Miracle at Kitty Hawk: Unpublished Letters of the Wright Brothers (Part I)

"One gets a certain thrill from discovering something others had not known," Orville Wright remarked to Fred C. Kelly, who was then working on a biography of the Wright brothers. After Orville's death, the family gave Mr. Kelly exclusive access to the Wright letters now in the Library of Congress. "I think," he writes us, "that they are the most important unpublished letters now available anywhere in the world. They deal with a subject that has brought a greater effect on the world than anything since the discovery of America." The Atlantic will serialize them in three installments, of which this is the first. Kelly is also the author of Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
More

Orville Wright often said that he and his brother Wilbur owed much to an upbringing that gave them "exceptional advantages." These were not from wealth. The family had to get along on the income of the father, Bishop Milton Wright, his salary from the United Brethren Church was never more than $900 a year. He sometimes got a little additional income from an Indiana farm, and he managed to pay for his daughter Katharine's education at Oberlin College, including two years in the preparatory department. But luxury money was scarce. Whatever Wilbur and Orville spent on hobbies they had to earn. The advantages Orville had in mind were "a home environment where the children were encouraged to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."

It was a happy, congenial family. After the death of the mother, when Katharine, the youngest, was only fifteen years old and the two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, had gone to homes of their own, those still under the parental roof were the more closely drawn together; what one was doing interested all. In the middle nineties, after Wilbur and Orville had started their bicycle business, Katherine was at Oberlin, and Bishop Wright made trips on church business. Thus the two brothers were frequently at home alone, and they were likely to continue working together when they came from their bicycle shop.

Orville was exactly three years older than his sister, each born on August 19; and Wilbur was four years older than Orville. Five feet ten and a quarter inches in height, Wilbur was taller than Orville by an inch and a half. Both were slender. Wilbur usually weighed about 140 pounds and Orville 5 pounds more. At the time he wrote the letter which follows, Wilbur looked perhaps a trifle older than his twenty-seven years, for his hair was thinning. Orville had not yet raised his mustache and looked boyish. For a time, after being hit in the face by a shinny club while skating, Wilbur had been in poor health, and did little but sit at home reading. The family sometimes wondered if he had become a bit lazy. Devoted as the brothers were, Orville would occasionally chide Wilbur for talking to him as if he were a "kid," and for saying or writing "I" when he meant "we."

WILBUR WRIGHT TO HIS FATHER
September 1, 1894


The bicycle business is fair. Selling new wheels is about done for this year but the repairing business is good and we are getting about $20 a month from the rent of three wheels. We get $8 a month for one, 46.50 for another, and the third we rent by the hour or day. We have done so well renting them that we have held on to them instead disposing of them at once, although we really need the money invested in them. Could you let us have about $150 for a while? We think we could have it nearly all ready to pay back by the time you get home.

I have been thinking for some time of the advisability of my taking a college course. I have thought about it more or less for a number of years but my health has been such that I was afraid that it might be time and money wasted to do so, but I have felt so much better for a year or so that I have thought more seriously of it and have decided to see what you think of it and would advise.

I do not think I am specially fitted for success in any commercial pursuit even if I had the proper personal and business influences to assist me. I might make a living but I doubt whether I would ever do much more than this. Intellectual effort is a pleasure to me and I think I would be better fitted for reasonable success in some of the professions than in business.

I have always thought I would like to be a teacher. Although there is no hope of attaining such financial success as might be attained in some of the other professions or in commercial pursuits, yet it is an honorable pursuit, the pay is sufficient to enable one to live comfortably and happily, and [teaching] is less subject to uncertainties than almost any other occupation. It would be congenial to my tastes, and I think with proper training I could be reasonably successful.

Of course I could not attempt a college course unless you are able and willing to help me some. I think that by keeping a couple of bicycles to rent and by doing some repairing, and possibly a few sales, enough could be made to meet the greater part of the expense, or at least enough to help along quite a good bit. I think with six or eight hundred dollars I could complete the course, which would probably take about four years. I would be glad to have you think the matter over and give me your advice on it.
BISHOP WRIGHT'S REPLY
September 15, 1894


I received your letter. Yes, I will help you what I can in a collegiate course. I do not think a commercial life will suit you well. Probably you may not be able to go through college without some intermissions. I will loan you boys the $150 you ask.

Wilbur gave up the idea of going to college. Neither his nor Orville's formal education went beyond high school, and though each spent the time for a full course, neither ever received a di-ploma. The Wright family moved to Dayton Ohio, from Richmond, Indiana, just before the commencement exercises in Wilbur's final year and he did not bother to go back. Orville took special studies in his senior year in place of other work required for graduation.

