Wilbur Wright is Dead after a Long Struggle for Life

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

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.

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