Family of Invention: Searching for the Airplane in the Wright Brothers’ Attic

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2003, p. 17
By Stuart Nixon

No one needs to tell airline pilots that every time they enter the cockpit to begin a day’s work, they are riding on the shoulders of giants.

More specifically, on the shoulders of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

So, this year we pause to pay tribute to the Wright Brothers on the 100th anniversary of their historic ascent into the history books—a 12-second, 120-foot flight on Dec. 17, 1903, at the wind-blown stretch of sand known as Kill Devil Hills, near the village of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Killing the devil might be an apt metaphor for what the Wright Brothers accomplished that day, because within 5 years, Orville Wright was demonstrating the brothers’ invention to the U.S. Army in hopes of securing a government contract. And the Wrights were not alone in recognizing the military potential of the airplane.

But if the Great War that soon exploited that potential would produce the first corps of “flying aces,” it also produced the equally colorful company of barnstormers, stunt pilots, air mail pilots, and other pioneering spirits who subsequently helped launch an air transport industry and numerous other enterprises built around aviation. And that was just the beginning. Today, even with 100 years of hindsight, fully appreciating the magnitude of the Wrights’ legacy is almost impossible. As biographer Tom Crouch reports in his new book Wings, a newspaper in 1999 asked two groups of people—readers and journalists—to name the most important events of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, the two groups came up with the same top four choices: the invention of the airplane, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first use of atomic bombs, and the first manned landing on the moon. Discovering the common denominator among these events is not difficult. Without the first, Crouch notes, the last three would never have occurred.

So who, exactly, were the Wright Brothers? And can we really explain how they were able to do what they did?

The occasion of powered flight’s centennial has suffered no lack of books, articles, exhibits, websites, and other sources detailing the step-by-step process of inquiry and experimentation that the Wrights followed so assiduously in their quest to solve one of humankind’s greatest mysteries. But are the “nuts and bolts” of their odyssey, however impressive, adequate to account for the results?

Are there, perhaps, other factors that tell us why the Wright Brothers, and not somebody else, surmounted the barrier that had blocked so many people over the ages?

Let’s take a closer look at what happened.

Historians generally recognize that any attempt to understand the past must pay close attention to context. All of us are creatures of time and place. The Wright Brothers were certainly no exception. The two men were born in the years immediately following the U.S. Civil War: Wilbur in 1867 and Orville in 1871. This was the juncture in U.S. history at which the nation’s industrialized states—predominantly those in the Northeast and Midwest—turned from the exigencies of war to pursue new opportunities that ongoing advances in technology made possible both at home and in Europe.

This was the era of such inventions as the typewriter (1867), barbed wire (1873), telephone (1876), phonograph (1877), light bulb (1879), fountain pen (1884), skyscraper (1885), zipper (1892), and Brownie camera (1900). Even Coca-Cola (1886) and Campbell’s Soup (1897) were introduced during this period.

Transportation innovations

In the field of transportation, developments were no less spectacular. In 1876, when Wilbur and Orville were still children, two events occurred that would contribute fundamentally to their eventual claim on immortality.

In England, a man named Harry Lawson patented a design for a “safety” bicycle—a machine that departed from existing bikes by using two wheels of approximately the same size, with pedals driving the rear, rather than the front, wheel. For the first time, ordinary people could ride bicycles without fear of hitting a bump and pitching forward over an outsized front wheel. The result was a consumer “craze” for bicycles in the 1880s and 1890s. Wilbur and Orville Wright both bought bicycles in 1892, the year before they opened their bicycle sales and repair shop in Dayton, Ohio.

The other key development of 1876 took place in Germany, where Nicolaus Otto devised the first practical, four-cycle, internal-combustion engine. Otto’s design opened the way for all manner of newfangled vehicles, from motorcycles to automobiles to flying machines. When would-be birdmen like the Wrights got around to addressing the question of how to power their inventions, four-stroke technology was the logical choice. After failing to find a manufacturer to produce an engine to their specifications, the Wright Brothers turned to Charles Taylor, their assistant in the bicycle shop, to build an engine of the brothers’ own design.

