Wilbur and Orville Wright didn’t care much for attention. But after publicly demonstrating their flying machine, the inventors of the airplane became overnight international superstars. Crowds gathered to watch them go airborne, and thousands followed their achievements, which repeatedly made front-page news.
The worldwide public had a voracious need for information about the self-made engineers. What were they like? What were they doing? And where would they go next?
The Wright brothers never sought 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.
Now, their lives and achievements are back on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which reopened October 14 as the building undergoes a massive renovation. In the exhibition “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age,” the famed original Wright Flyer is front and center.
The 1903 airplane has charisma, says the museum’s Peter Jakab, a senior curator who is also an expert on the Wrights. When visitors see the wood-and-fabric machine that completed the first, history-making sustained flight, they tend to fall silent, Jakab says. “People often recognize that they’re standing in front of something special.”
In 1948—45 years to the day after that flight—the Flyer went on view at the Smithsonian. At the ceremony, British Ambassador Oliver Franks said: “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. Beginning in their Midwestern youth, the brothers faced numerous setbacks. Their achievements came from their own initiative and ingenuity. “These two people, working largely on their own, created something that profoundly changed the world,” Jakab says.
Printers and bike-makers
Before they made history, Wilbur and Orville were, in one sense, fairly unremarkable children. 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 would take things apart to figure out how the technology worked—but they didn’t meet the typical benchmarks of success. Though Wilbur was well read and Orville took advanced courses, neither graduated from high school.
While playing an ice hockey-like game, Wilbur, who had hoped to study at Yale, was injured, suffering damage to his face and teeth as well as other complications. His face healed, but he became depressed and, for months, he struggled with heart and digestive issues. Between that and caring for their mother, who had fallen ill with tuberculosis, Wilbur essentially dropped out of sight. He abandoned his plans to attend college, remaining instead in Dayton.
During this period, the brothers bonded, as they’d never really been close. Their four-year age gap had led Wilbur to gravitate toward his older brothers and Orville to spend time with his younger sister, Katharine.
The two eldest Wright brothers, however, had left their hometown and were struggling to get by on their own. Faced with the economic depression of the early 1880s, young Wilbur and Orville “had no real reason to believe that they wouldn’t struggle as well,” Jakab says. While the two boys were living at home, their father instilled in them strong family values and a mistrust for the outside world. This respect for family sustained the inventors throughout their intertwined careers and as they created the world’s first airplane.
Soon, the Wrights found they had a knack for entrepreneurship. They began a printing business, producing editions of various local papers, church pamphlets and catalogs of bicycle parts. Notably, 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 renowned poet. Dunbar and Orville had been friends in school, and they kept in touch as young adults.
Growing up, the Wrights also learned to work with tools, a skill they received from their mother. She was the one who fixed things around the house, breaking the stereotype for women at the 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. At that time, hundreds of companies produced more than one million bicycles per year across the United States. In 1895, the brothers decided to manufacture their own line of bikes. Theirs was a small-scale facility, featuring handcrafted rather than mass-produced products.
Today, bicycles known to have been made by the Wright brothers are exceedingly rare—in fact, as few as five are known to exist. One can be seen at the museum, spotlighted in a display case: Its curved racing handlebars and saddle seat make it look modern, though it dates to 1898. At the time, it cost $42.50, which, adjusted for inflation, rings up to about $1,500 today.
Designing a reliable flyer
The brothers’ pivot from ground to air transportation was likely driven largely by Wilbur. Even as they were producing bikes, Wilbur “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. They simply reviewed what others had published about aeronautics, hoping they could make some sort of contribution. And that was when they noticed, to their surprise, that very little progress had been made in the field.
Wilbur and Orville realized that flight experimenters had hit three main roadblocks to progress. They lacked a way to control the aircraft, a good wing design and a propulsion system to power the flight. From there, solving these problems became the brothers’ goal.
Their first breakthrough came with balancing the wings 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,” as they called it, appeared to solve the issue of control.
After confirming their design worked using a nonpiloted device called a Wright Kite, the brothers built a series of full-size gliders to see how far wing warping could take them. Wilbur and Orville packed up and went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a place known for its strong winds, to make their first flight tests.
