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The Wright Story 

      An Unusual    


The Bishop's    

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A Life on Hold 


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n 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 April 1881:

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 Alphonse 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.

Together At Last

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 Cedar River.

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 had built.

Two views of our replica of the 1878 Wright Bat, which we built from Orville's sketch.

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The Wright Story/An Unusual Childhood/Special Advantages

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers

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