Author Biography: Mary Kay Carson is the author of Space, Great Weather Activities, Wow's and Why's of Weather, and The Creepiest, Scariest, Weirdest Creatures Ever! She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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The Wright Brothers for Kids
How they Invented the Airplane: 21 Activities Exploring the Science and History of Flight
By Mary Kay Carson, Laura D'Argo
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Mary Kay Carson
All rights reserved.
Bishops, Boys, and Bicycles
Wilbur and Orville's mother had good news for her two youngest sons. "Your father will be home from his business trip today, boys!" Susan Wright happily announced. At 11 years old, Wilbur understood that his father had to spend a lot of time away from home visiting other towns and cities on church business. After all, Milton Wright was now a bishop in the United Brethren Church. His election to bishop was why the family had moved to Iowa earlier in the year. At only seven years old, Orville also knew his father was an important man in the church. But he was always excited when his father came back home. Especially when he brought the boys presents from his travels!
Orville and Wilbur weren't disappointed when their father arrived at the house. He was holding a surprise hidden in his cupped hands. "Look at this, boys!" Bishop Wright exclaimed as he tossed the gift toward Orville and Wilbur. The brothers rushed forward to catch their present. But the tossed toy instead rose up into the air. Orville and Wilbur stood with their mouths open watching as the miraculous toy flew up to the ceiling, fluttered for a while suspended in midair, and then fell to the floor. Oh my, but it was grand! They ran to examine it up close.
Bishop Wright had brought his sons a toy flying machine made of cork, lightweight bamboo wood, and thin paper. The toy was powered by twisted rubber bands attached to two propellers stacked one over the other. In those days, toys that flew by spinning up into the air were called Chinese flying tops. Most were operated by means of a string wrapped around them, like a top. When pulled, the string would send the toy spinning upward. Chinese flying tops had been around for centuries. But the version that Milton Wright likely paid about a half dollar for was the latest model from France. It was sold as a toy, but a serious student of flight named Alphonse Pénaud had designed it. Its rubber bands made it a true powered flying machine, called a hélicoptère.
Wilbur and Orville flew the rubber-band powered helicopter, which they called "the bat," again and again. The bat could fly up to 50 feet (15 m) in the air! They played with it until the fragile toy fell apart. Then older brother Wilbur built new ones by copying the toy's construction.
After a while, Wilbur decided he wanted a bat that could fly farther and stay up in the air longer. So he tried to build a bigger one. But to the boys' amazement, a bigger bat didn't fly farther — it barely flew at all!
Will and Orv, as they were known, lost interest in bat building after a while and eventually gave up trying to build a bigger one. At eleven and seven years old they had other things to do, after all. Wilbur liked to play sports and Orville was always busy leading his army of friends on neighborhood marches. But their father's gift had sparked the boys' imagination. Later in his life Orville Wright wrote that he and his brother's lifelong interest in flying began with the toy.
Milton's and Susan's Family
Wilbur and Orville were given the bat when they lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was one of a half dozen places they lived in Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio as children. The family moved around so much because their father, Milton Wright, was a minister — and eventually a bishop — in the United Brethren Church. He was born in 1828 and raised in a log cabin in frontier Indiana. His great-great-great grandfather was a Puritan who came from England soon after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, and his great grandmother was the first white woman to set foot in Dayton, Ohio. Milton left the family farm as a young man, went to college, and became a teacher and minister. The United Brethren Church sent young Milton to Oregon in the 1850s on church business. Oregon wasn't an easy place to get to in those days! Milton Wright had to travel to the East Coast by train, take one boat all the way to Central America, cross Panama by train, take a boat to San Francisco and another one to the Oregon coast before heading inland.
When he returned home from Oregon, Milton Wright married Susan Koerner in Indiana. Susan was the daughter of a German-born wheelwright. While growing up Susan spent a lot of time in her father's Hillsboro, Indiana, shop where he made carriages and wagons. Susan learned to use tools, make and repair things with her hands, and figure out how machines worked. These were skills she passed on to her children. Susan Koerner also attended college, something quite rare for women in Indiana in the 1850s. It was at Hartsville College that Susan met her future husband.
By the standards of the time, Susan and Milton Wright married and started a family late in life. Their first child, a son named Reuchlin, was born in 1861, the year the American Civil War began, when Susan was nearly 30 years old. A second son, Lorin, was born during the war. Reverend Milton Wright was, like all United Brethren, a pacifist. He did not believe in war so he did not join the army to fight against the Confederates nor would he preach to soldiers. However, Milton Wright was an outspoken abolitionist, and he hoped that the war would forever end the shame of slavery.
