The Women Behind the Wright Brothers

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Today, Dec 17, 2013, marks 110 years since the Wright Brothers first achieved powered, controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  While many people are familiar with the general story of the Wright Brothers, few people understand how the invention of the airplane was in reality a family project — and two women in the Wright Family played a critical role to the success of the endeavor.

The first woman was the Wright Brothers’ mother, Susan. From Germanic heritage, she was raised the daughter of a carriage maker. She had an uncanny aptitude for making and design. There’s a famous story of how she helped the young Wright Brothers design the fastest sled on the hill, one snowy winter in Dayton. She not only taught her children about successful design strategies, she also taught them how to sew. The Wright Brothers’ first planes had no nuts, bolts or nails in them. The fabric on the wings was sewn together by the Wright Brothers and then the wings themselves were fastened together with a strong twine that might resemble modern day dental floss.

Sadly, the Wright Brothers’ mother died more than 10 years before their first flight, but her methods of design and invention are the intellectual tools they used in building the first airplanes. Her inventive spirit was very much present on the day the Wright Brothers’ first achieved powered flight.

The other woman who was critical to their success was Katharine, their younger sister. After their mother died, Katharine became the manager of the Wright household. The Wright Brothers often wrote letters to Katharine (Katie) telling her about their progress at Kitty Hawk. She was the one holding down the fort, so to speak. Without her involvement, the Wright Brothers would have found it difficult to leave their father alone on their travels to Kitty Hawk.

History has given short shrift to the contributions of these women to the birth of modern aviation. When you have a moment, take a moment to do some Internet research on each of them. You’ll also find their contributions described well in the captivating biography To Conquer the Air. I found this biography to be so engrossing, right after reading the book I made this 26 minute YouTube video highlighting the most engaging parts of the Wright Brothers’ story.

Do tell your sister, your cousin, your mother, your grandmother and others in your community — both male and female — about the vital contributions of the Wright family women to the resulting successful invention.  Let’s set this history straight, starting today.

Phil Shapiro is an educator, maker and media maker in the Washington DC-area. He has had a long interest in bringing community voice to the web and in the use of public libraries to weave social fabric via the creative process.   You can reach him at and on Twitter @philshapiro

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Phil Shapiro is a maker and media maker in the Washingon DC area. He loves open sourcedigital storytelling and fixing up donated computers to deliver to people who need them. He can be reached at and on Twitter @philshapiro.

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