In Search of the Wright Stuff

The Wright brothers embodied science, research and technology, overcoming countless odds to build the first aircraft capable of powered flight. Now, almost 100 years later, the Dayton Aviation Herit

Apr 12, 2001 at 2:06 pm

The Wright brothers embodied science, research and technology, overcoming countless odds to build the first aircraft capable of powered flight. Now, almost 100 years later, the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission has announced it will excavate the location where the home of the Wright brothers once stood.

We've all heard of the Wright brothers. We've all seen the faded, sepia-colored film reels, jerky and out-of-focus, of teams uselessly flapping their way to disaster; men in formal Victorian dress silently running across fields, scarves trailing and hats tumbling, only to wipe out in a heap before rising even an inch. Bicycles with wings, great towering frameworks of balsa wood, balloons with rudders.

It's like America's Funniest Home Videos circa 1900.

But at the turn of the last century, flight was the ultimate goal and team after team built cumbersome flying machines with very short histories. On Dec. 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m. the Wright brothers and their Wright Flyer finally were successful. The first flight, piloted by Orville Wright, lasted just 12 seconds. Wilbur manned the second flight, which lasted as long as the first, but traveled farther.

The fourth flight of the day, also piloted by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. The Wright brothers finally had done it.

Great things happen in Dayton, Ohio. Well, OK, it happened in North Carolina. But that's not the point.

Between 1871 and 1914, the Wright brothers lived in Dayton, moving from Indiana where their father was a minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Wilbur and Orville, born in 1867 and 1871, respectively, were always mechanically gifted, starting their own printing firm in 1888 after building a press using pieces of a buggy and a damaged tombstone. Sounds like MacGyver circa 1900.

In 1893, the brothers opened the Wright Cycle Co. in Dayton, building and repairing bicycles for residents. But by 1896, Wilbur had seen early photographs of European flying machines and read detailed descriptions of early flying attempts by Europeans. He was determined to fly.

Three years later, in the summer of 1899, the Wright brothers had built their first biplane, made of wood and cloth, with a wingspan measuring about 5 feet.

The next three years were spent building different models, using scientific data provided by Otto Lilienthal, an early pioneer who crashed and died in 1896. The Wrights used complex equations to calculate lift, and built a wind tunnel in 1901 to study the way aircraft pitch and roll in different conditions. In 1903, after several designs, the Wright Flyer was born, guaranteeing Wilbur and Orville's safe passage into history. The Flyer was built in the Wright brothers' cycle shop at 1127 West Third St. and shipped to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Members of the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission hope to find some artifacts of the Wright brothers' early years of planning and model construction at the site of their Dayton home. I called Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission, to ask him about the project.

"It has begun today," Sculimbrene says of the preliminary excavation.

The test dig, first scheduled in March, was postponed because of poor weather conditions.

"We're trying to find a foundation, that's one thing," he says. "But we're also looking for artifacts."

The home site, located on Dayton's west side, has never before been excavated, standing vacant since 1936. For the next three days, the team will dig test holes and use metal detectors to try to find any items left behind by the Wright family.

"It was the home of the Wright brothers when they were growing up," Sculimbrene says. "The family lived in the house up until 1914."

Of all places, the Wright house itself now stands in Dearborn, Mich., at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

"William Scripps and Henry Ford came to town in 1936 with the express purpose of buying the bicycle shop," Sculimbrene explains. "Scripps said, 'Why don't you buy the house, too, Henry?' "

Ford took his advice, buying the house for $4,000 and moving it, board by board, to his museum in Greenfield, Sculimbrene says. It now stands alongside other historical artifacts, such as George Washington's camp bed, Edgar Allan Poe's writing desk and, um, Oscar Mayer's Wienermobile.

Sculimbrene is hoping something was left behind in the 1936 move and, in three days with the test dig completed, surveyors will be able to tell him if they found anything at the site.

So three days later, I called Sculimbrene again to see how the preliminary dig went.

"We found some period pieces — some buttons, some glassware, some pottery, which certainly would have come from the Wright brothers era," he says.

During the dig, a corner of the foundation also was uncovered, along with the house's water line and sewer line. "We have a pretty good handle on the foundation area of the house," said Sculimbrene, adding that the excavation was hampered by land-fill at the site.

"There was a lot of debris in there," he says. "We found a drug syringe. That's definitely not a 20th-century item."

Regardless, Sculimbrene says the 13-member Heritage Commission, led by Judge Walter Rice, now will have to decide whether to contract further excavations of the site. Plans are also being discussed to commemorate the site of the Wright house for Dayton's 2003 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.

"Members of the Wright family who are still alive and living in Dayton have expressed an interest in artwork at the site," Sculimbrene says. Other plans include rebuilding the façade of the house or further uncovering its foundations.

Dayton residents will have to wait until the Heritage Commission meets again in May to find out if further excavations will go ahead.

"What we do know from the Phase 1 survey is that there probably were items left behind," Sculimbrene says. "Henry Ford didn't get it all."

Let's hope it beats the Wienermobile.

contact Chris Kemp: [email protected]