Meeting Wilbur and Orville

To understand the brothers, one historian found that what you know is less important than who you know.

Orville Wright (seated at right, with Wilbur) wears what’s known as “the Chevron,” a thick mustache that covers the top of the upper lip. “He had sported a reddish mustache since high school,” writes Tom Crouch in his 2003 book The Bishop’s Boys. “Once full, almost a handlebar, it was now clipped short, just bushy enough to cover a pair of very thin lips that turned up at one corner when he smiled. He was the enthusiast of the pair, ever on fire with new inventions, and the optimist as well, the one who always saw the brighter side.”

There was a (small) outcry when Orville didn't make The Art of Manliness’ list of “35 Manliest Mustaches of All Time.” The father of aviation lost out to a puppet—the Swedish Chef from "the Muppet Show"—and a cartoon character, Yosemite Sam. (Courtesy NASM.)
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Standing in this very shop that spring, idly fingering a long, narrow box that had contained an inner tube, Wilbur had come upon the notion of moving the top wing of a biplane fore or aft of the bottom wing, and even inducing a helical twist across both wings in a way that would enable a pilot to control the movement of the center of pressure on the wing, and thus the motion of a flying machine. He built a small skeletal model of such a biplane out of bamboo slivers, rigged with thread, just to clarify in his mind the mechanics of the thing. Then he built a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan to test the principle.

He walked out of the bike shop one day late in July with the kite carefully tucked under his arm. He walked four or five blocks west on Third Street, then turned north for two blocks. Along the way, he collected a crowd of boys who had abandoned their own kite flying activities to follow Wilbur. Arriving at an open field at the corner of West First Street and Euclid Avenue, near the Union Theological Seminary, he set up the kite and unwound the four 20-foot lines that would control its motion.

Wilbur asked one of the boys, Johnny Myers, to hold the kite as far above his head as he could and to let it go when instructed. “There was quite a big wind that day,” Myers reported many years later. “I recall that when he tilted the planes, the kite came down very rapidly.” With a bit of practice, Wilbur was able to maneuver the kite in the air. It was a tricky business, however. Once, when he allowed the lines to go slack, the kite darted toward the ground, scattering the young onlookers. On that quiet summer afternoon, Wilbur Wright had taken the first step toward the invention of the airplane.

I have a kite like that. A friend who is far better with his hands than I am built it for me. It is not easy to fly. Without some weight in front of the leading edge, I can’t keep it in the air at all. For a long time, my record duration aloft was 20 seconds. My kite, and all of the other replicas that people have built, are based on a simple drawing that Wilbur sketched one morning before testifying in a patent suit. I would like to see what his kite was really like. And I would like to ask how long he really kept it in the air on that first day. Maybe he could give me a few tips.

I would not choose to visit on the day he flew the kite, because Orville was away on a camping trip, and I would want to meet them both. I would like to shake hands with the brothers, long before they tasted fame, at a time when the possibility of actually succeeding where so many others had failed was the most distant dream.

I would like to hear their voices. No recording of either of them has survived. I know what others have said about their personalities. Members of their family have described them to me at length. I have read what they wrote, and drawn my own conclusions. I would simply like a reality check on my assumptions about these two men, to whom I have given so much thought.

I would like to walk home with them, to the house at No. 7 Hawthorne Street. What would I not give for the opportunity to chat for a few minutes with their father, Bishop Milton Wright, the man who was so important in shaping the lives of his children and through them the history of the 20th century? I would certainly not pass up the chance to spend at least a few minutes with their sister, Katharine. And I would want to walk the neighborhood, getting a feel for the few blocks along West Third Street that the Wrights knew so well.

Of one thing you can be certain. My visit to the West Dayton of 1899 would not be complete without a walk around the block to Horace Street and a visit with a three-year-old charmer named Ivonette. For my money, that would be an afternoon in the past well spent.

About Tom Crouch

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department. An historian of early flight, he is the author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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