Wilbur and Orville Wright are quite correctly regarded as the geniuses who ushered in the age of flight. When the original Wright Flyer left the ground on December 17, 1903, it proved conclusively that heavier-than-air flight was possible.
There’s a lot to the story of the Wright Brothers. Some of it is well-known; some of it perhaps, not common knowledge.
To help round out the world of the Wright Brothers’ knowledge, here are some of what may be lesser-known facts about the brothers.
Katharine Wright is by far the best known of the Wright Brothers siblings, and for good reason. The brothers were very close to her and the letter exchanges between Wilbur and Orville and Katharine are miniature literary gems.
However, there were also two brothers—Lorin and Reuchlin.
They’re important if for no other reason than neither Wilbur nor Orville married and certainly did not have children. Katharine married late in life, marrying Harry Haskell, the editor of the Kansas City Star in 1926 when she was 54.
The marriage only lasted three years. Katharine died in 1929 of pneumonia.
Reuchlin was the oldest sibling, and most accounts indicate a difficult relationship with his father, Bishop Milton Wright. Unlike the other members of his family, he did not live in Dayton, moving to Kansas City to raise his family.
He and his wife, Lulu Billheimer, had four children. Helen, Bertha, Herbert, and Catharine. Catharine died at age five in 1892. The other siblings lived well into the 20th century.
Lorin, born a year after Reuchlin in 1862, also had four children, marrying his wife Ivonette Stokes in 1892. The couple had four children, Milton, Ivonette, Leontine, and Horace. Ivonette, born in 1896, lived to the age of 99 dying in 1995.
Although Reuchlin’s relationship with his family was often strained, he and Lorin remained close throughout their lives.
There were two other Wright family siblings—Otis and Ida. Both died before one year of age.
High School Dropouts
That’s right…Wilbur and Orville Wright never finished high school.
Wilbur, who by all accounts was the brilliant brother, was athletic and probably bound for Yale. However, during an ice hockey game his senior year in high school, a local boy, Oliver Crook Haugh, smashed him in the mouth with a hockey stick.
It took months for him to recover physically and during that time he was in excruciating pain. Three years of depression apparently followed. It was also during this time that Wilbur began to read extensively about flight.
Oliver Crook Haugh went on to infamy as a mass-murdering doctor who drugged his victims—but that’s another story.
Orville, who was certainly the more entrepreneurial of the two, was a gifted writer and at age 18 during his junior year in high school, dropped out to create his own newspaper, the West Side News.
At 18 he was a bit old to be a junior in high school. Evidently, he was expelled for a year from elementary school for unspecified mischievous behavior.
Quite rightfully the Wright Brothers are world-famous for being the first to show that humans could indeed fly a heavier-than-air machine.
But in some ways, as remarkable as that achievement was, the propeller they designed might have been even more revolutionary.
They were the first ones to realize that a propeller, like the wings, were airfoils. Before that time, propellers were flat spinning pieces of wood. The propellers on the Wright Flyer were hand-carved spruce in the shape of a wing. Their wind tunnel experiments had shown a twist in the propeller would force the air backwards, pushing the aircraft forward.
Modern propellers operate at 90% efficiency; Orville and Wilbur’s propeller achieved up to 70% efficiency. Not bad for a couple of high school dropouts.
Orville Held a gliding Record for a number of years
Even though Orville Wright was the world’s first airplane pilot, he had a real love for gliders, and on On October 24, 1911, launching from a sand dune in Kitty Hawk he set a gliding record of nine minutes and 45 seconds.
The record stood for almost 10 years. It was not until August 30, 1921 that Wolfgang Klemperer managed to stay in the air for 13 minutes in Germany that the record fell.
Wilbur Died of typhus
Wilbur Wright was only 45 when he died in 1912. The most likely culprit was some shellfish he ate in Boston while on a business trip, although there is no way to confirm that.
His death made headlines around the world. “Wilbur Wright Dies of Typhoid Fever “ the New York Times May 30, 1912 headline read. “Wilbur Wright Dead; Typhoid Clams Cause” the Baltimore Sun claimed.
With Wilbur no longer a part of the Wright Company, the aircraft company the brothers founded in 1910, Orville evidently decided it was time to retire, and in 1915 he sold the company.
Writing of his son’s death, Bishop Milton Wright observed, “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.”