This article will appear in the November-December 2023 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
You know this story. Or at least the story in the famous “First Flight” picture above.
It goes like this: At 10:35 on the morning of Dec. 17, 1903, on a remote sand dune in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, mankind flew for the first time. Orville Wright piloted a homemade airplane powered by a homemade engine for a few wobbly seconds while his brother and co-creator Wilbur ran alongside the right wingtip.
“Success four flights thursday morning” Orville telegraphed their father back home in Dayton, Ohio.
The world would never be the same. Humans flew to the moon 65 years later. We live in a different universe. Et cetera.
But here’s the more complicated story, one that becomes clear by looking through the Wright brothers remarkable collection in the Library.
“Flight” was such a tricky term at the time that the Wright brother’s achievement was barely noticed, much less celebrated. Germany’s Otto Lilienthal had become internationally famous as the “flying man” in the early 1890s for making the first heavier-than-air flights in a glider. After that, so many “fliers” from so many countries made so different claims of incremental gains in the field that the public tired of the spectacle.
So that December, about the only notice paid to one of mankind’s greatest achievements — the first heavier-than-air powered flight — was a largely incorrect wire-service story that ran in several papers around the country. It was treated as an unverified curiosity. Typical of the coverage, the St. Paul Globe put the three-paragraph report at the bottom of page four under the headline “This Flying Machine Actually Flies.”
Even the Wright brother’s father, Milton, recipient of one of the most momentous telegrams in world history, didn’t exactly run screaming into the streets.
“Well, they’ve made a flight,” he told the family cook, after scanning the telegram she handed him. Dinner was slightly delayed.
It was not until Aug. 8, 1908 — more than 4½ years after the Kitty Hawk breakthrough — that the world finally sat bolt upright. In Le Mans, France, in front of a skeptical crowd, Wilbur flew two circles above a racetrack at a blazing 60 mph. He turned, he swooped, he went up, he went down and he coasted back to a stop on the ground just so. The crowd went bananas.
“WRIGHT FLIES EASILY,” read the front-page headline in the Washington Sunday Star in the nation’s capital the next day as news shot around the globe. “WRIGHT’S AIRSHIP IN RAPID FLIGHT,” The New York Times reported, also at the top of the front page, adding “Wildly Cheering Spectators” loved the spectacle.
Only then did the Wright brothers become the historical entities, the fathers of flight, the icons of the age, that we know today.
Their collection in the Library is a rare combination of significance, detail and candor. It spreads over 31,000 items that fill more than 130 boxes, extending for 61 feet of shelf space. There are also more than 300 glass-print negatives. There are copious personal letters from family members, diaries, scrapbooks, engineering sketches and financial records. You can chart the family’s entire odyssey here, from small-town Midwestern simplicity to worldwide fame, from youthful newspaper publishers to bicycle shop owners to builders of the world’s first airplanes.
“Rare is the collection that provides so much depth and range, and all in such detail,” wrote David McCullough, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, after using the papers in researching “The Wright Brothers,” his No. 1 New York Times bestseller. “In a day and age when, unfortunately, so few write letters or keep a diary any longer, the Wright Papers stand as a striking reminder of a time when that was not the way and of the immense value such writings can have in bringing history to life.”
The papers show that the family was always extremely close knit. Milton and Susan Wright had seven children, five of whom survived infancy. Milton rose to the post of bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, a Protestant group that was strongly abolitionist and ardently opposed to alcohol. Susan, an accomplished student in college and also devoutly Christian, kept the family together while her husband traveled. (She died of tuberculosis in 1889, cared for by Wilbur for the last three years of her life in which she was largely bed-ridden.)
Wilbur and Orville were the third and sixth born. Here are a few lines from the earliest written missive that survives from one of them, a postcard from the adventurous Orville to his father in 1881, when he was 9 years old:
“Dear Father …. My teacher said I was a good boy to day. We have 45 in our room. The other day I took a machine can and filled it with water then I put it on the stove I waited a little while and the water came squirting out of the top about a foot.”
Later, on the eve of their first glider test flights, Wilbur wrote to their father from the Hotel Arlington in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on Sept. 9, 1900. He was waiting for a boat to take him to a remote barrier island with steady winds and soft sand dunes called Kitty Hawk.
“I have no intention of risking injury to any great extent, and have no expectation of being hurt. I will be careful, and will not attempt new experiments in dangerous situations. I think the danger much less than in most athletic games. I will write you again soon. Affectionately your son Wilbur.”
The striking thing here is that Wilbur wrote this “I’ll be careful, Dad” letter not as a teen, but as a 33-year-old man and successful business owner of the Wright Cycle Company, he and Orville’s bicycle business. It’s the kind of intimate communication that underscores that both brothers still lived at home with their widowed father at the time and that neither ever married.
These were not men given to poetic statements. Neither formally graduated from high school. They were no-nonsense Midwestern fellows, average-looking, determined, deliberate, frugal, practical, energetic, conservative, quiet, resourceful.
They had been fascinated with the idea of flight since their father bought them a toy “helicopter” when they were children. Later, Lilienthal’s glider flights intrigued them. His death from a crash in 1896 while pursuing the mysteries of flight galvanized them, Orville later said. They approached the problem of flight as engineers. They invested their time in computations and angles and wind speeds and physics and testing and welding iron and the sheer physical courage required to test their contraption in the air.
The overall effect was striking.
Hart O. Berg, their European business representative, wrote in May 1907 that he had recognized Wilbur Wright on first sight at a London train station though he’d never seen his photograph nor heard him described.
“…. either I am a Sherlock Holmes,” Berg wrote, “or Wright has that peculiar glint of genius in his eye which left no doubt in my mind as to who he was.”
Their sister, Katharine, also became something of a celebrity, particularly after joining her brothers in Europe after they had become a sensation. She even went flying in February 1909: “Yesterday afternoon, Will took Madame de Lambert for a five minute ride and me for a seven minute one,” she wrote her father. ‘Them is fine!’ It was cold but I was not particularly uncomfortable.”
Another surprise made clear in their papers is how short their glory days in the air actually were.
They were not widely lauded until 1908. Wilbur died of typhoid fever four years later at age 45. Within half a dozen years of Wilbur’s death, Orville stopped flying, sold the Wright Company and set up a research business, the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory. It was a modest one-story brick building on North Broadway in Dayton. It was his office, six days a week, for three decades. He largely retreated from public speaking and the limelight, save for politely turning up when monuments or tributes to he and his brother were unveiled. He was unfailingly regarded as a gentleman.
He died in 1948 at the age of 76. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton along with Wilbur, Katharine and their parents. He and Wilbur had seemed at peace with their legacy during their lifetimes — they had given mankind flight and reaped fame and financial rewards, and that was certainly enough for a couple of bachelor brothers living in the vast ocean of the middle continent, deep among the prairies and trees and small towns and rivers and lakes and bustling cities that would come to be called, in part thanks to their own invention, “flyover America.”
The brothers Wright would, no doubt, find that ironic.
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