Who Were The Wright Brothers? | At the Smithsonian

Wilbur and Orville Wright didn’t care much for attention. After demonstrating the aircraft, they became international stars. Their feats were repeatedly covered by the media, with thousands following their progress. Crowds watched them fly, while others followed.

Worldwide, the public was obsessed with information on self-made engineers. Was that what they were like? How did they get there? Where would they be next?

They never wanted fame. Some of the information spread about them was incorrect, and they disliked the media’s sometimes-not-so-flattering Caricatures of them. Still, they wanted to preserve their legacy—a prudent pursuit, as more than a century later, the pair’s story continues to captivate the public.

With 32-year-old Orville Wright at the controls and lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle, which operated the wing-warping mechanism, history was made December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk. On the ground is Wilbur Wright, who ran alongside holding the wing to help balance the aircraft before takeoff. 

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John T. Daniels LOC via Wikimedia

Now, their lives and achievements are back on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space MuseumThe building is undergoing a major renovation and reopened on October 14. You can find the Ausstellung “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age,”The famed Wright Flyer original is prominently displayed.

The 1903 airplane has charisma, says the museum’s Peter JakabSenior curator and expert on Wrights, Jakab says that visitors tend to be silent when they see the machine made of wood and fabric, which completed history’s first sustained flight. “People often recognize that they’re standing in front of something special.”

Preview thumbnail for 'Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention

In 1948—45 years to the day after that flight—the Flyer went on view at the Smithsonian. British Ambassador Oliver Franks attended the ceremony. : “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”

While it might sound nice to say the Wrights were born inventors and geniuses who had always been drawn to aeronautics, that’s not really the case. The brothers experienced many setbacks in their youth growing up in the Midwest. The brothers’ successes were due to their initiative and ingenuity. “These two people, working largely on their own, created something that profoundly changed the world,” Jakab says.

Printing and bicycle-makers

Wilbur Wright, child photo, 1876

Wilbur Wright, circa 1876 

LOC from Wikimedia

Orville Wright, 1876

Orville Wright, c. 1876

LOC from Wikimedia

Wilbur, Orville, and their parents were in many ways unremarkable before making history. As the pair grew up in Dayton, Ohio, they weren’t immediate prodigies.

“If you were a neighbor of the Wright brothers, say, when they were coming of age in the 1880s or so, you would have thought that these Wright boys aren’t really going anywhere,” Jakab says.

They were smart—Wilbur thrilled to intellectual challenges, and Orville You could take them apart to figure out how the technology worked—but they didn’t meet the typical benchmarks of success. However, Wilbur was a well-read man and Orville had advanced classes. Neither of them graduated high school.

Wilbur is a player in ice hockey, which Wilbur plays. Had hoped to attend Yale UniversityHe was severely injured and suffered damage to his facial features, teeth, and other complications. Although his face was healed, he felt depressed for several months. Having trouble with your heart or digestive problems?. Wilbur was left to care for his mother, who died from tuberculosis. Wilbur abandoned plans to go college and remained in Dayton.

During this period, the brothers bonded, as they’d never really been close. Due to their four-year age difference, Wilbur gravitated to Orville and older brothers to spend more time with Katharine.

However, the Wrights’ eldest brothers had already left home. They were struggling to make ends meet on their own. They were confronted with economic difficulties. Depression of the first 1880sWilbur, Orville young. “had no real reason to believe that they wouldn’t struggle as well,” Jakab says. Their father taught them family values while they were still living at home and mistrust of the world. This respect for family sustained the inventors throughout their intertwined careers and as they created the world’s first airplane.

Wilbur and Orville Wright

Wilbur and Orville Wright at their home in Dayton, Ohio, in 1909.


The Wrights soon discovered their knack for entrepreneurialism. The Wrights started a printing company, publishing editions of local newspapers, pamphlets for churches, and catalogues of parts. They published The Dayton Tattler, a local newspaper oriented toward the African American community and edited by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who went on to become a A well-known poet. Dunbar was with Orville Friends at schoolThey kept in touch with each other as young adults.

As children, the Wrights were taught to use tools by their mother. Her mother was always the one fixing things in the home, breaking with the norm for females at that time. “The father couldn’t hammer a nail in straight, but their mother, who was the daughter of a carriage-maker and a wheelwright, she learned to use tools as a young woman,” Jakab says.

In 1892, about three years after her death, Wilbur and Orville opened a bicycle repair shop and applied their handiness to the two-wheeled transportation craze that was sweeping the country. There were hundreds of manufacturers at that point. There are more than a million bikesEach year, the United States produces over 400,000 bicycles. They began manufacturing their own bikes in 1895. The brothers’ small scale facility produced handcrafted, rather than mass-produced bikes.

