Katharine Wright: The Forgotten Sister to the Wright Brothers

1902 Wright Brothers’ Glider Tests. Courtesy of NASA.

his year marks 117 years since the Wright Brothers’ famous flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. The brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were able to get their flying machine off the ground and into the air for 59 seconds, starting a revolution in travel.

But when talking about the Wright brothers’ contribution to the world, there is a third sibling that is often forgotten. Katharine Wright was the youngest member of the Wright family and much of her life was devoted to helping her brothers succeed. She was an important part in helping to get the flying machine “off the ground” and into the market.

It has been said that Orville once wrote: “When the world speaks of the Wrights, it must include our sister. Much of our effort has been inspired by her.”

Katharine watching Wilbur Fly in Pau. Courtesy of Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

With the death of their mother when Katharine was only a teenager, she inherited many responsibilities around the home. Her father, a leader in the Church of the United Brethren, was often away leaving Katharine responsible for the household.

Despite this, Katharine became very well educated. After attending high school in Dayton she studied at Oberlin College where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree and went on to teach Latin and English at Dayton’s Steele High School, where she taught for ten years.

Even while she was teaching, she assisted with her brothers’ project, even recruiting fellow teachers to help with the experiments. While her brothers were traveling back and forth from the Outer Banks to test their aircraft she tended the family bicycle shop, paid bills, and, as her brothers’ notoriety increased, handled media requests and responded to queries about scientific information. On top of all of these responsibilities, she cared for her family members, including her brothers, when they were sick or injured.

After the Wright brothers’ successful flight, the brothers secured a patent for their device in 1906 and switched their effots to selling the invention. Katharine joined them in this venture, serving as their executive secretary.

Katharine, Orville, and a passenger on their way to Germany in 1910. Courtesy of Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

A few years later, Katharine traveled to Europe with the brothers as their hired social manager. As the brothers toured and showed off their plane, Katharine played a critical role in engaging the crowd. Truth was, the brothers were a bit socially awkward. As Katharine’s biographer Richard Maurer, put it, “They’re not the kind of guys you would want to invite to dinner. You could picture them coming over for dinner and not saying a word.”

But Katharine filled this role brilliantly. According to the Wright Brother’s Online Museum,

“Neither Wilbur nor Orville, because they were so shy, were especially good at schmoozing the people who could buy their airplanes. Katharine, however, provided the social chemistry the Wrights needed to make their enterprise work and she soon had the Europeans eating out of her hands. Once, when preparing to meet the King of Spain, she practiced the proper curtsey with the wife of an English baronet. But when King Alfonso XIII showed, she forgot herself and greeted him American-style with a simple handshake and a brilliant smile. The king was won over.”

Katharine was a powerful business partner. In April of 1909, The World Magazine in New York City did a feature on Katharine titled ‘The American Girl Whom All of Europe is Watching’

“Few know what she has done. Few know how hard she has worked to make her brothers’ machine a working accomplishment. But the Wright brothers realize it all and pay her due tribute — hats off, then, to Miss Katherine Wright, who has ever been the mainstay of her brothers in their many efforts to conquer the air.”

After Wilbur’s death in 1912, Katharine stepped up and became secretary of the Wright Company. She ended up falling in love and getting married, which fractured her relationship with Orville, who shunned her from the family until he last saw her on her death bed in 1929.

Katharine has been recognized as an important figure who helped her brothers’ flying machine become a success. Every year, the National Aeronautic Associated (NAA) awards the Katharine Wright Memorial Trophy to an individual who contributed to the success of others.

“The award was named in honor of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s sister, Katharine. She used money from teaching to purchase supplies for her brothers’ experiments, nursed Orville back to health after he crashed in Fort Myer, Virginia, contributed ideas to their experiments and trials, and acted as a public figure to endorse the safety of flying and the Wrights’ aircraft. She not only provided financial support to her brothers’ endeavors, but also emotional and public support to her brothers as well.”

Recommended further reading:

The Wright Brother Aeorplace Company Online Museum.

The Wright Sister: Katharine Wright and her Famous Brothers by Richard Maurer

On her second cup of coffee.

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