The ‘Wright’ Story of Powered Flight

On Friday 10 November 2023 we had an excellent talk from a speaker we last saw in the context of the American Civil War, Harry Goldstein. His topic was the amazing story of powered flight and how that linked into the Wright Family and its history.

We started with the background of the Wright family, dating back to the period of the Pilgrim Fathers. The family had eventually moved west on the Ohio River, ending up in Dayton, Ohio where they settled. We were introduced to the father of the Wright Brothers, Bishop Milton Wright, the two brothers Wilbur and Orville, and their sister Katherine who also played a key role in the development of the family’s interests. There were two older siblings, Reuchlin and Lorin, but we learned less about them as they were not flight enthusiasts for the initial flights.

The brothers ended up running a cycle manufacturing business, and a replica of their original shop can be found in Dayton, Ohio. Previously they had tried their hand at printing, and at running a newspaper. The cycle business did well, but the flight experiments of Otto Lilienthal. Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley (mostly unsuccessful) in 1896 caught their attention. They had improved the design of the bicycle, so why not the gliders being designed by the others. It turned out that the published figures for how aeroplanes and gliders fly were not correct, and it was the Wright brothers that managed to sort out the errors. Harry explained this in parallel with explaining the theory of flight.

Harry then moved on to the first powered flight that took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903, lasting 12 seconds and covering 36 metres. Other powered airships had already flown by then. The Kitty Hawk location was chosen for its steady winds, and abundant soft sand dunes – for any ‘rapid’ landings. Not everything ran smoothly at first, but very soon the Wright Brothers had demonstrated extended flights in air shows in Europe and the USA and became the centre of the industry. That attracted others and the business was bought by New York investors, and developed beyond the means of the family. However, the family had filed many patents based on their working designs, and defending their patents took much of their energies from then.

Of the family members, Orville lived the longest and finally died in 1948. Neither of the brothers Wilbur and Orville married, but daughter Katherine did marry, dying in 1929. Wilbur, who had helped Orville achieve the first powered flight, died from typhoid in 1912. This was a fascinating insight into a series of events which defined the Twentieth Century in many ways, and heartily entertained us.

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