Katharine Wright: The Feminist “Lift” Behind the Brothers of the First Flight

August 19, 2018

katharine wright

Orville and Wilbur Wright put Kitty Hawk in North Carolina’s Outer Banks on the map, having chosen it as their development and testing ground for the first human air carrier to become airborne for a significant amount of time.

No one believed the Wright Brothers would be able to accomplish this monumental task.

Except for their sister, Katharine.  She believed they would fly when everyone else did not and was a constant source of motivation to both brothers.

Growing Up, the Wright Way

orville on the porch

Orville and Katharine Wright sitting on porch at Hawthorn Hill, 1915.

There were five children in the Wright family. Katharine was the youngest and the only girl, with Orville and Wilbur just a bit older. The three of them formed a close bond at an early age.  Coincidentally, Katharine was born on the same day as Orville, August 19.

After the death of their mother when she was only fifteen, Katharine began running the household.  From that point on, she was the only female figure in Orville and Wilbur’s adult lives, as well as their confidant.  Unlike her famous brothers who never attended college, in 1898 she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio, which specialized in woman’s rights, with a degree in classics. Orville, ever the proud brother, gave her a diamond ring as a graduation gift.

Katharine was employed as a teacher for many years. In 1914, she was instrumental in organizing a march through Dayton in support of women’s suffrage, attracting 1,300 people to the city’s streets, including Orville.

A Sister’s Support

katharine wright

Katharine Wright, wearing flying goggles, and Orville Wright sitting in a Wright Model H Flyer, 1914

Both of the Wright brothers had an intense passion and focus for their project that precluded everything else from their lives.  Orville, in particular, was also painfully shy and both brothers shunned public attention.  Modern speculation suggests that they may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of high spectrum autism.

After their first glider experiment failed in 1901, Katharine persuaded Wilbur to speak before the Western Engineering Society, to expose him to the aeronautical community.  She helped him prepare his speech and even directed him on what to wear.  The speech was well-received and reenergized the brothers into further research and experiments.

Katharine was savvy, and her intellect and social skills were very helpful to the brothers as they gained fame.  The brothers had no interest in the limelight and put her in charge of speaking with the press.  In 1909 when the Wright Company was formed to manufacture airplanes, Katharine was named an officer in the company and secretary of the executive committee.

katharine wright

Katharine and Orville Wright, along with others, walking across Tempelhof Field, Germany, 1909.

After the great success at Kitty Hawk, Katharine accompanied her brothers on several trips to Europe to conduct demonstration flights.  She aided the brothers as their hostess in social functions that included dukes, counts, and kings.

Katharine became as well-known as her brothers in Europe. She was the first woman to attend a monthly banquet of the Aero-Club de France as the members conducted a Champaign toast to honor the Wright name. All three of the Wrights were awarded the French Legion of Honor.

At age 52, Katharine married, much to Orville’s chagrin.  Perhaps he feared that he’d lose the support and help from the sister he’d come to depend on for so much.  Sadly, Orville did not attend the wedding or speak to Katharine again until she was on her deathbed, three years later, when the two reconciled.

Why the Outer Banks?

big kill devil hill

The Wrights set out to find a location with four conditions to conducts experiments on their controlled flights.

First and most important, they needed strong, steady winds to conduct lift. They asked the U.S. Weather Bureau for a list of the windiest places in the United States.  1st was California, 2nd Chicago, and 6th was Kitty Hawk.

Second, they needed sand for a soft landing because as you’re learning about control, you’re going to have some times when you haven’t mastered it yet, so a place to land safely would be imperative. Plus, they wanted an area with high sand dunes from which to glide.

Third, they needed a wide-open space with limited obstructions such as buildings or trees.

Fourth, they desired isolation to experiment unencumbered. Wilbur and Orville were pretty private guys. They did not like the press taking pictures, or people making fun of them or stealing their ideas before they’d had a chance to figure this thing out.

They’d heard about Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, a small fishing village on an isolated strip of the Outer Banks on the mid-Atlantic coast.  And it had sand dunes. They wrote to the postmaster at Big Kill Devil Hill to check. “Here’s the kind of things we’re looking for,” they said, “what do you have?”  The answers came back: wind – yes, there’s plenty of that; sand – there are stretches of it, miles at a time; isolation – well, there’s not that many of us here (60) and we’re pretty friendly. That was taken very positively by the Wright Brothers, and that’s why they relocated from Dayton, Ohio to the Outer Banks that first year in 1900.

