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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Nine Lives of Orville Wright


(Minor updates 12/30/2018) Orville Wright had a number of brushes with death. As recorded in Current Biography 1946, Orville's self-instruction in flying: "In case of accident a round ball.....of hand, arms, and legs....would roll neatly along the ground, and when it stopped Orville Wright would stand up, scratched and bruised, but always calm, dignified, and unemotional."

Orville's first brush with death: Diphtheria
Milton Wright's diary, Wednesday, Nov 6, 1878, "Orville continues very sick."
Thursday, Nov 7, "Orville still sick but seems not specially dangerous till in the night...Orville has sinking spells and appears to be nearly gone..."
Friday, Nov 8, "Orville some better, but feeble."
Saturday, Nov 9, "Orville much improved..."

Orville's second brush with death: Typhoid Fever
From The Oberlin Review, September 30, 1896, "How Vacation Was Spent....Miss Wright went home after summer school to nurse her brother through typhoid fever."

Orville Wright with typhoid fever.
The Oberlin Review, Sept 30, 1896- news of Katharine Wright returning home to nurse Orville Wright through typhoid fever. Author's copy.

Milton Wright's diary September 4, 1896, "Found Orville very sick with typhoid fever. The temperature at one time, days ago, ran to 105.5 degrees. Temperature is now about 102 or 103 degrees."
Tuesday September 10, 1896, "At home, Orville's fever is possibly decreasing a little."
Sunday, September 20, 1896, "Orville had a little if any fever, but has some delirium, part of the time."
Thursday, October 8, 1896, "Orville had tapioca today for the first time. He has lived for six weeks on milk, with a little beef broth for a couple of weeks past. He also sat up in bed for the first time in six weeks."
Friday, October 9, "Katherine started for Oberlin at 10:30 forenoon." 

Orville was fortunate. Wilbur wasn't, and did not survive typhoid fever, dying of it in May of 1912.

Orville's third brush with death- Gas asphyxiation
From Miracle at Kitty Hawk, by Fred Kelly, "One night after they had been working late at their shop, Orville returned home ahead of Wilbur. He was in bed when Wilbur came in. A surprising thing was that Wilbur, contrary to his invariable habit, forgot to bolt the front door. Orville, nearly asleep, reminded him of his oversight. Then when Wilbur went back to put on the lock, Orville thought to himself, 'I'll bet he does something else peculiar. He'll blow out the gas in his room.'  Why he thought Wilbur would blow out the gas, instead of turning it off, he never could explain. Fearing he would drop off to sleep, he sat up in bed until the light in Wilbur's room was off. Then he went to investigate and found the gas was still turned on. Wilbur had blown out the flame. Except for Orville's presentiment, both could have been asphyxiated."

Orville's fourth brush with death- 1905 Huffman Prairie Crash
From The Bishop's Boys, by Tom Crouch, "The most serious mishap in two years of experimenting with powered machines occurred on July 14 (1905). Orville had been in the air for only twelve seconds when, as Wilbur reported, 'the machine began to wobble somewhat and suddenly turned downward and struck at a considerable angle.' The accident was a result of those undulations- Orv had lost control of the elevator. The machine smashed to earth, head first, at a speed of 30 miles per hour. The elevator and outrigger supports crumpled instantly. What was left of the machine bounced three times down the field, upending on the front edges as it slid to a stop. Orville was catapulted out of the cradle and through a broken section of the top wing. They found him, dazed and bruised, lying in the remains of the elevator."

Orville's fifth brush with death- 1908 Ft. Myer
First fatality suffered in a powered airplane crash occurred September 17, 1908 at Ft. Myer. Orville's passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge did not survive. Orville spent 7 weeks at the Ft. Myer hospital. From The American Review of Reviews, October, 1908 issue, "In the course of the Government tests at Fort Myer one of those distressing accidents that so often accompany the development of inventions caused the death of Lieutenant Selfridge, the young army officer who had been detailed to assist in conducting the experimental flights, while Orville Wright himself barely escaped with his life. The breaking of the propeller caused the aeroplane to pitch suddenly to the ground from an altitude of forty feet. Both men were caught under the machine. Mr. Wright was seriously injured...."

Fort Myer, Va Orville Wright accident
American Review of Reviews, October 1908, Orville Wright's flights at Fort Myer, Va. Author's copy.

Orville's sixth brush with death- Passenger Train collision
Orville and Katharine traveled by passenger liner from New York to Europe, to join Wilbur at Pau in southern France. As told in The Wright Sister, by Richard Maurer, "Orv and Katharine arrived in Pau on January 16 (1909), delayed by several hours because their passenger train collided with a freight train. Two people died in the crash and many were injured, but Orv and Katharine escaped unscathed. After the wreck, Katharine observed that French officials seemed helpless in the face of the emergency, unable to take action until they were given orders......Not only would she survive a train wreck in France, she would later barely avoid injury in Italy when a too zealous car chauffeur steered her into a stone wall."


Orville's seventh brush with death- Dayton 1913 Flood
See my post "The 1913 Dayton Flood and the Wright Family"


Orville's eighth brush with death- Automobile Crash 
As told in Wright Reminiscences, Compiled by Ivonette Wright Miller, "In 1933 Uncle Orv drove to Penetang, Canada by way of Buffalo and Toronto. He spent most of his summer vacation at Lambert Island on Georgian Bay. When he returned at the end of the summer, he ran off the road somewhere between Penetang and Toronto, and went into a ditch and turned over. He was not hurt, but the acid from the battery leaked through and ate holes in his clothing..."


Orville's ninth and final brush with death- First heart attack
Per Rosamond Young in Twelve Seconds to the Moon, A Story of the Wright Brothers, "Orville was two minutes late for an appointment with Edward Deeds at NCR on the morning of October 10, 1947. He ran up the steps of the headquarters building and fell. At Miami Valley Hospital his physician said he had had a slight heart attack. He returned home after four days in the hospital. In a letter to Frank P. Lahm he said on November 12, 'if they had not taken my clothes away from me, probably I would have been out of the hospital a day or two sooner. I am now almost back to normal health and am driving a car and have been coming to the office every day for several weeks...'

Having used his nine lives, Orville did not survive his second heart attack of January, 1948.

Dayton Journal, January 31, 1948, Orville Wright Dies In Sleep. Author's copy.

NCR Factory News, February-March 1948 issue, NCR Loses A Close Friend- Orville Wright. Author's copy.


Orville's brush with death (honorable mention)- Cyclone
From The Wright Brothers Fathers of Flight, by John R. McMahon, "Under the convulsive kicking of eager feet, the lathe sped into action with a deafening noise. It shivered and shook while the marble ball bearings raced between wood shaft and horse-bridle iron rings with a rattling roar. The din was heightened by the happy clamor of the operators, to an extent which made them oblivious of a rival performance by nature outdoors. In fact, a cyclone was just then overhead! It tore a skylight off the barn and unroofed a church two blocks distant. The boys kept pumping at the lathe treadle. If they heard an extra sound, they credited themselves with it. At last Orville saw the barn tip a trifle. And glancing outdoors, he beheld his sister oddly flattened and even pasted by wind pressure against the kitchen door of the house...."


If Orville had not had nine lives, history would have been much different. Check out my alternate time line post  "What if the Wright Brothers had not experimented in flight in the early 1900's?" to find out what would have happened if Orville had not survived Typhoid fever in 1896.

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