In 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote to Chanute that he had long “been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” Wilbur and his brother Orville devoted the next three years to scientific and engineering experiments regarding flight. Wilbur achieved a critical insight while he absent-mindedly twisted a bicycle tube box—that to control flight, the wings must torque. After two seasons of experimental glides, they would eventually disprove the effectiveness of Lilienthal's data on wing design, leading them to develop the breakthrough 1902 glider. The brothers later spent months doing calculations on propeller designs. In the end, they even built their own engine for the 1903 flyer. Using merely wood, cloth, and steel, the Wrights transformed an age-old dream into a reality.
Taken when Orville was eight-years old, this photograph shows a neatly dressed, serious boy and only hints at his outgoing and often mischievous nature. Orville was drawn to the technical side of things and proved to have an exceptional aptitude for mechanics. He also took up track racing with some success when the bicycle craze, that swept the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, reached Dayton, Ohio. But by the eleventh grade, Orville, having already spent two summers in a print shop, knew he would work in the printing trade.
Here the twelve-year-old Wilbur already appears as “the silent type,” being described by one of his teachers as “less communicative” than Orville, his younger brother. A fine athlete like Orville, Wilbur was also such a good student and so obviously bright that his parents considered sending him to Yale University. Although mechanically inclined like Orville, Wilbur was always more studious and once wrote his father that “intellectual effort is a pleasure to me.”
Wilbur Wright, ca. 1880. Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio (40.2)
The Wright Family
Milton Wright (1828–1917), father of Wilbur and Orville, was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and was frequently away from home. His wife, Susan Koerner Wright (1831–1889), who died when Orville was a teenager, was always challenging her sons to tinker and build things. Since neither Wilbur nor Orville married, and their only sister Katharine (1874–1929) married late in life, the Wright heirs descend from their two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin.
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Milton Wright, ca. 1883 Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio (40)
Susan Koerner Wright, 1876 Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio ( 40.4)
S.T. Wiggins, Katharine Wright, 1879 Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio (40.5)
Wilbur and Orville Wright
Orville Wright (1871–1948) was always the more dapper dresser, and his socks seem to prove the point. Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) was the quieter, more intellectual of the brothers. When this picture was taken, the Wrights may have been near the height of their celebrity. Having just dazzled the Europeans with their long, high flights, they returned home as true American heroes, especially after Orville broke flying records at Fort Meyer in July, and Wilbur flew over New York in September.
Wilbur and Orville on porch in Dayton, 1909. Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio (40.3)
It is probably no coincidence that the earliest surviving document from Wilbur or Orville in the Library's collection of Wright materials is this postcard from nine-year-old Orville to his father in which a typical Wright trait is demonstrated—natural curiosity about a technical phenomenon followed by an experiment to learn more about it. In this case, young Orville recounts his simple experiment with boiling water and steam.
Wright Family Home
The Wright family lived first in Indiana, where Wilbur was born, but they moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1869. In April 1871, they purchased this new home where Orville was born later that year. In June 1878, the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where they remained for three years, moving to Indiana for another three years until they returned to Dayton for good in 1884. From then on, this modest house in a working-class section of Dayton would be home for Wilbur and Orville, who eventually added shutters and built the wraparound porch.
Wright Printing Business
After working in a print shop, Orville eventually designed and built his own press. In March 1889, Orville began publishing The West Side News, a weekly paper for the residents of West Dayton. By April, Wilbur had become involved in the venture and was soon listed on the masthead as editor, with Orville as printer and publisher. The News lasted until April 1890, to be succeeded by The Evening Item, which was published only until August 1890. The brothers' newspaper collaborations mark the beginning of their lifelong partnership.
Wright Bicycle Shop
The Wrights started a bicycle business in 1892. Their talent for mechanical innovation led them to design and build their own models. The business gave them hands-on experience with precision crafting and lightweight structures and an acute appreciation for the necessity of control to an unstable machine. The brothers were sufficiently successful as small businessmen to fund all of their Kitty Hawk-related travel, supplies, and other expenses. The brothers took great pride in never having to accept money from anyone for their experiments.
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Inspiration and Experiments
In 1901 Wilbur said that his interest in aeronautics dated back to Otto Lilienthal's death in 1896. Lilienthal was the first to demonstrate that air could support a man in flight. Images from this McClure's Magazine article about Lilienthal are among the Wrights' glass-plate negatives. Orville stated that the brothers' interest in flight “began when . . . Father brought home . . . a small toy actuated by a rubber spring which would lift itself into the air.” The toy was based on the design of the French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud.
