Wright Brothers – Honoring the Wright Brothers

Articles relating to the honoring of the Wright Brothers.

The newspapers on September 14, 1908 announced: “Wright Brothers to get $1,000 Medals.”

The article went on to say that “in formal recognition of their recent remarkable achievements in aeronautics, the Aero Club of America, the representative organization of the United States, will hold a banquet in New York in honor of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two Americans whose aeroplane has been the wonder and admiration of two continents.”

“This was decided at a meeting of the club held yesterday when active plans were begun. On that night the organization, whose membership includes many millionaires, will present both brothers with a handsome medal, costing $1,000.”

“This is intended to denote the celebration of America’s gift of the aeroplane to the world by the Wrights, who are members of the club.”

“The drawings of the medals are now on exhibition in the club rooms. Half a dozen leading silversmiths have entered a competition, the choice of design to be made by the members of a special committee.”

“The banquet will not be held for several weeks. Orville Wright is recovering in Dayton, Ohio from injuries sustained in the government test in Washington, but the officials of the club expect he will be able to attend. Wilbur Wright is in France and he has sent assurances that he will come to New York if possible.”

“The directors of the Aero Club have appointed a committee to raise subscriptions and among the prominent members to contribute are John Jacob Astor, Chester R. Flint, Jefferson Seligman, Frank A. Munsey, Samuel H. Valentine, Russell A. Alger and J. C. McCoy.”

Members of the Auto Club of America founded the Aero Club in New York. Alexander Graham Bell was its most famous member. Most members were millionaire sportsman. Wilbur and Orville joined the club in 1906.

The award ceremony did not take place as planned. It was delayed until June 1909 because Wilbur was busy flying in Europe and Orville was conducting qualification flights for the Army at Ft. Myer.

When the officials found out that the Wrights were returning to New York from Europe in May 1909, they wanted to stage a major homecoming celebration that would include in addition to the Aero Club, the U.S. Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. Congressman Herbert Parsons invited President Taft to present the medals.

When Governor Cox of Ohio heard about the plans he protested to the planners that Dayton had already planned a major celebration in Dayton during June.

President Taft was asked to decide the issue. Taft deferred to the Wrights. The Wrights were still at sea on their way home. They told the parties involved that they had much work to do getting ready for the upcoming Army trials and would prefer to celebrate in Dayton.

President Taft said he was unable to attend the celebration in Dayton and invited the Wrights to make a short trip to Washington for award of the gold medals in the White House. The Wrights accepted the invitation.

Dayton picked June 17-18 for their grand celebration. The Wrights reluctantly agreed to participate although they would have preferred to spend the time working on their airplane

President Taft agreed to present the Aero Club medals in Washington at the White House during the second week of June.

Wilbur, Orville and Katharine arrived by train in Washington on the morning of the June 10 and were welcomed by Holland Forbes, president of the Aero Club. He escorted them to a suite of rooms at the Willard Hotel. Many people thought Forbes was Wilbur because Wilbur had been in France and was less familiar than Orville who had been in Washington in connection with the Army trials.

The next stop for Wilbur and Orville was the War Department where they met with the man who would make the decision in the near future whether the Wright Flyer would meet the Army’s specifications, Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army. The Wrights had interrupted working on the airplane for the trip to Washington.

Katharine, during the time her brothers were at the War Department, was attending a reception at the home of Mrs. C. J. Bell, wife of the treasurer of the Aero Club of Washington.

From there the Wrights and their escorts walked through downtown Washington to the Cosmos club for lunch. The walk must have been difficult for Orville who had just recently discarded his cane, which he was using while he recovered from the serious injuries he had as a result of the crash he had at Ft. Myer the previous year. The accident left him with one leg shorter than the other and back pains which would bother him the rest of his life.

The Cosmos Club was an all-male club whose membership consisted of important members of society in Washington. Orville stayed there the previous year while flying at Ft. Myer. (I have had lunch there several times myself as a guest.)

The club suspended their all-male rule for the occasion so that Katharine and the other ladies could be present.

Alex Graham Bell and the leaders of congress were among the 159 guests in attendance.

