by Karen S. Campbell
“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 Wright
It is true. The Wright Brothers were nothing if not curious. They were first to achieve a controlled, powered, heavier Orville Wright than air flight with a human being on December 17, 1903. They developed the first fixed-wing aircraft with a practical control mechanism, a ”three-axis-control” a.k.a. “wing warping,” which could manipulate the surfaces of the wings and keep the aircraft balanced. They entered adulthood in the burgeoning industrial city ofDayton,Ohio. They grew up in a home full of inquisitive minds and strong personalities who were passionate about their various interests. They were the children of deeply religious parents, Milton and Susan Wright. Wilbur and Orville refused to work on Sundays and they did not drink, smoke, or gamble. However, as adults they never officially join a church.
Their father was Bishop Milton Wright (b. November 17, 1828 – d. April 3, 1917) of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Milton was born in Rush County, Indiana. Milton’s father Dan Wright, who had been born in Vermont, moved west with his parents and three siblings to New York, to Cincinnati, and then up to Centerville, Ohio, a little village south of Dayton founded in 1796, the same year as Dayton. There they settled. Dan married a Centerville girl, Catherine Reeder. In 1821 Dan and his wife Catherine with their two sons Samuel and Harvey moved to Rush County, Indiana.
In 1892 Orville and Wilbur began a trip to Miamisburg on their bicycles from their home in west Dayton. They passed through Centervilleand found their great-uncles Asahel Wright’s stone home (now a museum administered by the Centerville-Washington Township Historical Society). This was quite a trip since it was all up hill and nearly ten miles. It illustrates their stamina and athleticism. Actually, Wilbur was a good gymnast and had learned to ride on the old awkward high-wheeler “ordinary” bicycles. Both brothers were enthusiasts for “wheeling” and belonged to the local “YMCA Wheelman” club. Orville loved racing and won three medals and a rocking chair in 1894.
Cashing in on the “safety” bicycle craze at the end of the 19th century, they turned their hobby into a business of repairing and building bicycles. Studying speed and balance on bicycles helped them envision a balanced and controlled aircraft. Another hobby that would likewise have a profound effect on their aeronautical work was photography. Wilbur and Orville taught themselves the rudiments of photography and used the large and bulky Korona-V camera with a tripod to take pictures of their machines and the people involved. They developed their glass plate negatives and printed photographs in a small shed behind their home on Hawthorn Street in Miami City, later known as West Dayton. They understood the importance of scientifically documenting their experiments in flight. Over 300 of these glass plates have survived, but, unfortunately, many are blemished and cracked due to the devastating 1913 flood in the Miami Valley which inundated Dayton. The Wright home was severely damaged as well as the shed where the glass plates negatives were stored.
Bishop Milton Wright joined his church in 1846 because of its strong stand against slavery, its advocacy for temperance, and its witness against Freemasonry and all other fraternal societies. His father Dan had been a strong abolitionist. Milton married Susan Catherine Koerner (b. 1831 near Hillsboro, Virginia, d. July 4, 1889 in Dayton, Ohio). They had met in 1854 when Milton was supervisor of the preparatory department and Catherine was a literature student at the United Brethren Hartsville Collegein Hartsville, Bartholomew County, Indiana. They were married in 1859 after he
returned from Oregon where his third ministerial assignment was located. The two were interested in many intellectual pursuits and their home would contain two libraries: one theological, the other of varied topics. Wilbur and Orville would remark that their mother had great mechanical skills. Susan Wright (right) had spent many hours in her father’s carriage shop as a child inIndianalearning how to use his tools. She was scientifically inclined and good at mathematics. She designed many of her home appliances and made toys for her children. She was an introvert and also very shy. These were two more personality traits that she would share with her famous sons.
Bishop Wright had a distinguished career in the church. From 1855 to 1856 he was a preacher at the Church of the United Brethren in Christ in Indianapolis. He was ordained in 1856 and became a pastor in Andersonville, Indiana. Milton traveled to Oregon in 1858 as a missionary and served as pastor in the town of Sublimity and was the first rector at Sublimity College (no longer extant). In 1859 Milton married Susan Catherine Koerner and became a circuit rider with his anchor at the United Brethren church in Hartsville, Indiana. Their first son Reuchlin was born March 27, 1861 near Fairmont, Indiana. Their second son Lorin was born November 18, 1862 in Orange Twp., Fayette Co., Indiana. Later, Milton would be a professor of theology at Hartsville College from 1868-1869. Wilbur, Milton’s and Susan’s third son, was born on April 16, 1867 outside of Millville, Indiana (The home has been preserved and is open to the public, “Wilbur Wright Birthplace & Museum,” see information below).
