Collection Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of CongressShow Featured Items
The Brothers' Boyhood
Postcard from Orville Wright to Milton Wright, 1881
It is no coincidence that the earliest communication found from either Wilbur or Orville is this postcard, written by nine-year-old Orville to his father, in which he demonstrates a typical Wright Brothers trait–natural curiosity followed by an experiment. Bishop Wright made sure that his children knew how to write letters in clear language at an early age. He also saved all their letters that came into his hands, not for posterity but simply because it was from one of "the boys." This postcard, written in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before the family returned to Dayton, Ohio, is the earliest surviving document in the Wright collection.
Deposition given by Orville Wright, January 13, 1920
Bishop Wright was in the habit of bringing small toys home to his children after traveling on church business and it was to one of these toys that Orville attributed his and Wilbur's earliest interest in flight. The Penaud helicopter that Milton Wright brought home in 1878 was a variation of one of Europe' s oldest mechanical toys. In this court document submitted by the forty-eight-year-old Orville, he tells how the young brothers' fascination with a small toy powered by a rubber band eventually led them to a much more serious consideration of the problem of flight.
Early Business Ventures
West Side Newspaper, May 11, 1889
Printing was one of Orville's hobbies as a youngster and the first publication that he and his friend, Ed Sines, produced was a brief newspaper for their eighth-grade schoolmates. By the time that he was sixteen, Orville had worked summers in a print shop, learned the printing business from the ground up, and designed and built his own press. On March 1, 1889, Orville began publishing The West Side News, a weekly paper intended for the residents of West Dayton. By April of that year, Wilbur was involved in the printing business and was soon listed on the newspaper masthead as editor; Orville was listed as printer and publisher. The News lasted until April 1890, succeeded by a much more ambitious Wright- produced newspaper, The Evening Item. Although a very good local paper, the Item faced stiff competition and lasted only until August 1890.
Photograph of Wilbur Wright at Work in the Bicycle Shop, c. 1897
By 1892, the Wrights were earnestly in search of a new and exciting business venture. By then, the new "safety" bicycle had become a national craze, and millions of sturdy two-wheelers were being produced to satisfy this new American craving for speed, freedom, and convenience. Since both brothers were considered not only excellent bicyclists but also the best bicycle mechanics in West Dayton, this new business opportunity became suddenly obvious to them. In 1897 when this photo of Wilbur working at the lathe was taken, the brothers had expanded their bicycle business beyond sales and repair to the design and manufacture of their own line of hand-built, made-to-order bicycles. The Wrights remained in the bicycle business until 1907 and it was successful enough to provide them with the income that they needed to cover all of their aeronautical work.
Letter from J. J. Dosher, Weather Bureau, to Wilbur Wright, August 16, 1900
Having already corresponded with Octave Chanute, Wilbur and Orville realized the importance of a safe, sandy, test site and steady winds to their gliding plans. Chanute suggested several appropriate locations, from California to the southeast coast, and Wilbur used U.S. Weather Bureau tables to compare the average wind velocities of these sites. He spotted a likely location, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and wrote to its weather bureau. The only employee in that office, J. J. Dosher, wrote back and told Wilbur what he was hoping to hear: the area had a wide beach clear of trees and prevailing north, northeast winds in September and October. The local postmaster, William Tate, also wrote Wilbur and gave him more information confirming Kitty Hawk as the right place to experiment with flying machines.
Letter, Wilbur Wright to Milton Wright, September 23, 1900
Less than two weeks after Wilbur made his lone journey to Kitty Hawk, he wrote his father, telling him about his situation and plans. After assuring Bishop Wright that he was safe and comfortable, Wilbur described Kitty Hawk and told of daily life at this extremely remote place. He sought to reassure his father that he was acting responsibly and knew what he was doing: his machine was a motorless glider and no danger was involved since he did not expect to rise but a few feet above the soft sand. Always modest, Wilbur told his father that he had not taken up the problem of flight "with the expectation of financial profit," and that, even if he learned nothing, his trip would still be a success, for his health would improve. Five days later, Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk with additional supplies.
