The Wright Brothers: Extraordinary Babysitters

Whether they were “first in flight” or simply “first in sustained, piloted, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight of enduring technological significance”, the Wright Brothers are unlikely to be left behind in the annals of aviation history. Progressing from the design of human-weight gliders to propeller-powered aircraft, Orville and Wilbur Wright solved problem after problem—many of which were insurmountable by others—to get a plane in the air and keep it there.

Much of their success has come from experimentation: testing in the wind tunnel they built in their workshop in Dayton, Ohio; countless models of wings and boats; and test flights in the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But as those closest to them would attest, their mechanical prowess also depended on their willingness to debate a problem without resentment.

As explained by Horace Wright (b. 1901), son of Wilbur and Orville’s older brother Lorin, their accomplishments were “probably due to the fact that there were two of them. And when one had an idea, the other tried to prove him wrong. They didn’t try to prove they were right.

Click on the image to read the full interview.

Not that the brothers shared a personality or ever took the same approach to a problem. According to Horace, Wilbur “thought a lot. […] Wilbur was never the big talker. But he could put a lot of meaning into a few words.

Orville, on the other hand, “loved to argue.” As Horace recalled,

you never knew what he was thinking. I’ve seen him, many times, baiting somebody on something or he just liked to argue, and I’ve seen our family dinners, dad and a few others talking, and they’d come up there and you’d think they were going to have a fight. No, they didn’t feel anything afterwards, I mean some people when you argue with them, they get sore. Usually none of them would.

Click on the image to read the full interview.

Horace’s older sister, Ivonette (b. 1896), also remembers listening to Wilbur and Orville think aloud every Sunday, especially when

they were sitting in their living room, Seven Hawthorn Street, and you could hear them sitting there, and one of them was making a statement, then there was a long pause, then the other was making a statement, and then the other would say “it’s not either”, then it would be “it’s not either”, “it’s also”, “it’s not either”, then there would be another long pause and by the time they were done with the argument, each had presented it so well that they would be in on it. the opposing sides when they had finished their argument.

Click on the image to read the full interview.

Horace, Ivonette, and their sister and brother, Leontine (b. 1898) and Milton (b. 1892), grew up a few blocks from the Wright brothers’ home in Dayton. On Sundays, Orville and Wilbur would babysit their nieces and nephews, read to them, give them homemade candy (“fudge at first. It went too fast so [Orville] made chewy candy, he made toffee or butterscotch”), and repaired their broken toys.

Ivonette remembers being asked to write in the notebook the brothers used to keep track of the details of their first flight. As she described it, it

was a small book so they could keep it in their pocket. When I was sitting on Wilbur’s lap one time, he said, can you write your name? And I was about old enough to learn to write my name, and he said, well, let’s see, let’s see if I can find something that you can write it on. So he took this little book out of his pocket and I wrote my name twice in it, and later… when I saw my name written twice in the diaries, it was [sic] sent to the Library of Congress, I realized that was what had happened.

Click on the image to read the full interview.

While the stories told by Horace and Ivonette reveal a way of thinking and reasoning that helped the Wrights design a reliable control system for their experimental aircraft, they also show us something we don’t usually read about in aircraft manuals. story: the brothers were excellent babysitters.

The interviews with Horace and Ivonette were captured on reel by graduate students at the University of Dayton in 1966-67 and transcribed in the late 1970s. The students spoke to several people who knew the Wright brothers, as well as ‘with friends and colleagues of Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric starter for automobiles. The transcripts are now part of the Wright Brothers – Charles F. Kettering Oral History Project at the University of Dayton.


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Resources

JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers and students. JSTOR Daily readers get free access to the original research behind our JSTOR stories.

By: David Schneider

American Scientist, vol. 91, no. 6 (November-December 2003), p. 501-502

Sigma Xi, the scientific research honor society

By: Horace Wright

Wright Brothers – Charles F. Kettering Oral History Project, University of Dayton University Libraries

eCommons

By: Ivonette Wright Miller

Wright Brothers – Charles F. Kettering Oral History Project, University of Dayton University Libraries

eCommons

By: Frederick J. Hooven

American Scientist, Vol. 239, no. 5 (November 1978), p. 166-185

Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.