Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park: Where the Wright Brothers Conquered the Air (Teaching with Historic Places)

Two-story brick building.

This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.

Arguably, the human imagination found its highest expression in two men from Dayton, Ohio: Wilbur and Orville Wright, first to fly a powered, heavier-than-air machine and creators of the practical airplane. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park preserves evidence of the birth of this quest for flight at The Wright Cycle Company Complex. This is where the Wright brothers operated their own printing business and, later, a bicycle shop.

The Hoover block (now called the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center), built in 1890 on the corner of West Third and South Williams Streets in Dayton, Ohio, was not only the location of a Wright brothers' printing shop, but it is one of only two properties intact today associated with the brothers' printing careers. Wilbur and Orville started their careers as printers and operated firms in four different locations outside their home. They continued the printing business in conjunction with their bicycle and aviation interests until 1899 when the printing business was sold.

The other property associated with the Wright brothers' early careers is the two-story brick structure known as The Wright Cycle Company building located at 22 South Williams Street. In their Dayton bicycle shops these two men, self-trained in the science and art of aviation, researched and built the world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine capable of free, controlled, and sustained flight.

Today, these two adjoining properties at The Wright Cycle Company Complex are testaments to the brothers' original occupations. Yet, these two newspaper printers and bicycle mechanics were responsible for one of the most profound and extraordinary inventions in human history: the airplane. By applying personal insight and imagination to their mechanical skills, Wilbur and Orville Wright were able to solve one of the most fascinating and perplexing questions in all of human history: "Are humans capable of achieving powered flight?"

About This Lesson

This lesson is based on the National Register of Historic Places registration file,
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and other source material.

Setting the Stage

"It is…incontestably the Wright brothers alone who resolved, in its entirety, the problem of human mechanical flight…Men of genius--erudite, exact experimenters, and unselfish--the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright have, more than anyone else, deserved the success which they achieved. They changed the face of the globe."¹

Since the dawn of history, humankind has been fascinated with the idea of human flight, and although many attempts were made, it was not until Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane that man truly conquered the sky. In classical Greek mythology, Daedalus made wings for his son Icarus to fly away from Crete. Icarus, disobeying his father's warnings, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, which had glued together his wings, causing Icarus to plummet into the sea. From the Middle Ages, there are references to both lighter and heavier-than-air flying from the Franciscan Monk, Roger Bacon, whose work contained speculative references to hollow globes filled with "aetherial" air which could float in the atmosphere, to a flying machine in which a man could sit and propel himself. Even the great Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci, was obsessed with the idea of human flight and created several interesting sketches of man-powered ornithopters. So how is it that two printers turned bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio were able to solve the mystery that so many others had failed to do? They were able to adapt and build on their earlier experiences to create something that had only been dreamed of.

The brothers' first joint business venture, a small print shop established in 1889, proved influential in the development of the brothers' mechanical, writing, and business skills. Each of these skills would become essential later in their careers. Then Wilbur and Orville entered the bicycle business in 1892, when American journalists were already touting the bicycle as a "boom to all mankind," a "national necessity," and a "force that has within it almost the power of social revolution."² Little did they know that this bicycle boom would help the Wright brothers' succeed in their quest to achieve heavier-than-air mechanical flight through the invention of the airplane. This would be their crowning achievement, ushering in a new age for mankind--the age of air power and the shrinking globe.

¹ Charles Dolfus, quoted in Charles Gibbs-Smith, Aviation: An Historical Survey from its Origins to the End of World War II (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970), front piece.

² Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing,"
American Heritage of Invention & Technology (n.d.), p. 11.

Locating the Site

Map 1a: Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

Map of Dayton aviation center.

Map 1b: Detail map of West Dayton.
Map of west Dayton.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park is a cooperative effort between the National Park Service and four partners. The sites associated with the park are The Wright Cycle Company Complex, including The Wright Cycle Company building and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center (the restored Hoover block Building) and Aviation Trail Visitor Center and museum; Huffman Prairie Flying Field, where the brothers continued experimenting after their flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center; John W. Berry, Sr. Wright Brothers Aviation Center that is part of Carillon Historical Park where the 1905 Wright Flyer III is displayed; and the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial.