In 1869 the Wright family moved to Dayton when Milton became the editor of the “Religious Telescope”, one of his church’s newspapers. The United Brethren Press was located inDayton. The Wrights bought a home located at7 Hawthorn St. in 1870. Although the family will move twelve times before 1884, the Wright will keep their home onHawthorn St., leasing it out to renters. Twins, Otis and Ida, who only lived for a few weeks, died in 1870. Orville, their sixth child, was born there on August 19, 1871. Their sister, Katherine, was born there on August 19, 1874.
Henry Ford will purchase this house, along with one of the Wrights’ bicycle shops, and moved them in 1937 to Greenfield Village near Dearborn, Michigan.
Milton was elected Bishop in 1877. In 1878, he became the head of the Western Conference of his church. The family consequently moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Wrights lived on third Street SEand Wilbur and Orville attended the old Adams School on Third Street near Fifth Avenue. Milton also owned a 160-acre farm in Iowa. It was in Cedar Rapids when 7 and 11 year old Wilbur and Orville, received a gift from their father returning home from a pastoral visit, a toy Penaud “helicopter.” It was based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud, which was made of cork, bamboo, and paper with a rubber band to power the twin blades. This toy sparked their interest in flight.
Also in 1878, Milton received an honorary doctorate from Westfield College in Illinois. In 1881 Milton was not re-elected to the office of Bishop because his church was growing more liberal and he remained a conservative and became the leader of like-minded members. This stressful church conflict will last for approximately twenty years and will end up in a formal schism in 1889. The Wright family left Iowa and moved to a farm near Richmond, Indiana in 1881 where Milton once again became a circuit rider. From 1881 to 1884, Milton became the leader of the White River Conference in Indiana. During this time he also founded another church newspaper which reflected his conservative views, entitled “The Star.” It was during this time that Orville, in his preteens, took up kite building.
In 1884, the Wright family moved back to Daytonpermanently. He was appointed the editor of another United Brethren publication, “The Christian Conservator.” The next year Milton was re-elected Bishop. Bishop Wright continued to be the leader of the conservative faction of his Church of the United Brethren in Christ. The 1889 schism would lead to a number of severe lawsuits over church property and the group that Milton lead, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (old constitution), lost most of its property. Then. Sadly, the Bishop’s conservative faction then fell into its own schism and generated another set of multiple lawsuits. Even up until his retirement in 1905, the Bishop was s dealing with the ramifications of these schisms.
The church of the United Brethren in Christ (new constitution) eventually became the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946 which would then later unite with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church. Bishop Wright’s church, the United Brethren in Christ (old constitution), is presently known as the United Brethren Church.
Unfortunately, because of this move back to Daytonin 1884, Wilbur failed to graduate from Richmond High School. In 1885 Wilbur attended Central High School in Dayton for additional studies, in Greek and trigonometry with every intention to apply to Yale University to continue his studies. However, this was not meant to be. In the winter of 1885-1886, Wilbur was hurt in a hockey accident, which damaged his face and teeth. He became severely depressed from this incident and withdrew from the world reading his father’s library and settled into a deep contemplation for four years. This is what his father, Milton, had to say about the accident:
“In his nineteenth year when playing a game on skates at an artificial lake at the Soldier’s Home near Dayton, Ohio, a bat accidentally flew out of the hand of a young man… and struck Wilbur, knocking him down, but not injuring him much. A few weeks later, he began to be affected with nervous palpitations of the heart, which precluded the realization of the former idea of his parents, of giving him a course in Yale College.”
At the time of his accident, his mother Susan was already suffering from tuberculosis. Wilbur dedicated himself to her care until she died in 1889. He also assisted his father in his struggles with a schismatic church.
Bishop Wright was a determined person and quite self-confident. His sons, Wilbur and Orville, also had these character taints. Ironically, Wilbur and Orville were the only two in the family who did not attend college. Even so, they both, through their own perseverance, attained the equivalent of a college education. Both Milton and Susan Wright had had parents who had encouraged their intellectual pursuits and they in turn encouraged the same in their five children that grew to adulthood. This close knit family epitomized the reality that science and faith are not diametrically opposed, but are complementary. For more information about Bishop Milton Wright see: Wright, Milton. Diaries, 1857-1917 (Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University Libraries, 1999).