After lunch, the entire party walked across Lafayette Square to the White House where they joined other invited quests in the East Room. Promptly at 2:40, the great double doors to the central hallway were opened and Holland Forbes and Representative Herbert Parsons escorted Wilbur, Orville and Katharine into the East Room.

Forbes made a few remarks on the behalf of Aero Club and then turned the proceedings over to President Taft. The President prefaced his presentation of the gold medals with a humorous comment. He assured the audience that, while his own girth would keep him on the ground, he shared the universal interest in flight. He followed that with saying that the work of Wright brothers was something in which all Americans could take pride.

He continued, “You made this discovery by a course that we of America feel is distinctly American, by keeping your nose right at the job until you had accomplished what you had determined to do.”

The Wrights quickly returned to Dayton to get their new Flyer ready for the Army speed trial. They did get a one-month extension to July 28 from General Allen while they were in Washington. Later, it was extended again for three days during the trials because of high winds.

Back in Dayton, they were committed to another grand celebration, June 17-18, which would further take away from their work on the Flyer. They were not pleased with another delay but there wasn’t much they could do about it except smile and participate.

Returning to Ft. Myer, Orville successfully completed the speed test with an average speed of 42.6-mph over a ten-mile route between Alexandria and Ft. Myer. President Taft was present for this flight and one other.

It would be interesting to know what Wilbur and Orville really thought about President Taft, who was a fellow native of Ohio. He certainly wasn’t of much help to them during the period that the Wrights were trying to interest the War Department in their airplane while Taft was Secretary of War.

In 1905 the Wrights wrote to Taft through their local congressman. Taft’s office routinely forwarded the letter to the U.S. Army Board of Ordnance and Fortification for comment. The Board treated the Wrights’ letter as if it came from cranks. Their reply was negative and insulting. Orville and Wilbur were very upset because it demonstrated a lack of respect.

In 1906 the Wrights tried again, writing directly to Taft. Again the answer was negative.

In early 1907 new hope appeared. Cortland Field, the president of the Aero Club was the brother-in-law of Congressman Herbert Parsons. Field told Parsons about the problems that the Wrights were having with the U.S. government. Parsons in turn wrote to the Wrights in April asking them to send copies of the correspondence that they had received from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification.

Parsons, after reading what the Wrights sent him, was appalled and decided to bring the issue to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. The president in turn forwarded the package Parsons sent him to Secretary of War Taft with a note to have the claims investigated. Taft sent the Wright package along with the notes from Parsons and Roosevelt, recommending a favorable response.

The secretary of the board wrote the Wrights in May requesting additional information and a specific proposal. The Board added they wanted assurance of exclusive rights to the invention. The Wrights, who were negotiating with other potential buyers in Europe, responded that was no longer possible. The Wrights heard nothing more from the Board until October.

Then an event occurred that would finally start the ball rolling to a successful conclusion. The event was the assignment of Lt. Frank Lahm to take command of a portion of the aeronautical section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Lt. Lahm wrote a letter to General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer and the highest member of the Army Board. The letter said: “I have to inform you that I have just had an interview with Mr. Orville Wright of Dayton Ohio, in regard to the purchase of the aeroplane invented and successfully operated by himself and his brother, Mr. Wilbur Wright. It seems unfortunate that this American invention, which unquestionably has considerable military value, should not first be acquired by the United States Army.”

It was just a matter of time. On February 10, the Wright brothers received notice from Allen of the acceptance of their bid on a Flyer for the War Department.

The Wrights were involved in one other episode with Taft in which Taft was not helpful. This one involved a controversy with the Smithsonian Institution in which the Smithsonian claimed that the Langley Aerodrome, which crashed twice before the Wrights successful first flight, was capable of flight and would have flown if it hadn’t experienced launching problems beyond Langley’s control.

The Smithsonian was interested in redeeming Samuel Langley’s reputation because he was a former secretary of the Smithsonian. Charles Walcott, the current secretary, sponsored Glenn Curtiss to rebuild and fly the original Aerodrome and thereby prove the claim that the Aerodrome could have flown.

