The Wright Brothers Plus One; The Influence of Their Sister

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

On a coastal sand dune at Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903 two brothers realized mankind’s dream to fly. Not as well known is the part their sister, Katharine, played in their success.

Man Will Never Fly

Two years earlier in 1901, the prospect of success had not seemed so sure. After Wilbur and Orville’s glider experiments at Kitty Hawk, they returned thoroughly discouraged. Their glider didn’t fly as their calculations on wing lift had predicted. A frustrated Wilbur proclaimed, “Man won’t be flying for a thousand years.”

Shortly after returning home to Dayton, Wilbur received a letter from Octave Chanute, the President of the Western Engineering Society, inviting him to speak at their upcoming meeting of the society. Wilbur knew Chanute and had had previous discussions with him about the problems of flight.

Speech Leads to Further Research

A discouraged Wilbur intended to refuse the invitation after the poor results at Kitty Hawk. But Katharine intervened and talked him into accepting the invitation. She thought it was a great opportunity to expose the relatively unknown Wilbur to the aeronautical community. She even helped Wilbur prepare for the speech.

She made sure that Wilbur’s appearance would make a good impression. She substituted Wilbur’s baggy suit with one of Orville’s. Orville, unlike Wilbur, had a reputation as a sharp dresser.

The speech was well received and served to bring Wilbur out of his funk. Reenergized, Wilbur and Orville decided to find out why the glider didn’t behave as predicted by published engineering data. This led them to design and build a wind tunnel in which they tested some 200 wing configurations. Their test results enabled them to correctly calculate lift and drag, leading to the design of an efficient wing. All of this was made possible because of Katharine’s intervention.

Success in Europe

Later, after their success at Kitty Hawk, Katharine was a great help to her brothers during their three trips to Europe where they were conducting demonstration flights.

Katharine was hesitant about going at first because she would lose her teaching job if she went. Wilbur kept after her and even promised to pay her teaching salary of $6.00 per day. Besides, she had never been to Europe and it would be fun to go.

She served as a gracious hostess to dukes, counts and kings. Among the royalty were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Edward VII of England, King Victor XX of Italy and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany.

She wrote to her father from Italy, “We have to bounce out early tomorrow morning and take the seven o’clock car to the country. The king is to come at eight o’clock.

The kings are a nuisance. They always come at such unearthly hours.”

King Alfonso wanted Wilbur to take him up for a flight, but the king’s mother wouldn’t give him permission.

She was the first women to attend a monthly banquet of the Aero-Club de France as the members raised their glasses of champagne to toast the Wright name.

The brothers were by nature, shy, quiet and reserved. They didn’t like crowds. She told them how to behave and what they should wear. Unlike her brothers, Katharine was not only outgoing, but also poised and charming. King Alfonso pronounced her the “ideal American.” Crowds in Paris followed her everywhere she went while shopping in Paris and she became famous for her stylish hats with long plumes. She even flew twice as a passenger with Wilbur wearing a fancy dress, the second time in front of King Edward. In so doing, she became one of the first women to fly in an airplane.

Katharine even took French lessons. In the southwestern city of Pau she engaged a French tutor for two hours each morning. Soon she was fluent enough to speak the language with French dignitaries.

She became as well known as her brothers in Europe. All three of them were awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Wright Family’s Close Bond

There were five children in the Wright family. Katharine was the youngest and the only girl. She was born on the same day as Orville, August 19. Orville was three years older and Wilbur, seven years older. The three of them grew up together while their two older brothers married and struck out on their own.

When Katharine was six, Wilbur and Orville began to include her in their activities. She helped them earn money for their hobbies by collecting bones to sell to a fertilizer plant and scrap iron to sell to a junkyard. Later in life, she was alleged to have provided financial help for her brother’s aeronautical activities, but this was false. The brothers paid all of their expenses themselves form their bicycle business earnings of some $3,000 per year.

Their father, Milton, a Bishop in the United Brethren Church, was gone most of the time traveling on church business. Left to themselves, his three children developed ties of loyalty, respect and affection.

Their bond grew stronger after their mother developed tuberculosis and died when Katharine was only fifteen. Her father, recognizing her remarkable maturity, began to share family leadership with her and placed her in charge of running the household, which included paying the bills.

In 1914, she helped organize a march through Dayton in support of women’s suffrage. The march drew 1,300 to the city’s streets, including Orville and her father, Milton.

When her father died in 1917, he left the original house they lived in on Hawthorn Street in Dayton to Katharine. By that time, the family was living in the white brick mansion called Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood. It had been Katharine’s idea to build the house on 17 acres in Oakwood, a city adjacent to Dayton.

Milton encouraged Katharine to go to college as her mother had done, as he was a strong believer that women should have intellectual growth. She matriculated to Oberlin College in Ohio, a center for woman’s rights. She graduated in 1898 with a degree in classics. Orville, who was particularly close to his sister, gave her a diamond ring as a graduation gift. She wore the ring on her trip to Paris.