Given the heady intellectual environment of the Industrial Revolution, it is tempting to credit the airplane’s invention to the special circumstances in which the Wright Brothers found themselves in the 1890s, as two young men with strong mechanical skills, their own workshop, and the services of a good machinist (Taylor). They were, to put it simply, in the right place at the right time.

But then again, so were other people. In Germany, for example, another pair of brothers, Otto and Gustav Lilienthal, had begun as teenagers studying birds and experimenting with kites and gliders before the Wright Brothers were even born. By the mid-1890s, Otto had logged close to 2,000 glides in various homebuilt devices. In fact, Otto’s tragic death in a glider accident in 1896 first piqued Wilbur Wright’s interest in flying. Orville was sick in bed with typhoid fever at the time, so Wilbur told him the news at a later date.

The pioneering efforts of the Lilienthal brothers captured many technically inclined imaginations besides those of the Wrights. Most notable among the U.S. aviation experimenters were, in Chicago, Octave Chanute, a civil engineer with multiple large-scale projects to his name and, in Washington, D.C., Samuel Langley, a well-known scientist fortunate enough to be in a position to become secretary of the Smithsonian Institution when the incumbent secretary, Spencer Baird, died in 1887. By coincidence, Chanute and Langley both made headlines in the memorable year of 1896, when each conducted trials of unmanned flying machines.

Wright research begins

Three years later, when the Wrights decided to act on their curiosity about human flight, Wilbur contacted the Smithsonian Institution for advice on technical literature to consult. His letter stopped at the desk of Richard Rathbun, Samuel Langley’s assistant, who—we may be forever grateful—did not discard it (it was one of many such missives to the Institution) but gave it to a clerk for reply. Among the clerk’s recommendations for further reading: Progress in Flying Machines, a paper by Octave Chanute.

Wilbur’s letter to the Smithsonian Institution  stands today as a seminal document, endlessly examined for insights into how the Wrights got involved with aviation. The letter’s most revealing detail, however, may be something not buried in the text but plainly written at the top of the first page—its date: May 30, 1899. That is only 4½ years before Dec. 17, 1903. If we stop to think about it, it strains belief. In less than 5 years, two bicycle mechanics—neither of whom finished high school—were able to succeed where every human being who had ever watched a bird and marveled at its capabilities had been stymied. Even allowing for the “shoulders” on which the Wrights stood—those of precursors like the Lilienthals, Chanute, and a handful of others—we are left to ask whether we are talking here not so much about uncanny chemistry as about incredible luck!

The tortoises and the hares

On the face of it, the story is straight out of Aesop. Not only did people like Chanute and Langley have both the credentials and the resources to win the race, they also had that most enviable of advantages: a head start. In the mid-1890s, Langley in particular was miles ahead of everybody else; in 1896, he successfully demonstrated a powered device (a model aircraft fitted with a small steam engine). By contrast, Otto and Gustav Lilienthal were still testing the glider systems that would kill Otto only a few months after Langley’s triumph. By most estimates (including his own), Langley was the most likely researcher to first fly a full-scale machine.

The Wright Brothers at this time were not even in the race. They were home in Dayton tending their bicycle business, which was only 3 years old in 1896. They knew nothing about aviation (other than what they read in the newspapers or may have remembered from constructing toy “helicopters” as children) and would not show any serious interest in the subject until Wilbur wrote his famous letter. Yet in the end, fable became reality; the tortoise won.

Faced with the enigma of how the two brothers did it, most commentators have looked to the brothers’ technical genius. Wilbur and Orville inherited their mechanical aptitude from the maternal side of their family. Susan Koerner Wright was raised on an Indiana farm, where she spent many hours watching her German father toil in his carriage shop. Close to John Koerner, she became familiar with tools and acquired his clever hands. For her own household, she made toys, appliances, and other handy items. She also fostered a love of learning in her children—a consequence of her own upbringing and the classes she took at Indiana’s Hartsville College, where she excelled at science and math. As Tom Crouch observes, “Wilbur and Orville had their mother to thank for their lifelong penchant for tinkering, and, ultimately, for their extraordinary ability to visualize the operation of mechanisms that had yet to be constructed.”