Not long after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Wrights moved to a small farm in Millville, Indiana. A couple of years later, on April 16, 1867, they had a third son, Wilbur. Like his brothers before him, he wasn't given an "unnecessary" middle name and was named after an admired clergyman. The year after Wilbur's birth, the family moved back to Hartsville, where Reverend Wright founded a seminary. But Milton Wright was becoming an important man in his church, and the leaders wanted him to edit their influential newspaper in Dayton, Ohio. The family moved again.
Twins named Ida and Otis were born to the Wrights in Dayton, but sadly both died before reaching their first birthday. The family moved into a house at 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton when Susan Wright was 4 months pregnant with Orville. The house on Hawthorn Street would become the Wright family home and would later be moved to a museum. Orville was born in the upstairs front bedroom at the Hawthorn Street house on August 19, 1871. His little sister Katharine, the youngest and final Wright child, was born exactly three years later to the day.
Wilbur and Orville grew up like most other boys in midwestern towns during the late 1800s. Their modest neighborhood in West Dayton was home to carpenters, salesmen, wagon makers, and bookkeepers who rode streetcars downtown to work. Wilbur and Orville Wright went to school and played with friends as all kids do. But everyday life was very different back then. The Hawthorn Street house stood on a small lot without much yard. While there were bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen, dining room, and sitting room downstairs, the bathroom was an outhouse behind the house. Any water used in the house had to be brought in from a pump outside the kitchen door. There was no electricity or radio — and of course no television, video games, or computers. Lamps filled with oil provided light, and coal fueled a heater during the winter. Susan Wright cooked for her large family on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. People traveled by streetcar, train, horse-drawn carriage, or on foot. Automobiles were unheard-of back then. It's amazing to think that boys who grew up without cars, indoor plumbing, or electricity would one day invent the airplane.
From the outside, Wilbur and Orville seemed like ordinary boys growing up in an average family. But they actually had quite out-of-the-ordinary parents for their day. Both Susan and Milton Wright had been to college, traveled, and taught school before marrying. They both had a lot of knowledge and experience, which they delighted in sharing with their children. Reverend Wright had a library of books, which he encouraged his children to read. As a United Brethren minister, Milton Wright was a nondrinker and disallowed card playing as a waste of time. But he believed in equal opportunity for women long before women had voting rights. He sent his daughter to college and allowed his children to read books that disagreed with his own religious beliefs.
Milton Wright encouraged his children to believe in themselves and think for themselves. The toy helicopter wasn't the only educational toy the Wright children would receive. In fact, Orville was given a spinning gyroscope for his fifth birthday. Their father was away from home a lot, but he constantly wrote detailed letters describing the faraway places he saw. The bishop's descriptions of Native Americans living in Montana and colorful California fairs opened a world unknown to other children in the Wrights' Dayton neighborhood.
The Wright children were expected to write letters to their father while he was away from home and they did so from a young age. In a letter Orville wrote to his father at age nine, he describes an experiment he did in the kitchen. "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." Apparently Susan Wright didn't mind science experiments in her kitchen! That's not really surprising. She was said to be able to fix and build all sorts of useful household tools and appliances. Susan Wright even crafted a sled for her kids. When Will and Orv needed advice on how to work something or how to fix it, they went to their mother for help. She gave the boys their uncanny ability to see in their heads how something would work — before they built it.
Orville realized that their upbringing had been very special, later saying, "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interest; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit."
Coming of Age
Wilbur and Orville grew up in a close-knit family. Wilbur taught his kid brother Orville how to build and fly kites and told him stories. But because the boys were four years apart, they naturally had different friends and different interests as kids. Orville was a baby brother to teenage Wilbur, a quiet, thoughtful young man who loved to read and was an excellent student bound for college. After the family moved from Iowa to a farm in Indiana, Wilbur enrolled in honors classes at Richmond High School. Wilbur was very athletic and loved to play sports. He was good at gymnastics and rode a high-wheeler bicycle. Wilbur also helped out at his father's church newspaper as a teenager. Wilbur's job was to fold the newspapers so they could be mailed. It was boring work, so Wilbur invented a machine that folded the papers quicker using a foot pedal!
Meanwhile, Orville was a rambunctious kid who played army with his friends, adored his baby sister, and was always cooking up some money-making scheme. He did well enough in school, but he wasn't an overachiever. Apparently he played hooky his entire first month of kindergarten. Instead of heading to school after leaving the house each morning, he went straight to his neighbor and friend Ed Sines's house to play with an old sewing machine! Orville had a reputation, and teachers often made him sit in the front row where they could keep an eye on him. The youngest Wright son seemed more interested in making pocket money than studying. His parents thought he'd end up in business, not college. Orville took to designing, making, and selling kites at age 12 and became known as quite an expert kite maker in the neighborhood. While in Richmond, Orville also collected scrap metal and bones for money, tried (but failed) to invent a sugared chewing gum, and even organized a circus.
