Orville And Wilbur Wright's Overlooked Younger Sister Is The Reason They Got Off The Ground

Wilbur and Orville Wright will forever be credited for getting man into the air, but they had help from another family member — their sister, Katharine. The youngest of five siblings, she fostered a deeper relationship with Wilbur and Orville, who were closer to her in age. An alumnus of Oberlin College, she obtained a bachelor's degree in 1898 before moving on to teach Latin and English at a high school in Dayton, Ohio (via National Park Service). 

While making her own way in the world, she offered more than moral support to her brothers, who worked to get one of their flying machines up and running. While they invested time and energy into their inventions, Katharine provided a steady income for the family. Katharine was smart, straightforward, and charming — all qualities that her brothers lacked, according to the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. In fact, without her, they might have never gotten off the ground.

[Featured image by Wright State University Libraries via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC0 1.0]

Katharine Wright's charming personality

Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company described Katharine as "outgoing and comfortable engaging anyone in conversation," and these may have served as some of her most impressive qualities. She took on a lot of responsibility at the age of 14 after her mother, Susan, passed away from tuberculosis. As a bishop, her father, Milton, often entertained a variety of people in the family home. Katharine stepped into the hostess role quite well, and her people skills helped her brothers immensely. 

The Wright brothers also had a devoted fan in Katharine. She abandoned her dreams to help them achieve theirs, The Oberlin Review reported. As Wilber and Orville pursued air travel, she kept their bicycle shop afloat by handling expenses and dealing with workers (per Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company). But that only scratches the surface of her contributions to their careers.

[Featured image via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and mirrored | Public Domain]

Katharine Wright: business manager

Katharine's warm personality proved critical as her brothers grew in popularity. She stepped into the role of communications director for the Wright Company when Wilbur and Orville went out of town to get contracts for their flying machines. She also took time to speak with reporters and set straight any misinformation about her siblings and their airplanes. She even made the necessary arrangements for Webster's Dictionary to feature a photo of the Wright Glider, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company stated.  

When the Wright brothers finally patented their flying machine, Katharine helped them sell it, effectively becoming their business secretary, and as The World Magazine phrased it, their "silent partner." She even traveled abroad with them and found herself entertaining kings and nobility. She communicated with several dignitaries and businessmen on behalf of the Wright Company, and she was shrewd enough to negotiate business deals for her brothers (via Wright Stories).

Katharine Wright championed and fought for her brothers

Katharine served as a source of encouragement to her brothers. In 1901, after failing to get their glider off the ground successfully, Wilber grew discouraged, concluding that man wouldn't fly anytime soon. That same year, the President of the Western Engineering Society Octave Chanute invited him to speak before the organization. Despondent, he almost didn't go, but Katharine convinced him to. As a result, he came away reinvigorated to work even harder to achieve success, according to Wright Stories.

Katharine also helped her brothers fight for patents for their flying machines. In 1915, more than a decade after the Wright brothers successfully got a flying machine off the ground, she took issue with the Smithsonian Institute for identifying Samuel Langley as the creator of the first functional airplane. In fact, she wrote that the organization was taking part in a "fraud," and she was determined to "get the facts before the public" (via Christie's).

Katharine Wright nursed both of her brothers

Katharine was there for her brothers when they were sick or injured. When a teenage Wilbur lost several teeth at a hockey match and suffered from a major infection, she nursed him back to health over the course of multiple months. She was at Orville's side when he developed typhoid at age 25 and she aided Wilbur again when he got typhoid fever before his death in 1912, according to Wright Stories.

When Orville was 37, a plane crash almost took his life. He broke a leg and multiple ribs, and Katharine left her job and arrived to help him, watching over him at all hours. One surgeon wrote that he likely wouldn't have pulled through without Katharine's aid (per Magellan Jets). She nursed him for six weeks, spoke to doctors, and even helped look into what caused the accident, the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company reported.

Katharine Wright: social manager

After tending to Orville, Katherine became more important to business operations. And her brothers were well aware of it. At one point, they told her they required a social manager, and that they were willing to at least match the rate she made teaching if she would assist them, according to Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. She even helped the brothers work out a year-long deal with the Army (via The Oberlin Review).   

When Wilber and Orville formed the Wright Company in 1909, they made Katharine a part of the business. She served as a corporate officer as well as secretary of the executive committee, according to Wright Stories. After Wilbur died of typhoid fever, Orville became more dependent on Katherine. He was so reliant on her that he grew jealous of her other relationships, a situation that caused a bitter rift between them when she married.