In 1895 the Wright brothers read about the gliding experiments of Otto Lilienthal in Germany. (Lilienthal was far in advance of all others who ever worked on the flying problem before the Wrights.) They were fascinated by what little they could learn about Lilienthal, for it seemed to them that gliding through the air must be the king of sports. When they read in 1896 that Lilienthal had been killed in one of his experiments, they wondered if they could go on from where he and others had left off.

They read everything they could find about attempts to fly but the Dayton Public Library did not provide much, and in June, 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for suggestions about reading matter. The Smithsonian sent them some pamphlets and a list of titles, including Octave Chanute's Progress in Flying Machines. Chanute, a successful construction engineer living in Chicago, had himself directed experiments with gliders of his own design, but these had not been highly successful. As a historian and bibliographer of man's attempts to fly, however, Chanute was the best. After reading Chanute's book, Wilbur Wright wrote to him, and this was the beginning of a correspondence which was to continue for ten years.

The intimate relationship between the Wrights and Chanute started by that first letter from Wilbur became of great importance to all three. Because Chanute early recognized that the Wrights were far ahead of their predecessors, he prodded them into continuing their experiments when they might have quit. His encouragement to the two brothers put them deeply in his debt. He in turn doubtless gained his greatest renown from being the confidant of the Wrights.

From the first letter of WILBUR WRIGHT TO OCTAVE CHANTUTE
DAYTON, OHIO, May 13, 1900


For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.

My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailors is a convincing demonstration of the of skill and the partial needlessness of motors.

It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.

Assuming then that Lilienthal was correct in his ideas of the principles on which man should proceed, I conceive that his failure was due chiefly to the inadequacy of his method and of his apparatus. As to his method, the fact that in five years' time he spent only about five hours, altogether, in actual flight is sufficient to show that his method was inadequate. Even the simplest intellectual or acrobatic feats could never be learned with so short practice; and even Methuselah could never have become an expert stenographer with one hour per year for practice.

My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings. If the rear edge of the right wing tip is twisted upward and the left downward the bird becomes an animated windmill sand instantly begins to turn, a line from its head to its tail being the axis. It thus regains its level even if thrown on its beam's end, so to speak, as I have frequently seen them. I think the bird also in gen-eral retains its lateral equilibrium, partly by presenting its two wings at different angles to the wind, and partly by drawing in one wing, thus reducing its area. I incline to the belief that the first is the more important and usual method.

My business [the bicycle shop] requires that my experimental work be confined to the months be-tween September and January and I would be particularly thankful for advice as to a suitable locality where I could depend on winds of about 15 miles per hour without rain or too inclement weather. I am certain that such localities are rare.

I have your Progress in Flying Machines and your articles in the Annuals of '95, '96, and '97, as also your recent articles in the Independent. If can give me information as to where an account of Pilcher's experiments can be obtained I would greatly appreciate your kindness.

Chanute brought to the Wrights' attention other reading matter about their predecessors. Some of the impressions they got from their reading Wilbur described years later in a deposition before the United States Court of Appeals, in the patent infringement suit of The Wright Company vs. the Herring-Curtiss Co. and Glenn H. Curtiss.

Excerpt From the Testimony of Wilbur Wright
February 15, 1912


When we came to examine these books we were astonished to learn what an immense amount of time and money had been expended in futile at-tempts to solve the problem of human flight. Contrary to our previous impression, we found that men of the very highest standing in the professions of science and invention had attempted the problem. Among them were such men as Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest universal genius the world has ever known; Sir George Cayley, one of the first men to suggest the idea of the explosion motor; Professor Langley, secretary and head of the Smithsonian Institution; Dr. Bell, inventor of the telephone; Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the automatic gun; Mr. 0. Chanute, the past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Mr. Chas. Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine; Mr. Thomas A. Edison, Herr Lilienthal, M. Ader, Mr. Phillips, and a host of others.

The period from 1889 to 1897 we found had been one of exceptional activity, during which Langley, Lilienthal, Chanute, Maxim, and Phillips had been feverishly at work, each hoping to win the honor of having solved the problem; but one by one they had been compelled to confess themselves beaten, and had discontinued their efforts. In studying their failures we found many points of interest to us.

2

The brothers soon assembled their first glider, at a cost of $15. It weighed about 52 pounds. Counting the "bows" at the ends of each wing surface, the span was nearly 17 feet, with a total lifting area of 165 square feet. A space 18 inches wide at the center of the lower surface, where the operator would lie "belly-buster," with feet over the rear spar, was left uncovered. The wing curvature was less than Lilienthal had used.