Questions for Maps 1a & 1b

1. Using an atlas in your classroom or school library, locate Dayton, Ohio on a map of the United States.

2. Examine Map 1b. Find Third and Williams Streets. These are the street locations of both the Hoover block and The Wright Cycle Company building. What is their proximity to each other and the Great Miami River?

3. Why do you think there are so many sites included as part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park? What other aviation-related landmarks are noted on Maps 1a & 1b that are not part of the park?

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.
Dayton Midget, April 1886.

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Wright Brothers as Printers

Situated on the corner of South Williams and West Third Streets, the three-story commercial Hoover block was constructed in 1890 by Zachary T. Hoover as a mixed-use building. The first floor was designed to accommodate three shops; the second housed three suites; and the third was devoted to a large open meeting hall.

From 1890 to 1895, the Wright brothers operated "Wright and Wright Job Printers" in a suite at the front of the second floor of the Hoover block. The printing shop represented the first of Wilbur and Orville's three joint business ventures--printing, bicycles, and airplanes. It afforded them a significant opportunity to increase their mechanical and business skills and nurtured in them other abilities that would aid them in their later accomplishments. The years in the printing enterprise played an important role in the shaping of the young brothers' minds and stimulated their inventive and enterprising spirits.

The first Wright brothers' job printing business began in 1889 in a rented room of a building, which has since been demolished. While at that first location, the brothers issued two newspapers: the weekly West Side News and the daily Evening Item. The Wrights designed and built a homemade printing press to print their newspapers from junk iron, firewood, a gravestone, and a buggy top. The design of the press was such a mechanical success that the Wrights were hired to design and build printing presses for other firms as well.

Orville served as the publisher of the newspapers, while Wilbur was editor. Both these two papers eventually proved unsuccessful because of a lack of community support, and the brothers returned to filling traditional printing orders. As the Wrights remarked in their final editorial of the Evening Item:

…The greatest difficulty we had to contend with is the fact that the people of the West Side will not believe that "any thing good can come out of Nazareth." They seem to have a way when something new is started up over here of standing back and saying they do not believe it can succeed, instead of at once doing something to support it.¹

In 1890, the brothers moved their business to the newly constructed commercial Hoover block. Here, the firm of Wright and Wright prospered moderately by filling orders for calling cards, posters, annual reports, directories, letterheads, advertisements, and broadsides. Likewise, the Wright brothers received considerable business from their father, Bishop Milton Wright, who served as publishing agent for the Old Constitution of the United Brethren Church and publisher of the Christian Conservator.

Shortly after moving to the Hoover block, Wright and Wright became involved in yet another newspaper endeavor, the Dayton Tattler. This weekly paper, started in 1890, was the creation of the Wrights' friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar, an African American who later became a poet of international renown, conceived of the Tattler as a paper devoted to and for "every family of our race in the state. The price so low that all can afford it."²

The Wrights worked with Dunbar on the Tattler at the Hoover block throughout its short-lived existence, Orville remarking, "We published it as long as our financial resources permitted of it, which was not for long."³ In all, only three issues of the Tattler were published. However, Dunbar still appreciated the effort of the Wrights, especially the help of his high school classmate Orville.

In 1894, the Wrights again embarked on a newspaper enterprise with Snap-Shots, a weekly publication directed toward Dayton cyclists. By February 1896, one year after the printing business had been combined with the bicycle business at 22 South Williams Street, Snap-Shots was devoted to cycling news and the promotion of The Wright Cycle Company. First issued on October 20, 1894, and continuing until April 17, 1896, Snap-Shots was the longest running of any of the Wrights' papers.

