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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: From Inspired Youth to Inventors

The two young men who were to be the first to fly were born in the midwest shortly after the Civil War. Wilbur Wright was born on a farm near Millville, 8 miles east of New Castle, Indiana, April 16, 1867. Four years younger, Orville Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio, August 19, 1871. For most of their lives, Wilbur and Orville Wright lived in Dayton, Ohio and although they traveled to many places, the Wright brothers always considered Dayton their home. It was in Dayton where the Wright brothers grew up, were educated and embarked upon their careers. Even as children, it seemed that Wilbur and Orville were destined for greatness. Within the brothers stirred creative and mechanical minds. Their parents, Milton Wright, a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, and Susan Koerner Wright supported and encouraged the boys' inventiveness. Orville recognized the advantages of his youth:

We were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.¹

During their childhood, Wilbur and Orville made several experiments and inventions, which symbolized what lay ahead for the gifted pair. At a young age, Wilbur, to earn pocket money, took on a job of folding an entire issue of an eight-page church paper. However, the work became too tedious and tiring, so Wilbur invented a machine to do the folding for him. Likewise, young Orville earned money by making and selling kites. The brothers' first joint project was the building of a six-foot treadle-powered wood lathe, a pedal-powered machine for shaping a piece of material by rotating it rapidly along its axis while pressing against a fixed cutting tool. The lathe was the talk of the neighborhood and the start of a close working relationship between the brothers that would last throughout their lifetime.

One of the most significant investigations of the Wright brothers' childhood was their experiment with a toy helicopter that their father had given them. It was this toy that permanently planted the idea of flying machines in the brothers' heads. Orville recalled:

Our first interest (in flight) began when we were children. Father brought home to us a small toy actuated by a rubber spring which would lift itself into the air. We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully….But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale it failed to work so well. The reason for this was not understood by us so we finally abandoned the experiments.²

Orville took an interest in printing early in life; at the age of 12 he formed the printing firm of Sines and Wright with his friend and neighbor, Ed Sines. Together, they started The Midget; a weekly newspaper "devoted to the interests of the Intermediate School."³ In the meantime, Wilbur was also involved with printing. As early as 1888 at the age of 21, Wilbur wrote and published short pamphlets for his father's church.

Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their first printing business together at their house at 7 Hawthorne Street in 1889. Their first print shop (outside the home), was located at 1210 West Third Street from 1889 to 1890 and their third print shop from 1890 to 1895, was in the Hoover block, located at the corner of West Third and South Williams Streets. Not only was the printing business important as the brothers' first joint business venture, it was also an influential experience in the development of the brothers' mechanical, writing, and business skills, each of which became essential in the engineering, documentation, protection, promotion and sale of their invention of the airplane. The printing machinery they designed was representative of the inventive solutions that gave the brothers the experience they eventually employed in the development of the airplane.

Although the printing business was operating comfortably, by 1892, Wilbur and Orville needed another challenge. That December, the brothers opened their first bicycle shop, taking advantage of the extreme popularity of the bicycle in Dayton and throughout the country during the 1890s. There they sold various brands of bicycles and repaired virtually all makes and models for their neighbors on the West Side of Dayton, Ohio.

The seasonal demand for bicycles, combined with the ever-expanding mechanical skills of the Wright brothers, led to their decision to construct and sell their own brand of bicycles at The Wright Cycle Company. This decision, though it was not known at the time, would be pivotal in the eventual development of the world's first successful airplane. The Wright brothers released their own line of bicycles, ultimately consisting of three models, starting in 1896. At the same time, their printing business continued to expand their curious minds for knowledge of the outside world.

The Wright brothers did not graduate from high school, but were two self-taught engineers who never lost their love for learning and were constantly seeking new ways of solving old problems. The Wrights' father instilled a hard-work ethic in them at an early age. Their mechanical skills and innovations, however, are believed to be the result of the influence of their mother, who taught them how to use tools and work with their hands. Wilbur and Orville were much more than skilled craftsmen who just happened upon the secret of powered flight, they were, in fact two highly intelligent individuals who worked hard to gain the engineering expertise to make the idea of powered flight a reality.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How did the Wright brothers' parents influence their creativity? Why was this so crucial to their development?

2. What was the first machine Wilbur Wright invented? What machine did the brothers design and build together?

3. What skills did the brothers learn in the printing business that would help them in their aviation careers?

4. What career in particular led to the invention of the first successful airplane?

5. How did the Wright brothers develop the skills needed to make powered flight a reality?

Reading 1 was compiled from David G. Richardson, Jill York O'Bright, and William S. Harlow, "Wright Brothers-Associated Properties in the Dayton, Ohio Area" National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Carillon Historical Park, The Wright Brothers (Dayton, Ohio: Carillon Park, n.d.); and Fred C. Kelly, The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1950).

¹ Fred C. Kelly, The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1950), p. 28.
² Orville Wright deposition in Regina C. Montgomery et al. Vs. the United States, January 13, 1920, in
The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute, 2 vols., ed. Marvin W. McFarland (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), 1:3.
³
Dayton Midget, April 1886.

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