Today, bicycles known to have been made by the Wright brothers are exceedingly rare—in fact, As few as fiveThey are well-known to exist. One The museum can be viewedYou can see it in the display case. It has curved racing handlebars, a saddle and seat, making it appear modern even though it is from 1898. It cost $42.50 at the time. This was adjusted to inflation and it now costs about $1,500.

a bicycle in a display case reads

The Wright brothers, based on their roots in a bicycle shop, created a linkage that allows for chain-and-sprocket transmission to power their plane.

NASM Jim Preston

A reliable flyer design

The brothers’ pivot from ground to air transportation was likely driven largely by Wilbur. Wilbur was still making bikes. “was still casting around for something that he could work on to test his mettle,” Jakab says. “Aeronautics was a new technology that people were starting to make some progress on. So, he got interested in flight.”

At the start, the brothers didn’t intend to invent the airplane. They didn’t even plan to become famous. The two men simply read what other people had written about aeronautics in the hopes of contributing something. They were shocked to discover that there had not been much progress in this field.

Orville and Wilbur realized there were three major roadblocks that prevented flight experimenters from progressing. It was impossible to control the plane, the wing design had to be good and the propulsion system needed to propel the flight. From there, solving these problems became the brothers’ goal.

The first thing they did was balance the wings while in flight. They realized that the angle of the wing against the oncoming air was key in producing lift—and angling one wing more than the other gave them control of the glider. “To do this, they came up with the elegant method of simply twisting the wings in opposite directions to achieve the differing amounts of lift on either side,” Jakab says. This “wing warping,”It seemed to resolve the problem of control, as they called them.

Once their designs were confirmed to work, they used a nonpiloted device called an a Wright KiteTo test their wing-warping abilities, Orville and Wilbur built several full-size gliders. Wilbur, Orville and their friends packed up and headed to Kitty Hawk in North CarolinaTo make their first flight test, they flew to, which is known for strong winds.

1902 image of Wrights' glider

Once they had confirmed their design was feasible using an unpiloted Wright Kite device, the brothers constructed a number of gliders in order to test the effectiveness and efficiency of wing warping. (Above: In 1902, Orville is in the pilot’s position of one of the experimental gliders, with Wilbur on his left.)

Bettman via Getty Images

Their first glider didn’t produce nearly as much lift as they had expected. The brothers built an even larger glider to be tested in 1901. Confused by the way their calculations didn’t align with their real-world performance, the brothers ran numerous experiments. They Created a wind tunnelThis device has allowed for the testing of up to 200 different types of wings.

Not only did their tests correct a widely accepted figure in aeronautics—the inaccurate Air pressure – Smeaton coefficient, which had been throwing off their calculations—but they also settled on the most effective wing shape, solving the second problem.

In 1902, while working on their third glider, the brothers added a movable rudder that could be manipulated by the pilot in the same motion as the wings. The glider was awarded the title of “The Champion Glider” in 1902. “world’s first fully controllable”Flying machine

After achieving this feat, the brothers decided to set their sights on another goal: creating a powered aircraft.

There were problems. For one, the Wrights still didn’t have an engine. Their aircraft also lacked forward motion or thrust.

Exhibition on how Wrights figured out airplane design

The Wrights were able to fly by demonstrating the art of wing design and control, and the skills required to operate a propeller system.


Wilbur Wright and Orville returned back to their bike shop roots in an attempt to resolve both these issues. Charlie Taylor, the bike shop mechanic who helped build their own engine, was asked by the Wrights to design their own. Simple four-cylinder gasoline engine “was kind of crude even for the standards of the day. But that was not a huge concern for the Wrights. They just wanted a basic engine that was going to give them the minimum horsepower that they needed to get off the ground,” Jakab says. “But the real breakthrough in propulsion were the propellers.”

Originally, the Wrights had considered using a ship’s propeller for the air. When they realized that wouldn’t work, they came up with the innovative idea of turning an airplane wing on its side and rotating it to generate thrust. It would produce the same lifting force as a wing, but it would be horizontal rather than vertical, and propel the plane forward. The system was similar to a bicycle chain and connected two propellers to each engine.

By the end of 1903, their powered airplane was ready to test. Four times the Wright Flyer was flown, and the brothers acted as pilots. Wilbur, who was lying on his stomach, piloted that fourth flight. This was the longest—and thus most significant—of these attempts. It lasted 59 seconds, covered 852 feet and proved the Flyer could make a sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air flight.

FilmedThe moment was captured by John T. Daniels photographer. The aerial age was born.

Beyond Kitty Hawk

While the Wright Brothers had created history, the airplane they built was only proof of concept. It could make straight-line flights, but the design didn’t yet have any practical use for society.

They refined the aircraft over the years. In 1905, Wilbur flew a new-and-improved version for 39 minutes, completing 30 wide aerial circles that totaled 24.5 miles.