It’s All About Control

katharine wright

Model of Wrights’ first airplane

One of the people that inspired them to start flying was Otto Lilienthal, a German aviation pioneer who did a lot of preliminary gliding experiments. In 1896, he died in one of his gliding experiments. That was also what finally captured the interest of the Wrights, because Lilienthal really valued control and thought that was the best route to take, i.e. when you are learning how to fly you must to master control.

The other camp at the time took the position that if you had a big enough engine on something, you should be fine. But the Wright Brothers, like Lilienthal, believed that control was the most important aspect. Regardless of how big the engine is, once you get it in the air, you need to be able to actually get it someplace. All their experiments in this area were based on trying to achieve the concept of control.

They spent their years at Big Kill Devil Hill, leading up to that first flight. The first three years were all devoted to gliding because the gliding was the key to control.

By 1902, they had a good enough concept of control to try flying with an engine. They achieved the first successful engine-powered airplane flight on December 17, 1903 – at the site of the current memorial.

Legacy

In 1932, the Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills was dedicated to the brothers’ achievements. Wilbur had long since passed away from typhoid in 1912, but Orville was in attendance. He did not make a speech on this momentous occasion due to his abhorrence for public speaking.

The invention of the airplane had made Orville a millionaire.  He died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 77, having witnessed many milestones in aviation – the creation of jet propulsion, the first rocket, the development of the jet engine, and a man breaking the speed of sound.  Unfortunately, he also saw the destruction caused by aircraft bombers in two world wars, which greatly saddened him.

The Wright Brothers National Memorial Gets a Facelift

katharine wright

Big Kill Devil Hill, where the Wrights launched their first flight.

The Visitors Center at the site is currently undergoing renovation. The original building was constructed in 1960 and is not very user-friendly to visitors.  The new building will contain all-new exhibits conforming to 1988 standards and the Facility Act, making it accessible to anyone, no matter the mobility level.

“The brothers’ had the idea of making the impossible possible and the vision for the park is to work along with that theme,” said park ranger, Ashley Dickerson  “The goal is to have a Visitors Center that would orient well-enough, but not be the entire experience. Instead of a giant museum, we want people to go out and actually see the park – to get information, to feel oriented, and to know what’s happening to make for the best possible experience.”

The new Visitors Center is set to be completed in the fall of 2018.

“The Wright Brothers were very family-oriented, but neither brother ever expressed an interest in marriage,” said Dickerson.  “People say they devoted their lives to flying, but I think they just never found Mrs. “Wright.”

katharine wright

Related: Girls Getaway: Best Things to Do in the Outer Banks

Disclosure:  The author was honored to be the guest of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau during her stay, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.

About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.

Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe. You can follow Patti on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Read more about Patti Morrow.

8 comments

  1. Comment by Julianna

    Julianna Reply November 10, 2018 at 11:54 pm

    Very interesting article. It wound be quite nice if you would make a timeline of her life and accomplishments.

  2. Comment by Donna Janke

    Donna Janke Reply August 22, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Fascinating story. Katharine Wright sounds like an impressive woman who had to grow up early. The Wright Brothers story would have been quite different without her.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2018 at 6:21 pm

      I agree. I think Katharine Wright provided the encouragement and motivation they needed at various intervals.

  3. Comment by Carolina Colborn

    Carolina Colborn Reply August 21, 2018 at 11:02 am

    We were at Big Kill Devil Hill in 2012. It is nice to know about Katharine, the big support and influence to the Wright Brothers in their quest, especially Orville.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2018 at 6:21 pm

      The more I researched her, the more fascinated I became!

  4. Comment by Doreen Pendgracs

    Doreen Pendgracs Reply August 20, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks for this terrific post. I’ve not previously heard of Katharine Wright before. Her story is a fascinating one. Thx so much for sharing.

  5. Comment by Debbra Dunning Brouillette

    Debbra Dunning Brouillette Reply August 20, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    What a fascinating post! I had no idea of any of this. So interesting that their sister played such a big role in their lives and success, and I had no idea, too, that they were both lifelong bachelors.
    (CommentLuv isn’t working for me but if you’d like you can go to my latest post here: Tahiti and Tuamotus: Moorea http://www.tropicaltravelgirl.com/tahiti-and-tuamotus-moorea/)

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply August 22, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      I know! I was so surprised, too. It’s too bad that the public doesn’t know more about her contributions, but I’m trying to change that. 🙂

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