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The Wright Family

Orville and Wilbur Wright were the sons of Milton and Susan Wright.  Milton was born on the Indiana frontier in 1828.  He served as an educator; a minister; and later, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  Susan Koerner Wright was born near Hillsboro, Virginia in 1831. 

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Wilbur Wright at age 12.

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Orville Wright at age 8.

As the daughter of a carriage-maker, she spent a great deal of time in her father's shop and developed considerable mechanical aptitude. She attended Hartesville College in Indiana where she studied literature and science and was the top mathematician in her class.  As an adult, she frequently built household appliances for herself and toys for her children.  She was the one her boys went to when they needed mechanical advice or assistance.

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Milton Wright,
Wilbur and Orville's father, in the 1860s.


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Susan Wright,
mother of Wilbur and Orville.

Milton met Susan at Hartesville College in 1853, where he was appointed supervisor of the preparatory department and she was a student. They married in 1859, when he was almost 31 and she was 28. Both shared a love of learning for the sake of learning. Their home had two libraries—the first consisted of books on theology, the second was a large, varied collection. Looking back on his childhood, Orville once commented that he and his brother had “special advantages...we were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused their curiosity.”

Susan and Milton had seven children.  Four sons and one daughter survived past infancy. Their first son, Reuchlin,was born in a log cabin in 1861 near Fairmont, Indiana. The second son, Lorin, was born in 1862 in Orange Township, Fayette County, Indiana. Wilbur, the third son, was born in 1867 near Millville, Indiana. In 1870, the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Susan gave birth to her fourth and fifth children, twins Otis and Ida, who died soon after birth. Orville, the sixth child, was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871, and Katharine,the only surviving daughter, was born in 1874.

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Reuchlin Wright,
the eldest Wright child.


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Lorin Wright,
the second son, as a teenager.

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Katharine Wright,
the youngest Wright child, at age 4.

None of the Wright children had middle names. Instead, their father tried hard to give them distinctive first names. Wilbur was named for Wilbur Fiske and Orville for Orville Dewey, both clergymen that Milton Wright admired. They were "Will" and "Orv" to their friends, and "Ullam" and "Bubs" to each other. In Dayton, their neighbors knew them simply as the "Bishop's kids."

Both Wilbur and Orville did well in school, although Orville was known for getting into mischief.  His eighth and ninth grade teacher made him sit at the front of the room where she could keep an eye on him. Orville and Wilbur were the only members of the immediate Wright family who did not receive a high school diploma, attend college, or marry.

Because of Milton's position in the church, the Wrights moved frequently—twelve times before finally settling in Dayton, Ohio, in 1870.  In Dayton, Milton became editor of the church newspaper, the Religious Telescope, a position that gave him prominence within the church and helped him get elected as a bishop.

Bishop Wright continued to advance in the church hierarchy, and in 1878, he assumed responsibility for the Western conferences in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and moved his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He traveled widely on church business, but always sent back many letters and often brought presents home. His gifts stimulated his children's curiosity and exposed them to a world beyond their immediate surroundings. In 1878, he brought Wilbur and Orville a rubber band powered toy helicopter.

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Orville's sketch of the toy helicopter he and Wilbur built.

Wilbur and Orville made several copies of this toy—it was the first powered aircraft they built together. When caught by his teacher while working on one of these toys when he should have been studying, Orville explained that he and Wilbur planned to build a craft large enough to carry both of them.  Orville later recalled that the helicopter was based on a design by French inventor Alphonse Pénaud; they later studied his work in aeronautics as grown men.

By 1881, the leadership of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ was becoming more liberal.  Milton Wright, a staunch conservative, failed to be re-elected to his Bishop's post. The Wrights moved back to Indiana, and Milton became a circuit preacher once again. He also founded a monthly religious newspaper,The Star, for fellow conservatives. Wilbur helped out by constructing a machine to fold the papers for mailing—perhaps his first original invention. Orville proved just as enterprising in his own way: he made kites and sold them to his friends; scavenged wood, bones, and junk metal; and even staged an amateur circus.

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The Wright home in Dayton, Ohio.

As the liberals in his church began to press for change, Milton Wright sensed there would be a showdown with the conservatives. Wanting to get back into the fray, he decided to move back to Dayton, the political center of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, in 1884. It was the last time he would move his family. In 1888, Milton Wright broke with the liberal leadership of the church and started his own conservative sect, Church of the United Brethren, Old Constitution.

During the winter of 1885-86, Wilbur was injured in an ice skating game. Complications—both mental and physical—followed. Although his facial injuries healed (he had lost a few teeth), he developed "nervous palpitations of the heart" and digestive problems. His illness derailed his plans to enter Yale College and become a teacher.  Wilbur began to think of himself as frail and decided that a college degree "would be money and time wasted." He became depressed and reclusive. It took him three years to recover his health. During his convalescence, he read avidly and nursed his mother, who had been suffering from tuberculosis since 1883.  By 1886, she had become a helpless invalid, requiring constant care.  Susan died in 1889. 

The year 1889 was a turning point for the family.  After many years of convalescing and caring for his mother, Wilbur recovered from his illness and joined Orville in the printing business.  As soon as they had mastered the customary printing services, they moved on to building their own printing presses and briefly published two local newspapers.  In 1892, the brothers went into the bicycle business

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The Wright Cycle Shop at 1126 W. Third Street in Dayton, Ohio.
The frame addition where the Wrights built their first airplane
is just visible behind the larger building.

—first selling and repairing bicycles, and then, in 1896, building them. Their top-of-the-line Van Cleve and the less expensive St. Clair were built to their customers' specifications. The brothers added a few original improvements to the customary components, including an oil-retaining wheel hub and coaster brakes, which are still used today.

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The Van Cleve bicycle that the Wrights built
and sold in their bicycle shop in Dayton.

Ever since Milton brought home the helicopter toy, Wilbur and Orville had an interest in aviation. They followed the accounts of the German gliding pioneer, Otto Lilienthal, with great interest. Lilienthal's death in 1896 inspired the brothers to seriously investigate flight.

Throughout all of Wilbur's and Orville's early endeavors in the printing and bicycle business—they worked together, particularly on mechanical devices.  Once they mastered one skill, they would move on and learn the next.  These experiences and skills would pay off in the future as they tackled the challenges of flight.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable)

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of invention and innovation in problem solving.