Curtiss had an interest in invalidating the Wrights’ patent because he was building airplanes that were covered by the patent. Curtiss claims he did get the pontoons of the Aerodrome just above the surface of Lake Keuka in 1914. The Aerodrome however was not in its original condition. Curtiss had made significant modifications to the machine.

After the Curtiss flight, Walcott ordered the Aerodrome returned to it original condition and then displayed in the Smithsonian with a sign that read, “it was the first man carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”

Orville appealed to now Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who was also chancellor of the Smithsonian to make an impartial investigation of the Aerodrome affair.

Orville wrote, ” I do not think it will take you five minutes to make up your mind whether the changes were made and whether they were of importance.”

Taft replied that his duties as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court left him no time to decide questions that should be decided by the secretary of the Smithsonian, not the chancellor.

This complicity between Curtiss and the Smithsonian drove Orville to send the 1903 Flyer to the London Science Museum in January 1928. The Flyer didn’t return to the United States until 20 years later after the Smithsonian admitted in one of its technical publications that significant modifications had been made to the Aerodrome.

In contrast to Taft, the Aero Club remained a solid supporter of the Wrights. One of their actions was to announce on April 21, 1910 that the Aero Club had agreed to sanction air meets only after prior arrangements had been made by the Wright brothers. This was a bold action because many Wright competitors tried to avoid paying royalties to the Wrights and charged the Wrights with discouraging innovation by enforcing the patent they were awarded in 1906.

An unfortunate event occurred at the first large Aero Club American Exposition illustrating the history, status and future prospects of the flying machine. The Wrights provided for display a crankshaft and flywheel from the 1903 Flyer. Someone stole them and they have not reappeared to this day.

In 1909 Orville and Wilbur Wright were flying before excited fans on two continents. It had been six years since their history making first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. Honors long due were beginning to roll in. Unfortunately, many honors were a sham because they did not recognize the brothers as the inventors of flight.

Conspicuously absent was the date, December 17, 1903, and of what happened there on that date.

This is the story.

President Taft Presents Medals

In mid-June the Wright Brothers were invited to visit the White House by President William Howard Taft to receive medals awarded by the Aero Club of America. Accompanying the brothers was their sister Katharine. Before the presentation there was a grand luncheon attended by members of Congress at the exclusive Cosmos Club. Their “all male” rule was suspended to allow Katharine to attend.

That afternoon, the portly President presented the medals in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. In a good mood, he jested that his own girth would keep him on the ground.

The gold medals showed busts of the Wrights, their airplane and the dates of the first flight made by Orville at Fort Myer, Va. and Wilbur in France. But, what wasn’t inscribed was more significant. Despite all the pomp and ceremony, there was no indication on the medals that the brothers were the inventors of flight.

Awards in Dayton

A few days later in Dayton, Ohio, there was a two-day grand celebration in which the brothers received additional medals. Brigadier General James Allen, U.S. Signal Corps, awarded them a special U.S. Congressional Medal. Ohio Governor Judson Harmon presented them a State of Ohio Medal. Dayton Mayor Edward Burkhart presented them a City of Dayton Medal. (Click image for larger version.)

There were parades, fireworks and speeches by dignitaries, but again, none of the medals said that the brothers were the inventors of flight. The inscriptions on the medals were as follows:

U.S. Congress Medal: On one side, “In recognition and appreciation of their ability, courage and success in navigating the air.” The other side showed an angel with the inscription: “shall mount up with wings as angels.”

Ohio Medal: “Presented to Wilbur Wright (and Orville) by an act of the General Assembly of the State of Ohio.”

Dayton Medal: “A testimonial from the citizens of their home in recognition and appreciation of their success in navigating the air.”

The brothers, being modest, said nothing about it, but they were not pleased. They did not want the celebration and had asked the city officials to cancel it. Wilbur complained that the celebration “has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us.” Following the presentations, Wilbur stepped to the microphone and said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and sat down. They left the ceremony in Dayton as soon as they could.