Although the brothers applied for patents, they didn’t seek out press coverage for their accomplishments. In fact, for the next two and a half years, as the patenting process played out, they looked for customers for their new invention, but they didn’t fly at all. “It kind of goes back to that family mindset,” Jakab says. “They didn’t trust the outside world.” The brothers didn’t want to reveal their work—or have anyone copy it—until they had all their patent protection and contracts in place.

The Wrights were soon frustrated by the insufficient publicity and began to be accused of being the Midwesterners’ champions. Europeans, operating on incomplete details that they’d heard about the brothers’ planes, tried and failed with the design. These men believed they had never flown.

Wilbur displayed their plane to France in 1908 to dispel these myths. He proved what Orville and he had done. His plane was a huge success, making him an international celebrity. “You could argue that the Wright brothers were really the first modern celebrities,” Jakab says.

Wilbur visited France and Italy and met with royalty. Orville stayed home to demonstrate and work for a military contract. But in 1908, with Army observer Thomas E. Selfridge as a passenger, Orville’s aircraft crashed. Selfridge died from the accident, and Orville sustained injuries that never fully went away—he suffered from back problems and sciatica pain for the rest of his life. But after more flight trials with a new airplane, the Wrights secured a contract from the Army in 1909.

Eventually, Orville and Katharine, the inventors’ younger sister, joined Wilbur in Europe to close out the tour. When they returned home, the brothers were met with a hero’s welcome: celebrations, medals and A commendation to President William Howard Taft himself.

These products were sold to both the U.S. Army & Navy and foreign militaries. They were able to innovate and attract large crowds with shows and flight competitions.

But the brothers’ momentum came to an abrupt halt when Wilbur came down with typhoid fever in 1912. At 45, he died a month later. Orville stopped working on new aircraft designs without the support of his brother.

“Who knows what would have happened if Wilbur had survived and the brothers continued, but without Wilbur, Orville just kind of lost his enthusiasm,” Jakab says. “It was a great blow to him.”

The Wright Flyer

One of the Smithsonian’s most iconic artifacts is the Wright Flyer. Peter Jakab, curator, said that visitors tend to be silent when they see the Wright Flyer. “People often recognize that they’re standing in front of something special.”

NASM Jim Preston

“It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”

Their legacy should be preserved

Orville “kept pretty much to himself for the rest of his life,” Jakab says. He was uncomfortable with strangers and was not one who liked to make speeches. In fact, although Orville lived until 1948—nearly a century past the advent of sound recording, some 50 years after radio and 20 years beyond the first televisions—there is no known recording of Orville’s voice. “That was kind of reflective of his personality,” adds Jakab.

Instead, Orville committed himself to quietly preserving the pair’s legacy. Many people claimed that the Wrights were the only ones who had ever achieved flight. Orville tirelessly worked to eliminate these claims and show time and again their place in history.

There are still people today who point out others to be the first ones in flight. Richard Pearse has been credited for many things by New Zealanders. But Pearse, when he was alive, said that he didn’t begin his experiments until after he had heard of the Wright brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk. Others were able to fly short distances. “hops,”But They all flew planes capable of sustained flight but none of them did..

The Wright brothers’ feat was “under the control of the pilot. It was a powered flight,” Jakab says. It flew at the same height as before and returned to earth. This shows it had advanced enough technology that it didn’t lose altitude during flight. But what really defines Wilbur and Orville’s achievement, Jakab says, is that their invention incorporated the technology that evolved into the vehicles that fly today. The aircraft’s control system and its aerodynamics are, fundamentally, the same as those in modern planes.

“The Wrights were always focused on that: not simply just to get off the ground first, but they wanted what they would refer to as a ‘machine of practical utility.’ In other words, an airplane that could take off and fly as long as the fuel supply lasted [and] ultimately carry a payload or passengers,” Jakab says. “They designed something that could evolve.”

And that it did—building on the Wrights’ original design, other innovators propelled aircraft technology forward. The 20th century has seen human flight change from transporting cargo to passengers to future space exploration.

Orville didn’t live to see it all, though. At the age of 76 in 1948, Orville suffered two heart attacks within four months. He then died from the second.

However, the legacy he so diligently protected remained. It reached new heights in 1969. NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong felt a kinship with the Wright brothers—after all, he too was an Ohioan (born and raised in Wapakoneta) and a human flight pioneer of a different variety. Armstrong brought parts of his original Wright Flyer along on the Apollo 11 journey, which made him the first human to step foot on the Moon.

These fragments of fabric and wood are still in existence today, as part of the National Air and Space Museum’s collections. They connect two important moments in technology, human exploration and artifacts.

The time between these monumental achievements—a span of just 66 years—is another testament to the age of innovation that the Wright brothers initiated. In other words, Jakab says, it’s “essentially one human lifetime, [from] the first flights to walking on another world.”

“The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

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Who Were The Wright Brothers? | At the Smithsonian

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