For their experiments the Wrights wanted a sandy area for soft landings, slopes free of trees or shrubs for gliding, and adequate winds. After writing to the Weather Bureau in Washington for information, they decided that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, would meet their requirements better than any other place no farther from home.

WILBUR WRIGHT TO HIS FATHER
September 3, 1900


I am intending to start in a few days for a trip to the coast of North Carolina in the vicinity of Roanoke Island, for the purpose of making some experiments with a flying machine. It is my belief that flight is possible and, while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it. It is almost the only great problem which has not been pursued by a multitude of investigators, and therefore carried to a point where further progress is very difficult. I am certain I can reach a point much in advance of any previous workers in this field even if complete success is not attained just at present. At any rate, I shall have an outing of several weeks and see a part of the world I have never before visited.
KATHARINE WRIGHT TO HER FATHER
DAYTON, OHIO, September 5, 1900


We are in an uproar getting Will off. The trip will do him good. I don't think he will be reckless. If they can arrange it, Orville will go down as soon as Will gets the machine ready.
WILBUR WRIGHT TO HIS FATHER
ELIZABETH CITY, N. C., September 9, 1900


I am at this place waiting for a boat to take me across Albemarle Sound to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which will be my address for the present. I supposed you knew that I was studying up the flying question with a view to making some practical experiments.

I chose Kitty Hawk because it seemed the place which most clearly met the required conditions. In order to obtain support from the air it is necessary, with wings of reasonable size, to move through it at the rate of 15 or 2O miles per hour. If there is no wind movement, your speed with reference to the ground must be the same. If the wind blows with proper speed, support can be obtained without movement with reference to the ground. It is safer to practice in a wind, provided this is not broken up into eddies and sudden gusts by hills, trees, and so forth.

At Kitty Hawk, which is on the narrow bar separating the Sound from the Ocean, there are neither hills nor trees, so it offers a safe place for practice. Also the wind there is stronger than any place near home and is almost constant, so that it is not necessary to wait days or weeks for a suitable breeze. It is much cheaper to go to a distant point where practice may be constant than to choose a nearer spot where three days out of four might be wasted.

I have no intention of risking injury to any great extent, and have no expectation of being hurt. I will be careful, and will not attempt new experiment in dangerous situations. I think the danger much less than in most athletic games.
WILBUR WRIGHT TO HIS FATHER
KITTY HAWK, September 3, 1900


I have my machine nearly finished. It is not to have a motor and is not expected to fly in any true sense of the word. My idea is merely to experiment and practice with a view to solving the problem of equilibrium. I have plans which I hope to find much in advance of the methods tried by previous experimenters. When once a machine is under proper control under all conditions, the motor problem will be quickly solved. A failure of motor will then simply mean a slow descent and safe landing instead of a disastrous fall.

In my experiments I do not expect to rise many feet from the ground, and in case I am upset there is nothing but soft sand to strike on. I do not intend to take dangerous chances, both because I have no wish to get hurt and because a fall would stop my experimenting, which I would not like at all. The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively cannot take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks. I am constructing my machine to sustain about five times my weight and am testing every piece. I think there is no possible chance of its breaking while in the air. If it is broken it will be by awkward landing.

My machine will be trussed like a bridge and will be much stronger than that of Lilienthal, which, by the way, was upset through the failure of a movable tail and not by breakage of the machine. The tail of my machine is fixed, and even if my steering arrangement should fail, it would still leave me with the same control that Lilienthal had at best. My machine is more simple in construction and at the same time capable of greater adjustment and control than previous machines.

I have not taken up the problem with the expectation of financial profit. Neither do I have any strong expectation of achieving the solution at the present time or possibly any time. My trip would be no great disappointment if I accomplished practically nothing. I look upon it as a pleasure at the same cost. I am watching my health very closely and expect to return home heavier and stronger than I left. I am taking every precaution about my drinking water.

On his way to Kitty Hawk, Orville took time to act on a financial problem.

ORVILLE WRIGHT TO HIS SISTER
ELIZABETH CITY, September 6, 1900


Tell Harry [an employee at the bicycle shop] to sell those rolls of tire tape in the box back of what he has been selling at 5 cents a roll. They were 10-cent rolls, but we must get rid of them. They are in tin-foil wrappers.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

When Will Robots Take Over the World?

"In a sense, we're already becoming cyborgs."


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Video

The Origins of Bungee Jumping

"We had this old potato sack and I filled it up with rocks and dropped it over the side. It just hit the water, split, dropping all the stones. And that was our test."

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In