by Kate Reuther

 Wilbur Wright as a child

Today when most people think of "The Wright Brothers," they picture the intelligent, successful, inventors of the first powered airplane. So you might be surprised to find out that Orville and Wilbur Wright were once mischievous students who never graduated from high school. Orville and Wilbur grew up in a large family in Dayton, Ohio. Their father, who was a newspaper editor as well as a church bishop, encouraged his sons to pursue their own intellectual interests, and from an early age, Orville and Wilbur Wright were fascinated by mechanics and flying. Once when caught by his teacher working on a toy helicopter in class, Orville explained that one day he planned to build a machine big enough to fly carrying them both.

In 1889, when he was only 18 years old, Orville left high school and started a printing business, using a press that he had made himself. Wilbur joined the business, and they did very well. In 1893, when bicycling had become popular, the enterprising Wright brothers decided to open a bicycle repair shop across the street. Eventually they were building and selling custom-made bicycles as well as repairing them.

 Orville Wright as a child

With two successful businesses, the brothers could afford to spend time on their other interests. They read everything they could get their hands on concerning aviation and aeronautics. Orville and Wilbur were especially interested in the experiments of other flight inventors, such as Octave Chanute in the United States and Otto Lilienthal in Germany. The Wright brothers were devastated when Lilienthal was killed by an unexpected gust of wind in a glider accident in 1890. Wilbur spent days in the library studying Lilienthal's designs and concluded that the trick to successful flight would be inventing a plane you could control and power. The Wright brothers would spend the next thirteen years of their lives pursuing that dream. They achieved powered flight on December 17, 1903 (see article).

Considering their enormous accomplishment, Orville and Wilbur were surprised when only two newspapers reported on their first flight. Many people suspected the Wright brothers were lying or had faked flight somehow. The Wright brothers also were suffering from money problems. Building airplanes is a very expensive hobby, and the Wright brothers needed a patent for their airplane design if they expected to ever earn any money from it. Otherwise other people could just copy and sell their planes. Orville and Wilbur continued to improve their plane designs and also took to doing flight demonstrations in America and eventually also in Europe. Most people, it seemed, didn't believe in airplanes until they saw one with their own eyes. Finally, in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt contacted the Wright brothers and signed a deal with them to build airplanes for the US army. They continued to design and manufacture planes until 1912, when Wilbur died of typhoid fever. Even though the Wright Plane Company continued to exist after Wilbur's death, Orville sold his shares and retired. He continued to act as a consultant to other scientists, but Orville would not invent again without his brother.