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The Wright Brothers: Air Pioneers


More of this Feature

• Part 2: Persistence to Success
• Part 3: A Legacy in the Air

On This Site

The Wright Brothers: Bicycle Geniuses
Book Review: Airborne
Book Review: My Brothers' Flying Machine

Part 1: A Childhood of Curiosity

Orville and Wilbur Wright were born four years apart, in different cities. They shared a curiosity about the world and a love of tinkering that would make history.

Wilbur was born in 1867 on a small farm near Millville, Indiana. Orville was born in 1871 in a house in Dayton, Ohio. Their father was a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. (The Wrights had five children in all: Reuchlin, Lorin, and Katharine were the names of the other children.)

Life in the Wright house was strict but loving. Both parents encouraged their children to enjoy school and learn as much as they could. A large library of books about all kinds of subjects helped the Wright children quench their thirst for knowledge from a very early age.

Orville and Wilbur's fascination with flight began with a present their father gave them—a flying toy. It had a paper body and other parts made of cork and bamboo. rubber bands provided the power. The young boys (7 and 11) were thrilled to make the little toy fly across the room, so much so that they broke it. They remembered how it looked, though, and promised each other that someday they would fly in the air, just like the little toy.

The boys continued to be interested in mechanical things and flight. Orville sold kites at school to make money. Wilbur started reading all he could about how birds flew and machines worked.

Though the boys were good students, neither graduated from high school. (Not many did in those days, actually.) Wilbur was hit in the face with a baseball bat when he was a teenager and suffered from irregular heartbeats the rest of his life. He stayed at home for awhile, during which time their mother developed tuberculosis (which, at that time, was a devastating disease with no known cure). Wilbur recovered himself and then stayed at home to care for his mother. Orville left high school on his own, to start a printing business. He and Wilbur designed a printing press that worked very well. The two later sold the printing business and opened a bicycle shop. They were both very good mechanics and could fix just about anything anyone asked them to fix. (They inherited this skill and desire from their mother, who was the family mechanic.)

It was in the bicycle shop that the idea of the airplane was born.

The Wrights had made kites, very large ones, in fact. By 1900, they were making ones so large that people could fly in them, sort of. These were called gliders, and Orville and Wilbur actually built one or two that were large enough for a person to ride in. They flew on nothing but air current, and the person could get a ride of about 10 seconds before the glider came down to the ground.

Next page > Persistence to Success > Page 1, 2, 3

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