Patty here, and while I was researching my first book, Hearts in Flight, I read all of three books about women in aviation history. That's because that all there were, and even those were difficult to locate! There are so many unsung female pioneers such as Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness who helped establish the Women's Army Service Pilots of World War II. There's the first African-American female pilot, Bess Coleman and Harriet Quimby who was the first woman issued a pilot's license back in 1911.
But all of those women's accomplishments might not be possible without the help of another woman, a person the French called the other Wright brother. I'm talking about Orville and Wilbur's younger sister, Katharine Wright.
Katharine was born August 19, 1874, the only living daughter and seventh child of Bishop Milton and Susan Wright. She lived in a two-story house in Dayton, Ohio with her parents and four brothers--Reuchlin (13), Lorin (12), Wilbur (7) and Orville (3). "No one ever had a happier childhood," Katharine recalled later, and she gave credit for that to her mother. "Mother was a regular genius. She could make anything and make a good job of it."
When Katie, as the family called her, was seven, her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. With her older brothers out of the house and her father constantly traveling on church business, the care of her mother as well as the house and her schoolwork fell directly on Katharine's shoulders. With the real fear of losing their mother, it was during this time the three of them--Katie, Orville and Wilbur--allegedly made a pact:None of them would marry as long as all of them were alive. Katharine was almost fifteen when Susan Wright died, and her father gave her control of their house. For the next three years, Kathie would go to school, manage the house, prepare meals and care for her father as well as Orville and Wilbur.
Few people attended college in the late 1800s, and most who did were men. But Bishop Wright believed his daughter needed a profession that would support her, so in fall, 1893, Katharine was enrolled at Oberbin College. It was there that Katharine discovered her love of languages, a talent she would use to help Wilbur and Orville sell their flying machine to international buyers. She was the only Wright sibling to graduate college.
Armed with an outstanding education as well as glowing recommendations, Katharine entered the job market. But teaching positions were scarce. It was during this time her brothers became fascinated with the problem of flight. Katharine was interested in it too, but with household obligations and her new position as a substitute teacher, most of her time was taken up. Still, she provided much needed encouragement to her brothers, convincing them to contact some of the leading aeronautical engineers. One of these men was Octave Chanute who most people considered the leading authority in this field. He was so impressed by the brothers, he asked Wilbur to speak at a meeting of the Western Society of Engineers. Will was ready to say not until Katharine talked to him. "Will was about to refuse, but I nagged him into going." She wrote her father. "He will get acquainted with some scientific men, and it may do him a lot of good."
Katharine had a front row seat to the conception and birth of the first Wright flyer. As the boys were building the cloth wings, she noted in her diary, "The flying machine is in the process of being made now. Will spins the sewing machine around by the hour while Orville squats around marking the places to sew. There is no place in the house left to live." When her brothers left for Kitty Hawk, she worked alongside her brother, Lorin to manage the bicycle shop as it was their only source of money. During the lean months, Katharine would send them twenty-five dollars a month. And it was Katharine who first read the telegram about Orville and Wilbur's first successful flight on December 17, 1903.
Between 1903 and 1908, Katharine took on more responsibility for her brothers. She became Orville and Wilburs chief correspondent, answering letters, writing articles and going over contacts about the flying machine. She helped them as they readied their invention for different flying contest while offered money to further their research and introduce their invention to the world.
September, 1908 wasn't a good time for Katharine. There was a fight brewing with the new superintendent over his proposed payouts to female teachers, and her nephew and her nephew, Milton was still recovering from typhus. On September 18th, Katharine received a telegram; Orville had been severely injured in a plane crash outside of Washington, D. C. Katharine took a leave of absentance , and hurried toward Washington, D. C., not knowing that the next two months would change the course of history, and her life.
Next month--The Other Wright Brother, Part Two
Multi-published author Patty Smith Hall lives near the North Georgia Mountains with her husband, Danny, her two daughters, her son-in-law and her grandboy. When she’s not writing on her back porch, she’s spending time with her family or working in her garden.