Special Collections and Archives in the Wright State University Libraries holds one of the most complete collections of Wright Brothers material in the world. This collection documents the story of the invention of powered flight by two brothers from Dayton, Ohio. However, there is more to the Wright Brothers’ story than flight. The collection also documents the story of a family, a story that began long before the invention of the airplane and continued long after. Katharine Wright, youngest member of the Wright family, deserves attention for her role in her famous brothers’ lives. Born in 1874 into a family with conservative values, but forward thinking beliefs about women’s rights and education, she lived a life full of contradiction between the reality of the role of women in the age she lived in and the life she might have entered under different circumstances.
A strong example of how Katharine supported her brothers is found in a letter she wrote to her good friend Agnes Beck in September 1908. Her brother, Orville, was demonstrating their plane for the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Ft. Myer, Virginia. On September 17, Orville suffered extensive injuries in a crash that killed his passenger, Lt. Selfridge of the Signal Corps.
Katharine left her teaching job at Steele High School in Dayton to go to Orville and supervise his recovery at the Ft. Myer post hospital. She represented Orville at the funeral of Lt. Selfridge at Arlington Cemetery just a few days after the crash. This began Katharine’s close involvement in her brothers’ flying careers. Letters and flowers poured into the Army Hospital until Katharine was overwhelmed.
Katharine wrote to her friend Agnes Beck in Dayton on September 22, 1908:
Post Hospital, Ft. Myer, VA.
Tuesday a. m. Sept. 22, 1908
Dear Agnes –
Just a line to tell you that I have been with Orv all night and he has had a good night. It is now about half past four. I am going home to bed about six. Sunday night he was miserably uncomfortable and I staid tonight to see what I could do to help things. We all agreed that my staying was a great success – The nurses are nice but Orv likes to see me. I kept him quiet all afternoon by reading to him. He does not hear what I read, but the monotonous sound of my voice puts him to sleep often.
You never saw so much kindness and consideration in all your life, Agnes. Everybody, from the Secretary of War on down, has offered me the town. Major Squire, the head of the Signal Corps, the department for which the flying machine was being bought, is just about the kindest man I ever saw – No – there is Captain Bailey – the surgeon in charge. I never saw a more winning face than he has and I am told that he is good surgeon – He is comparatively young – not over thirty-five.
Orv’s injuries are serious, but they assure me that there is no cause for alarm. I’ll feel much easier after we get through the next two or three days. He is so pitiful looking, but as brave as a general. His chin quivered when I first went in to see him and one other time he showed signs of breaking down when he told me what happened when the machine dashed into the ground. He was conscious and saw Lt. Selfridge after the accident.
It is nearly six and I am going home for some sleep. My cousins are lovely, refined people and make me very much at home and very comfortable. There are at least a dozen people who will look after me, so don’t worry –
Orville spent weeks in the hospital until he was well enough to travel home. He and Katharine returned to Dayton in November, and left for France to join their brother Wilbur in January of 1909, arriving in Paris on January 12. Katharine took on the responsibilities of social secretary, hostess, promoter, diplomat, and advocate for her brothers.
Stories about Katharine’s contributions to the invention of the airplane were plentiful throughout her life. She was said to have financed her brother’s experiments, solved difficult mathematical problems for them, and to have been familiar with every inch of the airplane. None of this was true.
Katharine wrote in 1922:
“I did not pioneer work in connection with the invention of the airplane. That pretty story was the outcome of someone’s imagination. I had the greatest interest in my brothers’ work always, but that was all.”
“Katharine was always a loyal sister who had great confidence in her brothers, and when we said we thought we would fly, she believed we would.”
Katharine Wright was many things. She was a dutiful daughter, a devoted sister, an ardent supporter of women’s rights, an educator, and writer. She was her brothers’ greatest advocate. She was the foundation that held the Wright family together. She empowered her brothers to achieve greatness.
The Katharine Wright Legacy Society was established by the Wright State University Foundation to enable individuals to do for Wright State University what Katharine did for her brothers. She helped them succeed. You can help our students succeed through a planned gift. Go to http://wright.giftlegacy.com/?pageID=1003 to learn more.