Although Wright and Wright Printers moved from the Hoover block to 22 South Williams in the spring of 1895, the Hoover block was later again associated with the Wright brothers. The West Side neighborhood of Dayton showed overwhelming support of the Wright brothers and their invention of the airplane. In May 1909, upon the return of the Wrights to Dayton from an extended trip of successful flying demonstrations in Europe, a group of West Side businessmen organized the first aeroplane club in the world "to honor Wilbur and Orville Wright, two neighborhood sons who had conquered the air and just then returned from European laurels."4 This club, incorporated as the International Dayton Aeroplane Club, held its club meetings and social functions at the Hoover block.

The members met monthly:

For the purpose of stimulating and fostering research in the science of aeroplanautics and aeronautics in general, co-operating in the exploitation of aerial devices, collecting literature bearing thereon and recognizing meritorious contributions or achievements by the conferring of suitable honors.5

Dues were a dollar a year and the club boasted a membership of more than 200. Among the members were Bishop Milton Wright and Wilbur and Orville's older brother, Lorin. As honorary lifetime members, Wilbur and Orville "frequently sat in on confabs about airplanes, balloons, and aviation."6

The Hoover block was the home of the first common business venture of Wilbur and Orville, a business that nourished their intimate bond of friendship and fostered a harmonious working relationship between them. Through the newspaper business, the Wright brothers learned how to report and record events accurately, a skill that would assist them in documenting their work with the airplane and would aid them in winning court cases of patent infringement. As printers, the Wrights designed and built machinery to ease their work, an experience that would aid them in their later development of machinery and mechanics to manufacture bicycles and build an airplane. Their time as printers developed their business experience as well, helping them later in founding the aviation industry. The 10 years that the brothers were in the printing business proved to be an important precursor to their later experiences of inventing and marketing the airplane.

Questions for Reading 2
1. What Wright business was located in the Hoover block?
2. As printers, what did the brothers invent to help them in their work? What was it made of? Does this seem unusual? Why or why not?
3. In what ways did printing help the brothers in their pursuit of aviation?
4. What other famous Daytonian is associated with the Wright brothers and the Hoover block?
5. How did the West Side neighborhood finally show their support for the Wright brothers?

Reading 2 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); Mary Ann Johnson, A Field Guide to Flight: On the Aviation Trail in Dayton, Ohio (Dayton, Ohio: landfall Press, 1986); Fred Howard, Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers (New York: A. Knopf, 1987); and Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).

Dayton Evening Item, 30 July 1890.
Dayton Tattler, 27 December 1890.
³ Orville Wright to Edward Johnson, 2 January 1934, 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), 2:1162.
Dayton Journal, 25 February 1934.
5 Articles of Incorporation of the International Dayton Aeroplane Club, Dayton Room, Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library, Dayton, Ohio.
Dayton Journal, 25 February 1934.

Determining the Facts

Reading 3: From Bicycles to Airplanes

By the time Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their first bicycle shop in 1892 to repair and sell bicycles at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, the nation was already in the midst of a cycle craze. In fact, so great was the appeal for the newly developed safety bicycle that it was extolled as the "greatest invention of the nineteenth century," and the decade of the 1890s was celebrated as the golden age of the bicycle.¹ The millions of bicycles that poured out of American factories during the decade of the 1890s set an entire nation on wheels. For both industry and society--the bicycle was a transitional technology, bridging the gap between the age of the horse and that of the automobile.

The bicycle enterprise provided a brisk business for Wilbur and Orville, and necessitated the relocation of their cycle shop at 1005 West Third Street to more spacious quarters. In early 1895, the Wrights once again made the decision to move their bicycle business to larger facilities this time to 22 South Williams Street. However, this time they chose to combine their bicycle and printing interests under the same roof. In addition to their repair business, the brothers stocked a line of parts and acquired the local distributorship for eight lines of new bicycles. Competition was still fierce, as there were 14 bicycle shops in Dayton by 1894-95, four of them within two blocks of the new Wright shop.

