. It was not until a year later that their theories about flight were generally accepted and they received a patent for their invention.

Wilbur died of typhoid at the age of 45 in 1912, after years of a fierce battle with inventor and pilot Glenn Curtiss over patent infringement. Curtiss used the Wright's design to create one of his own, the Gold Flier, a plane that had improved on the Wrights' design. Unlike the Wrights, he received fame and royalties after demonstrating the plane before thousands of paying viewers. The year after Wilbur died, the Wrights won the suit. On January 30, 1948, while fixing a doorbell, Orville died of a heart attack at age 77.

For a more detailed chronology of the Wrights' life, see the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission Web site .