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Monday, June 9, 2014

Did Katharine Wright Contribute to the Invention of the Wright Flyer?

Katharine Wright did not contribute intellectually or financially to the invention of the Wright Flyer. She did contribute by means of encouragement and companionship.  

The Wright Sister, Katharine Wright and Her Famous Brothers, by Richard Maurer, pg 93-96- "Lunch with President Coolidge was the finale of a week long trip....and testimony before a special presidential board in Washington. Katharine went along...The board was interested in the future of aviation....Orv talked for a few minutes and then answered questions. To Katharine's embarrassment, one of the board members drew attention to her. "We are hearing and have for years heard of the Wright brothers and their accomplishments," he announced, "but we hear very little of Miss Katharine Wright, who, after all, was just as instrumental in developing the airplane as were the brothers. I think we ought to at least be introduced to her. She is in the room." Everyone looked at here and nodded respectfully.  It was a common myth that Katharine had done the math, sewn the fabric, paid the bills, or otherwise participated in some direct way in the development of the airplane. But her role had been more subtle. She said nothing to the board that day, but a few years earlier she had tried to scotch the rumors: "I did no pioneer work in connection with the invention of the aeroplane," she had written to an aviation magazine. "That pretty story was the outcome of someone's imagination. I had the greatest interest in my brothers' work always but that was all."

In the 1978 Dayton Air Fair publication for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of powered flight, "Tribute to a Wright sister" was an article that repeated the false claim that "there would have been no Kitty Hawk without Kitty Wright". The author claimed that "Katharine had labored at her mother's old treadle sewing machine to carefully stitch the craft's wing coverings" (while in fact, it was Wilbur who performed this work while Orville marked the places to sew). Further, the article stated that "History was made on December 17, 1903...Katharine miles away in Ohio waiting for word. Word came in a telegram. Katharine read of their success and was instructed by her brothers to 'inform press'. Now as the Wright Brothers press secretary, she again followed orders, but newspapers of the day did not grasp the significance of the news...(Katharine was not told to 'inform the press'. Her brother Lorin was told to 'inform the press'. Lorin was the "press secretary".)


Annual Report, The Board of Education, 1905/1906, pg 190, lists salaries for school teachers. Katharine Wright's salary that year was $140/month. Yet, it was suggested that she financed her brother's experiments. The fact is that Wilbur and Orville invested little leading up to the December 17th, 1903 first flights. 

Annual Report, The Board of Education, Dayton, Ohio 1905, 1906

The Wright Brothers, The Remarkable Story of the Aviation Pioneers Who Changed the World, Ian Mackersey, 2003, pg 200 "(Wilbur and Orville) were staggered by the complexity of Langley's giant launching machinery. "Our track", Wilbur wrote home, "for starting the machine (total cost of about $4) amused Mr. Chanute considerably, as Langley is said to have spent nearly $50,000 (around $1 million today) on his starting device which failed in the end...." Pg 207 footnote "On his return to Dayton, Orville, fascinated to read of the enormous cost to the American taxpayer of the Great Aerodrome, had sat down and done a comparison of their own expenditure in creating the Flyer. Although he may not have allowed for their labour he meticulously included his boat and train fares to change the shafts. The total cost of the machine's manufacturer he arrived at came to less than $1000...."

After Orville's accident at Ft. Myer on September 17th of 1908, Katharine took a leave of absence from Steele High School to be at her brother's side during his long recovery. The Bishop's Boys, Tom Crouch, pg 377- "Katharine had just come home from school when she received her telegram. She immediately contacted her superiors at Central High (this a typo, actually Steele High School, not Central High- Matt Yanney), requesting indefinite leave...she would nurse Orv herself, or supervise those charged with his care. Katharine had spent her last day as a full-time teacher." The Wright Sister, Richard Maurer, pg 70 "In early December, Will repeated his invitation and added a reason that would encourage his sister to accept: "We will be needing a social manager and can pay enough salary to make the proposition attractive, so do not worry about the six (dollars) per day the school board gives you for peripateting (strolling) about Old Steel's classic halls." A social manager would come in handy, since influential and famous people were now flocking to see the airplane, and Will and Orv didn't always have the patience to be nice to them. Above all, Katharine knew how to be nice.....she requested an extension of her leave of absence from Steele...."

Katharine Wright's contributions to her brother's efforts were in encouragement, companionship, and social management- all important things. There is no need to fabricate any more than this, as this was important enough

False fabricated news story, July 8, 1909, The Daily News, Denver, Colorado

For more on Katharine Wright, check out the book "The Wright Sister" Katharine Wright and Her Famous Brothers, by Richard Maurer. 

Another source, Chapter 33 "Spinster in Love", of "The Wright Brothers" by Ian Mackersey, 2003. This chapter details Katharine's courtship with future husband Harry Haskell.

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