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Finding Kitty Hawk
Wilbur searched for a windy, but sandy test site for their experiments and decided on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Through correspondence with local inhabitants, he learned that its wide beach was clear of trees and had good winds. During the first season there, they flew their glider mostly as a kite and used a grocer's scale to measure the combined lift-and-drag force. Although the wing-warping system worked well enough, they did not get the lift expected, especially when Wilbur tried his first manned glide.
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Wilbur Wright to Milton Wright, September 9, 1900. Holograph letter Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (57)
The discovery of wing-warping was one of the Wrights' truly original contributions to aeronautics. The principle was discovered by Wilbur one day in 1899 as he idly twisted an empty bicycle inner-tube box. If he twisted one side, the other side would twist in the opposite direction. He and Orville soon realized that by rigging a double-deck kite with wires looped through pulleys to the wingtips, they could warp the wings just as they had seen birds doing as a means of control.
Bird Flight as Inspiration
This is the earliest of the extant Wright notebooks and diaries. In it Wilbur appropriately begins his work at Kitty Hawk with simple observations of birds. Written in a straightforward, descriptive manner and often punctuated with little sketches, it includes a variety of large generalizations, such as Wilbur's “No bird soars in a calm.” In his long and careful observations of bird flight, Wilbur participates in a great tradition dating at least as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, who studied birds to learn their flight secrets.
Difficulties with Control
The Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk for the 1901 season with a much larger glider. Although the brothers did not keep detailed records of their 1901 glides, it is believed that they numbered fifty to one hundred. The experimental glides seemed to go well enough, but both brothers realized that their machine was still difficult to control. Even more troubling was that it was delivering much less lift than had been predicted by their calculations. The brothers ended their 1901 season feeling that perhaps they had reached a final dead end.
Glider being flown as a kite by Wilbur Wright (left) and Orville Wright (right), 1901. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (62)
Domesticity on the Dunes
After living in a tent for their first Kitty Hawk season, in 1901 the Wrights built a sixteen by twenty-five-foot wooden shed for themselves and their new glider. They located it four miles south of Kitty Hawk near the largest sand dune—Big Kill Devil Hill. When they returned in 1902, they found the shed had been battered by severe weather. Their repairs included adding a kitchen and living quarters. This view of the kitchen shows their typically ordered way of doing things—with a place for everything and everything in its place.
Their disappointing 1901 gliding season at Kitty Hawk pointed the brothers in a new direction. Although the Wrights had used the legendary Otto Lilienthal's tables of lift and drag to build their 1901 glider, they concluded that the data were inaccurate. Using materials at hand, they built a wind tunnel to test model wing shapes. Confident of their new data, Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, enclosing sketches on wallpaper scraps. In the letter he stated, “I am now absolutely certain that Lilienthal's table is very seriously in error.”
The 1902 glider was the result of two seasons at Kitty Hawk and several weeks of experimentation with their wind tunnel. The sophistication and complexity of this page of figures is clear proof that the Wrights were not just lucky, trial-and-error mechanics. Everything came together in the 1902 glider—a moveable rear rudder connected to the wing-warping system and controlled by a hip cradle. The brothers ended 1902 knowing that the problem of control had been solved and that the next flyer would be powered.
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Wrights in Flight
The 1903 machine contained not only a 200-pound aluminum, 4-cylinder, water-cooled gasoline engine that the Wrights had designed and built, but also two propellers, all mounted on a controllable airframe. The Wrights designed the propellers from scratch, having deduced that each could be seen as a rotating wing the lift of which is translated into thrust to move the craft forward. On December 14, a confident Wilbur wrote to his father and sister, “There is now no question of final success.”
First Flight Photograph
Because both brothers would be busy trying to get their machine off the ground, Orville set the camera on a tripod, focused on the spot where the machine would take off and showed John Daniels how to snap the shutter. Because of a coin toss, Orville is the one at the controls. Wilbur is to the side having steadied the machine as it went down the runway track and just released the upright strut. This first flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Each of the next three flights was longer than the last.
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John T. Daniels. First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m., Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (74)
Orville piloting the third flight of December 17, 1903, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (76)
The fourth and longest flight—a spectacular 852 feet—was far less undulating than the others, as Wilbur became more familiar with the machine's controls. After this last flight, a sudden, gust of wind flipped the machine. Both Wilbur and Orville knew enough to let go when they could not hold it down, but John Daniels held on firmly and ended up dangerously tangled in the wires and rigging. When it finally came to rest, the machine was a broken heap of spars, ribs, and uprights. The 1903 machine would never fly again.
