The Boyhood Nurturing of the Wright Brothers.

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

The best scientists of the day tried to solve the riddle of powered flight and failed. Yet, two brothers without formal high school diplomas found the answer. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, referred to them as ” doers with dreams.” An examination of their boyhood environment provides some clues as to why they were successful.

Their father, Milton, was a bishop in the United Brethren Church. He was a man of strong fundamental Christian values and an iron will to follow them. Born in a log cabin in Rush County, Indiana in 1828 in a religious household, he knew from a young age that the church would be his career.

At the age of eighteen an itinerant preacher introduced him to the United Brethren Church. He experienced a religious conversion and felt salvation. The church doctrine emphasized the importance of a moral life, temperance and abolition of slavery. The church was a protestant sect that was popular in the rural areas of the Midwest in the 1890s.

Milton preached his first sermon on his twenty-second birthday in 1850. He was earning his living by working on the farm and teaching in local schools to supplement his income.

In 1850 he entered Hartsville College, a small Indiana school run by the United Brethren Church, and was ordained a minister in 1856. He also became certified to teach penmanship, grammar, reading , writing, arithmetic and geography.

Milton was a strong supporter of women’s rights. He gave encouragement and support to daughter Katharine who attended and graduated from America’s first coed college, Oberlin College in Ohio. He had selected and recommended Oberlin to Katharine. At the time only 2% of girls attended college. In later years Milton and Orville marched in a women’s suffrage parade in downtown Dayton.

Milton met his future wife, Susan Koener, at Hartsville College. She trained as a teacher studying literature, mathematics, Latin and Greek. Two years younger than Milton, she was scholarly and shy.

She was born in Hillsboro, a town located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Her family later migrated to Indiana. Her father was a wagon maker and wheelwright. Susan, growing up, spent much time in her father’s shop where she became adept in using tools. It would be Susan, not Milton that would help the children in their early construction projects. Milton was an intellectual and amateur scientist, but he was not good with his hands.

Milton’s career grew in influence. He was elected and reelected bishop and became editor of the church publications. The latter assignment necessitated his move to Dayton.

After their marriage in 1859, Susan spent the next 25 years moving the family, as Milton’s church duties required frequent moves to new locations in Indiana, Iowa and Ohio.

Susan considered it was her fulltime duty to raise these children into healthy, strong adults with moral fiber, and model citizens.

Milton inculcated in his children strength of character, firmness of purpose and self-confidence in their pursuits. He taught them that with hard work they could accomplish anything.

Orville and Wilbur lived a moral lifestyle. They never flew on Sundays and abstained from the use of liquor, beer and tobacco. They maintained a strict dress code even while working in the barren sands of Kitty Hawk – wearing white shirts, stiff collars, and vests along with suit and coat.

Milton placed a very high value on the concept of family and maintained a loving environment among family members. He believed that a tightly unified family was the best defense against the pressures of an essentially wicked world which was not to be trusted.

Bishop Milton became involved in serious controversies that produced crisis within the church. The controversies involved what Milton viewed as changes in traditional doctrines. The schism continued for sixteen years and ultimately split the church. Wilbur, while in high school helped his father in his battles by writing and distributing position papers.

The brothers learned from their father’s devotion to correct principles, justice and course of action regardless of opposition and obstacles.

Their father’s philosophy would ring true in Orville and Wilbur’s later battles with Glen Curtiss and other infringers of their patent on their airplane and with the Smithsonian Institution’s claim that Langley was the first to construct an airplane that was capable of flying.

The close bond between the brothers, their self confidence and their secrecy with regard to their experiments and their mistrust of outsiders were also extensions of their father’s philosophy.

Milton and Susan encouraged openness and curiosity and a willingness to pursue scientific inquiry and speculation.

Both brothers, from an early age, were fascinated with mechanical devices. Orville, particularly, enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked and then reassembling them. This was mechanical aptitude was most likely inherited from their mother who could make or repair almost anything.

Milton encouraged the boy’s scientific interests even while traveling. His duties as a bishop in the church required him to be absent from home much of the time.

One day he returned from one of his numerous trips with a toy helicopter designed by Alphonse Penaud of France. It fascinated the boys who were ages eleven and seven at the time. The rotating twin propellers would fly as high as 25 feet in the air when released from two tightened rubber bands.

The brothers tried to build their own helicopter of a larger design, but weren’t successful. It wouldn’t be until they were older that they figured out why. (The size of a helicopter of only twice as large would require eight times the power to fly). Later in life they cited the toy helicopter as inspiring their initial interest in flying.

Milton would carry on with other educational activities while traveling. He would give his sons geography lessons by describing in great detail the places he visited. He would encourage the children to write him using good grammar and he would critique their efforts.

Both parents believed in formal and informal education and encouraged their children to pursue intellectual interests outside of school. They believed that children needed time to investigate whatever aroused their curiosity and encouraged the boys to skip school on occasion for that purpose.

Their home was filled with books – history, novels, encyclopedias, scientific papers and religious. There was even a religious book by the agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, because Milton believed in learning from studying a diversity of viewpoints.

The children were taught to read at an early age using McGuffey readers. Both Wilbur and Orville acquired excellent reading skills before they went to school. They both enjoyed could read scientific articles in their father’s encyclopedia at an early age.

Orville was home schooled prior to the second grade. When he entered the second grade he told his second grade teacher he wanted to move on to the 3rd reader. She told him to read a particular passage out of the 2nd reader to demonstrate his proficiency. Orville turned the book upside down and read the passage. He passed the test.

Milton didn’t always agree with how reading was being taught in the classroom. One day he went to school to complain that the teacher should stop telling kids to guess at words.

Neither brother received a high school diploma. In 1900 the average American adult had just 5 years of formal education.

Wilbur did not receive his high school diploma in Richmond because his family move to Dayton, Ohio, just before commencement.

The fact that Wilbur did not graduate was discovered more than 80 years later when, in an attempt to award Wilbur Wright the Outstanding Alumni award, a requirement was to have graduated. In 1993, the Richmond Community Schools rectified matters by approving an 1884-style diploma for him, making him the high school’s most famous graduate.

Orville didn’t attend his senior year of high school to devote full time to his printing business.

At the turn of the century a high school diploma was not considered that important. Only 8% of 14-17 year-olds attended high school as most formal education ended with elementary school.

The influence of their parents had a powerful influence on their later achievements. Wilbur, the reflective visionary, and Orville, the impulsive mechanic/engineer, had different but complementary talents that were critical to inventing powered flight. Orville once told a friend, “In a different kind of environment our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”

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