No doubt some of the oversight can be attributed to ignorance. But much of it may have been perpetuated by the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian claimed that Dr. Samuel Langley, a Secretary of the Smithsonian, discovered principles of heavier-than-air flight prior to the Wright Brothers. The Smithsonian claimed that Langley deserved to be honored as a co-equal along with the Wrights. They did not retract this claim until 1942.

Smithsonian Awards Langley Medal

On February 1910, the Smithsonian awarded the brothers the first Langley Medal for “achievement in aerodynamic investigation and its application to aviation.” Again there was no reference to the invention of flight.

To make matters worse, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and regent of the Smithsonian, effusively praised Langley in his introductory speech at the award ceremony. It may be that the scientists associated with the Smithsonian couldn’t accept the reality that two bicycle makers without college diplomas had bested them.

A side note: In 1922 the first U.S. aircraft carrier was commissioned the “U.S.S. Langley”.

Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the first flight, December 1928, marked the laying of the cornerstone of the national memorial and the unveiling of a large granite boulder marking the takeoff spot of the flight. Orville was in attendance as was Amelia Earhart and four of the original witnesses of the event.

Orville returned for the dedication of the completed monument in November 1932. The inscription on the monument’s exterior 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.”

It may be implicit that the inscription refers to the invention of flight, but it doesn’t explicitly say so. At the time of the dedication, the 1903 Flyer was in exile on England.

Wright Memorial in Dayton, Ohio

As time went on, the weight of overwhelming evidence supported the Wright’s claim of being first in flight. The Wright Brothers Memorial, dedicated in 1940 in Dayton, Ohio, represents this new confidence. It recognizes the Wrights by boldly stating:

“As scientists Wilbur and Orville Wright discovered the secret of flight. As inventors, builders and flyers they brought aviation to the world.” It goes on to state: “— enabled them in 1903 to build and fly at Kitty Hawk the first man-carrying aeroplane capable of flight.”

Wilbur died in 1912. Orville had many honors given to him in his old age. These included the Distinguished Flying Cross and six honorary doctorates.

In 1978 there was a grand celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Wright brothers first flight. One of the best-published tributes appeared in the Airline Pilot magazine’s issue of December 1978. The following is what they wrote:

“The Wright Brothers: Proponents of Free Enterprise.

In this issue, a special 75th anniversary tribute to the Wright brothers from all airline pilots, we have tried to show what manner of men they were and record some of the little-known facts about their invention and the significance of their accomplishment. So much is known about them, yet so little.

They were private people who shunned publicity for publicity’s sake. The were determined to stand up for their rights and did, in spite of the dogged efforts of those who would defraud them or detract from the enormity of their achievement.

It is with much awe that we realize that these two quiet geniuses were the ones who made the technological breakthrough that gave the world a whole new mode of transportation and an entire industry that employs thousands of people around the world.

And they did it without the benefit of a completed high school education, financial backing or the precedent of other technology. They were mere bicycle mechanics who had the same dream many others had before them — that man could fly in controllable heavier-than-air machines and do it safely.

The difference was that they realized their dream through scientific inquiry, by gathering their own facts and by applying their self-won knowledge to kites, then gliders and then aeroplanes. They purchased all their materials with their own funds and what they could not buy, they scrounged. And what was not available in any form, they fashioned with their own hands and homemade tools. They continually improvised as they patiently proceeded, fully convinced that it was within their power to succeed even though the realization of the dream had eluded others for centuries.

When success did come, they found that they had to turn from the engineering/test phase to the marketing phase of their new enterprise. They found that selling their new product was difficult, that it had to become known to the public before it would be in demand. Ironically, they became better known overseas than in their own country until they proved the worth of their product by personal demonstration.

Before Wilbur died, the brothers became aircraft manufacturers and thus entrepreneurs in the full sense of the word. They managed a profitable enterprise and assumed the economic risks of a new and untried business. After Wilbur’s death, Orville continued, although with a low profile and seemingly without the inventive spark that their twin genius had given them.

These two Americans, products of a free society, in defiance of the failures of others, were able to solve the riddle of controlled, heavier-than-air flight without the benefit of government subsidy or official encouragement. Exercising their right to think independently and proceed into the technological unknown with confidence, they epitomized the American system at its finest.