Late in 1895, the Wrights decided to expand their cycle business to manufacture their own brands of bikes. In a pamphlet printed early in 1896, the Wrights announced:

With the new year we begin our fourth season in the bicycle business, and we take this occasion to thank the public for its increasing favor. Each year we have more than doubled the business of the preceding one. For this reason we feel that we are justified in making special preparation for the accommodation of our customers in the coming year. Our salesroom at 22 South Williams Street is being nicely refitted, and a visit from you will be much appreciated. We are adding new machinery to our shop, and before the riding season opens we hope to have on the market a bicycle of our own make, which in commemoration of Dayton's Centennial Year and in honor of our own ancestor, we have decided to call it the "Van Cleve.". . .We shall also put out a cheaper bicycle which will be known as the "Wright Special." ²

In preparation to produce their own line of bicycles, the Wrights transformed the building into a well-equipped machine shop. Within no time, the back room of the bicycle shop was outfitted with a turret lathe (a turning lathe with a vertical cylindrical revolving head), drill press, brazier (a metal pan for holding burning coals or charcoal), tube cutting equipment, and an overhead line shaft. Likewise, the Wrights used many other tools such as files and wrenches, which would be necessary to manufacture bicycles. However, most important among the Wrights' inventions for the bicycle shop was an experimental gas engine. The one-cylinder internal combustion engine was designed by Wilbur and Orville to power the bicycle machinery and was the first engine they ever built.

The first bicycle produced was the Van Cleve. Named for pioneer ancestors of the Wrights, it was always the top of the line of Wright bicycles and sold for $65.00.³ The St. Clair (named in honor of Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory), a lower priced model marketed towards school children, was also introduced in 1896. While most major bicycle manufacturers were mass-producing machines using techniques that helped set the stage for the assembly line, the Wright bicycles remained hand-crafted originals. Most of the Wright cycle frames were built from raw tubing, brazed (or soldered) with a machine the Wrights had developed themselves. The Wrights built their own wheels with either wooden or metal rims, according to individual customer orders. One particular element of their Van Cleve bicycles that they were proud of was their specially designed hub (the center of a wheel, from which the spokes radiate), which they announced, has "been a chief feature in making the Van Cleve reputation. We are certain that no hubs have been used in bicycles so satisfactory in all respects….they are absolutely dust proof, and oil retaining to a degree that one oiling in two years is all they require."4

Overall, between 1896 and 1907, when the Wrights discontinued their bicycle enterprise, the brothers manufactured and sold hundreds of several models and brands. But bicycles had given Wilbur and Orville more than just the wherewithal to build and test their experimental flying machines. Their experience in bicycle building had provided them with the wood- and metal-working tools and skills that would be required in the construction of an airplane. In fact, many early aviation enthusiasts predicted that the invention of a successful flying machine would be the work of bicycle makers.

The year 1896 at the bicycle shop was significant for other reasons as well. In August, after the line of Wright bicycles had been successfully introduced to the Dayton community, Orville contracted typhoid fever from a tainted well at the rear of the bicycle shop. While Orville remained bedridden until early October, Wilbur occupied his time contemplating the aeronautical problems of human flight. Around the time Orville became ill with the fever, Wilbur learned of another tragedy that would fuel the brothers' desire to conquer the air. On August 10, Otto Lilienthal, the German engineer and aeronautical pioneer who was the first man in the world to launch himself into the air and fly, died from injuries received in a glider accident. Lilienthal's death, which Wilbur learned of through a news service the brothers subscribed to for their printing firm, inspired the brothers' to work on overcoming the obstacles to human flight. As Wilbur remembered:

My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896. The brief notice of his death which appeared in the telegraphic news at that time aroused a passive interest which had existed from my childhood...and as my brother soon became equally interested with myself, we soon passed from the reading to the thinking, and finally to the working stage.5

From 1896 and on, the Wrights harbored a growing belief that man could fly, and they began to focus their attention on the problems of mechanical and human flight. Time and again the Wrights returned to the study of Lilienthal's crash and the reasons for it. After all, the German pioneer had constructed wings that could carry him aloft, but his primitive weight-shifting technique had been inadequate to provide sufficient control over his machine. Most would-be aviators had, in fact, moved in the same direction as Lilienthal, toward designing a machine that would be inherently stable, requiring the intervention of the pilot only when a change in direction or altitude was required. The insistence of the Wright brothers that the pilot be an integral part of the mechanical system, exercising complete and constant control over the balance and direction of the machine, was their first major step toward success.

