American History

The Wright Brothers: How They Became Aviation Pioneers

The Wright Brothers: How They Became Aviation Pioneers

Do you know the story of the Wright brothers? They are the inventors of controlled, manned flight. This is their story, and how they became aviation pioneers.

Listen to the Genealogy Clips podcast on YouTube or iTunes.

Do you remember reading about the Wright Brothers in school? They are famous as the inventors of manned, controlled flight. Their first successful flight, in the airplane of their own invention, as at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. While people in the United States and Europe had been experimenting in human flight for decades, the Wright Brothers were the first to build an aircraft that used controls to adjust the wings. It was this invention that made sustained, controlled flight in a heavier than air vehicle possible. Though they fought for years for official recognition, as they did their flight experiments in relative secrecy and few people believed what they accomplished was possible, they were eventually granted the recognition they deserved.

The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers were named Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948), and were two of seven children born to Milton and Susan Wright (these children included fraternal boy and girl twins who died in infancy). Orville and Wilbur never married or had children, with Wilbur once stating he did not have the time or monetary resources for both inventing and a wife. Their sister Katherine married in her 50’s and never had children, leaving only their elder brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin Wright to marry and have children to carry on the Wright family line into the present day.

Their father, Milton, traveled a lot in his position as a bishop for the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. On one trip, he bought a toy helicopter for Wilbur and Orville. No flying helicopters had been invented, but it was theorized one could work, and the toy was made based on this theory, and on the design of the French engineer, Alphonse Penaud. It was made of cork and paper, with a rubber band to make the rotor blades spin, and measured around a foot long. The brothers were fascinated by it and played with it so much that it eventually broke. At that point, they built a new one on their own. They later looked back on their toy helicopter as the thing that first instilled an interest in flying in them.

Wright 1899 kite

Wright 1899 kite: front and side views, with control sticks. Wing-warping is shown in the lower view. (Wright brothers drawing in Library of Congress)

Wilbur and Orville Wright began as printers of both periodical and commercial newspapers and then moved on to tinkering with the new bicycle invention. Their work with bicycles got them interested in machinery and re-introduced their interest in flying to them. With their knowledge of bicycles, they began to believe that controlled flight was possible with the right balancing tools and with practice. The flying machines up until that point were not controlled by the aviator, and the flights were for only short durations of a few seconds at most. The Wright Brothers began to aspire to more than this for the future of flying by humans.

Gliders, which were much like the hang-gliders of today, were already in use when they began their flight experiments in 1900. They used these gliders for their initial experiments, as it was proven they could fly. It was the control and sustained the ability to fly the brothers were looking to add to the gliders. In collaboration with Charlie Taylor, an employee in their bicycle shop, the brothers began to build the first airplane engine.

Their airplane engine was funded by profits from their bicycle shop, where they both repaired and sold bicycles. They based the design of the airplane their engine would be powering on the work of early gliding aviators, as well as the designs of Leonardo da Vinci. With extensive experimenting through 1903, the brothers gradually perfected a design they believed would fly and be able to be controlled by humans. They chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as the location for their first experiments in manned flight, as the sea breezes coming from the Atlantic Coast provided good lift and support for their aircraft. Orville successfully flew for around 12 seconds on December 17, 1903, and the brothers considered this their first successful manned flight. They were still a long way from perfecting the design, however.

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Wilbur just after landing the 1901 glider. Glider skid marks are visible behind it, and marks from a previous landing are seen in front; Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Both Orville and Wilbur were involved in many aircraft crashes during their experiments, though neither one of them was ever seriously injured. Eventually, they were able to get the public interested in what they were doing when they agreed to do demonstrations of manned flight in France and Washington, D.C. in 1908 and 1909. This brought a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense for the purchase of the brothers’ aircraft, newspaper attention around the world, and permanent fame in the imaginations of the people around the world.

This film documents the official test flight of the Wright Brothers’ military airplane at Fort Myer, Virginia, on July 27, 1909.
National Archives Identifier: 2038


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.