See the image behind the journey.

 

Letters From Kitty Hawk

by Fred Howard

Acclaimed Wright Brothers biographer Fred Howard introduces a series of beautifully-written (and sometimes illustrated) excerpts that he personally selected from hundreds of Orville and Wilbur’s surviving letters. Voice performances by John Hambrick and Nicholas Rork.


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Fred HowardHundred years before the invention of cell phones and email, the Wright brothers were experts in a now almost forgotten mode of communication—letter writing. Wilbur’s long detailed letters to aeronautical historian Octave Chanute comprise a virtual history of the invention of the airplane—a complete a record of an invention as any such record ever produced. However, the earliest example of writing by either the brothers is Orville’s. In 1881 when Orville was nine, he crammed the following information onto the back of a post card addressed to his father who was out-of-town on business.

 

Orville Wright as a boy.

Dear Father,

I got your letter today. My teacher said I was a good boy today. We have forty-five in our room. The other day, I took a machine can and filled it with water. Then, I put it on the stove. I waited a little while and the water came squirting out of the top about a foot.  The water in the river was up to the Cracker Factory about a half a foot. There is a good deal of water on the Island. The old cat is dead.

 

—Your son, Orville

As an adult, Orville was only too willing to admit that Wilbur was a superior letter writer. A letter from Orville to their friend, George Spratt, begins…

 

Orville Wright

 

While I am aware of the shock of receiving a letter from me is apt to bring one a fit, yet I assure you that my writing is with no design on your life, which you mention in your letter to Wilbur. We both take great interest in your letters, and my not writing to you is not for my lack of interest in what you are doing, but rather for the lack of ability as a letter writer. Will seems to enjoy writing so I leave all the literary part of our work to him.

 

—Orville Wright

Orville was being modest. His lack of ability is belied by the letters he wrote in 1900 during the brothers' first visit to Kitty Hawk...

 

Wright Brothers' tent on a dune near Kittly Hawk in 1900.

 

This is a great country for fishing and hunting. The woods are filled with wild game and they say, even a few "bars" are prowling about the woods not far away. At any time, we look out the tent door, we can see an eagle flapping its way overhead, buzzards by the dozen—‘til Will is most sick of them—soaring over the hills and bay. Hen Hawks making a raid on nearby chicken yards or a Fish Hawk hovering over the bay looking for a poor little fish whom he may devour. Looking off the other way to the sea we find the seagulls skimming the waves and the little sea chickens hopping about, as on one foot, on the beach, picking up the small animals washed in by the surf.

 

—Orville Wright

In his letters home, Orville waxed ecstatic about the sunsets, the moon rise, and even the starlight...

 

Colorful sky from the dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

The sunsets are the prettiest I have ever seen. The clouds light up in all colors, in the background, with deep blue clouds of various shapes fringed with gold before. The moon rises much the same style, and lights up this pile of sand almost like day. I read my watch at all hours of the night—on moonless nights—without aid of any other light other than the stars shining on the canvas of the tent.

 

—Orville Wright

Wilbur’s letter-writing abilities are most apparent in the letters he wrote to George Spratt—a kindred soul who argued aeronautics with the brothers for three of the four seasons at Kitty Hawk…

 

George Spratt at Wright Brothers' camp in 1901.

 

 I see that you are back at your old trick of giving up before you are half beaten in an argument. I felt pretty certain of my own ground but was anticipating the pleasure of a good scrap before the matter was settled. Discussion brings out new ways of looking at things and helps to round off the corners. You make a great mistake in envying me any of my qualities. Very often, what you take for some special quality of mind is merely facility arising from constant practice, and you could do as well or better with like practice. It is characteristic of our family to see the weak points of anything, but this is not always a desirable quality as it makes us too conservative for successful businessman and limits our friendships to a very limited circle.

 

—Wilbur Wright

In lecturing Spratt on the value of discussions, Wilbur revealed the brothers’ own method of reaching agreement after an argument…

 

Letter from Wilbur Wright to George Spratt.

 

If a man is in too big a hurry to give up an error, he is liable to give up some truth with it. And in accepting the arguments of the other man, he is sure to get some error with it. Honest argument is merely the process of mutually picking the beans and motes out of each other's eyes so both can see clearly. After I’ve got hold of the truth, I hate to lose again. And I like to sift all the truth out before I give up an error.

 

—Wilbur Wright

In 1901 and the Brothers’ second trip to Kitty Hawk, Orville inserted a small sketch in a letter to illustrate their battle with bedbugs...

Close-up of humorous sleeping illustration by Orville Wright.

 

We landed at Kitty Hawk two weeks ago Thursday evening. We slept at Tates that night on the bed, which looked very much like this from the head end. That's Will down in the center and that little fella hanging on to the side with both hands is me. When I played out and couldn't stand it any longer I rolled down into the bottom and made Will crawl up the side. The fellow in the bottom could get along pretty comfortably, for when he was attacked by any foe, which roams at large over most of the beds in the southern places. He has the opportunity of slapping back. But the poor fellow on the side was in a pretty fix, having both hands occupied, and had to endure the attacks as best he could.

 

—Orville Wright

There's more. Watch the entire video Letters from Kitty Hawkwatch everything now! It's easy. You'll sign on to Vimeo (as easy to use as YouTube) and pay only $9.98 to watch all the videos, all unlocked, here on wrightbro.com for one month.

All-Access PassIt's easy to find any video you want with our All-Access Videos menu tab at the top of every webpage.

 

Own the Kitty Hawk 2-disc DVD that includes this seriesAll for only $19.98 + s/h