A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Wilbur Wright (1867 - 1912) and Orville Wright (1871 - 1948)

Wilbur Wright was older than Orville by four years. The brothers' educational and career paths were so similar that although Orville outlived Wilbur by 36 years, the two are almost always mentioned together. Both went through high school, but neither ended up with a diploma -- Wilbur missed his commencement ceremony because the family moved, and Orville studied special subjects rather than the regular curriculum his senior year. They had always loved tinkering with mechanical things. After high school, Orville built and operated a printing press. The brothers published a weekly paper that Wilbur edited. Orville was a champion cyclist, and in 1892 they opened a bicycle shop, selling and renting the newly popular vehicle. Soon they began building bicycles themselves.

In 1896 they took an interest in flying, which at that time meant gliding. They read everything they could find on the subject, and with their new knowledge built and tested their first glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Within three years they had built a motorized plane and had become skilled pilots. The press and public were not the least interested... at first.

Over the next few years they ran increasingly successful trials of their airplane prototypes. In 1908 Wilbur took the equipment to France, where he stunned the European aviation community. The Wright brothers' technology was far ahead of anyone else's. Soon after that, they contracted with the U.S. government for the first military airplane. Their success advanced the airplane industry but also led to imitators, patent infringements, and lawsuits.

The Wrights remained in aviation for the rest of their lives. This was not long for Wilbur, who died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville sold his share in the Wright Company three years later, and continued aeronautical research in his own lab. In 1929, the first Guggenheim Medal was given to Orville for his and Wilbur's contributions to aeronautics. Orville died in 1948. Both Wilbur and Orville were elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

"We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity." -- Orville Wright

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