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Wilbur Wright, A Life of Consequence

One hundred years ago, at the end of May 1912, Wilbur Wright passed away. A local group of aviators and historians thought that instead of recalling his death, it would be a good idea to celebrate his life. To take a look at this enigmatic man and go beyond the stern image of Wilbur Wright’s portrays its made a century ago.

There is an exhibit now open at Dayton History’s Carillon Historical Park titled “Wilbur Wright , a Life of Consequence”, all about his rich and complex life. This exhibit is open into December. Many of his letters and images and items which define his life are on show

Dan Patterson, a native of Dayton has published more than 30 books about aviation and its rich history. He is a photographer, graphic designer, author and lectures for the Smithsonian on aviation history.

First of all, there is a actually a technical reason for the stern portraits which were made that long ago. Film was very slow and to sit for a portrait often meant to hold perfectly still for up to 30 seconds.

Wilbur Wright was complex individual, intelligent and sharp as a tack. He was a loyal and dedicated family man and brother. His letters home to his nieces and nephews, as well as Orville and their sister Katharine are filled with witty stories, and small drawings along with his accounts of successes and challenges.

In early 1908 he went to France to fly when he opened the shipping crates and found the machine in terrible condition. He shot an angry letter off from Le Mans, France criticizing Orville and their machinist Charlie Taylor for such a lousy job of packing the delicate machine for shipment. The fact is that they had very carefully packed the Flyer and French customs officials had nearly destroyed everything while inspecting the contents.

On the 8th of August 1908, after rebuilding the Flyer, and waiting for bad weather to clear through, he decided that it was time as he said to “do a little something” and made the first public flight. Watching were just over 60 French aviators and press. He changed the world forever with a two minute flight, silenced the vocal French critics and put Dayton, Ohio on the map. Two days later when he flew again there were thousands watching.

The following years were filled with achievements and hurdles. Wilbur Wright became the first great international celebrity of the 20th century. He wore it well and never really got out of his own comfort zone. The brothers were awarded medals which they never wore and at the homecoming in Dayton in June of 1909 they stood for hours at the Dayton YMCA to shake hands with anyone who wanted to. The line extended for blocks and after several hours with their arms exhausted the brothers asked if they could just nod as well wishers walked past, and that's what they did for several hours more.

After 1909 they became consumed with legal battles to protect their patents and the effort wore Wilbur down. He contracted typhoid in April of 1912 while traveling, and returned to Dayton weakened. He died on May 30 and his father, Bishop Milton Wright wrote this in his diary:

This morning at 3:15, Wilbur passed
away, aged 45 years, 1 month, and 14 days.

A short life, full of consequences.
An unfailing intellect, imperturbable
temper, great self-reliance and as
great modesty, seeing the right clearly,
pursuing it steadily, he lived and died.

The new exhibit at Carillon Park was curated by Dawne Dewey from The Special Collections and Archives at Wright State University and assembled by her students in a Masters Degree program for Public History. It will be open until December.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com