The Wright Brothers
Milton Wright and Susan Catharine Koerner met at Hartsville College in Hartsville, Indiana in 1853, one of the first coeducational institutions in the United States. They shared a love of learning for the sake of learning, but when Milton asked Susan to accompany him on an assignment by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, she declined–but agreed to marry him when he returned. The pair were married in 1859 and had seven children: Reuchlin (b. 1861); Lorin (b. 1862); Wilbur (b. 1867); Otis (b. 1870); Ida (b. 1870); Orville (b. 1871); and Katharine (b. 1874).
The Wright Brothers: Wilbur (Left) & Orville (Right)
Wilbur and Orville Wright were known as “Will” and “Orv” to their friends, “Ullam” and “Bubs” to each other and “the Bishop’s kids” to their neighbors. The brothers grew up at 7 Hawthorne Street in Dayton, Ohio and Orville, especially, was a troublemaker. In 1878 their father, who traveled often as a bishop, brought home a toy helicopter that was modeled after an invention of Alphonse Pénaud, a French aeronautical engineer. The helicopter was made of bamboo, paper and cork, and it had a rubber band to twirl the rotor; after Wilbur and Orville broke the toy, they rebuilt their own. The brothers credited this experience as the start of their interest in flying and engineering.
In December of 1892, Wilbur and Orville opened a bicycle sales and repair shop, the Wright Cycle Exchange (later, the Wright Cycle Company); by 1896, the brothers were manufacturing their own brand. Three widely-publicized aeronautical events occurred in 1896, as well: (1) Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft; (2) Octave Chanute brought together several men to test various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan; and (3) Otto Lilienthal was killed in a glider crash. The Wright brothers cited these three events at the catalysts to their interest in flight research. In 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution and requested information on and copies of aeronautical research; drawing on the previous work of Langley, Chanute and Lilienthal, as well as Sir George Cayley and Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wrights began their research into powered flight.
And they did fly. On December 17, 1903, the brothers took turns piloting their flying machine in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Orville piloted the first flight that lasted just 12 seconds and 120 feet. On the fourth and final flight of the day, Wilbur traveled 852 feet, remaining airborne for 59 seconds. That morning, the Wright brothers became the first to demonstrate sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of a pilot. Orville penned an account of the final flight of the day:
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred ft had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.
The Wright Brothers: Wilbur (Left) & Orville (Right), 1905
The brothers continued to update their gliders and heavier-than-air aircraft over the years; they sought patents for their inventions, started the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co., and gave flying lessons to family members and friends. Wilbur and Orville delivered talks throughout the country, collaborated with other would-be flyers and signed a contract with the United States Army to begin developing and testing military flyers. I grew up in North Carolina, but I never felt very connected to the state: my ancestors–with the exception of one branch of the family tree–lived in Western New York, and I have the fondest memories of visiting my grandparents, aunts and uncles in Buffalo as a kid. Now, though, I have a connection to a bit of North Carolina history, and it feels more like home.
Our Common Ancestor
Our common ancestor, Benoni Wright, was born on February 26, 1719 in Lebanon, Connecticut to Samuel and Rebecca (Sykes) Wright. Benoni is my 7th great-grandfather and the Wright brothers’ 2nd great-grandfather, and we all descend from Deacon Samuel Wright of Essex Co., England and, later, of Northampton, Massachusetts. Benoni was “high-spirited” and had at least one brush with the law: one family member recorded that Benoni, years before, had “played crazy in the hills and was soundly thrashed by the town officers.” Other family members, friends and neighbors remembered him in separate accounts as an “original character” and a “lively fellow.”
Benoni married Elizabeth “Eliza Betsy” Smith, the daughter of George and Elizabeth (Lyman) Smith, on January 7, 1742 in Lebanon, Connecticut. The couple had five children: Samuel (b. 1752), Theodora (b. 1755), Dan (b. 1757), Esther (b. 1759) and Benoni (b. 1761). Benoni died on January 3, 1961, almost five months before the birth of his youngest son; Elizabeth named her son, Benoni, after his father, and she referred to him as the “son of her sorrow” for the rest of her life. I descend from Samuel Wright’s branch of the family tree: Samuel married Vienna Bond, the daughter of William and Sarah (Woodward) Bond, and had eleven children. The Wright brothers descend from Samuel’s younger brother, Dan.
If you follow the family tree back three more generations from Benoni Wright, you’ll find Deacon Samuel Wright, my 10th great-grandfather (and the Wright brothers’ 5th great-grandfather). Samuel was born in 1606 in Essex Co., England and attended Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 1624. He married Margaret Stratton in 1625 and the pair had four children in England–Samuel, Margaret, Hester and Lydia–and four children in America–James, Judah, Mary and Helped.
Samuel and Margaret were Puritans, and they left England for America as a part of the “Great Migration” between 1629 and 1640. The family resided near the coast of Massachusetts until settling in Springfield, Connecticut in 1638. In Springfield, Samuel owned a toll bridge and helped build a mill dam; a few years later, he was employed “to dispense the word of God in this place” for fifty shillings per month, and he received the title of “Deacon.” Deacon Samuel Wright left Springfield in 1656, traveled up the Connecticut River and settled Northampton, Massachusetts; there, he built a mill and continued to serve as a deacon. He died in 1665 at age of 59 “while sleeping in his chair.”