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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 112

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This is the grave of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Wilbur Wright was born in 1867 in Indiana and his younger brother Orville was born four years later in Dayton. Neither finished high school, which was hardly uncommon at the time. They got involved in the printing business in Dayton, publishing a series of short-lived newspapers, including Paul Laurence Dunbar’s paper for Dayton’s black community, and other publications. None of these were particularly successful, but, again, there was nothing unusual about newspapers coming and going in the Gilded Age. They became interested in the new phenomenon of bicycling and opened a bike shop in Dayton in 1892. By 1896, they were making their own bicycles. At the same time, they became interested in flight, as it seemed increasingly possible that humans could cross this frontier. They paid attention to the continued advancements toward flight in Europe and began to experiment themselves. As early as 1900, the Wright Brothers began traveling to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for flight experiments. They of course succeeded in 1903, making them first people to fly. Wilbur was the first because he won the coin toss. It was only 3 seconds, but flight it was. They had more success 3 days later, once flying for 12 seconds and, more importantly, getting a picture of it. Of course, people wondered if this was even flying. The Dayton Journal refused to write a story about it, believing that this was not long enough to count.

The next couple of years saw the continuation of sort of flying. They continued building early airplanes and having very limited success. But by the fall of 1905, they flew for as long as 38 minutes. This was real flight and finally people began paying attention. Part of the reason they had trouble attracting attention is that this was a strictly entrepreneurial enterprise. They wouldn’t fly for reporters because they feared people stealing their ideas and they wanted to sell the technology to a company. People openly declared they were lying, especially in Europe. In 1906 and 1907, they made no flights at all because of their obsession of selling a technology no one had seen in action. The U.S. military blew them off entirely. Finally, in 1908, they convinced the military to open a contract to build a flyer, which they won, and also agreed to a contract with a French company. Before securing the contracts though, they had to fly with a passenger. The media heard about it and finally the lid was blown off the invention. At that point, they went to France and did several public demonstrations, becoming stars of the day. Of course, these planes were tremendously unstable. At the first demonstration for the military, the plane crashed. Orville was seriously injured, the military officer died of a skull fracture. Still, they managed to succeed in building the planes they contracted for and they became successful, with President Taft inviting them for dinner at the White House.

Typically however, they became involved in all sorts of conflicting patent claims. All of this undermined Wilbur’s health. Instead of dying in a plane accident, which I always assumed was the cause for his early death, he died of exhaustion and typhoid fever in 1912, at the age of 45. Orville, not a very good businessman but knowing that, sold the company in 1915 and moved back to Dayton. He made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 and then retired. Both brothers were close to their sister Katharine, also buried here, but when she finally married in 1926, the only sibling to do so, Orville felt personally betrayed and refused to attend the wedding. She died three years of later pneumonia and he only saw her once before then. Orville also had a lot of regrets later in life over the use of airplanes in war, especially after the horrors of World War II. He didn’t regret inventing it however. He died in 1948.

The continuing battle between Ohio and North Carolina on license plates and the back of quarters to claim the home of flight is largely a pissing match between two states with very little else to offer and should be made fun of by everyone from better states.

Orville and Wilbur Wright are buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

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