The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention
Full Story, Part V


The Price of Success


Testing a Wright Flyer at Huffman Prairie cow pasture near Dayton, Ohio.

During the two years following the first four flights, the brothers would continue to make improvements to their airplane design by testing new machines in a cow pasture near Dayton called Huffman Prairie.


Testing a Wright Flyer at Huffman Prairie cow pasture near Dayton, Ohio.


Those airplanes, in 1904/1905, are the first really practical flying machines that could be controlled at will. And the brothers had to work extremely hard on those airplanes to get them working the way that they needed to work. There was a lot of pushing and hauling in conditions that, in some ways, were more difficult than at Kitty Hawk. And so, the idea of them really getting up there and flying a complete circle and flying then for an hour or two at a time—that’s a terrific moment.

James Tobin, author


Testing a Wright Flyer at Huffman Prairie cow pasture near Dayton, Ohio.





The Wrights knew that they had developed an airplane that was far ahead of anything else yet conceived. They distrusted outsiders, and felt that any detailed disclosure of their methods in the press or otherwise would result in the unqualified exploitation of their hard-won discoveries.


Testing a Wright Flyer at Huffman Prairie cow pasture near Dayton, Ohio.





They were able to practice flying in relative secrecy—until October of 1905, when their increasingly dramatic circling flights over Huffman Prairie became noticed by the press, and they finally stopped flying altogether. By that time, they had developed the first truly practical airplane.


Orville and Wilbur Wright.






For the next three years, the Wrights attempted to convince the world that they had built and successfully flown a flying machine without ever demonstrating the fact. They were adamant in their resolve to conceal their invention until they secured legitimate sales and licensing agreements with any interested parties.


They showed enormous self-discipline during this period; enormous restraint. And it’s something not many people could have managed in the face of criticism. They were made fun of. People simply didn’t believe that they had done what they said they had done. So instead of kind of racing to prove it to everybody in a way that might have endangered their plans, they just said, “we know what we have done and that’s enough for us.”

—James Tobin, author


Wilbur Wright demonstrates Flyer near Le Mans, France in 1908.It was not until 1908 that the US Army and a syndicate of French businessmen each agreed to purchase Wright airplanes contingent upon their making demonstration flights. Wilbur first provided proof of their achievement at a racecourse near Le Mans, France. The sparse crowd was skeptical and growing impatient after waiting all day under the hot August sun. At six in the evening, Wilbur finally climbed aboard his machine. To the shock and amazement of everyone present, Wilbur not only flew, but also circled the field twice. A month later, Orville was making hour-long demonstration flights at Fort Myer near Washington, DC.



Donald Douglas.

One spectator in the crowd was Donald Douglas—a young man who would one day found the Douglas Aircraft Company, a cornerstone of the modern aviation industry.



My first memory of things in aviation was seeing the first Wright airplane demonstrated for the Signal Corp in 1908 at Fort Myer outside of Washington.

—Donald Douglas, Douglas Aircraft Company


Frank Lahm and Orville Wright in Flyer at Fort Myers, Maryland.

Orville’s first military passenger was Army Lieutenant Frank Lahm.


Day after day, we watched him go round and round the field in his tuning-up flights.  On landing, he came to me and said, “Would you like to go up?”  You can guess my answer.

—Frank Lahm, US Army







Wright Flyer and launching derrick at Fort Myers, Maryland.

Well there she was as I had seen her pictured—the old Wright pusher.  And there was that old launching device that kind of looked like a guillotine, and they had the airplane perched up at the starting part of the track and the weight all ready to go. And then, as I recall, it was Orville that got into the machine, and I guess it was Colonel Lahm.  And they pulled the old latch and down this little track it went with those funny old props batting around at apparently a pretty slow speed, and off she went.

—Donald Douglas, Douglas Aircraft Company


And I made my first flight in an airplane that day with Orville Wright; six minutes and forty seconds.

—Frank Lahm, US Army

For two years, Wilbur and Orville conducted demonstration flights before enthusiastic crowds of thousands on both continents, with U.S. President Taft and many of the crowned heads of Europe in attendance. The Wright brothers became the first internationally-known celebrities of the twentieth century.


They wanted fame in a lot of ways. They wanted recognition, but I think they wanted it on their terms, and they wanted it in their manner, in their way.

Leonard Bruno, author


Orvile Wright and Thomas Selfridge in Flyer before fatal crash.

But the price of fame would take an early toll. While conducting a demonstration flight with a passenger for the US Army, Orville heard two loud thumps behind him. One of the propellers had fractured. Within seconds the propeller broke apart, sending the little machine careening.