The Wrights had moved to Richmond in part because their mother had become ill with tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs. At the time it was an incurable disease that killed many people all over the world. Tuberculosis sufferers coughed, had trouble breathing, and over time became weaker and sicker. Richmond, Indiana, was near Susan Wright's childhood home, and nearby family helped out when her husband went on his long trips. For the boys, one great benefit of being back in Indiana was spending time at Grandfather Koerner's farm. Wilbur and Orville loved to explore the carriage and wagon shop, tinkering with the woodworking machines and wheelwright tools. It was there that the brothers built their first machine together. It was a six-foot lathe, a tool for carving wood. A foot pedal, called a treadle, powered the machine. Wilbur even had the idea of making ball bearings with marbles housed in some discarded metal rings from a horse harness.
In 1884 the Wrights left Indiana and moved back to Dayton, Ohio. Bishop Wright's church wanted him back near its headquarters. It was the twelfth time in her 25 years of marriage that Susan Wright had moved her household, husband, and children. Now a sickly woman of 53 years, she dutifully packed up her family and their belongings and loaded them onto the Dayton train. It would turn out to be her final move.
Wilbur was now nearly 18 and taking classes to prepare himself for Yale University. He also played football for Central High and was known as one of the school's fastest runners. But Wilbur's plans for college and his robust health both came to an end one cold winter day. He and some friends were playing shinny on a frozen lake. It's a game similar to hockey. Players wear ice skates and use heavy sticks to move a ball or puck around. A player accidentally hit Wilbur in the face with a shinny stick. He was violently knocked to the ground. The blow knocked out all his upper front teeth and some lower ones, too. After a number of dental operations, Wilbur also started having odd problems with his heart as well. His recovery took so long that he began to doubt whether his health would ever fully return. He worried that a college education might be wasted on someone who could so easily become bedridden. How could be become a teacher or scientist if he was always going to be ill? Feeling hopeless and defeated, Wilbur fell into a long, deep depression.
While at home trying to recover his own health and rediscover happiness, Wilbur took care of his mother. Susan Wright's tuberculosis was worsening every year. She was now unable to leave the house or care for herself. While Wilbur looked after his dying mother, Bishop Wright continued to travel on church business. Wilbur spent those years reading and studying, too. Nursing his mother made him feel important, useful, and needed. Working his way through his father's library of encyclopedias, biographies, and books about history, science, and religion became the college education Wilbur would never receive. Learning about the world through books and expertly caring for his mother helped build back Wilbur's confidence in himself, the world, and his place in it. By his 21st birthday, Wilbur's depression was lifting and he began helping his father write for church publications.
Meanwhile, young Orville was busy becoming a printer. When the family had returned to Dayton, Orville had taken up with his old friend and partner in childhood crime, Ed Sines, who happened to have a toy printing setup. Ed and Orville soon acquired somewhat better equipment and were in business trying to print a small newspaper for their eighth-grade classmates. Because the printer could only print on small sheets of paper, the newspaper was called The Midget. Soon Sines & Wright was printing cards, tickets, envelopes, and handbills for local businesses. During the summers of his high school years, Orville added to his skills by apprenticing at a local printing shop. Wilbur pitched in and helped when his kid brother struggled to build his first professional press. They ended up using an old gravestone, hinges from the folding top of a horse buggy, and scrap metal. When a printer who'd heard about the homemade press came to see it, he remarked, "It works all right, but I still don't understand why it works." Orville and Ed Sines put their odd press to work writing and printing a newspaper, the West Side News. A six-week subscription cost 10 cents. Orville didn't plan on going back for his last year of high school. He was happy being a successful printer.
Tuberculosis finally took the life of Susan Koerner Wright. She died on Independence Day in 1889. Wilbur was now 22 and beyond the age when most young men started college. While he had spent the last few years caring for his mother and studying his father's library, his kid brother Orville had grown up and learned a trade. They were still brothers, but no longer boys. The age difference that had seemed so great when they were children was less and less noticeable as they became men. Orville asked Wilbur to join him in the printing business. Wilbur soon became the editor and Orville the publisher of the West Side News. The newspaper wouldn't last long, but the brothers' business partnership would. In fact, it was to be a lifetime partnership that would go down in history.
Excerpted from The Wright Brothers for Kids by Mary Kay Carson, Laura D'Argo. Copyright © 2003 Mary Kay Carson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Note to Readers,
PREFACE Dreams — and Nightmares — of a Flying Machine,
ONE Bishops, Boys, and Bicycles,
TWO First Thoughts of Flight,
THREE Getting Flight Under Control,
FOUR Gliding at Kitty Hawk,
FIVE Building the World's First Airplane,
SIX The Wright Brothers' Airplane Company and Legacy,
EPILOGUE The Fate of the Wright "Kitty Hawk" Flyer,
Appendix: Build a Powered Flyer,
Web Sites to Explore,
Places to Visit,
Books to Read,