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1877 Bishop Milton Wright assumed responsibility for the "West
Mississippi District" conferences in the United Brethren Church, and
in 1878 he moved his
family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Bishop was often away from home on
church business during this period of their lives; after all he
administered all the United Brethren churches between the
Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. But he kept in close
contact with his wife and children through letters that described
his journeys and his thoughts on what he had seen or experienced. He
wrote often and expected his children to write him back, describing
their adventures. The earliest written document we have from the
Wright brothers is a letter from Orville to his father, dated 1
Dear Father – I got your letter today. My teacher said I was
a good boy today. We have 45 in our room. The other day I took a
machine can and filled it with water then I put it on the stove
I waited for a little while and the water came squirting out of
the top about a foot. The old cat is dead.
The Wright Bat
Milton would also bring things home from his trips, intended not
just to make them feel appreciated, but also to capture his
children's interest and imagination. Some were as simple as an odd
stone or a fossil; others were more elaborate. Returning from one of his trips, he brought his two youngest
sons a rubber band-powered toy helicopter. Orville later recalled that the helicopter
– which he called a "bat" – was
based on a design by French inventor
Penaud, whose work in aeronautics he and his brother would
study as grown men. Although these toys are commonplace today, they were
rare and marvelous wonders in 1878. Penaud had invented the "rubber
torsion motor" in 1870, and these toys were just now making their
way to the Wright brothers side of the Atlantic. Wilbur and Orville played with the helicopter until
they wore it out, then later built their own copies of this toy – this was the
first powered aircraft they built together.
Once Orville was caught by his Cedar Rapids teacher, Ida Palmer,
while working on one of these models when he should have been studying.
He explained that he and Wilbur planned to build a craft large enough to
carry both of them. Their early experiments with large aircraft were
unsuccessful, however. They found that the larger they made the
helicopter, the worse it flew. Not until many years later would they
discover that when you double the size of an aircraft, you must increase
the available power eight times to keep it aloft.
My Dad Said it Was OK
Both boys did well
in school, although Orville had a reputation for mischief. His eighth and ninth grade
teacher made him sit at the front of the class where she could keep and eye on him. The
Bishop himself was occasionally at odds with the school authorities for allowing his
children to take "a half a day off now and then" to pursue their own
intellectual interests. Esther Wheeler, who taught the Wrights at the
Seventh Street School in Dayton, Ohio, remembered that the Bishop
"...had much faith in his children and believed that they could keep
up with their classes and miss a few days also. Whether he was right
in allowing them to remain away, I will not try to answer, but his
boys were excellent scholars just as he argued they would be."
Bishop Wright also maintained a large home library and encouraged
his children to use it. In fact, there were two libraries in the
Wright household. The family library offered the Encyclopedia
Britannica, Plutarch's Lives, Gibbon's The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire, histories of England and France, the
fiction of Hawthorne and Sir Walter Scott, and other books of
general interest. Milton's own personal library in his office had
tomes on theology, philosophy, science, and other serious subjects.
No book was off limits, another family practice that put Milton at
odds with mainstream educators. When it was learned that Wilbur had
perused the works of the "demon atheist" Robert Ingersoll in
Milton's library, his teacher complained. Milton shot back that his
children should be allowed to consider all available information and
points of view to enable them to make the best possible decisions.
Looking back on his childhood, Orville once commented
that he and his brother had "special advantages...we were lucky enough to grow up in
a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue
intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused their curiosity."
In Their Own Words
- How It All Began -- Orville recalls the flying
toy his father gave to him and his brother in 1878.
A panoramic map of Cedar Rapids, Iowa from 1868. Iowa Avenue, where
the Wright family lived, is the street with the bridge over the
Downtown Cedar Rapids in the 1870s.
Beginning when Wilbur was 12 and Orville 8, they built rubber band-powered helicopters
based on the design of a toy they had received from their father.
Much later, Orville made this sketch of the "bats" he and his brother
Two views of our replica of the 1878 Wright Bat,
which we built from Orville's sketch.