Hartsville College was a small school affiliated with the Church of United Brethren in Christ, also known as the United Brethren Church (UBC). Susan’s parents had converted to the UBC shortly after moving from Virginia to Indiana in 1832, when Susan was still a baby. Susan made a commitment to her faith as a teenager, joining the church in 1845.

While enrolled at Hartsville, Susan met one of the school’s employees, Milton Wright, who was also taking courses there. Milton had undergone a religious experience similar to Susan’s and had associated with the UBC in 1847. Although the UBC had originated in the early 1800s as one of various German pietist groups, it had adopted English as its preferred language for preaching and publishing by the time people of British stock like Milton Wright were attracted to the evangelical movement of the antebellum period.

The Wrights’ father

Milton Wright figures in the life of the Wright Brothers with the same strong presence as that of Susan Wright, but not for the same reasons. Milton was the family’s towering moral authority—an affectionate but rigid Victorian father. He was one of seven children: five boys and two girls. All of the children who survived to adulthood were spurred to religious devotion by their own parents—particularly by their mother, Catherine Reeder Wright, who grew up Presbyterian but mostly attended the Methodist Episcopal church near her home. In fulfillment of her prayers, four of her sons aspired to be ministers. The oldest child, Samuel Wright, never made it, struck down by typhoid fever while working to raise money for his education. The next oldest, Harvey Wright, became a Primitive Baptist preacher. Milton, after dropping out of Hartsville College for reasons of health, continued to participate in church affairs and was ordained a UBC minister in 1856. Milton’s younger brother, William Wright, followed Milton’s example, also becoming a UBC pastor.

More than one writer has commented on the central role of morality in the household of Milton and Susan Wright, and has raised the question of whether the Wright Brothers’ character played a part in the invention of the airplane. Some evidence on this question may be found in the theological stance of the UBC. Milton was attracted to the UBC not so much because of his mother but because of his father. Dan Wright, Jr., could quote the Bible backward and forward but could never find a local congregation exactly to his liking. Dan was a frontier farmer, independent and egalitarian. His feelings about “all God’s children” made him fiercely antislavery and deeply suspicious of any organization that tended to set people apart from each other. In this last respect, he especially did not like “secret societies” that imposed exclusive rules, rituals, and regalia on its members. Chief among these, in his view, was Freemasonry.

Dan put his money where his mouth was. Totally against drinking, he refused to sell corn to distillers in his area, even if distillers were willing to pay a higher price than other customers. And Milton Wright, growing up under such unbending adherence to principle, learned his lessons well. After agonizing for years over whether to remain like his father outside organized religion, he decided to join the UBC because its doctrines seemed to come down on the side of the least compromise with principle. No surprise, then, that Milton and Susan raised their children with the ghost of Dan Wright, Jr. (who died 2 years after they were married) looking over their shoulders.

Life as PKs

For any PK (preacher’s kid), life can be difficult. For Wilbur and Orville—and for their siblings—the difficulty lay largely in trading off their strong sense of duty to family values with their own identities as adults. They had a hard time escaping the shadow of Milton Wright, who rose to the senior position of bishop in the UBC in 1877, when Wilbur and Orville were still youngsters. Tom Crouch’s title for his biography of the Wrights nicely sums up the children’s dilemma: The Bishop’s Boys. The same theme is expressed by Adrian Kinnane, who writes in The Psychohistory Review, that “tensions in the Wright Brothers’ home over loyalty, obedience, love, and independence—particularly as influenced by the brothers’ father, Bishop Wright…created a context for their inventive work and its [subsequent] marketing which favored the former but retarded the latter.”

