The invention of the airplane is one of the great stories in American history. At the center of this story are two talented, yet modest, Midwestern bicycle shop owners who created a world-changing technology: the Wright brothers. Their invention not only solved a long-studied technical problem, but helped create an entirely new world. So, who exactly were Orville and Wilbur Wright?
Several strong family traits contributed to the Wrights’ success. Wilbur and Orville were shaped by a family with an uncompromising moral philosophy and clear worldview. The Wrights’ parents taught their children that the world was an unfriendly place; untrustworthy people and evil temptations were everywhere. They were convinced that family bonds offered the only real support in life. This supportive home life gave Wilbur and Orville the self-confidence to reject the theories of more well-known and experienced aeronautical experimenters when they felt their own ideas were correct. The emotional anchor provided by their strong family often helped Wilbur and Orville keep going when they ran into difficulties in their research.
Where and when they lived was also important to their achievement. In the late 1800s, the Wrights hometown of Dayton, Ohio, was part of a growing manufacturing and industrial region. The environment helped the brothers learn mechanical and engineering skills important to their work.
Two Distinct Minds
Orville and Wilbur Wright are typically portrayed as clever bicycle mechanics that somehow invented the airplane. They are referred to as if they were a single persona: “the Wright brothers” —one mind, one personality. However, Wilbur and Orville were, of course, in actuality two distinct individuals who brought unique talents and perspectives to their collaborations.
Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) was steady and confident. His father described him as “never rattled in thought or temper.” Highly intelligent, he was an avid reader, a talented writer, and a gifted speaker. Outgoing when he needed to be, he could also shut out the world when he chose.
Wilbur excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory, and was a good athlete. Toward the end of his senior year at Richmond High School in Indiana, the family suddenly returned to Dayton due to his father’s church responsibilities. Wilbur was unable to complete his courses and graduate. Hoping to attend Yale and become a teacher, he enrolled in several college preparatory courses at Central High School in Dayton.
Wilbur’s bright future suddenly dimmed when he was hit in the face with a stick while playing an ice hockey type of game when he was 18. The damage to his face and teeth heeled, but he suffered lingering heart and digestive troubles. He became depressed. The confident, robust young Wilbur faded. Uncertain of his health and future, he dropped his plans to attend Yale and withdrew from the world, spending most of his time alone, reading and thinking.
By the time of Wilbur’s accident, his mother was already ill with tuberculosis and needed constant care. Struggling to find a new direction in life, Wilbur devoted his life to nursing his mother until she died in 1889, when he was 22.
Wilbur found sanctuary during his “lost years” from 1886 to 1889 in his father’s extensive library. He became as well read as any college graduate and sharpened his writing skills while helping his father fight political battles in the church. The pamphlet below, produced in 1888, was Wilbur’s first published writing.
Orville Wright (1871-1948) was more impulsive, optimistic, and contemplative than his older brother. He was curious and energetic, with a wide 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 often carried them through the solving of difficult technical problems.
Orville showed an early interest in technology and science. He was always doing experiments and taking things apart to find out how they worked. He fit the model of the budding inventor far more than Wilbur.
While Orville was just as bright as his brother, he could be mischievous in class and did not always give his best effort. His work habits improved in high school, but instead of following the normal junior-year curriculum, he chose a series of advanced college preparatory courses. This meant he couldn’t graduate at the end of his senior year, so he decided not to attend school that term. That’s right, the co-inventor of the airplane never graduated from high school.
Despite his lack of interest in a formal diploma, Orville, like Wilbur, was committed to broad learning and did of lot of studying on his own outside of school. Both of the brothers’ education were comparable to a modern four-year college degree.
From Inventors to Icons
Wilbur and Orville began their experiments as modest, Midwestern businessmen. Together, they owned ran both a successful printing company and a successful bicycle company. By the time they were finished, their world-changing invention placed them among the most recognized figures in American history.
The brothers' aeronautical feats led them to form the Wright Company in 1910, where they began building and selling airplanes. However, Wilbur—always confident and steadfast—quickly became preoccupied with the many patent infringement lawsuits the Wrights had filed. It was as much a matter of principle as money. The Wrights believed their invention was uniquely their own and revolutionary, and that they should be duly credited and compensated for their contribution to the world. Tired and stressed from the burden of litigation, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever in April of 1912. He died on May 30th at the age of 45.
Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company in 1915 and settled into the role of aviation elder statesmen and national folk hero. In 1916, Orville finally gave up the lease on the modest bicycle shop in which he and Wilbur did much of their pioneering aeronautical work, and moved to a new laboratory he had built nearby. He spent much of the remaining 32 years of his life upholding the reputation he and Wilbur had earned. He often consulted with government agencies and private aircraft companies. He received 11 honorary degrees from universities in Europe and the United States, along with dozens of awards and medals.
Ironically, flying became an unpleasant experience for him because the vibration in flight severely irritated his sciatic nerve—a lingering condition from a crash in 1908. He flew as a pilot for the last time in 1918, and as a passenger only a few times after that. Luckily, he went on to live a long life. After experiencing a second heart attack in four months on January 27th, 1948, he died three days later at the age of 76.
Today the Wright brothers’ names are part of the national cultural identity, and the Wright Flyer is an icon of ingenuity and technical creativity. More than a century after they launched the aerial age, the Wright brothers continue to awe and inspire.