They Began a New Era

Special Collections and Archives/Wright State University
Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, come down to us in photographs as somewhat stiff, unromantic figures in dark jackets and white shirts, often with hats. They were not twins—Wilbur was four years older—but they were remarkably similar in their thinking and abilities. They worked and for the most part lived together all their lives, sober, intelligent, virtuous to a fault. Neither of them ever married, and the only woman in their lives seems to have been their younger sister, Katharine, who when she finally married so angered Orville—Wilbur was by that time dead—that he refused to go to her wedding. As for Wilbur, even during the days in Paris living at the Hotel Meurice he favored long, solitary walks admiring the architecture and public spaces, with many visits to the Louvre.

Their father, Bishop Milton Wright, was an itinerant churchman with high principles. The household in Dayton, Ohio, then a city of 40,000, was moral but not emphatically religious. All of them read. There seem to have been no family quarrels or divisions, and Bishop Wright talked freely to his children on all subjects, Orville said, except money-making, a matter to which he gave little consideration. “All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others.”

Orville was the more enterprising. While still in high school he had started his own print shop and then a local newspaper in which Wilbur joined him. Together they opened a bicycle business in 1893, selling and repairing bicycles. It was soon a success, and they were able to move to a corner building where they had two floors, the upper one for the manufacturing of their own line of bicycles. Then late in the summer of 1896 Orville fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. His father was away at the time, and he lay for days in a delirium while Wilbur and Katharine nursed him. During the convalescence Wilbur read aloud to his brother about Otto Lilienthal, a famous German glider enthusiast who had just been killed in an accident.

Lilienthal was a German mining engineer who, starting with only a pair of birdlike wings, designed and flew a series of gliders—eighteen in all—and made more than two thousand flights in them to become the first true aviator. He held on to a connecting bar with his legs dangling free so they could be used in running or jumping and also in the air for balance. He took off by jumping from a building or escarpment or running down a man-made forty-five-foot hill, and he wrote ecstatically of the sensation of flying. Articles and photographs of him in the air were published widely. Icarus-like…

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