Just how this drama played out—and how it intersected with the airplane—can be seen in the way that Wilbur Wright became drawn into his father’s political battles within the UBC. The Wright family first moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1869, when Milton became editor of the UBC’s weekly newspaper, based in Dayton. Milton used that particular pulpit to articulate his conservative opinions on issues facing the church, especially the issue of “secret societies” in the United States. Hewing to his father’s view, Milton championed the position of church “radicals” that groups like the Freemasons were a threat to Christianity because they demanded a religious-like allegiance to their own beliefs and practices. Milton’s faction wanted to bar members of such groups from membership in the UBC.

Other professional duties forced Milton and family to hit the road again in 1878, but he returned to Dayton permanently 6 years later, when the fight over “secret societies” escalated. Unfortunately for Wilbur, the return to Ohio was abrupt, preventing him from completing high school. Undiscouraged, he signed up for classes in Dayton, figuring he could get into college without a diploma. The plan might have worked, until the unexpected happened: Wilbur was hit in the head during what Milton described as “a game on skates at an artificial lake…near Dayton.” The injury did not seem severe, but a “few weeks later, he began to be affected with palpitations of the heart which precluded the realization of…giving him a course at Yale College.”

For historians, this incident looms as a critical point in Wilbur’s life because his accident, at age 19, effectively ruined any career prospects he might have had and kept him at home to regain his health. Without stretching the truth too much, it was the moment when the airplane was born, because it was the moment when duty entered the equation. Duty, for Wilbur, meant helping his father with one crisis after the next, but it also meant realigning his relationships with other members of the family, including Orville. Wilbur and Orville had always been close, but that bond would now assume new importance for their future.

To understand this part of the story, we need to look at the rest of the Wright Brothers’ family. Milton and Susan’s household had not two brothers, but five. The two oldest boys, Reuchlin (pronounced “Roosh-lin”) and Lorin, had been born in Indiana, only a year and a half apart. Then came a gap of 5 years before the arrival of the next child, Wilbur, also born in Indiana. When the Wrights relocated to Dayton in 1869, Susan Wright was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, who died in infancy. That same year, Susan became pregnant again, this time with Orville. Four years later, the Wrights had their last child: another daughter, Katharine. Quite by chance, Milton had duplicated the pattern of his father by having seven children: five boys and two girls.

The family’s dynamics

When the family returned to Dayton in 1884, Milton faced a grim situation. On the job, he had given up his high-profile editorship and was traveling a great deal to wage his crusade against liberals within the UBC. At home, Susan had contracted tuberculosis and was becoming sicker. And Reuchlin and Lorin, who had spent 2 academic years at Hartsville College, were now back in Dayton (in a boardinghouse) with only vague notions of what to do with their lives. Reuchlin, at one time, had apparently entertained thoughts of going into the ministry, but Milton was a hard act to follow, so Reuchlin chose the more common route of rebelling against parental authority, becoming a store clerk. Lorin did a tad better, taking up bookkeeping, but neither son offered much cause for parental pride.

The stage was thus set for some kind of shift in the family’s traditional dynamics, and it came—quite literally—with the force of a hockey stick.

Taking care of the family

Had Wilbur gone off to Yale in 1885 or 1886, Milton would have been trapped in an impossible situation, torn between obligations to the church and obligations to the family.  Wilbur’s accident left him confronting duty in the teeth: the family’s need for someone to take care of Susan, Orville, and Katharine while Milton was away. And Wilbur, a bishop’s boy, rose to the occasion. Troubled by depression and his physical ailments, he nonetheless accepted with true grit his responsibilities as the eldest sibling still at home.

By some process about which we can only speculate, the ensuing years at 7 Hawthorn Street in West Dayton produced the partnership that would usher in the modern Air Age in 1903.

In 1886, Reuchlin married the daughter of UBC missionaries and soon found himself with even more money problems than he already had. In the same year, Lorin left Ohio for Missouri in hopes of improving his own economic status. That left the three younger Wrights tending the home fires, with no additional help, and they closed ranks with a fidelity to the family unit worthy of their heritage. Wilbur not only served (to use Lorin’s words) as “cook and chambermaid,” he took up his father’s cause in the church with a vengeance, helping with correspondence and other duties. He also spent time in Milton’s library in an effort to further his own education. Most significantly, he and Orville started down the road (without realizing it) toward Kitty Hawk.