They sought neither fame nor fortune yet attained both. They did not envision great fleets of aircraft traversing the globe or new industries and professions rising from the sands of Kitty Hawk, yet both have come about.

All of us owe the Wright brothers a debt we cannot hope to repay. We can only memorialize the men and their genius as we have tried to do in these pages. We know they would understand.”

On December 17, 2003 there will be a grand celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC to celebrate the first flight that took place there on December 17, 1903. It is being billed as the event of the century. The occasion will include air shows, a hot-air balloon race, and the most exciting of all, an actual flight of an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

With thousands of visitors expected to attend the five day event, it will be a boon to tourism. That is exactly what Congressman Lindsay C. Warren had in mind in 1926 when he proposed the memorial in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight, and also as a means of attracting tourist dollars to boost the Outer Banks.

The area needed a boost. Orville Wright once commented that the outer banks were “like the Sahara.”

Today, the memorial, a great 60-foot pylon of Mount Airy granite quarried in NC with wings sculpted into the sides and an aeronautical beacon on top, can be seen for miles at night. Since its dedication in 1932, it has exceeded Congressman Warren’s greatest dream.

The Proposal

Warren’s proposal for a memorial received strong support from the local citizens and NC legislators. Some Dayton citizens were not happy because they wanted the memorial in Dayton. However, before the Ohio delegation could mount an effective campaign, Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, a friend of Warren and the President of the National Aeronautical Society, quickly introduced a $50,000 appropriation bill to build the memorial at Kill Devil Hills. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Coolidge on March 2, 1927.

Neither the Congress nor the Fine Arts Commission could agree on what the memorial should look like. About 35 designs were presented. Some of the ideas were bizarre. Senator Bingham wanted a Greek Temple made of granite from his home state of Connecticut.

Time was drawing short because the anniversary was in 1928. So, they decided to lay a cornerstone on top of Kill Devil Hill for the anniversary and decide later on the nature of the monument.

At the same time they decided to place a commemorative six-foot granite boulder at the spot where the Flyer took off. There was a problem. No one knew for sure where that spot was. In the intervening twenty-five years, the sands had shifted.

Fortunately, they found three surviving witnesses of the first flight who were willing to help find the spot. Two of them had been from the lifesaving station and one had been a boy who just happened to wander by. On November 4,1928, they met and came to an agreement as best they could as to the exact location.

The Ceremony Became a Calamity

The plan was to hold an International Civil Aeronautics Conference in Washington, D.C. Orville Wright and members of his family would be honored guests. After the conference the 200 attendees would travel to Kitty Hawk, NC for the ceremony.

The Achilles Heel in the plan was the gross underestimation of the difficulty of traveling to Kitty Hawk in those days with that many people.

The road down the Currituck County, NC peninsula was under construction, but not finished. There was no bridge at that time over the sound to Kitty Hawk, and there was only a crude corduroy road in the sand through Kitty Hawk to Big Kill Devil Hill.

On Saturday, December 15, the 200 conference attendees boarded the steamer, District of Columbia, for the trip to Norfolk, VA. The first of many problems presented itself even before they left the dock. A heavy fog delayed departure for four hours until 2 a.m. The continued presence of mist and patches of fog meant slow passage to Norfolk and necessitated a stay on the steamer over night.

The next day they piled into buses for the trip down the Currituck peninsula. That part of the trip went well until they reached the end of the paved road. The buses couldn’t negotiate the rest of the way, so everyone was transferred to a fleet of seventy automobiles. In some places the automobiles had to detour around muddy roads by driving over resident’s front yards and farmlands.

After reaching Point Harbor at the end of the peninsula, they transferred to a ferry. On the ferry trip to Kitty Hawk, one man somehow fell overboard and almost drowned before being rescued.

At Kitty Hawk, another fleet of cars driven by local farmers drove the attendees through the sand to Big Kill Devil Hill. Along the way, the nice ladies of Dare County treated them to lunch.

The last challenge for the attendees was the tough climb up the 90-foot Big Kill Devil Hill for the ceremony.

