Orville Wright, working with his brother Wilbur, made the first heavier-than-air, powered, controlled flight by man, leading the world into the aviation age.
Orville was born to Milton and Susan Wright in Dayton, Ohio on August 19, 1871. Orville was the sixth child of seven, but two of his older siblings did not survive infancy. Those siblings that did survive were his 3 older brothers, Reuchlin, Lorin, and Wilbur, and he would have one younger sister, Katherine, born exactly three years after him in the very same room, in the family house in Dayton on 7 Hawthorne Street. He would become very close with Wilbur, as their scientific collaborations can attest, and he would also have a close relationship with Katharine. Their father Milton was a Bishop in the United Brethren Church, causing the family to relocate frequently, in addition to Milton often traveling for work. Despite this, it was a very loving, close-knit family. Their parents raised the children to be self-confident and to pursue whatever aroused their curiosity.
Orville received his formal schooling in Iowa, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio, where the family was finally able to settle for good in 1884. Orville, like his older brother Wilbur, was a good student favoring math and science classes, with mechanical inclinations and ambitions. Milton recalled young Orville as enthusiastic and a leader. Among other fun exploits, Orville promoted circuses for the area, and became famous in the community for his high quality kites he flew and sold, designing and building the kites himself. Orville found high school to be less than challenging, causing him to drop out in the 11th grade. However he and Wilbur would later be bestowed with honorary PhD degrees from Harvard, Yale, and other prominent schools for their invention of the airplane.
For two summers while in high school, having worked for Dayton printers, he decided to start his own printing business with his friend Ed Sines. After eventually buying Ed Sines out as co-owner, he asked Wilbur to join him in the printing business. Soon the brothers began building their own printing presses. Orville was famous for making a press out of the folding tops of carriages, tombstones, and other spare parts. The Wright’s printing business stayed in operation until 1899, but after 1892 Ed Sines mostly ran the business. Wilbur and Orville formed the Wright Cycle Company in 1892 selling, repairing, and manufacturing bicycles. The bicycle business was a great success, allowing them the funding and time they would need for their pursuit of aviation.
Interest in Flight
Both Orville and Wilbur fondly recalled when, in 1878, their father brought home a toy helicopter powered by a rubber band. Designed by French aeronautical experimenter Alphonse Pénaud, this toy did not simply fall to the ground as expected. Rather it "flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor." The delicate toy didn’t last long before it broke, but it truly caught the brothers’ attention; they tried to replicate the toy themselves. Orville later credited this childhood toy as being the object that sparked their original interest in flight.
The Wright’s fascination with flying increased due to two events in 1896; the death of Otto Lilienthal, the celebrated glider experimenter, in a flying accident, and the semi-successful unmanned launching of powered models by Samuel Langley. They continued their bicycle business for the next two years, but mastery of flight weighed heavy on their minds.
Pursuit of Flight
In 1899, Orville and Wilbur began reading all they could about flight, in addition to constantly observing birds and continuing their kite experiments. Designing and manufacturing bicycles themselves honed Orville and Wilbur’s natural mechanical abilities. Many of the tools they used to manufacture bicycles they would also use when building their gliders and flyers. In their bicycle shop in Dayton, they did much of their inventing and research. However, it was the Outer Banks of North Carolina that met their criteria for testing their inventions, with its privacy, steady winds, and wide-open non-vegetated spaces. It was here, in sparsely populated Kitty Hawk, they set up camp, giving them the freedom to experiment with and perfect their machines until they achieved success. At age 32, Orville piloted the first successful powered, controlled flight on December 17, 1903. The Wright brothers had changed the world.
After 1903, their attention was devoted solely to aviation. By 1908, they formed airplane companies in Europe and America and, by 1910, they had taught the world how to fly. They came back to Kitty Hawk for glide and flight practice, and on October 24, 1911, Orville established a new world soaring record at Kitty Hawk of nine minutes and forty-five seconds, a record that stood for ten years.
In 1932, the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk at Kill Devil Hills was dedicated, the largest memorial to the brothers’ achievements. Orville was in attendance. He did not make a speech on this auspicious occasion, however, because unlike his brother Wilbur (who died of typhoid fever in 1912), Orville was not a comfortable public speaker. Orville, who had become a millionaire due to the brothers’ invention of the airplane, lived to age 76, having witnessed aircraft used in two world wars, the development of the jet engine, and man breaking the speed of sound. He died of a heart attack in Dayton on January 30, 1948, only 21 years before man first set foot on the moon.