Before the accident, Wilbur had often hung out with Reuchlin, Lorin, and other older boys while Orville spent time with an old playmate, Ed Sines. Afterward, Wilbur and Orville were linked in new ways, including involvement in a printing business that Orville dropped out of high school to start with Sines. At first, Wilbur acted as a kind of technical adviser to the undertaking, helping the younger boys find or make the equipment they needed. Later, Wilbur and Orville bought out Sines and became the shop’s sole proprietors—the first time the phrase “Wright Brothers” appeared in print.

More family troubles

In 1889, the world came crashing in on the Wright family, throwing the three children at home even more together. In May, the UBC ‘s General Conference voted in favor of a new constitution embodying a liberal agenda. Milton Wright walked out of the meeting, along with 14 other “radicals,” determined to preserve whatever he could of the old church.

When he returned to Dayton, exhausted, he found his wife, Susan, near death. She managed to hang on until the 4th of July, when she expired at age 58. “Thus went out the light of my home,” Milton wrote in his diary.

Susan’s death offers us a melancholy glimpse of the secret behind the airplane: the extraordinary ability of the Wright Brothers to use their high sense of duty, devotion, and discipline to transform life’s worst interruptions into new beginnings. While the tragic circumstances per se did not beget the airplane (except, perhaps, for the death of Otto Lilienthal), at a more obscure level that is essentially what happened. The sequence began with Wilbur’s accident, continued with Susan’s death,  and repeated itself at Orville’s bedside, when Wilbur and Katharine nursed him back to health. And it would repeat again.

Faith and family

With Susan gone, Milton had only two anchors left in life: his faith and his family. Continuing to travel in hopes of rebuilding a remnant of the UBC into what he regarded as the “true church,” Milton needed his boys more than ever to maintain the Dayton domicile and carry the banner for truth. He also needed Katharine, who turned 15 about a month after Susan was buried, to step into her mother’s shoes as manager of the household. And so the children did as the Bishop wished. Tom Crouch explains it this way: “Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine were deeply involved in and affected by their father’s problems. They never doubted the righteousness of his cause or the way in which he attempted to resolve the difficulties he faced. Like Milton, they came to believe in the essential depravity of mankind. The world beyond the front door of their home was filled with men and women who were not to be trusted.”

Given this frame of reference, we need not linger too long on the question of why the Wright Brothers never married and why Katharine, who delayed matrimony until almost the end of her life, might well have shared the same fate. We also need not wonder whether the three siblings’ unmarried state created an environment in which inventiveness could flourish. It did. As Tom Crouch and Peter Jakab comment in The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age, “Confident in the love, support, and unquestioning loyalty of their sister, [the Wright Brothers] could focus their energies on their experiments. Without those advantages, it is by no means probable that they could have succeeded.”

One positive consequence of Susan’s death was that it prompted Lorin Wright to abandon his self-imposed exile in the West and return to Dayton to help his siblings. For a time, he worked with Wilbur and Orville in their printing venture, which included among its customers Milton Wright, for whom they printed religious literature. In 1892, right about the time that Wilbur and Orville were getting interested in bicycles, Lorin married his childhood sweetheart and took a job elsewhere, although he remained in Dayton the rest of his life and continued to play a role in the family.

Beyond printing and bicycles

Wilbur and Orville originally opened the bicycle shop as a way to augment their income from printing, but the bike business soon required full-time attention, even though it was largely seasonal in nature. Wilbur, however, gradually came to realize that shopkeeping was not the place he wanted to be. For much of his life, he had sacrificed his own interests and goals for the sake of other people, even as far back as high school in Indiana, when his father had suddenly pulled up stakes to go back to Dayton, denying Wilbur a chance to graduate. Now, perhaps, in his early 30s, he could move in a different direction.