The ceremony held that December 17 went according to plan except that the high winds that made it almost impossible for anyone to hear the dedication speeches by Senator Hiram Bingham and Secretary of War, Dwight Davis.

Orville Wright placed sealed documents and descriptions of the first flight in a special box in the cornerstone. Orville, typically modest, turned to Congressman Warren, whose idea it was to build the memorial, and said that this whole thing might be a mistake. “To do it now seems like an imposition on the taxpayers.”

Then everyone went back down the hill and reassembled at the spot of the takeoff of the first flight. There, the six-foot boulder was dedicated to mark the event. The famous aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart proclaimed the “Queen of the Air” by the United Press, stood next to Orville during the ceremony.

She was not an official delegate to the aviation conference but she was invited to accompany the 200 delegates on the trip from Washington. She wrote to her mother, “I was considered important enough to be the guest of the government so I am riding and eating free…”

The trip home by the attendees, if possible, was an even worse experience. Many automobiles left early because of the cold, leaving a number of attendees stranded. This caused some of them to miss the returning ferry. They were diverted to a leaking rumrunner patrol boat that proceeded to get lost.

On the ferry, Allen Heuth, a New Jersey sportsman who with Frank and Charles Baker had donated the land for the memorial, keeled over and died of a heart attack while talking to the Secretary of War Davis.

Building the Memorial

A great pylon of granite was selected as the winning design for the memorial. Robert P. Rodgers and Alfred E. Poor, New York architects, were the winning architects.

In selecting the design the commission of Fine Arts and the Joint Congressional commission stated that it was “not only the most original and impressive as seen from land, but would also be extremely effective as seen from the air. It strongly manifests the dominant motive suggested in the program, namely, a memorial to the birth of human flight.”

The job of building the memorial consisting of a great pylon of granite was assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps. In charge was Captain John A. Gilman, who had just completed building the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The work on the memorial started in 1929.

The job presented a major engineering challenge. Big Kill Devil Hill was a 90-foot high, shifting sand dune that had to be stabilized. It was estimated that it had moved some 400 to 600 feet since the first flight in 1903.

Gilman began by fencing off the dune to keep out the cattle and pigs. Then, he spread two inches of mulch extending 300 feet up the hill. Next, he planted a hardy mixture of imported grass. Once that took root, he extended it up the rest of the slope.

Along with the grass, a cactus known as Prickly Pear was added. It hugs the ground and grows to the size of a pear. It may have been an effective ground cover but its up to inch long needles can be a pain to walkers. During the ensuing years it has spread throughout the park.

It took about a year for the vegetation to stabilize the hill. Work on constructing the monument itself began in February 1931.

Foundations were sunk 35 feet into the hill. The base on top of the hill consisted of a five-pointed star. Above the star rose a 60-foot high triangular pylon, making the total height of the memorial 151-feet measured from sea level. Marble from Salisbury and Mount Airy, NC were used in the construction.


On November 19, 1932, Kill Devil Hills Monument was dedicated. (On December 1, 1953 it was renamed the Wright Brothers National Memorial)

Unlike the trip for the cornerstone laying in 1928, this time the trip for the participants was much easier. The roads to Kitty Hawk were paved and there was a new bridge, appropriately named the Wright Memorial Bridge, connecting the Outer Banks with the Currituck Peninsula.

The weather, however, was another story. A heavy downpour of rain drenched a weather reduced crowd of attendees. A make shift canvas covering stretched over the speaker’s platform as a shelter was torn away by the wind.

The airship Akron was turned away. Airplanes based at the army’s Langley Field were unable to take off, but a Navy biplane and two Coast Guard seaplanes were able to fly over the celebration and dip their wings in salute.

An address by Congressman Warren was cut short. A letter from President Hoover was read by Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley and then handed to Orville, who said a simple “thank you” and placed it in his pocket. The assembled group was not aware that President Hoover thought it was absurd to build the memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Ruth Nichols unveiled the granite pylon as the National Anthem was played by the Coast Artillery Band from Fort Monroe, Va.