Letter, Orville Wright to Katharine Wright, September 29, 1902
In this chatty eight-page letter to his sister, Katharine, Orville writes of conditions at Kitty Hawk at the beginning of the brothers' third season there. Addressed to "Sterchens," an affectionate shortening of Schwesterchen, the German word for "little sister," the letter humorously tells of the brothers' four primary occupations in Kitty Hawk: "eating, sleeping, chasing pigs and mice, and gliding now and then when the weather is favorable and the machine is not in the repair shop." While Orville brags about his gliding accomplishments and calls their new 1902 glider a great improvement over last year's machine, he writes mostly about their camp adventures--smoking mosquitoes out of their living quarters, chasing wild pigs with tent pegs, polishing up his French, and spending a great deal of time matching wits with a bold little mouse who refuses to be caught. He closes by asking Katharine to "Write a little oftener to your bubo." Orville's family nickname was "Bubbo" or "Bubs," which was how then four-year-old Wilbur pronounced his new brother's name. Wilbur was called "Ullam," short for Jullam, a German version of William.
Photograph of First Flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 10:35 AM, December 17, 1903
One of the most famous photographs of all time, this image was made from one of the five-by-seven- inch glass-plate negatives deposited in the Library of Congress in 1949. The camera had been set on a tripod by Orville, who instructed John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Hill Lifesaving Station how and when to snap the shutter. Daniels did exactly as he was told and the result captures with clarity and drama the world's first airplane flight at the exact moment of liftoff. Orville is at the controls, lying on the lower wing with his hips in a movable cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur, running alongside to steady the machine, has just released his hold on the upright strut of the wing and probably stepped back to get a better view. This first flight lasted only twelve seconds and went 120 feet; it was followed by three more flights that day, each longer than the previous flight.
Entry from Diary of Orville Wright, December 17, 1903
In about six pages of his small pocket diary, Orville set down the details of all four flights that the brothers made that day. Rather than reveling in their making history and achieving a dream of mankind, Orville instead provides a matter-of-fact account packed with what he considered the necessary and important details. Thus his retelling of that day's events contains not a hint of emotion nor hardly anything subjective, but concentrates on setting the record straight and getting all the facts down. The only suggestion of drama in Orville's telling is his description of how the wind-tossed machine nearly killed John T. Daniels, who had become tangled in its engine and chains.
Telegram, Orville Wright to Milton Wright, December 17, 1903
Following their eventful and highly successful morning, the Wrights had an unhurried lunch and then walked the few miles to the town of Kitty Hawk to send a telegram to their father. With their machine wrecked by the wind and flying done for the season, the Wrights immediately thought of going home for Christmas. The only telegraph equipment in Kitty Hawk was a government wire at the weather bureau office connected to Norfolk, which passed the message on to Western Union. The telegraph operator at Kitty Hawk was John T. Dosher, with whom the Wrights had corresponded more than three years before. Two errors in transmission were made: Orville's name was misspelled and the time of their longest flight was incorrect (fifty-seven instead of fifty-nine seconds). The telegram reached Dayton, Ohio, at 5:25 P.M. and the brothers returned home with their broken machine on the evening of December 23.
Photograph of Wright 1904 Machine at Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio, June or July 1904
The Wrights began to build a new machine in January 1904 and by early summer they were ready to try it out. Although it looked similar to their 1903 original, it was sturdier, heavier, and had an entirely new engine. This photo shows the 1904 model from the rear, with the rudder in the foreground. As in 1903, the operator lay flat and the machine used a sled and wooden track to take off. The Wrights knew that they needed hours of experimenting and test flights if they were ever to produce a practical airplane, so they chose a field close to home to practice. This field was Huffman Prairie, a hundred-acre cow pasture, eight miles east of town, reachable by trolley. This photo shows that the pasture was mostly clear of trees. The Wrights built a shed to assemble and store their machine, as they had done at Kitty Hawk, and had test flights at Huffman Prairie through October 1905.
Journal Article, "Our Homes," by A. I. Root in Gleanings in Bee Culture, January 1, 1905
By mid-September 1904, the Wrights were making flights up to one-half mile in length at Huffman Prairie and were even making full turns in the air. Although some local reporters visited Huffman Prairie in the spring of 1904, they were disappointed by bad weather and cancelled flights and did not return. One visitor who came and stayed, however, was Amos I. Root of Medina, Ohio. Root, the owner of a beekeeping supply house who had heard rumors of the Wrights' accomplishments in the air, decided to find out about their flights for himself. The Wrights liked the curious beekeeper, who had driven 175 miles to witness their flights and allowed him to remain. Root wrote of what he witnessed for the readers of his journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture, and for the years 1904-05, the only accurate coverage of the Wrights' flights at Huffman Prairie appeared there. In a long, descriptive article, Root concluded, "these two brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men."