Having grown up in an age that preferred “character” over “personality”, the Wright brothers, who in effect became two of the biggest “personality” icons of the early 20th century and hated it, were true gentlemen with character. They were also incredibly compatible although different in temperament. They would argue a great deal, but, their arguments were productive and helpful. In effect, their arguments were part of their scientific process of discovery. Not surprisingly, the two boys were named after two prominent Christian ministers: Willbur Fisk (Methodist) and Orville Dewey (a Unitarian). Their nicknames for each other were “Ullam” (Wilbur) and “Bubbo” or “Bubs” (Orville).
Wilbur (“Will”), the fourth child of Milton and Susan Wright, was born April 16, 1867 outside ofMillville,Indiana and died on May 30, 1912 at the age of 45 from typhoid fever inDayton,Ohio. According to many accounts, he was his father’s favorite. He was steady and even-tempered. He was an introvert and contemplative. He was a thoughtful and intellectual man who believed in the practical application of knowledge. He was a voracious reader, a good writer, and a good speaker when pressed into service. Later in life he would say that he would have liked to have been a teacher.
Orville (“Orv”), the sixth child of Milton and Susan Wright, was born August 19, 1871 in Dayton, Ohio at 7 Hawthorn Street and died January 30, 1948 at Miami Valley Hospital three days after a heart attack at his Wright Aeronautical Laboratory at 15 North Broadway Street in Dayton. In comparison to Wilbur, Orville was impulsive and optimistic. He was born to be an inventor, endlessly curious with a quick mind. He had been a mischievous boy and not a systematic learner like his brother Wilbur. He had some drawing ability and liked to play the mandolin. He was a thinker who thought “outside the box.” Although always at ease with his family and friends, and also a notorious practical joker, Orville was painfully shy with strangers. Consequently, Wilbur spoke for the both of them when confronted with the public.
Because of his mechanical interests, Orville started a printing business in 1884 when he was still a teenager, just after the family returned to Daytonpermanently and Wilbur was attempting to supplement his education for Yale. That Orville would show interest in printing is not surprising considering that his father had edited three religious newspapers and had an office in the old 1834 United Brethren Printing Establishment offices at Fourth & Main in Dayton. Both the brothers had become familiar with the presses. The brothers opened their “Wright and Wright Jobs Printing” shop in 1890.
Always inventive Orville in 1895 developed a calculating machine that multiplied and added. He built a number of labor-saving devices that were inserted into the Wright mansion, Hawthorn Hill, when it was built in 1914 in Oakwood: a system of chains and rods that controlled the furnace from upstairs rooms; an early water softener; a toaster that could slice and brown bread, and an easy chair with a reading stand and adjustable
footstool. Orville also designed a circular shower for himself. After the success of the Wright Company, the family was able to buy 17 acres of woodlands populated with Hawthorn trees in 1910 and planned to build a mansion. In April of 1914, Milton, Orville, and Katharine moved to Hawthorn Hill. Wilbur had died two years previously from typhoid fever. Milton lived at Hawthorn Hill until he died in 1917, Katharine would leave when she married in 1926, and Orville lived here until his death in 1948.
On Jan. 20, 1925 Orville was issued a patent (#1523989) for a mechanical toy, “Flips & Flops,” a toy involving two clowns on a trapeze, which was produced and sold by the Miami Specialty Wood Company in Dayton. Lorin Wright, the second oldest of the Wright siblings, was the president of the company. Orville also designed a printing press that could print decorations and advertisements on wooden children’s model airplanes that flew on rubber band power, a number of which Orville also designed. The Miami Specialty Wood Company was very lucrative up into the 1930s and many members of the Wright family invested in it.
In 1913 Orville invented his automatic stabilizer which he demonstrated at Hoffman Prairie east of Dayton on December 31, 1913. In 1922 he developed the split-wing flap. At first it was rejected but in 1932 the Navy realized that the split-wing flap prevented airplane stalling and made dive-bombing possible. During World War I, Orville worked on a propeller for the first guided missile named the “Bug.” During the war he was commissioned a Major in the Signal Officers Reserve Corp. In 1944 Orville built a cipher machine for automatic selective coding of messages.