Inside the building at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton, Ohio the Wright brothers began their incredible journey into aviation. The bicycle business not only provided the funds necessary to pursue their interests in aviation, but also allowed them time, as the business was seasonal in nature. Bicycle manufacturing was the ideal preparation for engineering the structure of an aircraft. Weight control is a primary concern of both bicycle and aircraft designers, though for very different reasons. In the key areas of balance and control, the bicycle had helped to shape the Wright brothers' approach to aircraft design. In the fall of 1897, the Wrights shifted their operations to 1127 West Third Street, the final location of their bicycle enterprise. It was in this building that the brothers constructed their experimental gliders and later machines, conducted much of their aeronautical research, and built the world's first airplane. They successfully flew that airplane on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolona.

After their success at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers proved that flight was possible. But they needed to prove that flight was practical. For aviation to take its next steps, they needed a convenient, private place--a flying field--closer to home. Their experiments continued--not at Kitty Hawk, but at a cow pasture eight miles east of Dayton, Ohio, known as Huffman Prairie. Even though their first experiments at Huffman Prairie in 1904 were filled with frustration, their experience as bicycle makers helped them master the mysteries of control and balance. Eventually, the brothers were able to stay in the air long enough to practice turns, circles, banking and stalling. It was here, at Huffman Prairie, that the brothers built the first practical airplane and learned to fly. They were no longer dependent on the wind; they could take off and land numerous times without injury and they could stay in the air longer than ever before. By the end of 1905, the Wright Flyer III could fly 20 miles or more at a time. The Wright brothers truly conquered the skies.

Questions for Reading 3
1. Besides their bicycle trade, what other Wright business was located in the building? Which of the two businesses was more profitable?
2. What was the most important invention the Wright brothers made for the bicycle shop? Why?
3. Why was 1896 important for Wilbur and Orville Wright? Which event do you think was the most important for the development of aviation? Why?
4. What skills did the Wright brothers gain from their experience in the bicycle business that they were able to apply to their experiments in aviation?

Reading 3 was compiled from David G. Richardson, Jill York O'Bright, and William S. Harlow, "Wright Cycle Company and Wright and Wright Printing" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing,"
American Heritage of Invention & Technology, (n.d.); Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989); Fred C. Fisk, "The Wright Brothers' Bicycles," Wheelmen, November 1980; and Arthur G. Renstrom, Wilbur and Orville Wright: A Chronology Commemorating the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Orville Wright August 19, 1871 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1975).

¹ Tom D. Crouch, "The Wright Cycle Company," pamphlet (Dayton, Ohio: Aviation Trail, Inc., n.d.).
² "The Wright Cycle Co. Van Cleve Pamphlet," cited in Fred C. Fisk, "How the Wheelmen Helped Save a Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop,"
Wheelmen, November 1986, p. 15.
³ Tom D. Crouch, "Wright Cycle Company," Pamphlet, (Dayton, OH: Aviation Trail, Inc., n.d.).
4 Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing,"
American Heritage of Invention & Technology (n.d.), p. 15.
5 Wilbur Wright to the Western Society of Engineers, 18 September 1901, 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), 1:103.

Interior of The Wright Cycle Company with bicycle.
(National Park Service)

Photo 1 shows the inside of The Wright Cycle Company building at 22 South Williams Street as it may have looked at the time when the Wrights worked here.