Starting the Business
Page from Patent of O. & W. Wright Flying Machine, May 22, 1906
It took the Wrights more than three years to obtain the patent that they originally sought in 1903, but when it was finally granted, it was exactly what they wanted. Following the solid advice of their experienced patent attorney, Henry A. Toulmin of Springfield, Ohio, the Wrights decided to patent not just the mechanisms that allowed them to warp or flex a wing but, more importantly, to patent the idea of warping itself. Toulmin advised the brothers that obtaining a very broad patent able to defeat all challenges in court would take time, and that, in the meantime, they should not allow details of their invention to become public. The Wrights therefore decided on secrecy until their patent was secured, during which time they continued to work at building a real, practical machine.
Coded Telegram, Wilbur Wright to Orville Wright, July 1, 1907
During the spring of 1907, Wilbur spent nine weeks in Paris without Orville to negotiate for the sale of their machines to the French. He was accompanied by Hart O. Berg, an American who lived in France and worked for Flint & Company, the firm that Wilbur and Orville had hired to handle their foreign business. Orville joined Wilbur at the end of July; until that time, they communicated by letter and by cable. To ensure secrecy, the brothers used a standard Flint & Company code for their overseas cable communications. This telegram contains an original coded message and Wilbur's handwritten decoding, or translation. Since their messages were typically cryptic as well as coded, the brothers sometimes misunderstood each other.
U. S. Signal Corps Contract with the Wright Brothers, February 10, 1908
The Wrights had offered their machine for sale to the U.S. War Department as early as January 1905, but three years had passed before the federal government developed serious interest. In the first formal Army airplane contract signed by the Wrights and the U. S. Signal Corps, the brothers promise to deliver, in two hundred days, a heavier-than-air flying machine that meets the Corps' Specification No. 486. The major specifications stipulate that the machine be capable of carrying two persons at a speed of forty miles per hour, staying in the air for at least one hour, and landing without serious damage. For this, the Wrights received $25,000.
The Wrights Go Public
Ticket for Admittance to Champ de Tir d'Auvours, 1908
As Orville was about to make his successful demonstration flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Meyer, Virginia, Wilbur was in France showing Europe and the world to what degree he and his brother had mastered the problem of flight. For four months beginning in August, Wilbur flew at the large artillery field seven miles east of Le Mans known as Camp d'Auvours. Having made nine successful flights two weeks earlier at a race course called Les Hunaudieres, five miles south of Le Mans, Wilbur became an overnight sensation in France. Large crowds eager to witness his effortless mastery of the air necessitated the introduction of a ticket system to control access. Only holders of tickets signed by the local military commander and Hart O. Berg, the Wrights' business agent, were permitted to enter the grounds.
Postcard, Wilbur Wright to Orville Wright, September 1908
Before his September 17 crash during the U.S. Army acceptance trials at Fort Meyer, Virginia, nearly every flight that Orville attempted broke the flight duration record that he had set on the previous flight. His longest flight lasted one hour, fourteen minutes, and twenty seconds, during which he made seventy-one circles around the field at an altitude of about three hundred feet. Wilbur, flying in France at the time, used this postcard drawn by the French artist, Leo Maix, to show Orville how proud he was of his younger brother's accomplishments. Wilbur wrote: "I'll tie a string to you next time to keep you from going too high or too far. It's too much trouble to break your records. Will." Postcards such as these showing Wilbur dressed in his customary flying cap and leather jacket became popular during 1908 and 1909.
Letter, Orville Wright to Wilbur Wright, November 14, 1908
Following his near-fatal crash at Fort Meyer, Orville spent seven weeks in the hospital and wrote his first letter to Wilbur, who was in France. Orville spends little time talking about his own injury, but rather provides as much detail as he can about the disastrous flight. He tells Wilbur that during the fourth turn around the field, he "heard (or felt) a light tapping in the rear of the machine." Realizing that something had broken, he shut off the power but soon found the machine shaking terribly and the controls useless. Flying at least one hundred feet up, the machine headed straight for the ground, and Orville recalled that, "the first 50 ft of that plunge seemed like a half minute." Although it nearly righted itself, the machine crashed, breaking Orville's leg and ribs, injuring his back, and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Later tests proved that Orville was correct when he wrote Wilbur that a broken propeller was probably the cause.