Katharine returned to Dayton and taught Latin at Steele high school, the same school that my mother later attended. She also wanted to teach Greek but never got the chance. Some writers have written that she also taught English and history but that has not been substantiated. She had a reputation as being an excellent teacher and a disciplinarian in the classroom.

Katharine was a member of an organization of teachers that met monthly to read plays. The club, Helen Hunt Club, was the second oldest women’s club in Dayton.

They didn’t have much in way of costumes and stage settings, but they were a powerful influence for drama among women of the city.

She maintained close ties with Oberlin and was later elected to their board of trustees, the second woman to have the honor. When Orville died, he honored his sister by designating in his will $300,000 to Oberlin. The money was worth millions in today’s dollars.

Oberlin used the money for the Wright Laboratory of Physics which still stands today.

She attended football games with Orville at Oberlin as well as the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University. She wasn’t a strong sports fan but went along to provide Orville company. Orville delegated the task of obtaining the tickets for the games to Katharine.

Katharine Nurses Brothers

She continued teaching until Orville’s near fatal airplane crash during Army trials at Fort Myer, Va. in 1908 that killed his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge. She rushed to the hospital at Fort Myer to care for Orville and never returned to teaching. Wilbur encouraged her to work with them saying that she could make more money than returning to teaching.

Katharine had acquired plenty of experience taking care of the brothers when they were sick. She cared for Wilbur when at 17, he had eight teeth knocked out playing hockey and subsequently developed a severe infection that persisted for months. She and Wilbur took care of Orville when at 25, he developed typhoid fever from contaminated well water and was unconscious for nearly two weeks. She took care of Wilbur for the last time when he developed typhoid fever and died in 1912 at the age of 45.

Since Wilbur was in Europe at the time of Orville’s crash, Katharine represented the family at Selfridge’s funeral and then signed her brother’s request to the Signal Corps for a nine month extension in the flying machine acceptance tests to give Orville time to recover from his injuries.

When Orville returned home from the office he was so frail that Katharine had to help him go everywhere. Orville visited his shop twice a day to see Charlie Taylor.

Orville on crutches needed help from his sister to make the trip.

He couldn’t stay long because it was too cold and he couldn’t stand cold. The house was kept very warm – too warm for Katharine’s comfort – it was her duty to massage Orville’s legs every evening. She wrote his letters and took care of all other household duties. When Wilbur invited Orville and Katharine to visit him in Europe, it was a break she needed. There she led the grand life and enjoyed every minute of it.

Later, when the Wright Company was formed in 1909 to manufacture airplanes, Katharine became an officer in the company and was secretary of the executive committee.

Katharine was active in the suffrage movement. Her father, the Bishop, and Orville supported her in her fight. On Saturday, October 24, 1914, they both marched along side her and 1,300 others through downtown Dayton. The sidewalks were full of thousands of spectators.

Katharine Marries

The brothers never married. After their father’s death, both Katharine and Orville continued to live at Hawthorn Hill until 1926. Then Katharine, at age 52, fell in love and married Henry Haskell, who had been a fellow student and trustee at Oberlin. He was then a widower and the editor of the Kansas City Star.

At Oberlin he had been her tutor in math. Some writers have written that she had helped her brothers in making calculations on their machines. This was not true because mathematics was never her strong skill.

This was not Katharine’s first romance. She had been engaged in college but never married. Upon graduating from college she began her teaching career and in those days teachers were prohibited from marrying.

She was engaged for a year before telling Orville that she intended to marry because she had a premonition he would be upset. She was right. Orville was so upset by the marriage; he refused to speak to her and remained estranged from her until she was on her deathbed.

He had even refused to attend her wedding that was held at the home of classmates living in Oberlin. The president of Oberlin College was one of those in attendance. After the wedding the couple moved to Kansas City.

She wrote to a friend in 1929, “I will not stay longer than my business keeps me since I can’t go home to Dayton. In my imagination I walk through our Dayton home, looking for Little Brother and all the dear family things that made my home. But I never find Little Brother, and I have lost my old home forever, I fear.”

Orville’s behavior is hard to understand. He had become excessively dependent on her and may have come to believe that she had broken a sacred trust between them.

Wilbur had once written to his father about a quirk in Orville’s personality. He never said what it was. Maybe this was a manifestation of it.

Tragically, Katharine died almost three years after her marriage at the age of 54. She had caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. Orville arrived a day before her death and was at her bedside when she died. He brought her back to Dayton and buried her in the family cemetery lot in Woodlawn Cemetery near the University of Dayton. During her funeral, airplanes from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base dropped flowers on her grave.

Two years after her death, Harry Haskell built a fountain in her memory at Oberlin College. He commissioned a bronze figure by Andrea del Verrachino of a small boy angel playing with a dolphin. The angel is lifted into the air by his wings.

Orville attended the dedication of the statue along with Haskell.

Each year the National Aeronautic Association awards the Katharine Wright Trophy to the woman who is most supportive of someone’s efforts in aviation.

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