By 1931 Ruth Nichols had flown higher and faster than any other woman in the world. She was an early favorite to be the first woman to repeat Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight but failed when her airplane crashed in St. John, New Brunswick on her attempt on June 22, 1931.

An interesting note is that Orville was not listed on the program at his request. When it was time for him to come forward many people in the densely packed crowd did not recognize him and he had to push his way through them.

The inscription around the base of the memorial 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.”

Other Wright Memorials

There is another memorial marker at Kitty Hawk that is little publicized. It is a simple obelisk in Bill Tate’s front yard that was dedicated by the citizens of Kitty Hawk in 1928. (See picture at the beginning of this article.)Tate is the one who responded to Wilbur Wright’s letter of inquiry about a suitable place to perform glider experiments and convinced him to come to Kitty Hawk.

On the obelisk is a carved image of the 1900 glider placed above the inscription that states that on this spot is where Wilbur began to assemble the Wright Brothers first experimental glider.

Dayton did belatedly dedicate their memorial to the Wrights on Orville’s 69th birthday August 19, 1940. The first proposal for a memorial in Dayton had been made in 1912. The memorial was to be built on Huffman Prairie where the Wrights conducted some 120 flights after 1903. A fund drive was underway when the great Dayton flood temporarily terminated the effort.

The completed Dayton memorial is a multifaceted thirty-foot shaft of pink North Carolina marble. It stands on a hill with a view of Huffman Prairie in the distance. Both the Monument and Huffman Prairie are now a part of the Wright Patterson Air Force Base complex.

People will again assemble around the memorials in 2003 celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the first flight.

The death of Wilbur Wright on Wednesday, May 29, 1912 at the relatively young age of 45 ended the productive output of the Wright brother’s team of Wilbur and Orville. Orville lost his motivation to continue the Wright Airplane Company and sold it in October of 1915. At the time, the Wright airplane was already losing it aeronautical technology edge.

His death was front-page news around the world. The following historic article that appeared in The New York Globe contains a detailed description of Wilbur’s death. In addition, at the end of the article are some interesting comments from Wilbur about what role birds and the bicycle played in inventing the airplane. His comments seem to contradict some commonly held beliefs.

Here’s the article:

Man Who First Conquered the Air and Led the Way in the Aeronautic Marvels of the Last Decade Succumbs to Typhoid — Members of His Family at Bedside When End Came Early today — They Hoped to the End.

Dayton, May 30. — With the world watching, hoping that he might win, Wilbur Wright early today lost his gallant fight for life. He died at 3:15 in the morning. Not until his physician uttered the final syllable of the last word did his loyal brother, constant companion and sharer in his world triumphs, give up hope.

“He will recover. He must get well,” Orville Wright said over and over through the long night. But that parching fever, a temperature of 105.9, just a little under that of the birds he had rivaled, safe to them but death to him, told the physicians that the end was fast approaching.

About midnight he had rallied, his pulse fell steadily to nearly normal, and his respiration was hardly more than twenty. But the fever raged on, and shortly afterward there came a sinking spell, from which he never rallied.

Wright had been lingering on the border for many days, and though his condition from time to time gave some hopes to members of his family the attending physicians, Drs. D. B. Conklin and Levi Spitler, maintained throughout the latter part of his sickness that he could not recover. When the noted patient succumbed to the burning fever that had been racking his body for days and nights he was surrounded by the members of his family, which included his aged father, Bishop Milton Wright, Miss Catherine (should be spelled Katharine) Wright, Orville, the co-inventor of the aeroplane; Reuchlin Wright and Lorin Wright. All of the family resides in this city except Reuchlin, who lives in Kansas.


The most alarming systems in Wright’s sickness developed yesterday shortly before noon, when his fever suddenly mounted from 104 up to 106 and then quickly subsided to its former stage. At this juncture of the crisis the patient was seized with chills, and the attending physicians were baffled by the turn of events. Chills were unusual in a patient suffering from fever this high, and the doctors at Wright’s bedside were puzzled. The condition of the aviator remained unchanged throughout the rest of the day, and there was no improvement up until last midnight. Then Wright began to show an improvement, and the watchers at this bedside were reassured. After resting for a few hours after last midnight Wright took a sudden turn for the worse and his principal physician, Dr. D. B. Conklin, was called. The doctor arrived at 3:25 and learned that Wright had breathed his last a few minutes before.

