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Wilbur and Orville Wright - The Wright Brothers

Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867, near Millville, Indiana. Orville Wright was born August 19, 1871, in the family home at 7 Hawthorn St., in Dayton, Ohio. Their father was Milton Wright (1829-1917), a minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and editor of its weekly newspaper. Their mother, Susan Catherine Koerner Wright (1831-89), liked to make mechanical appliances and toys.

Wilbur and Orville had two older siblings, Reuchlin Wright (1861-1920) and Lorin Wright (1862-1939). Their parents also had a set of twins, Otis Wright and Ida Wright, who were born and died in 1870. Their youngest sister was Katharine Wright (1874-1929).

Milton Wright's job frequently required the family to move, although the house in Dayton remained their home base. Wilbur was an avid reader and an excellent student, but a family move from Indiana to Ohio in 1884 disrupted his high school education and he never obtained his diploma.

Orville liked to conduct experiments and invent things. He, too, was a good student but didn't complete the requirements to get his high school diploma. Despite this, the brothers were encouraged by their parents to be learners. According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Orville wrote, "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."

Athletic Wilbur suffered a setback when he was 19. During an ice hockey game, he was struck in the face. His injuries healed, but heart and digestive problems arose, along with depression. Wilbur had been preparing to attend Yale but gave up on that after the accident. Instead, he stayed home and cared for his mother, who died of tuberculosis when Wilbur was 22 and Orville was 17.

As the Wright brothers were stepping into adulthood, the city of Dayton was becoming an industrial center. Their father's experience in the newspaper business inspired them to launch a printing business. Together, the brothers tinkered with the printing press and, in 1888, designed a larger and more efficient model. In 1892, Wilbur and Orville formed the Wright Cycle Company to lease and fix bicycles. A few years later, they began manufacturing bikes.

Something more than building bicycles was going on in the shop, however. The brothers were becoming interested in aeronautics and making plans to build a flying machine. Wilbur contacted the Smithsonian to learn more about work that had already been done in this area. The brothers studied the progress of Otto Lilienthal, a pioneer in gliders, and Sir George Cayley, an early leader in aeronautical research. They were also influenced by Octave Chanute's glider experiments.

In 1899, Wilbur and Orville built a biplane kite to test a wing-warping control system. The kite was successful, and they turned their attention to a bigger project: a piloted glider. The brothers searched for the best location to launch their glider and settled on the beach at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina.

In 1900, the Wright brothers experimented with their glider at Kitty Hawk. They flew the glider like a kite before trying free glides with Wilbur aboard. While encouraging, their tests revealed that the glider did not have the amount of lift they expected. Wilbur and Orville returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 with a larger glider, but this vehicle was difficult to control. They continued their research and again modified the glider design.

The 1902 glider worked better than the previous ones, and Orville had his first opportunity to control the machine in the air. That fall, they did more than 700 test glides, some as far as 600 feet. The Wright brothers were now ready to build an airplane.

In 1903, Wilbur and Orville returned to Kitty Hawk with the Flyer, an engine-powered airplane. On December 14, Wilbur won a coin toss to pilot the plane. His flight lasted less than four seconds. Orville took the controls on December 17. He flew for 12 seconds. The brothers continued to test the plane that day, eventually achieving a flight of 59 seconds with Wilbur aboard.

Back in Dayton, the Wright brothers worked to improve their airplane. In 1904, they flew their plane in a circle over a pasture in Ohio. Eventually, their plane became practical and reliable enough to market. In 1910, they started manufacturing planes at the Wright Company.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912. According to the Smithsonian, Wilbur's father wrote in his diary that day, "A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died." Orville Wright died on January 30, 1948, of a heart attack.

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