In spite of his intense shyness Orville was one of the founding members of the DaytonEngineer’s Club, which was established by Colonel Deeds and Charles Kettering. Orville was a member from 1914 to 1948. He served as the fourth president of the club, 1924-1925. An example of a toy airplane designed by Orville resides in the Engineer’s Club along with other Wright mementos, one of which is the Wright Engine #3. Orville’s favorite spot in the Engineer’s Club was the barber shop from where he could see the McCook Field in the distance. From 1934 to 1946, Orville sat on the board of “Wright Memorial Library” located in Oakwood. He accepted the office of vice-president only on the stipulation that he never be asked to chair the meetings. And, he never did.
When Orville died in 1948 at the age of 77, members of the Wright family decide to give most of the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright to the Library of Congress. The LOC did not take everything and what remained stayed in the estate of the Wright Brothers. The children of Lorin Wright inherited the remaining papers and also the property, including the Wright mansion in Oakwood. The Wright family wanted the remaining papers to stay in the Dayton area. In 1975, Wrights State University (named after Wilbur and Orville) received the papers. Since then other Wright-oriented donations have been made. The Collection Guide for this large collection is online, see below).
The seventh child of Milton and Susan was Katharine Wright (Haskell), nicknamed “Swes” or “Sterchens,” both affectionate diminutives for the German “Schwesterchen,” “little sister.” She was born on August 19, 1874 in Dayton, Ohio and died March 3, 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri. Katharine was the vivacious younger sister of the taciturn Wright brothers who usually
came across as stoic and unresponsive in public. She was described as have coal black hair, deep blue eyes, and had a smile that could blind you. She majored in Greek and Latin and earned a college degree graduating from Oberlin College in 1898. She became a school teacher and taught English and Latin at Steele High School in Dayton up until 1908. Later she would teach at the private progressive school, Moraine Park School, which was located in a renovated building donated by Charles Kettering, a greenhouse located at the corner of Southern Boulevard and Stroop Road. The Moraine Park Schoolwas in existence from 1917 till 1927. This ten year experiment in education was successful until it lost one of it financial backers. Emphasis was not placed on traditional classroom work as much as learning practical life-skills through community life. A student’s progress was judged by the ten “Arts of Life” which also embraced traditional academic subjects: body building, spirit building, society serving, man conserving, opinion forming, truth discovering, thought expressing, wealth producing, comrade or mate seeking, and life refreshing. The school consistently scored high on traditional tests.
When her mother died when she was 15, Katharine became the sole woman in the Wright household and took over the household duties under the guidance of a demanding father who was often gone doing church work. She was a strong willed woman and spoke her mind quite clearly, whether to her unruly Latin students or to her brothers. With the advent of her brothers’ fame, they asked her to travel to Europe with them and she became their social manager.
The boys were a sensation in Europeand Katharine was even more so. She learned to speak French and was highly pursued by the French press since she was much more spirited and approachable than her reticent brothers. The Wrights hobnobbed with dukes, counts, kings, and the wealthy. Along with her brothers, she received the French Legion of Honor. Rumors began than she had made substantial contributions to the development of the airplane; that she had funded the experiment, that she sewed the wings, and that her math skills had been indispensible to the effort. All three siblings vehemently denied these things, but some of these notions are still popular today. Actually, Wilbur and Orville financed their experiments from the profits from their printing and bicycle businesses. Wilbur sewed the wings. Katharine was not good at mathematics. She was, however, a primary bread winner through her teaching job for her family during the time of her brother’s experimentation and achievements. Undoubtedly her financial contribution to sustaining the household, which was made up of her brothers and father, was substantial. She was their emotional bulwark, their sounding board, and trusted confidant. When Wilbur and Orville were gone doing their research, Katharine ran the bicycle shop and handled their correspondence.
What Katharine was a progressive and a suffragette; women’s rights being strongly embraced by all in the family. She was the organizer of the 1914 Suffragette Parade in Dayton. Both her father Milton and Orville marched in the parade. Upset when her school district decided to cut the pay of female teachers during a financial crisis, she served passionately as the president of the Young Women’s League and was one of the founders of the Dayton Women’s Club which was founded to help network college graduates. Ironically, the highly uncomfortable “hobble skirt” fashion of the 1910s was attributed to Katharine. During a flight she took with Wilbur, she tied her skit below the knee to keep it flying up in the wind. Supposedly, this the start of that fashion.
