In late 1878, a father gave his two boys a toy that flew under its own power. It had a small propeller, and made a big impression. Twenty-five years later, one of the boys became the world's first pilot, and never lost his fascination with flight.
Milton Wright was a bishop whose church duties carried him across the country. In 1878, Milton returned home to Dayton with a toy called the Flying Bat. It sparked the imagination of his two youngest sons, Wilbur and Or ville. I borrowed a modern version of the Flying Bat from Carillon Historical Park and asked two Dayton sisters, Amelia and Emory Berger, 5 and 7, to give it a whirl.
Amelia pretended to be an airplane. Something kids probably never did before the Wright brothers grand invention.
“I’m flying!" she said.
“She’s flying [laughs]” Emory echoed.
Amelia launched the Flying Bat while Emory watched.
"She’s turning the propeller," said Emory. "And the rubber band is twisting while she’s doing it...and...it didn’t fly. That was horrible.”
“Can’t fly!” said Amelia.
I asked 86-year-old Dr. Richard C. Cummings who co-authored The History of Dayton, Ohio Toy Makers to describe the Flying Bat.
“It’s like a helicopter. You have these little wings on it and a stick, and you twirl it between the palms of your hands, and it’ll fly up in the air and come back down.”
On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright brothers became the first to fly. Years later, Orville credited the Flying Bat as their initial inspiration. After inventing the airplane, the Wright brothers spent years defending their patents. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. Some say exhaustion from defending these patents weakened his immune system. Orville, his younger brother, lived out his days quietly at Hawthorn Hill, forever tinkering, but on his own terms. His last patent was not for some magnificent aeronautical advancement, but a child’s toy that flung a small wooden clown through the air to swing from a trapeze. Flips & Flops.
"You had a little spring here, with a little seat like, and you had a clown on it, with two little wire arms that stuck out. And when you flipped that thing up in the air, it would hit this wire, and this flying clown that comes out, and those two little arms grab onto that. And because of the propulsion, it makes that thing go around as if they were acrobats in a circus,” says Dr. Cumming, who owns one of the toys.
U.S. Patent No. 1,523,989 for Flips & Flops was issued on Jan. 25, 1925. Orville Wright never issued another patent. His fascination with flight had begun nearly 50 years earlier with the Flying Bat.
In later years, Orville had a West Third Street laboratory, and never stopped puttering at home. He fiddled making a changeable record player for his 78s; he fashioned a home vacuum system; and he died of a heart attack while fixing the doorbell at Hawthorn Hill.
Leo DeLuca is a graduate of WYSO’s 2017 Community Voices class. original Flips & Flops is on display at Carillon Historical Park as part of Dr. Cummings’ extensive collection of historic toys manufactured in Dayton.
Culture Couch is supported by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.