Professor Donald Elder: The Wright Brothers.

May 21, 2015 by

Wilbur Wright (left) with William J. Hammer (right) on Governors Island during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909.

Wilbur Wright (left) with William J. Hammer (right) on Governors Island during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909.

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Wright Brothers.


Michael F. Shaughnessy –


1. There are two brothers that have gone down in the annals of American history- The Wright Brothers- What can you tell us about where they grew up, where they went to school?

Wilbur Wright was born April 16, 1867 in Henry County, Indiana. His brother Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio on August 19, 1871. The two both attended local public schools, but neither of them wound up receiving a high school diploma.

Wilbur attended high school in Richmond, Indiana and finished his course work, but before graduation his family moved to Ohio. This caused him to miss the actual graduation ceremony. He had thought of attending Yale, but after suffering a sports-related injury he decided against that course of action. Orville completed three years of high school, but chose to drop out before his senior year to start a printing company. His brother joined him in that endeavor, and the two soon started a newspaper. After a few years, the brothers decided to open a bicycle shop. They were still operating that business when they had their great aeronautical success at Kittyhawk, North Carolina in 1903.

2. Now, does anyone know what got them involved in aviation?

After they had become famous, the Wright Brothers attributed their interest in aviation to an incident from their childhood. Their father had returned from a trip, and had brought them a flying toy as a gift. It essentially resembled a helicopter, and was operated by a rubber band that turned a propeller. The boys launched the craft repeatedly until it finally broke one day, at which point they constructed their own version of the craft.

The second impetus occurred during the 1890s, when their interest in flight was piqued by a gliding pioneer named Otto Lilienthal. From that point on, the Wrights increasingly turned their attention away from bicycle manufacturing and towards aviation.

3. As with many inventors and inventions, early years were problematic. What do we know about the events that led up to that first flight?

The Wright Brothers were meticulous in their approach to powered flight. This process began in 1899, when they asked the Smithsonian Institution to let them read everything that facility had in its archives about flight. They also carefully studied the efforts of the others involved in aviation at that time. The Wright Brothers placed a high priority on mastering the techniques involved in gliding, believing that powered flight could only be achieved if they could learn the intricacies of controlling their craft as it flew through the air. They also flew kites to test their theories on the design of their aircraft. The Wright Brothers were true innovators in the fact that they built a wind tunnel to test the efficacy of their designs without actually having to build a full-scale aircraft until they were certain that they were ready for flight.

As a result, by the time that they built their prototype aircraft in 1903, they had only one unsuccessful attempt before they were able to achieve sustained flight on December 17 of that year.

4. As I recall, they were only in the air a brief time- but did prove that a heavier than air vessel could fly. What was the immediate reaction around the world?

We clearly recognize today the significance of the accomplishment of the Wright Brothers, but at the time their feat went almost totally unnoticed. To begin with, the first flight on December 17 only covered 120 feet. The second and third flights were only slightly longer. Wilbur Wright piloted the fourth flight, and managed to keep the aircraft aloft for almost a minute. Still, he only flew approximately 800 feet before landing. As they were attempting to return the craft to its launch point for another attempt, strong wind gusts flipped it over. This caused irreparable damage, and the aircraft never flew again. After their test flights were over, the Wright Brothers sent a telegram to their father describing what they had been able to accomplish. A telegraph operator alerted a Virginia newspaper about the flights, and an article soon appeared in that journal. A few other newspapers followed suit, but by and large the response to their accomplishments was muted.

It appears in retrospect that the Wright Brothers did not mind the lack of publicity, preferring to perfect their invention and selling contracts for it. This lack of publicity led some skeptics to question whether the Wright Brothers had actually achieved powered flight. It wasn’t until the Wright Brothers put on a public air show in Paris that their invention was recognized as the technological triumph that it was.

At that point they started the Wright Aircraft Company and began to manufacture airplanes.

5. What were some of their later exploits?

The Wright Brothers continued to perfect their aircraft for a number of years following their initial flight, but gave up innovation due to a legal controversy. In 1906, they had received a patent for their invention, but a number of aviation pioneers began to build their own aircraft without paying a licensing fee to the Wright Brothers. Realizing the threat this activity posed to their economic livelihood and feeling that the other aviators were acting immorally, the Wright Brothers brought suits against their competitors. This course of action slowly inexorably brought their work on their own aircraft to a halt, and by 1912 few people were buying aircraft manufactured by them. Legal vindication finally came to the Wright Company, but by the time the decision was handed down neither brother was still actively involved in the business.

6. How did they live out their final days?

When other aviators began to make their own airplanes, Wilbur took the lead in the efforts of the Wright Brothers to use the law to stop them from doing so. Starting in 1910, Wilbur traveled extensively to file suits and seek legal advice.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, Wilbur came down with typhoid fever in 1912. That illness would soon take his life. Orville, on the other hand, would live for another 36 years. He was not actively involved in the company that he and his brother had founded for long after his brother died, choosing to retire in 1915. He served on a number of aviation boards and commissions during his remaining years, most notably the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Orville died in 1948 after suffering his second heart attack. Wilbur had not lived long enough to see the American public recognize them as being the true aviation pioneers that they were, but by the time that he died Orville knew that the name Wright would always be associated with the first successful powered flight.

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