We know the story of the first powered heavier-than-air flying machine: Wilbur and Orville Wright, brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Ohio, flew their experimental airplane on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville was the pilot on the first successful flight because he won the coin toss, but the two developed the plane together. Documentary evidence, chronicled in a new book, tell a different story. Wilbur, older than Orville by four years, was the aeronautical engineer who designed the airplane. So how did our common knowledge of the first flight go so wrong?
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Orville was Wilbur’s student and helpmate. But he was also the keeper of history. The Wright brothers’ story was the product of death, a friendship and a biography that would set the stage for every future chronicle. Fred C. Kelly published The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright in 1943. Wilbur Wright died in 1912 from typhoid fever. Orville would live until 1948, the survivor who gave access to some family letters and documents to Kelly, a friend who adhered to the dictate that Orville must approve every page of the biography. The book is ultimately Orville’s version of events, which was that the brothers deserved equal credit for the invention of the airplane. (Indeed, Orville’s name appears in the biography 337 times to Wilbur’s 267.)
Wilbur Wright was the man who really invented controlled flight, though it is nearly heretical to say so. Orville, though a gifted mechanic, never had the genius to make the leap from theory to application.
Wilbur Wright dreamed of flying since he was 17, laid up with the broken jaw that kept him from college. Read how Wilbur drove the progress of flight and brought his little brother along for the ride at Smithsonian.