(Dec. 7, 2017) I visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for the first time in 2002. I read my first full biography of the Wrights while stationed on Guam as the 2003 centennial of flight was observed. I already knew they had developed their gliders and the 1903 Flyer in Dayton and used Kitty Hawk as a proving ground, but I learned something startling—the 1903 Flyer was but Part 1 of the story. Part 2 of their odyssey was conquered here in Dayton, and one must come here to truly appreciate it.
The house the Wrights lived in at 7 Hawthorn Street and the bicycle shop the maintained at 1127 West 3rd Street (the sites of their work from 1899 – 1908) were both picked up and moved by Henry Ford in 1937 to his museum near Dearborn, Michigan. Orville Wright gave his blessing to the move as Dayton showed a significant lack of interest in preserving those sites (Wilbur had passed away many years before). Today the sites of both are maintained in downtown Dayton, and the house’s foundations have been outlined to give a visitor an idea how small it was. The family lived in this tiny house with their for more than 30 years before moving to Hawthorn Hill, a mansion the brothers built on a hill outside of Dayton. Unfortunately, Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, two years before the mansion’s completion.
Even without the old house on Hawthorn Street or the bike shop on West 3rd Street, standing on these streets gives you a feel for the blue collar, self-taught world of the Wrights. The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park now maintains a series of sites around Dayton, including the sites of 7 Hawthorn Street and the bike shop at 1127 W. 3rd Street. The streets are still cobbled with brick, and the surrounding houses all date from the late 19th century. Except for the missing house and bike shop, this neighborhood appears very much as it did to the Wrights in the early 20th century.
The park maintains a replica bike shop at 22 S. Williams St —but don’t feel let down. This shop is also a shop used by the Wrights. In fact, it was the fifth bike shop they worked out of. It’s been restored to resembled the shop from 1127 W. 3rd Street so you can see how their work space looked to them as they balanced bicycles and biplanes from 1899 – 1905.
The park’s main museum is located in a very nicely designed modern facility. It’s attached to, and incorporates, a building that housed a grocery the Wrights shopped at (one can see a check signed by the brothers in the grocery store) and the print shop Orville operated prior to going into the bicycle business. Yep, Orville started a printing business by building (with Wilbur’s help) a homemade printing press. He then got Wilbur into the business as a partner and hired his high school friend, the budding African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Wrights’ friendship with Dunbar reflected the egalitarian upbringing they had under their minister father—it was nothing to them (even in the 1890s) to be white men maintaining a friendship and business partnership with a black man.
Once you’ve actually stood in the Wright’s story, you can begin to understand the remarkable brilliance of these self-taught engineers. They succeeded in aviation where everyone else failed because they were accustomed to figuring out problems in a methodical, logical manner. If they didn’t, their very livelihood suffered (strong motivation to get things right!). Their bicycle experience gave them key insights into the fundamentals needed to maintain balance and control in flight. As Wilbur got hooked by the aviation bug, he (and later Orville) stuck with continually improving the basic design Wilbur sketched out for a kite in 1899. Other want-to-be aviators would try a design, discard it, and start over from scratch, or else modify existing designs based on data dating back to the 18th century.
The Wrights researched their own figures with the determination of men who took nothing for granted. They ended up proving the accepted lift and drag data to be significantly inaccurate. They were the first men to apply scientific principles to the design of the airplane’s propeller. The brothers invented propeller design theory from scratch, and their first hand-carved propeller had a peak efficiency of 82%—a very remarkable feat indeed!
The next site to visit is the world’s first airport. Once they’d cracked the basics of flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, Wilbur and Orville realized they had to continue their work closer to home. Traveling to North Carolina was expensive and, with most of their equipment in Ohio, wildly inefficient. They secured permission to use a cow pasture owned by Torrence Huffman, a local Dayton banker who liked the brothers…but through they were a few sprockets short of a chain drive.
Two more years would pass. Two more years filled with multiple crashes, significant frustration, and several (fortunately) minor injuries, but, in 1905, they did it! They produced a practical airplane that could be flown and controlled with ease. Today Huffman Prairie sits on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but it’s maintained by the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park and is open to the public. A replica of the Wright’s wooden hangar has been constructed on the foundations of the original, and a replica catapult shows visitors how the Wrights freed themselves from dependency on the unpredictably shifting Ohio winds in order to achieve enough airspeed for take off.
Huffman Prairie was the site of a number of stories. Early in their experiments they scared the daylights out numerous local cows. The first member of the press the brothers ended up working with was Amos Root, a bee keeper. The first accurate media accounts of mankind’s breakthrough in flight came in Gleanings, Root’s bee keeping magazine! This self-made publisher with his respectful curiosity was exactly the kind of man the brothers could talk to, respect, and, ultimately, trust.
The year 1910 saw two significant Wright family flights at Huffman Prairie: out of deference to their father, the brothers only flew together once. Additionally, their father, the elderly Bishop Milton Wright, went up with Orville, and the old man could be heard excitedly telling his son to keep going higher!
Wilbur and Orville would forever considered the 1905 Flyer III to be the single most important aircraft they built because it was the aircraft with which they finally achieved full control over their creation.
This brings me to a third site, Carillon Historical Park in downtown Dayton. An outdoor museum displaying buildings dating to 1796, the park hosts Orville’s final project: the Wright Aviation Center and restored 1905 Flyer III. As the park was being built, Orville was approached to build a replica of the 1903 Flyer I. He countered by offering to restore the 1905 Flyer III and display it instead. Today a keen eye will be able to spot many of the structural modifications that put this aircraft as far in advance of the 1903 Flyer I as the 1903 Flyer I is ahead of the kite Wilbur built in 1899.
Take your time visiting these sites. Dayton and Huffman Prairie are one of those rare sites in American history where one can see the world much as it was “back then” and walk the path of the great figures of history when they were just ordinary men. It is a unique place to get a visceral, ontological feel for how two ordinary bicycle makers turned the world upside down while balancing bicycles and biplanes.