Photo 2: Interior of the Hoover block print shop.

Interior of the Hoover block print shop.

(National Park Service)

Photo 2 shows the inside of the Wright brothers' print shop at the Hoover block as it looked at the time when the Wrights worked there.

Questions for Photos 1 & 2
1. How are these workshops similar to and/or different from modern workshops you may have seen?
2. Do you think these recreated workshops help people better understand the Wright brothers' experience? Why or why not?
3. Why do you think it is important for people to learn about the brothers' experience at Hoover block and The Wright Cycle Company?

Visual Evidence

Photo 3: Interior of The Wright Cycle Company building, Wilbur at work in 1897.

A man working in a workshop with his back turned toward the camera.
(Courtesy of Wright State University Special Collections and Archives, Wright Brothers Collection)

The Wright brothers always dressed impeccably and left their business at the end of the day spotless in spite of the fact they worked in an environment surrounded by ink, oil, grease, dust, and dirt.

Questions for Photo 3
1. Describe Wilbur Wright's clothing. How does his clothing compare to the clothing that mechanics wear today in their machine shops?
2. Many consider The Wright Cycle Company building at 22 South Williams Street to be the actual "birthplace of aviation." Why do you think people might make this claim? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

Visual Evidence

Photo 4: Engine similar to one built and used by the Wrights in their bicycle shop.

Engine similar to one built and used by the Wrights in their bicycle shop.
(National Park Service)

Photo 4 shows a replica of the engine the Wrights designed and built to power the tools in their bicycle shop. This engine was coal gas-powered, much in the same way that an automobile's engine of today is powered by gasoline. The engine turned the belt seen, and it then turned a whole series of belts, which thereby provided the energy to operate all of the tools in the shop.

Questions for Photo 4
1. What might be some reasons the Wrights designed an engine to power their tools?
2. How might developing this engine help them invent the first airplane with controlled powered flight?

Visual Evidence

Photo 5: Bicycle chain and sprocket used to power propellers on the Wright airplane.

Bicycle wheel and chain.
(Carillon Historical Park)

Questions for Photo 5
1. Notice the many gears and chains that power the propellers. Do they remind you of anything? How does Photo 5 show that the brothers' experiences with the bicycle played a critical role in developing the first powered flying machine?
2. How is riding a bicycle similar to flying? How did the Wright brothers make this connection? If needed, refer to Reading 3.
3. Why are balance and control key elements in flying airplanes? If needed, refer to Reading 3.

Putting It All Together

The freedom offered to humanity through the ability to fly was accomplished through a long process marked by advances and setbacks, accomplishments and failures, multiple attempts, and finally, success. The Wright brothers' ingenuity, insight, and intelligence made it possible for them to invent the first successful airplane and provide the world with one of the most significant advances in history. However, these two men offered the world something far greater, they offered the world hope, and the ability to take a dream and make it a reality. The following activities are designed to encourage students to understand the process undertaken by the Wrights in the development of the first successful airplane.

Activity 1: Advertising for Business
Orville and Wilbur Wright needed a wide range of resources and talents to succeed in developing a high quality line of bicycles as well as to meet with success in developing their flying machines. Among these talents was the ability to convince others that their products were needed and practical. Assign each student in the class with the task of conducting further research on one of the Wright brothers' printing businesses or bicycle shops. Learn more about the products they produced there and how they related to the community. Then, have the students design an advertisement about one of the Wright brothers' businesses and/or products keeping in mind that the ad may be for a newspaper or to post on the door. The advertisement can consist primarily of text if the student so chooses, or if they choose to be more artistic, they can design a graphic display.