As an object of intellectual curiosity, the airplane began with Wilbur. Tom Crouch notes that Wilbur’s letter of 1899 was written in the first person singular, with no mention of Orville. But as we remember and celebrate in this centennial year, Wilbur Wright was no loner. On the contrary, the airplane was the product of an amazing synergy, whose roots ran deeply in genealogical soil—deeper, perhaps, than even the Wright Brothers knew. A few more clues hang on the family tree:

As already indicated, Milton Wright had six siblings: four brothers and two sisters. His oldest brother, Samuel, died young, and two other siblings (George and Katherine) died in infancy. Like so many other people in the 19th century, Milton was no stranger to premature death in a family.

Among Milton and Susan’s offspring, there was a 5-year gap in the order of birth between the two oldest, Reuchlin and Lorin, and the next in line, Wilbur. As we have seen, that gap proved crucial, because Reuchlin and Lorin—less than 2 years apart in age—grew up together and left home when Wilbur was still in his teens.

Wilbur shifted his orientation 180 degrees from his older siblings to his younger. And that shift gave expression to a process that may have been under way at some unconscious level for a long time—a process examined in detail by family therapist Monica McGoldrick in her book, You Can Go Home Again.

McGoldrick writes that the “brothers’ collaboration on the development of the airplane was one of the most productive partnerships in history, a relationship more binding than most marriages, even to the point where each [man] could use their joint bank account without consulting the other. The brothers often began whistling the same tune while at work in their bicycle shop, as if there were a psychic bond between them. And their voices were so alike a listener could not tell them apart except by seeing them. They attributed this phenomenon to an association of ideas stored in a common memory.”

Such a memory, says McGoldrick, was no accident. Orville’s birth in 1871 came as a small miracle for the Wright family, following as it did by less than 2 years the death of Milton and Susan’s ill-fated twins. The double loss left a huge hole in the household. As Tom Crouch explains: “The fact that both Milton and Susan had seen brothers and sisters, as well as the children of friends and neighbors, die in infancy made their own loss no less traumatic. Milton would continue to honor the twins’ birthday for more than a quarter of a century.”

Surrogate twins

Orville, after a fashion, helped make up for the missing siblings, but one person cannot replace two. Thus, argues McGoldrick, Wilbur and Orville unknowingly gravitated toward one another, becoming what their father once described as “inseparable as twins.”

Virtually everybody who has ever written about the Wright Brothers has commented on the closeness of their relationship. Wilbur himself cited it when looking back on his life: “From the time we were little children, my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together, and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussions between us.”

As further evidence that Wilbur and Orville functioned as surrogate twins, McGoldrick recalls what happened when Wilbur died in 1912 at the early age of 45. Wilbur’s death left Orville and Katharine living at home, still a comfort to the Bishop. Orville and Katharine were born on the same day—August 19—3 years apart. They thus shared a unique link from the moment of birth.

According to McGoldrick: “One might almost hypothesize that this family ‘needed’ twins. When the first set was lost, it was replaced by Wilbur and Orville. When Orville no longer had Wilbur, they were replaced by Orville and Katharine. When Katharine finally decided to marry, at the age of 52, having hesitated for more than a year to tell Orville of her engagement, he refused to speak to her ever again [until she was dying].

“As one of the Wright biographers puts it, ‘Katharine violated a sacred pact. In admitting another man into her life, she had rejected her brother. Katharine, of all people, had shaken his faith in the inviolability of the family ties.…’”

Loss and renewal

So it is that we come full circle. The pattern of loss and renewal in the Wright family yielded two brothers who were so interlocked psychologically that the sum was greater than the parts.

“Only together,” says McGoldrick, “did they experience genius.”

Thus did ashes give life to the phoenix, only in this case, the phoenix was an eagle—civilization’s first successful airplane. The Bishop’s boys did well, indeed!

Stuart Nixon, formerly senior editor of Air Line Pilot, is a contributing editor for the National Aeronautic Association and owns Hearthside Press, specializing in genealogy and American history.