The Family of the Wright Brothers
Created | Updated May 8, 2006
Famous aviators the Wright Brothers have a family history that is much more interesting than might be expected. Their family also had a great effect on the brothers' interest and success in aviation. Their help and encouragement with several things might have helped their perseverance to work on achieving aviation. In fact, it's entirely possible that one member of their family helped stop them from quitting.
The family was very close, even by the standards of their time period. Orville and Wilbur Wright especially didn't allow many outsiders into their lives, and trusted only family.
Milton - The Father
Milton Wright, born in 1828, was a minister. When he became a bishop, he often had to move from town to town, giving the Wrights many temporary homes. Bishop Wright is often described as gruff and firm, but he maintained a love of his children.
The largest effect the Bishop had on Orville and Wilbur was the educational environment. He provided an extensive library for the family, stimulating them and making their curiosity grow. Orville later wrote:
We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.
It was almost entirely because of this library that the brothers became educated. They received little formal education in their earlier years, but were very intelligent men in a variety of fields.
One of the first things Milton did to inspire the brothers was bring them a trinket from the church. This was a little helicopter toy that they boys could spin in their palms to make it fly. Orville and Wilbur were fascinated by this. Supposedly, they started watching birds and the toys and simply thought 'If birds and these helicopters can fly, why can't we just make them on a bigger scale?'
It's interesting to note that Milton liked to name his children with the strangest names he could find. Hence the names Reuchlin, Lorin, Ida, Otis1, Wilbur and Orville. The name of the only girl, Katharine, is not as obvious today, but at the time the spelling was very odd.
Susan - The Mother
Milton and Susan met in 1853 in Hartsville College. Her first son was Reuchlin, followed by Lorin, Wilbur, Otis, Ida, (twins who only lived a few days) Orville and lastly Katharine.
Susan Wright, born in 1831, had a very real impact on the brothers. Besides the obvious fact that she gave birth to them, she affected Wilbur's attitude greatly and helped support their inventions. They learned almost all that they knew about mechanics and invention from their mother.
In 1883, she contracted tuberculosis and by 1886 required constant care. Around 1886, Wilbur was hit by a bat in the face while playing a game. Possibly because of this, he developed a nervous palpitation of the heart. For four years, he had to stay at home suffering. During this time, he sunk into a depression and he had to care for Susan, who was now dying. Wilbur's bad attitude towards life was probably related to Susan's disease. Throughout his life, he had a bad temper and was highly pessimistic.
Reuchlin2, born in 1862, was the eldest son, six years older than Wilbur. He was generally different from the rest of the family and often didn't fit in. He frequently went away from the family for job opportunities or college, which the rest of the family would seldom do. He found it difficult living in Dayton, Ohio, and went west on several occasions.
Later in his life, Reuchlin would leave his family under unpleasant circumstances3 and move to California. Of all the Wrights, Reuchlin had the least to do with aviation.
Lorin Wright was born in 1862. Like Reuchlin, he went west, but returned quickly and married. He had four children: Milton, Ivonette, Leontine, and Horace4.
In 1893, he joined Orville and Wilbur in their first business venture, the print shop. When they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to test their aeroplane in 1900, he helped Katharine manage the Wright Bicycle Shop that they left behind. In 1902, he joined his brothers in Kitty Hawk before their first flight. He was present at their first powered flight.
Lorin did a number of great things for the brothers as well. In 1903, he notified the press of their success in aviation. He loaned a barn to Orville and Wilbur to work on their aeroplane in privacy. He helped test the first autopilot in 1911, and in 1915 spied on their rival Glen Curtiss for evidence on a patent dispute. Later, Lorin became the city manager of Dayton, and died in 1939.
Katharine, born in 1874, was very close to Orville and Wilbur. She shared a special connection, however, with Orville - partly because they had the same birthday. When she was 15, she replaced her mother as the woman of the house. She often did favours for Orville and Wilbur, such as sewing cloth for their aeroplane.
Katharine maintained the bicycle shop with Lorin while the Wrights were in Kitty Hawk, and she helped to build new aeroplanes. She also encouraged the brothers not to quit when they were taken aback by minimal success. It's entirely likely that Katharine was the reason that they continued to work, after being badly discouraged by their failure.
In 1898, she went to college, and was the only Wright to finish and get a diploma. She got a teaching degree and taught a course in Classical Literature in Dayton. But when Orville was badly injured in a crash in 1908, she gave up her job and nursed him. She was very involved with the business and travelled to France with Orville and Wilbur. She was appointed as an officer of the Wright Company in 1912, following the death of Wilbur. But when Katharine married late in life, Orville was enraged at the thought of life without her and disowned her. He wouldn't speak to her until she was on her deathbed in 1929, when Lorin convinced him to make amends.