All of the photographs in this album were taken by the Wrights themselves. This opening contains images from Kitty Hawk during October 1902. Besides the excellent photos of their 1902 glider in flight, the brothers included a close-up of the new larder or storeroom they had just built and an image of the proud men of the Kills Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, who had befriended them. This album was produced after 1913, when many of the glass-plate negatives were damaged in a flood while stored in the Wrights' house.
On December 20, 1903, this image appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. The drawing and the caption are a mixture of fact and fancy. Described as an “airship,” the machine's structure looks like a box kite kept aloft by two boat propellers. The caption erroneously states that the Wrights flew three miles, and the drawing shows an upright pilot flying at a high altitude. Although the telegram that Orville sent his father from Kitty Hawk said, “inform Press,” the Wrights had an ongoing love-hate relationship with the press.
Reporting to Chanute
Eleven days after their success at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur wrote an account of the first flights to his friend and mentor, Octave Chanute. Chanute had visited Kitty Hawk in early November but missed witnessing the first flight when broken propeller shafts forced a month's delay. Wilbur assesses the events saying, “"Those who understand the real significance of the conditions under which we worked will be surprised rather at the length than the shortness of the flights made with an unfamiliar machine after less than one minute's practice.”
A Remarkable Letter
On May 13, 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote one of the most remarkable letters in the history of science and invention. Writing to Octave Chanute, a wealthy businessman and successful engineer, Wilbur plunged directly to the point on what he saw as the core of the flight problem—“skill rather than machinery.” Combining a direct, practical approach with an almost philosophical style, Wilbur spells out to Chanute a systematic plan for solving the problem of manned flight. Chanute, wisely recognizing that Wilbur was both genuine and serious, replied four days later stating he was, “quite in sympathy with your proposal to experiment.”
In his pocket diary, Orville provides a characteristically matter-of-fact account packed with details of the first four flights. His retelling of the day's events contains not a hint of emotion. The only suggestion of drama is when Orville describes how the wind-tossed machine nearly killed John Daniels, who became tangled in its engine and chains.
Shortly after the first flights, Orville sent this historic telegram from Kitty Hawk to his father and sister who became the first non-Kitty Hawk residents to learn about their success.
One of the most widely recognized photographs of all time, this is an original print of the Wright's first flight of December 17, 1903. Because both brothers were involved in getting the machine off the ground, Orville put the camera on a tripod and instructed John T. Daniels of the local lifesaving station on how and when to snap the shutter. This print, made by the Wrights upon their return to Dayton, was given to the Library of Congress by Orville's lifelong, loyal secretary, Miss Mabel Beck. The wing fabric from the 1903 flyer was presented by Ivonette Wright Miller, Orville and Wilbur's niece. While earlier gliders were covered in French sateen fabric, the Wrights used “Pride of the West” muslin.
“Carried on all Flights . . .”
Orville's tiny note, taped to the front of this journal, tells why he considered this item special and distinct from all the other Wright journals, notebooks, and diaries that he and Wilbur carried in their pockets over the years. His note reads, “Carried on all flights recorded in it. OW.” In addition to all the abbreviated, important flight data it contains, the journal is a singular treasure and a unique historical artifact because it went up with Orville on each and every one of the Huffman Prairie flights, from 1904 to 1905, noted in it.
Showing the World
Practical Flyer in 1905
Intent on building a practical machine, the Wrights spent 1904 and 1905 flying and experimenting at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio. By 1905, they had improved their engine, propellers, and control system—with separate pitch, roll, and yaw controls—making it the first fully controllable aircraft. In its best performance, the 1905 model gave compelling evidence it was capable of banking, turning, and making figure eights. It could be called the world's first practical airplane.
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Wilbur and Orville relaxing at Huffman Prairie, 1904. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (82)
Wilbur's diary showing first circular flight, 1904. Holograph manuscript. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (83)
Following the advice of their experienced patent attorney, Henry A. Toulmin of Springfield, Ohio, the Wrights decided to patent not the mechanisms that allowed them to control a wing, but, more importantly, to patent the idea of warping itself. Obtaining a broad patent would allow them to defeat all challenges in court. Toulmin also advised that they not allow details of their machine to become public until a patent was secured.