Orvile Wright and Thomas Selfridge and Flyer at fatal crash site




The aircraft smashed into the ground.


Orvile Wright and Thomas Selfridge and Flyer at fatal crash site








Orville was seriously injured and would take weeks to recover.


Orvile Wright and Thomas Selfridge in Flyer before fatal crash.










His passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, would die the next day, earning the dubious distinction of being the first fatality from a powered airplane accident.


Wright US patent diagram of glider.









The United States and other countries granted patents on the Wrights’ system of controlling an airplane about all three axes—the same system used by all airplanes today.


Roll, pitch, and yaw has been used on every flying machine since the 1902 glider. It’s interesting, if you go back and look at the grandfather patent of the aircraft, the Wright brothers did not patent their 1903 Flyer.

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


They’re patenting their control system and they show it installed on a glider, not on a powered flying machine. They hadn’t set out to invent the internal combustion engine. They set out to invent a flying machine that could be absolutely controlled every second it was in the air.

Tom Crouch, author


Glenn Hammond Curtiss in his June Bug flying machine.

The patents entitled the brothers to broad proprietary rights and enabled them to impose infringement suits on competitive airplane manufacturers.


And this meant, anyone who was flying for profit, making exhibition flights, or making airplanes that were capable of using the Wrights’ airplane control system which they had patented, they would have to pay royalties to the Wrights.

Fred Howard, author


The lessons they had learned in life set them up to be the inventors of the airplane. And after that part of the process is finished, when they turn from invention to the business of selling their invention, I think some of what they learned of the lessons of life begin to work against them.

—Tom Crouch, author

The patent suits created a great deal of animosity toward the Wrights, turning many in the fast-growing aeronautical community against them.


Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine Wright pose with US president Howard Taft.


The owners of a small bicycle shop suddenly being the leading figures in a new worldwide industry—who would have the skills to oversee and manage such an operation? They didn’t, but I don’t know who would have.

Stephen Kirk, author


Octave Chanute.




The Wrights’ numerous lawsuits disturbed Octave Chanute. Believing that the brothers were caught up in the pursuit of wealth, he went out of his way to assure competitors that they had nothing to fear from the Wright patents. Chanute publicly criticized the Wrights and refuted their patent claims. In 1910, Wilbur and Chanute made an attempt to restore their deteriorated friendship, but Chanute died soon after, before the two could fully make amends.


Wilbur Wright.


The brothers, having formed the Wright Aeroplane Company, continued to pursue infringing competitors with unbending resolve. It was during one of his countless out-of-town consultations with lawyers that Wilbur became ill from eating contaminated seafood. When he returned home, his illness was diagnosed as typhoid fever—the disease that had nearly taken Orville’s life sixteen years earlier. Wilbur’s condition deteriorated over the next three weeks until it took his life in 1912. He died at the age of 45.


Protector of the Claim


Orville and Katharine Wright at Hawthorn Hill home in Dayton, Ohio.


It changed Orville, I think, in that he, when he lost Wilbur, lost his anchor; his other half.

Leonard Bruno, author


Orville Wright and his dog named Scipio.









Orville would carry on for thirty-six more years as the senior statesman of aviation and as the protector of the Wright brothers’ claim as the inventors of the airplane and the first to fly. His future contributions to aviation would be few and would quickly become outmoded. Like Wilbur, he would never marry. Disliking crowds and speech-making, he made as few public appearances as possible, preferring life at home in the mansion he called Hawthorn Hill, in the company of friends, relatives, and his dog Scipio.


The Legacy


The Wright 1903 Flyer and the shed behind their bicycle shop.

The famous 1903 Flyer had traveled through the air for a total of only 99 seconds, but its journey after Kitty Hawk would be long and arduous.  Stored in a shed behind the bicycle shop for the next ten years, the crate containing the Flyer was submerged for several weeks in 11 feet of water and mud during the Dayton flood of 1913. Not until three years later was the Flyer uncrated for the first time and reassembled for temporary exhibition.

In 1928, the first airplane became a bargaining chip in the Wright’s protracted dispute with the Smithsonian Institution. Orville sent the Flyer to London as a gesture of protest in response to the Smithsonian’s mislabeling of Langley’s Aerodrome as the first man-carrying airplane capable of flight—a label tantamount to a denial of the Wrights’ singular achievement.


It’s not a terribly attractive period in Orville’s life. He looks to be sort of overly stubborn and small-minded at certain points. And yet, it’s probably true that if he hadn’t behaved the way he did, at least for some period until historians looked at the record more closely, the Wrights might not have gotten the credit they deserved.