Activity 2: Learning from Experience
Three prominent inventors and aviation enthusiasts, Otto Lilienthal, Dr. Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute, influenced the Wright brothers' pursuit of powered, heavier-than-air flight. Lilienthal was a German glider expert known as the "father of gliding." His 1896 death in a gliding accident prompted the brothers to examine the issue of flight in an in-depth manner. Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was successful in constructing and flying steam power-driven models known as aerodromes. However, he was never able to build full-sized machines capable of carrying a pilot in flight. Chanute was both a mentor and advisor to the brothers as well as being an experimenter himself. Have each student research the work of one of these men and then imagine that they are in the position of the Wright brothers about to embark on their quest for powered flight. Students should write a letter to one of the men about their ideas concerning aviation, being certain to ask for advice about conducting experiments, identifying problems or concerns, and building models.

Activity 3: The Roots of Invention
The Wright brothers have been widely celebrated as being capable inventors who were able to take bicycle technology and apply it to their flying machine. This is exhibited on their early airplanes in items like the oversized bicycle chains, which transferred the power of the engine to spin the propellers, the wheel hub used to transport the plane down the track, and the ball bearings in the engine. Even the first airplane engine planned out by the brothers followed their earlier engine designs developed to power the tools in their bicycle shops. This process of developing one invention from another is not an isolated occurrence; other inventions have been brought about through a similar process. Have each student research an invention that has some root in another, existing invention or device. Students should give oral reports to the class on their findings.

This activity could be expanded by having each student think creatively to develop their own invention that utilizes some aspect or aspects of existing inventions or technology. Emphasis should be placed upon an invention which will alleviate some problem in existence today in America involving the transport of goods or people from place to place, or the invention of some form of transportation which is not currently available. Have students create detailed drawings or build a model of their invention and then make a presentation to "sell" the idea to a group of "investors" (the class).

Activity 4: Mentors
Just like Otto Lilienthal, Dr. Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute, influenced the Wright brothers in their work, we all have people in our community with whom we identify that have either inspired us or provided guidance when most needed. Have students identify several people who have influenced them and choose one on which they would like to write a paper. In their paper they need to include a short biography on that person and explain why that person has had such an important impact on their life.

Activity 5: Inventions and the Community
The Wright Brothers were constantly attempting to invent new things which eventually led to the successful first flight. Have the students break into small groups and brainstorm: What invention do they think had the greatest effect on their local community? Have students research the history of the invention of their choice. What problem was the inventor attempting to solve? Has it evolved since its first production? How many attempts did it take to create the final product? Was the final product the invention the inventor was attempting to create in the beginning? What was the invention’s influence on the local community? The national community? International community? Have students give oral reports to the class. As an extension activity, have the class try to discover whether their community or state has any famous inventors or inventions. If so, what was their effect on the local community? Have the students come together for a class discussion on important inventions. Did they come up with different inventions? Why?

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park: Where the Wright Brothers Conquered the Air--

Supplementary Resources

By studying Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park: Where the Wright Brothers Conquered the Air students discover the early influences that inspired the Wright brothers as inventors and the importance of the Wright Cycle Company Complex where they developed the key mechanical skills that profoundly impacted their invention of the airplane. Those interested in learning more will find that the Internet offers a variety of interesting materials.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
A cooperative effort between the National Park Service and four partners, this park includes four separate sites: The Wright Cycle Company Complex which includes the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Aviation Trail Visitor Center and Museum, as well as The Wright Cycle Company building; The Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Interpretive Center; The John W. Berry, Sr. Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park, which includes the 1905 Wright Flyer III; and The Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial. Visit the park's website for more information.

Wright Brothers National Memorial Historical Handbook
The National Park Service offers an online historical handbook on the Wright brothers and their experiences both in Dayton, Ohio and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, including numerous images covering each stage of their development as inventors.

Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial web pages include information on visiting the park as well as detailed descriptions and visuals of the Wright brothers' work. Also helpful are links to several websites on the Wright brothers and aviation history.

National Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum maintains the largest collection of historic air and space craft in the world. The original 1903 Wright Flyer is among the hundreds of artifacts on display at the museum. The NASM web site features the interactive online exhibit, How Things Fly and an interactive online timeline of events, The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age.

Last updated: March 29, 2023