Selling the Wright Flyer
In search of customers for their flyer, the Wrights approached the U.S. War Department in 1905, only to receive stock responses spurning their offers. They then contacted foreign governments, writing to European nations and also the Japanese Department of War. This response states that the Japanese “are not in need of such a machine at present.” By 1908, the U.S. government had realized the machine's value. In February 1908, the U.S. Signal Corps agreed to purchase the Wright Flyer for $25,000 if it met certain specifications.
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J.C. Bates, U.S. War Department, to Wilbur and Orville Wright, October 16, 1905 Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (88).
K. Tachibana, War Department of Japan, to Wright Cycle Company, July 18, 1906 Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)
U.S. Signal Corps.War Department Purchase Order, February 10, 1908. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (93)
“Glint of Genius”
Orville stayed in the U.S. to perform trials to satisfy the Signal Corps requirements. The Wrights hired a business agent to help Wilbur sell their machine during a tour of Europe. Recounting his first encounter with Wilbur at a London railroad station, Hart O. Berg, their business agent wrote, “Wright has that peculiar glint of genius in his eye which left no doubt in my mind as to who he was.”
Tickets to See Wilbur Fly
When Wilbur arrived in France at the end of May 1908, he and Orville were considered simply talented acrobats who performed daring feats because few had ever seen them fly. Wilbur completed some sixty-four flights in France, often with a passenger, and astounded and delighted all who witnessed his mastery of the air. At times, Hart O. Berg, the Wright's business agent, issued tickets to control the crowds. The French “carte postale,” which became popular around the turn of the century, increased Wilbur's celebrity status.
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908-1909.
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.1)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.2)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.3)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.4)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.5)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.6)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.7)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.8)
[Wilbur Wright in Europe.] Postcards, ca. 1908–1909. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94.9)
Modes of Transportation
In this photograph, Wilbur flies with Capt. Paul N. Lucas-Girardville over an ox-drawn hay cart at Pau, France, in 1909. With incongruous sights such as this, it is no wonder that Wilbur became an overnight celebrity in France and eventually in all of Europe. Wilbur flew before the kings of England, Spain, and Italy, and the German emperor and crown prince, as well as many of Europe's titled, rich, and famous.
Wilbur Wright flying Wright Model A over an ox-drawn cart in Pau, France, 1909. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (95)
Fashion in Flight
Katharine, Wilbur and Orville's sister, made her first flight as a passenger on February 15, 1909, at Pau, France. Here she sits, her face veiled, next to Wilbur at the controls, with Orville standing on the left. After the siblings met each other in France, all three went to Rome and London. As the first great celebrities of the new century, the Wrights were photographed everywhere they went. When Katharine tied her skirt with string to prevent an immodest display while she flew, it gave rise to a new fashion called the “hobble skirt.”
First flight for Katharine Wright, seated in plane with Wilbur; Orville standing to left, in Pau France, 1909. Photograph. Mabel Beck Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (96)
Casualty at Fort Meyer
A propeller failure caused the flyer to crash at Fort Meyer, severely injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Lt. Selfridge, the first person to die in a powered aircraft. Orville recovered and successfully completed the flight requirements in 1909. After Orville's accident, Wilbur sent him this “carte postale” in which Wilbur is caricatured flying a kite. Although his message sounds lighthearted, he was devastated by the accident and cancelled his flights for a week until he knew Orville was out of danger.
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Orville's crash which killed Selfridge, September 1908. Copyprint. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University (99)
Orville Wright flying a successful flight at Fort Meyer, 1909. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (101.1)
Wilbur Wright to Orville Wright, September 28, 1908. Postcard. Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (101)
Flying Over New York
Following his celebrity tour of Europe, Wilbur was invited to fly at New York's Hudson-Fulton Celebration honoring the centennial of Robert Fulton's steamboat and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson's entry into New York Harbor. In the Wrights' first flight over American waters, Wilbur took off from Governor's Island with a canoe strapped underneath his machine and flew around the Statue of Liberty as hundreds of ships tooted in the harbor.
“A New Kind of Gull in New York Harbor” in Harper's Weekly, October 9, 1909. Copyprint. Courtesy of Harpweek LLC (104)
Dayton's Native Sons
The Dayton Daily News headline read, “Dayton's Sons Have Shown The Way; All Nations Bow In Acknowledgment” as the city gave tribute to the Wrights. During two days of festivities, the Wrights received medals from the city, the state, and the U.S. Congress. While their work was in no way finished by 1909—they would do more flying and design more planes, go into business, engage in legal challenges, and endure their share of sadness and tragedy—the Wrights finally had achieved mankind's long-held aspiration.