Katharine was also a level-headed business woman and helped run the Wright Company in Dayton. Over the years, Orville became emotionally dependent on Katharine and when she decided to get married Henry (“Harry”) J. Haskell (1874- 1952), a old college flame, Orville saw this as the ultimate betrayal. He disowned his sister and refused to see her. He did not attend the wedding. Harry Haskell was a well-respected journalist who would win two Pulitzer Prizes and would eventually be the editor and part owner of the Kansas City Star. When Katharine came down with pneumonia in 1929 and it became evident that she would not survive, their brother Lorin insisted to Orville that he see his sister before she died. This he did do. Orville was the last person she saw before she died.
Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine were closely bonded in a “triumvirate.” Wilbur and Orville seemed to perfectly compliment each other and Katharine was the perfect hostess and care-giver to the two brothers. Tremendous importance was placed on the loyalty and unity of the family in the face of an often cruel world. The family was the rampart against it.
Another Wright brother was Lorin. The second son of Milton and Susan Wright was born on November 18, 1862 in Orange Twp., Fayette County, Indianaand died on December 1, 1939 in Dayton. Lorin was a restless soul like his older brother Reushlin. Lorin eventually settled down in Daytonand married his childhood sweetheart, Ivonette Stokes, in 1892. They had four children: Milton(1892-1961), Ivonette (1896-1995) married Harold Miller, Leontine (1898-1977) married John Jameson, and Horace (1901-?). Lorin was a bookkeeper for a carpet store in Dayton. In 1893, he went to work for Wilbur and Orville in their print shop, and in 1900 helped Katharine manage the “Wright Company” when Wilbur and Orville were at Kitty Hawk. Lorin also started his own “street sprinkling” business to help make some extra money. He was with Wilbur and Orville at Kitty Hawk in 1902, notified the press in 1903 after their first powered flights, and loaned them his barn to build the first United States military aircraft. In 1911, he helped Orville test the first airplane autopilot and, in 1915, he spied on Glenn Curtiss to gather information for the Wright patent suit against the rival airplane manufacturer. After Orville sold the Wright Company, Lorin bought an interest in Miami Wood Specialties — the company manufactured a toy that Orville designed. Lorin also became a city commissioner inDayton.
Reuchlin Wright (“Reuch”, pronounced “Roosh”), the first son of Milton and Susan Wright, was born March 27, 1861 near Fairmont, Indiana and died on May 23, 1920 in Kansan City where he is buried. He attended Western College near Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1879 and also Hartsville College inIndiana. Reuchlin married Lulu Bilheirner in 1886 and their first child was a daughter Catherine Louise (1887-1892). He was unable to be financially successful inDayton so the family moved toKansas City in 1889. They had three more children: Helen Margaret (1889-1972), Herbert (1893-1960), and Bertha Ellwyn (1896-1977). He lived the majority of his adult life inKansas. He was estranged from his family in Dayton.
- Bishop Milton Wright,
- His wife Susan C. Wright,
- Their twins Otis and Ida Wright *
- Their son Wilbur
- Their son Orville Wright
- Their daughter Katharine Wright Haskell
are buried in Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum inDayton,Ohio: Section 101,Lot 2533 (right).
Their son Lorin Wright is buried: Lot 305, Section 122.
*Otis and Ida Wright were first buried in the old church cemetery named Newcastle Cemetery, one of Dayton’s oldest dating back to 1839. The name comes from “Greencastle circuit” a circuit of the United Brethren church. Otis died from “jaundice” and Ida form “marasmus” according to Dayton’s “Records of Death.”
There are many good websites and books about the Wright Brothers. Below are just a few:
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park:
Wright Cycle Company Complex
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Park (Dayton History)
Paul Lawrence Dunbar State Memorial
Hawthorn Hill (home of the Wright family from 1914-1948)
Aviation Trail, Inc. (Dayton,Ohio)
The Engineer’s Club of Dayton
110 E. Monument Ave., Dayton, Ohio, 45402
The Asahel Wright House Museum(Centerville-Washington Twp. Historical Society)
The Wilbur Wright Birthplace and Museum, North of Millville, Indiana:
“What Dreams We Have: The Wright Brothers and Their Home Town of Dayton, Ohio” by Ann Honious (NPS: PUblished in 2003):
The WRight Brothers Collection at the Library of Congress:
The Wright Brother Collection at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio (Collection Guide):
The Wright Brothers at the HenryFord Museum and Greenfield Village, Michigan:
All About Old Toys (Miami Wood Specialty Company):
Crouch, Tom. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Wright, Milton. Diaries, 1857-1917. Dayton,Ohio: Wright State University Libraries, 1999.