—James Tobin, author


1903 Wright Flyer as displayed in the Milestones of Flight grand entry hall of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Smithsonian published a statement that unequivocally credited the Wright machine as the first airplane capable of flight. The 1903 Flyer was finally acquired by Smithsonian in 1948 and in 1976 took its rightful place on display in the new National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC as one of the most treasured flying machines of all time.


Wright glider stored in hangar destroyed in harsh winter storm near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


The breakthrough 1902 glider, which had been left behind in the Wright’s hangar at Kitty Hawk, was eventually destroyed by a hard winter storm. Only a wing tip exists today as a part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

All of the Wright’s earlier machines, including the 1899 kite, the 1900 and 1901 gliders, and even the wind tunnel used to measure lift and drag, were cannibalized for parts or lost through neglect.


Orville Wright and the misplaced 1901 wind tunnel test balances.

In 1947, while Orville was cleaning out the attic to his lab, he found an old typewriter case. Just before discarding it, he shook the box and heard a rattle. There in the case were the wind tunnel balances that had been misplaced for over 30 years. The original wind tunnel balances are now a part of the Franklin Institute’s collection in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Wright 1905 Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.




The 1905 Wright Flyer, considered to be the world's first practical airplane, was nearly lost to the elements. The brothers left it behind at their North Carolina camp after their experiments on the Outer Banks in 1908. In 1911, a wealthy Massachusetts museum builder arranged for the airframe to be salvaged from the storm-ravaged wreckage of the Wrights’ camp. The disassembled airplane remained in storage until 1947 when Orville requested its return to Dayton. The 1905 Flyer was reconstructed, partially under the direction of Orville, and is now on display at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.

Wright family home in Dayton, Ohio.


The Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street and Bicycle Shop were purchased by Henry Ford in the 1930s and moved, timber-by-timber and brick-by-brick, to Greenfield Village, an open-air museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Orville provided information that helped guide the restoration, and he and other members of the Wright family donated many of the artifacts found in both buildings today.  The two modest structures stand appropriately among the dwellings and workshops belonging to many of the greatest men in American history.



Orville Wright attends 1928 dedication of National Monument.


The Wrights’ testing ground near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is now a park facility and National Monument.  In 1928, three of the surviving witnesses determined, to the best of their abilities, the spot from which the first flight began, and on the 25th anniversary of this landmark flight, a memorial was dedicated with Orville himself in attendance.




Beacon of light monument atop Big Kill Devil Hill at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.Four years later, Orville attended the dedication of another monument on this historic site—the only person in American history to have a national monument erected in his honor during his lifetime. The monument atop Big Kill Devil Hill towers over the brothers' old testing grounds.  Its aeronautical beacon is visible for miles in every direction. The inscription on the monument reads, “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, Conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”


In an incredible century that included everything from a holocaust to the eradication of smallpox and the discovery of penicillin and so on, the invention of the airplane was in fact an event that did shape the course of the century.

—Tom Crouch, author


Perhaps the 1903 achievement more than suggested that we’re limited only by our imagination sometimes; that almost if you can dream it and if you’re hard-headed enough and willing to work hard enough, then maybe it can be achieved.

—Leonard Bruno, author


Earth as seen from the moon during Apollo 11 moon surface walk.

Within one lifetime, the human species progressed from being earthbound pedestrians to moon walkers. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the moon.


Wright 1903 Flyer wing fabric and propeller fragments that Neil Armstrong took to the moon.

On board was a small square of fabric cut from one of the original wing coverings of the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer and a small wooden sliver from one of its propellers. This symbolic final fight of the world’s first airplane was a fitting tribute to the two pioneers who created it—and who taught mankind how to fly.


Here they are, two bicycle mechanics in the Midwest. They have no funding other than what they can scrape together themselves. They have no formal training even though both of them, Wilbur especially, are widely read—as widely read as any scientist ever was. And just by their sheer brilliance, they thoroughly trounce all the world’s leading scientist. Hyram Maxim, Samuel Langley, Thomas Edison—all the people who had tried to tackle the problem flight before them, the Wrights brothers just sail right through the problem.


It’s just what Americans want to hear about themselves. The little guy can do it. What you need is a belief in yourself and to keep your wits about you and to out think the other guy. When you don’t have money; when you don’t have political power; when you don’t have the where-with-all, what you do have, is you have your wits—your Yankee ingenuity. And we use this time and time again to teach our children that they can make do with what they have, and they can do great things without having great wealth or great power.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company


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