Historical books often tell the same story about Wilbur and Orville Wright, the aviation pioneers who built and flew the first powered airplane in 1903. In the story, the brothers work tirelessly on their calculations until their plane finally takes off.
However, historians are increasingly beginning to do so recognize contributions of their departing younger sister Catherine. While the Wright brothers were shy and hesitant around dignitaries, Catherine was social and perceptive. She helped her brothers make important presentations and negotiations with government officials to promote their work and secure the necessary contracts.
Here are five ways Katherine Wright gave her brothers wings.
1. She supported her brothers with three jobs
Catherine Wright was born in 1874 in Dayton, Ohio. She had four older brothers, including the famous Orville and Wilbur. When Catherine was almost 15, their mother died of tuberculosis, leaving her to run the household.
Despite her heavy burden at home, Catherine pursued a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College. When she graduated in 1898 with her teaching degrees, she was one of the few women to do so. At that time only approx 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women.
Catherine took a full-time teaching job while still managing her family’s home. She then stepped up to run Orville and Wilbur’s bike shop when they spent their summers testing their planes in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
When the brothers were still in the test phase of developing their aircraft, they depended on the proceeds from the bike shop to fund their lives and research.
2. She was their Hype Woman
After their first controlled flight in December 1903, the Wright brothers worked for years to improve the design and keep their aircraft in the air for a longer time.
In the spring of 1907, the Wright brothers entered into contracts with military governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The French were famous for theirs interest in aviation, and the brothers saw the potential for business deals. While they were in Europe, Catherine devoted half of his day to governing The Wright Company. She spoke to reporters and corrected misinformation, answered business inquiries and handled a flood of offers.
Fame had found the Wright family and with the brothers in Europe Catherine was the official contact.
3. She takes care of Orville’s health
By 1908, the Wright Brothers had contracts with the US Signal Corps as well as a French aviation company. The contracts required the Wright brothers to conduct test flights with a passenger. Test flights proved to skeptics that the planes had indeed flown, but a crash later that year also fueled concerns. Catherine stepped in again to keep the business negotiations going and keep her brothers up.
The incident occurred in September 1908 when Orville slammed into the ground during a test flying at 50 miles per hour. The crash killed his companion and left Orville with a broken leg, several broken ribs and a back injury. Catherine left work and went to the military hospital in Northern Virginia to care for him in the coming months.
The disaster unnerved military officials, and Catherine had to help her brothers keep their contract with the US Signal Corps. She was able to extend the contract by a year, which gave the brothers time to demonstrate their aircraft’s capabilities and convince hesitant officials. A lieutenant who corresponded with Catherine later refers to her as a “third team member”.
4. She negotiated on their behalf
In early 1909, Catherine left for Europe with Orville and Wilbur as theirs social manager. Every morning in France, Catherine took a French lesson to prepare for her daily meetings. As a teacher of Latin, the language seemed easy to her, and she often met and conversed with dignitaries and business contacts in French.
She also took visitors to the airports where Wilbur conducted test flights. She answered questions, made connections, and politely declined unprofitable business proposals. She also met the kings of England, Spain and Italy and charmed them with her language skills and unpretentious manner.
At one point, reporters were so impressed with Catherine that he suspected she was the mastermind behind the operation.
5. She was their trusted advisor
In the early 1910s, the US military began to distrust Wright airplanes after nearly a dozen pilots died in crashes. The brothers also dealt with multiple cases against their patents by inventors who claim their ideas have been stolen.
Catherine served as their trusted advisor and then became a board member of the company after Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45. Orville eventually sold the company in 1915.
When she wasn’t busy helping her brothers, Catherine served as a trustee of her alma mater, Oberlin College, and became involved in women’s suffrage. She is credited with helping organize a march in Dayton that included more than 1,000 people. Also present? Her father and brother Orville.