The noted patient was seized with typhoid on May 4 while on a business trip in the east. On that day he returned to Dayton from Boston and consulted Dr. Conklin, the family physician. He took to his bed almost immediately, and it was several days before his case was definitely diagnosed as typhoid. Throughout the early part of his illness Wright attributed his sickness to some fish he had eaten at a Boston hotel. He explained to his physician, however, that he had no particular reason to believe that the disease originated from this source.

Arrangements for the funeral of the aviator had not been completed early today.


Wilbur Wright, the elder of the two brothers, was perhaps the better known. It was he whose spectacular flights in France during 1908 opened the eyes of Europe to the flying machines which the two brothers had been perfecting at their home in Dayton, Ohio, and among the sand dunes of the coast of North Carolina.

Wilbur Wright was born near Millville, Indiana, April 16, 1867, and was therefore forty-five years old. He went to the high schools of Richmond, Ind., and Dayton, Ohio, to which city his father moved and stayed four years. It was in 1903 that Wilbur Wright, with his brother Orville, began to devote his time and attention to the effort to make a heavier than air flying machine. It has taken less than nine years to build the airship from a crude machine to one which will fly many hundreds of miles and remain in the air for hours. The Wrights have been recognized officially in the $30,000 payment for an aeroplane made to them in 1909 by the War Department. In the same year the French Academy of Sciences awarded Wilbur Wright a gold medal.

All the success won by the brothers did not alienate them from their Dayton home and workshop. When Wilbur Wright was here in 1908, some time before the success of the aeroplane was generally acknowledged, he was asked how much the study of bird flight had benefited the two in their studies of the air.

“Birds taught us nothing,” said he. “Birds and aeroplanes are far different. There couldn’t be much more difference. A bird flying and a flying machine that can carry a man present two vastly different subjects. We worked out our plans as to flying. After we got into the air we watched the birds. After we were tauAght by the air we could understand why birds did certain things during their flights. We learned why a bird suddenly drops and rises, and why the different positions of the bird when flying. In fact, we learned a great many things that we didn’t know before.”

He went on to deny that he had obtained ideas from the bicycle. The parts of a bicycle, said he, are rigid. The parts of an aeroplane must not be. End

Comment: Concerning Wilbur’s statement on birds, Wilbur did sit along the Miami River south of Dayton in a place called the Pinnacles and observe birds flying. In his notes of 1900 he wrote, “The buzzard that uses the dihedral angle (V- shaped) finds greater difficulty to maintain equilibrium in strong winds than eagles and hawks which hold their wings level.”

The Wrights would remember that observation in designing the 1903 Flyer. The Flyer had wings that drooped like an eagle in what is known as the anhedral configuration.

Flying like an eagle with drooping wing tips may have worked for their 1903 machine, but they later used the dihedral at Huffman Prairie for their 1904 and 1905 and later machines.

With regard to the bicycle, bicycle manufacturing turned out to be the ideal preparation for engineering an airplane. Their design incorporated bicycle parts such as the oversized sprocket and chain that drove the propellers, a body frame structure similar to the tubular steel double-triangle frames used in their bicycles, and in the chain that was used in the wing warping linkage.

There were other bicycle-related uses. They lay on the wing instead of sitting upright in order to reduce drag similar to bicycle riders while racing. They used two modified bicycle hubs as wheels on the unattached dolly that was used to ride the launching monorail during takeoff. The twisting of a bicycle inner tube box resulted in developing the structural solution for implementing wing warping.

Their bicycle business provided them with the machine tools and skills for building their gliders and airplanes. They learned to work with sprockets, spikes, metals, lathes and drills.

Lastly, they knew that one had to learn how to fly an airplane, the way one learns to ride a bicycle — learning to balance through constant practice.

We don’t know what questions the reporter asked, nor their context. That could answer why Wilbur gave the answers he did.