Written Communication from Adjutant Friedeburg to Orville Wright, October 15, 1909
In 1909 the Wrights flew in France, Italy, and Germany, and many of the greats and near-greats of Europe came to witness this spectacle. This note, sent to Orville by Friedeburg, the imperial aide to German Emperor Wilhelm II, informed him that "the Kaiser will appear at the Bornstedt airfield at 4: 30 PM for Mr. Wright's flight." This was Orville's last flight in Germany, as he delayed his departure from Berlin because of the emperor's request. Orville's farewell flight lasted twenty-five minutes, during which time he greatly impressed everyone with his machine's maneuverability and tight turns. Among the royal personalities to see the Wrights fly in 1909 were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Edward VII of England, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany.
Letter, Charles S. Rolls to Wilbur Wright, February 20, 1910
Less than five months before his death in a French-built Wright machine, Charles Stewart Rolls, the British founder of the Rolls-Royce Motor Company, wrote to Wilbur Wright complaining about the quality of the Wright flyer that he had purchased in Europe. Unlike the sturdy machines built in Dayton, these license-built machines were often "unsafe & unfit to fly," said Rolls, tempting him "to go to another make" to use for the upcoming races in France. He tells Wilbur that he resigned his position at his company and taken one "which does not require any regular attendance at the office," in order "to devote myself to flight." Although Rolls is reconciled to fly "in the first few races with an old fashioned machine" that is expensive to repair, he asks Wilbur to send him drawings for a new racer, asking eagerly, " what about engine for racer? Will it have tail and wheels?" Charles Rolls died July 12, 1910, when the tail of his French-built Wright machine snapped off before a grandstand filled with horrified spectators at Bournemouth, England.
Letter, Amelia Earhart to Orville Wright, August 6, 1932
Although Orville had mostly retired from the aeronautical scene by 1932, he was still a very popular and well-known figure who received considerable correspondence, sometimes from equally famous people. In May 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. This letter was written after Earhart christened the Hudson Motor Company's newly released Essex Terraplane. This small, but very powerful, car with a steel frame, was built to exacting standards, which is probably why Orville purchased such a vehicle for himself.
Letter, Charles A. Lindbergh to Orville Wright, January 4, 1934
In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, he became an American aviation hero and an international celebrity. As such, he met Orville Wright several times and was on friendly terms with him. By 1934 Orville was involved in a prolonged conflict with the Smithsonian Institution over its claim that the machine built in 1903 by Samuel Langley was the first capable of flying. Orville regarded this as an attempt to rewrite history, and, as a result, he had sent the Wrights' historic 1903 flyer to the Science Museum in London, England, in 1928 and refused to bring it back to the United States. In this 1934 letter, Lindbergh offers his help to try and resolve the longstanding dispute between Orville and the Smithsonian. Consequently, he met later that year with Orville and Charles G. Abbot, the Smithsonian's secretary. The meeting was fruitless, but the dispute was eventually resolved in 1942 when the Smithsonian reversed its stance. However, the return of the Wright flyer to American soil had to wait until December 17, 1948, well after World War II and nearly a year after Orville's death.
The Flying Machine in Exile
Letter, Maurice John Bernard Davy to Orville Wright, April 1, 1941
During World War II, while the German air force bombed London, M. J. B. Davy, director of the Science Museum in London, wrote to Orville to assure him that the 1903 machine was safe. The historic plane had been on display in England for thirteen years and Davy felt the need to explain to Orville why the machine had not been evacuated to another location. He describes one close call at the museum which the plane survived and does his best to detail how the British are protecting the flyer.
Letter, Franklin D. Roosevelt to Orville Wright, November 11, 1943
With the Wright-Smithsonian dispute essentially resolved in 1942, Orville took unofficial steps to assure that his machine would be returned to the United States once the war was over. Near the end of 1943, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Orville and suggested that he make this reversal of his position official and publicly known at the 1943 Collier Trophy dinner. Held in Washington, D. C. in December of that year to honor the fortieth anniversary of the first flight, the planned ceremony was altered when the president could not attend and Orville decided not to make an announcement. Orville did, however, alter his will to guarantee that the plane would ultimately reside in the Smithsonian. Neither Roosevelt and nor Orville lived to see the plane return to the United States in 1948.