[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of aviation histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the myths and realities of Earhart!]
1) A Printing Press: In 1888, fifteen years before their pioneering flight and when Orville was still just a junior in high school, the brothers developed their first technological innovation, a printing press that they built themselves. They used it not only to publish their own newspapers in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio (first a weekly [West Side News] and then briefly a daily [The Evening Item]), but also produced publications for other friends and locals. One of them was a high school classmate of Orville’s and a blossoming young writer and poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar; the brothers’ printed his newspaper the Dayton Tattler for a time. Such personal and historical details not only remind us that the Wright Brothers moved through many stages of invention and profession before their aviation pinnacles, but also help situate them in their settings, both of place and time.
2) A Bicycle Shop: Like many talented inventors, the Wright Brothers were never satisfied to stay in one stage or field for long; just four years after they opened their press, they had moved on, opening their bicycle repair and sales shop the Wright Cycle Exchange in 1892. As detailed at wonderful length in Kate Milford’s historical YA novel The Boneshaker (which features a Wright Brothers bicycle in a prominent role), bicycles had become something of a craze in this period, and the brothers quickly realized that they could turn their technological prowess to designing new and improved bikes. By 1896, the Wright Cycle Company was producing its own brand of bikes, machines which would of course also feature prominently in their later aeronautical efforts. But while this business and pursuit offer a direct throughline toward the machine that would propel the brothers into the air at Kitty Hawk, it also links them to a transportation trend and history that were far more widespread and influential throughout the 1890s and well into the early 1900s.
3) A Museum Feud: The interesting and complex histories didn’t stop with that 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, of course. One of the most compelling was the brothers’ multi-decade feud with the Smithsonian Institution, thanks to a rivalry with the institution’s secretary Samuel Langley over whose manned flying machine should be considered the first successful model. The museum chose to display Langley’s Aerodrome (which he had never gotten off the ground) much more prominently than the Wright Brothers’ model, and the brothers (especially Orville, as Wilbur died far too young in 1912) retaliated by lending their invention to the London Science Museum in 1928. There it remained until Orville’s death in 1948, when a long-negotiated truce allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the flyer and return it to the United States for the first time in decades. Among the many salient lessons from this controversial history is a reminder that museums are living and evolving spaces, reflecting the conflicts and struggles of their societies as much as their ideals and innovations. It’s hard to imagine an American Air & Space Museum without the Wright Brothers—but for a long time, thanks to the tangled history of aviation, that was precisely the case.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?