Orville Wright Biography

Inventor(1871–1948)
Orville Wright is best known for inventing the airplane with his brother, Wilbur.

Synopsis

Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871, Orville Wright and his elder brother, Wilbur Wright, were the inventors of the world's first successful airplane. The brothers successfully conducted the first free, controlled flight of a power-driven airplane on December 17, 1903. They subsequently became successful businessmen, filling contracts for airplanes in both Europe and the United States. Today, the Wright brothers are considered the "fathers of modern aviation." Orville is also known for developing technology for the U.S. Army. He died in Dayton on January 30, 1948.

Early Life

Orville Wright was born on August 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio, one of five children of Susan Catherine Koerner, and Milton Wright, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.

As a child, Orville Wright was a mischievous and curious boy, and his family encouraged his intellectual development. "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity," Orville later wrote in his memoir.

Milton Wright traveled often for his church work, and in 1878, he brought home a toy helicopter for his boys. Based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud, it was made of cork, bamboo and paper, and used a rubber band to twirl its twin blades. Orville and his brother were fascinated by the toy, and a lifelong passion for aeronautics was born.

The Wright family moved to Richmond, Indiana, in 1881. In Richmond, Orville developed a love of kites, and soon began making his own at home. By 1884, the family was back in Ohio, where Orville enrolled at Dayton Central High School. Never especially studious, Orville was more interested in hobbies outside the classroom than school, and, thusly, dropped out of high school during his senior year and opened a print shop. Having worked in a print shop over the summer, he quickly went to work designing his own printing press for the shop. In 1889, Orville began publishing the West Side News, a weekly West Dayton newspaper. Wilbur served as the paper's editor.

That same year, tragedy struck the Wright family. Orville's mother, Susan Catherine Koerner Wright, died after suffering a long bout of tuberculosis. With her mother gone, Orville's sister Katharine took on the responsibilities of maintaining the household. The bond between Orville, Katharine and Wilbur was a strong one, and the siblings would remain a close trio throughout the rest of their lives.

Inventing the Airplane

After their mother's death, Orville and his brother dedicated themselves to another shared interest: bicycles. A new, safer design had set off a bicycle craze across the country. The brothers opened a bicycle shop in 1892, selling and fixing bikes, and began manufacturing their own design in 1896. Orville invented a self-oiling wheel hub for their popular bikes.

Always curious about aeronautics, Orville and Wilbur followed the latest flying news. When famous German aviator Otto Lilienthal, whose research they had studied, died in a glider crash, the Wright brothers became convinced that, with better designs, human flight was possible. The brothers took their work to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where heavy winds were more conducive to flying.

Orville and Wilbur began experimenting with wings. They observed that birds angled their wings to balance and control their bodies during flight. Utilizing their concept of "wing warping" and the movable rudder, the brothers developed a design that had eluded all who came before them. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first free, controlled flight of a power-driven airplane. Of four flights they made that day, the longest was 59 seconds, over a distance of of 852 feet. Today, the Wright brothers are considered the "fathers of modern aviation."

Wright Brothers Photo

The Wright Brothers had their first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their Wright Flyer was the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fame

News of the Wrights' feat was met with early skepticism. After funding a number of failed flying experiments, the United States government was reluctant to back their work. When Wilbur set sail for Europe, Orville headed to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their flying machine in hopes of winning government and army contracts. In July 1909, Orville completed the demonstration flights for the U.S. Army, which had demanded that a passenger seat be built in the plane. The Wright brothers sold the plane for $30,000.

The Wright brothers' extraordinary success led to contracts in both Europe and the United States, and they soon became wealthy business owners. They began building a grand family home in Dayton, where they had spent much of their childhood.

On May 25, 1910, Orville flew for six minutes with Wilbur as his passenger—marking the first and only flight the brothers would make together. That same day, Orville took his 82-year-old father out for the first and only flight of his life.

In 1912, Wilbur died of typhoid fever. Without his brother and business partner, Orville was forced to take on the presidency of the Wright company. Unlike his brother, though, he cared little for the business side of their work, and, thusly, sold the company in 1915.

Later Life and Death

Orville Wright spent the last three decades of his life serving on boards and committees related to aeronautics, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He cut off communication with his sister, Katharine, when she married in 1926. Neither Orville nor Wilbur ever married, and he was greatly upset by his sister's choice. In 1929, he had to be persuaded to visit Katharine at her deathbed.

On January 30, 1948, Orville died after suffering a second heart attack. He is buried at the Wright family plot in Dayton, Ohio.

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