How Important was Katharine to Wilbur and Orville Wright?
Wilbur and Orville Wright (the Wright Brothers) may not have gotten their aviation business off the ground without their sister Katharine (the Wright sister). In many ways, Katharine Wright can be considered “the third Wright brother,” although not an inventor she was an important part of the Wright team. Here is her story.
The Wright Sister
The Story of Kathrine Wright, “the Wright Sister.”
Katharine joined her brothers early in their aviation career, when in 1908 Katharine, a school teacher, rushed from Dayton, Ohio to Virginia to stay by the recently injured Orville’s side for the seven weeks. During this time she helped negotiate a one-year extension of their existing Army contract.
Unlike Orville and Wilbur Wright, she had the social skills needed to make friends out of strangers. She helped run the business, flew the planes, and became the face of the company. For a time, Katharine, Wilbur, and Orville were some of the most famous people in the world. The French presented all three of the siblings with the Legion of Honor. Rumors have her sewing wing covering, sharing business costs, and helping with the mathematical calculations involved in designing the aircraft. These last three stories range from exaggerations to outright falsehoods. However, Katharine Wright played a significant role in making her brothers’ aviation business boom and was known as their ‘silent partner.’
How did Katharine Gain so many Skills?
Katharine’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was 15. In the late 1800’s it was common for an only daughter to assume control of the household when her mother died. Her father, Milton Wright, was a leader in the United Brethren church, so she had to perform a lot of household and social duties in her mother’s place. He father expected her to remain unmarried and function as his housekeeper, but he was enlightened enough to realize that she would eventually need a career of her own. He sent her to Oberlin in 1893. She took almost a year off to nurse Orville through Typhoid Fever and finally graduated in 1989, although she was unable to find a job until a year later. She began working as a teacher just as her brothers began their aviation experiments.
When did Katharine start working with her Brothers?
Orville and Wilbur Wright ran a bicycle shop before beginning to experiment with building gliders and aircraft. They made their first flight in an engine-powered airplane in 1903. Being notoriously thrifty, they spent only $1,000 on their prototype, and that included transportation to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for their test flight. Samuel Langley, a competing innovator, spent $70,000 to build and crash his test plane the same year.
Wilbur had first used an 1898 treadle-powered Singer sewing machine to sew “Pride of the West” brand muslin for their 1901 and 1902 prototypes while Orville marked the seams. They had used French sateen at Kitty Hawk in 1900.
Their efforts are often considered to culminate in the first flights of the Wright Flyer. Orville made a flight of 12. Wilbur flew first for 15 seconds and then covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. Their plane flew.
Katharine ran and helped fund the Wright family household so Wilbur and Orville could focus on their aircraft. The brothers built their first effective powered plane in 1905 and received a patent in 1906. In that year, Katharine’s best friend Margaret died, and she took leave from her job as an underpaid teacher at Steele High School to work with her brothers in their attempt to market their plane. While Orville and Wilbur could invent their plane without interacting much with people outside their family, their social isolation made selling it impossible for either of them. Marketing required someone with the ability to popularize the company and gain the attention of industry leaders. Orville and Wilbur were both so painfully shy that they had trouble speaking to any strangers or socializing. Fortunately, their sister Katharine had all the social ability they lacked.
The Rest of “the Wright Sister” Story.
Katherine became immensely popular in Europe and brought attention to the company in a way her brothers found too daunting. She was one of the very early female aviators and the crowds and press loved her. Even royalty found her charming.
With Katharine acting as executive secretary and publicity representative for the company, the US Army purchased its first plane from them, and a German company approached them about licensing and producing Wright Flyers. The Wright company followed this success by getting enough backers to incorporate. Orville was President and Katharine became his secretary. Orville sold the company in 1915.
In 1926, when Katharine was 50 and felt she had fulfilled her family duties, she married an old friend, Harry Haskell. Wilbur had died in 1912, and their father Milton in 1917. Orville was so jealous that he refused to speak to his sister again until just before her death from pneumonia in 1929.
The Full History of the Wright Brothers