Their first glider didn’t produce nearly as much lift as they had expected. They built a larger model to test the following year, in 1901, but that glider was even worse. Confused by the way their calculations didn’t align with their real-world performance, the brothers ran numerous experiments. They created a wind tunnel and tested up to 200 different wing shapes in it.
Not only did their tests correct a widely accepted figure in aeronautics—the inaccurate Smeaton coefficient for air pressure, 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. When their 1902 glider successfully flew, it earned the title of the “world’s first fully controllable” flying machine.
With that record under their belts, the brothers set their sights on a new goal: building a powered airplane.
But problems remained. For one, the Wrights still didn’t have an engine. And they lacked a method of thrust, or forward motion, for their aircraft.
To solve both of these issues, Wilbur and Orville returned to their bicycle shop roots. The Wrights designed their own engine and had their bike shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, help build it. The 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. This would create the same lift force that a wing does, but horizontally rather than vertically, moving the plane forward. They connected a pair of propellers to the engine with a system that resembled a bicycle chain.
By the end of 1903, their powered airplane was ready to test. On December 17, the Wright Flyer flew four times, with the brothers switching off as the pilot. For the fourth and final flight of that day, Wilbur piloted the plane, lying on his stomach at the controls. 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.
Captured on film by photographer John T. Daniels, the moment was immortalized. And with it, the aerial age truly began.
Beyond Kitty Hawk
Though the Wright brothers had made history, their airplane was essentially only a proof of concept. It could make straight-line flights, but the design didn’t yet have any practical use for society.
Over the next couple of years, the partners refined their aircraft. In 1905, Wilbur flew a new-and-improved version for 39 minutes, completing 30 wide aerial circles that totaled 24.5 miles.
The brothers had applied for a patent, but they hardly sought out any press attention for their achievements. 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.
But the lack of publicity became a problem for the Wrights when others started to claim that they had beaten the Midwesterners to flight. Europeans, operating on incomplete details that they’d heard about the brothers’ planes, tried and failed with the design. This led them to believe there was no way that the men had really flown.
In 1908, Wilbur demonstrated their plane in France in an attempt to put these misconceptions to rest. Not only did he succeed in proving what he and Orville had done, but he also became an instant international sensation. “You could argue that the Wright brothers were really the first modern celebrities,” Jakab says.
As Wilbur toured France and Italy, meeting with royals and performing numerous flights, Orville focused on demonstrating at home, working to earn 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 commendation from President William Howard Taft himself.
They made sales to the U.S. Army and Navy, as well as foreign militaries. Their innovation took off, and enthusiasts held flight competitions and shows, drawing crowds to the spectacle.
But the brothers’ momentum came to an abrupt halt when Wilbur came down with typhoid fever in 1912. He died one month later, at the age of 45. Without his brother, Orville ceased to work on any more aircraft designs.
“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.”
Preserving their legacy
Orville “kept pretty much to himself for the rest of his life,” Jakab says. Uncomfortable with outsiders, he was never one to give speeches or thrive in the public eye. 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. Over the years, claims arose that others had achieved flight before the Wrights did. Orville worked tirelessly to dispel these and prove, time and again, their place in history.
Even today, there are people who point to others as the first in flight. Some New Zealanders credit Richard Pearse, for example. 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. Certain others became airborne for short-distance “hops,” but none of them flew aircraft capable of sustained flight.
The Wright brothers’ feat was “under the control of the pilot. It was a powered flight,” Jakab says. It took off and landed at the same height, which shows that it was advanced enough to not lose altitude as it flew. 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. From shuttling cargo to carrying passengers to enabling future experiments for space exploration, the concept of human flight has shaped the 20th and 21st centuries.
Orville didn’t live to see it all, though. In 1948, at the age of 76, he suffered two heart attacks in the span of four months and died after the second.
But the legacy he worked so hard to protect remained. And in 1969, it was taken to new heights. 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. On the Apollo 11 mission, the journey that made Armstrong the first person to set foot on the moon, he brought pieces of the original Wright Flyer with him.
Today, those fragments of wood and fabric also dwell in the collections of the National Air and Space Museum. The artifacts tie together two watershed moments in technology and human exploration.
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.