Profiles in Greatness: Wilbur and Orville Wright

Wilbur and Orville Wright were self-taught engineers. They repaired bicycles for a living in Dayton, Ohio, while they studied what humans had long-dreamt of achieving: flight. Because they insisted on proving the naysayers wrong, they ended up revolutionizing not only how we travel, but also how we do business and relate to each other around the world.

“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.” —Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright was born in 1867, the third child to a minister and his wife near Millville, Ind. Four years later, Orville was born at the family’s new home in Dayton, Ohio. The boys, along with their older brothers and younger sister, Katharine, were raised in an intellectually challenging environment. Their father was editor of the church newspaper, and he kept two libraries at the house, making reading a favorite family pastime.

In 1878, Rev. Wright brought the boys a toy that looked like a primitive helicopter. The brothers later said that this toy initiated their interest in flight, and they spent the next few years trying to build their own versions. However, they found that the larger the toy, the worse it flew. So they turned instead to building kites.

The family moved from Dayton temporarily in Wilbur’s senior year, so he didn’t graduate from high school, despite his stellar grades. Wilbur had a natural instinct for business and when Orville dropped out of school, the young men devised a plan to put their entrepreneurial instincts to work. Using a damaged tombstone and buggy parts, the pair built a printing press and started taking on odd printing jobs.

Then in 1892, they bought bicycles. The brothers were so good at repairing the bicycles they opened their own shop in 1893. Within three years, they were making and selling their own brand of bicycle.

“We knew that men had by common consent adopted human flight as the standard of impossibility.” —Wilbur Wright

In 1896, Orville caught typhoid fever. During the time Wilbur stayed by his brother’s bedside, he read an article about the passing of a German aviator whose work with gliders had proven that manned flight was indeed possible. Wilbur was intrigued and wrote to the Smithsonian Institution for all the information they had on aeronautics.

Through his personal studies, Wilbur defined three elements necessary to build a successful flying machine: wings for lift, a power source and a method of control for the pilot. Unlike other researchers at that time, Wilbur also recognized that the craft must be controlled in three axes of motion: pitch, roll and yaw.

Wilbur tested his theories on one of their kites, and in 1900 he built their first glider. Over the next couple years, he and Orville tested three gliders on a sandy and windy stretch of land at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

“In studying their failures we found many points of interest to us.” —Wilbur Wright

The brothers used a methodical and successful strategy of trial and error that helped them overcome obstacle after obstacle. After constructing a wind tunnel to test wing design, they finally flew a glider, traveling a record 620 feet. Using their new data, they returned to their Dayton bicycle shop and built a propeller and an engine for their first flying machine.

The Flyer was shipped to Kitty Hawk in 1903 and assembled for a trial run. Wilbur was the first to test the plane, but the engine stalled on takeoff. True to their method of persistence, they repaired the plane, and on December 17, Orville took his turn at the controls. At about 10:30 that morning, he made the first manned heavier-than-air machine flight in history. The flight lasted 12 seconds and didn’t even make most major newspapers the next day. But it would change the course of history in ways neither the Wright brothers nor the rest of the world could yet envision.

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

After another two years of experimentation and often frustrating mechanical malfunctions, the Wright brothers constructed a plane capable of flying for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of a trained pilot.

Rather than flaunt their accomplishment, Wilbur and Orville were protective of their invention and treated the burgeoning technology as a new business. After receiving a patent in 1906, they began public demonstrations to prove to a skeptical world that human flight was not simply possible but a potential asset to government and industry.

In 1908, Orville flew in a demonstration for the U.S. army, and the Wrights obtained a contract to build the first military airplanes. Meanwhile, Wilbur had been flying demonstrations in France and soon became a national hero, debunking European rumors that the brothers had lied about their earlier flights.

Shortly after Orville started taking passengers up on his demonstration flights, he was in a tragic accident. His passenger was killed, and Orville was severely injured. The Wrights’ sister Katharine, who had been instrumental in supporting their early experimentation, immediately came to Orville’s aid. He recovered but suffered from chronic back pain for the rest of his life.

“What one man can do himself directly is but little. If however he can stir up ten others to take up the task he has accomplished much.” —Wilbur Wright

By 1909, the brothers’ flights were attracting the attention of the world, and their demonstrations were attended by press, wealthy investors and even royalty. Wilbur and Orville received medals from U.S. President William Taft and the French government; they were greeted by crowds of well-wishers and admirers wherever they went. And after years of dismissing the Wrights’ achievements as exaggeration, the citizens of Dayton acknowledged their hometown boys with a parade in their honor, one of many across the country.

While flying in Italy, Wilbur caught the attention of American industrialist J.P. Morgan, who later offered to help the brothers establish their own aircraft manufacturing company. The Wright Company opened in Dayton in 1910, and the brothers established a flying school at nearby Huffman Prairie.

Wilbur passed away of typhoid fever in 1912, and Orville sold the Wright Company in 1915. He went on to serve for 28 years on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, and in 1930 was awarded the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1936.

Orville passed away in 1948 at the age of 76. Through their visionary belief and their refusal to quit in the face of obstacles, he and his brother Wilbur forever enlarged our world, expanding our ideas of what is possible.

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