Issue Contents :: Feature Stories :: Wright On, Sister :: Page [  1  2  3  4   ]

Harry had married Oberlin classmate Isabel Cummings in 1901, with whom he'd been a frequent guest at the Wright home. When Isabel died in 1923, Harry resumed a lively correspondence with Katharine and proposed marriage—via a letter—two years later. Katharine was stunned. The two had been friends for years, yet she was unaware that his interest had turned romantic. But soon love was mutual. "They were two Victorian people caught up in a passion that neither understood," says Harry's grandson, Harry Haskell, a Connecticut-based writer. "They were swept off their feet by each other."


The Wind Beneath Their Wings?

The role of Katharine Wright in the invention of the airplane has been debated for a century. Early news accounts credited her for helping to finance the invention from her small teacher's salary and for aiding her brothers in mathematical computations involved in flight. Other accounts claimed she spent her evenings sewing wing covers for the early gliders.

Historians tend to dismiss these claims and instead portray her as cheerleader and source of emotional support. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

The Wrights didn't discuss money publicly, but several facts emerged from their correspondence and working papers. The airplane was built for just under $1,000—less than $20,000 in modern currency—and during its construction, the brothers ignored their profitable bicycle business for months at a time, causing business to suffer. "There are limits to the neglect a business can endure," Wilbur remarked in late 1901.
Because the airplane was made cheaply, the brothers may not have needed their sister's money to finance it. But her teacher's salary did likely prop up the household budget, which freed Wilbur and Orville from the need to make more money and speeded their invention of the airplane. Time was crucial in the race to be first.

Katharine evolved from cheerleader to strategist in the pivotal summer of 1901, when technical problems with the plane seemed insurmountable. Wilbur was offered an invitation to speak at a Chicago conference of the prestigious Western Society of Engineers. A shy man who suffered from a near mortal fear of public speaking, he'd planned to refuse. But Katharine, recognizing the importance of the gathering, was unrelenting in her insistence that he go. Wilbur finally gave in. His decision (fueled by Katharine's resolve) proved to be a turning point. In preparing for Chicago, Wilbur was forced to review every scrap of the brothers' research, which led to a sudden realization. Only three problems stood between man and powered flight, and he and Orville had solved two of them—wing design and an engine. The last hurdle was how to control the aircraft in flight.

"When this one feature has been worked out, the age of flying machines will have arrived," he said in his speech. Newly energized, the brothers went back to work and crafted the first functional steering system. Twenty-seven months later, Wilbur was airborne at Kitty Hawk.


Katharine feared Orville's reaction to her marrying, as she expressed to Harry: "I am sure no one can imagine how inseparable the relation is now between Orv and me. I can't desert him now." Friends, however, convinced her that Orville would come around, so she prepared for a wedding at Hawthorne Hill. But as the event approached, Orville became increasingly distant, and Katharine no longer felt welcome at home. The wedding took place at the home of former classmates living in Oberlin—Professor and Mrs. Louis Lord—and was presided over by College President Henry Churchill King. Orville did not attend, and, although he never stopped loving his sister, he remained separated from her until the last hours of her life.
Katharine and Harry moved to Kansas City, but she was forever pained by the split with her brother.

"I go to Oberlin again in three weeks for a trustee meeting," she wrote a friend in 1927. "I'll not stay longer than my business keeps me, since I can't go home to Dayton. In my imagination, I walk through our Dayton house, looking for Little Brother, and all the dear family things that made my home. But I never find Little Brother, and I have lost my old home forever, I fear."

Just two years later, while preparing for a trip to Europe, Katharine caught a cold. The cold turned to pneumonia, and she began to slip away. Orville arrived one day before she died on March 3, 1929. She was 54 years old. Oberlin's Board of Trustees adopted a moving statement at its next meeting: "Her sudden death removed from the service of Oberlin and the world a devoted friend, but it cannot remove her spirit."

Two years after Katharine's death, in the depths of the Great Depression, 25 crates of hand-cut Italian marble were delivered to Oberlin. The boxes contained the stone for a fountain that was assembled in the plaza in front of Allen Memorial Art Museum. It was a gift from Harry in honor of Katharine.

To crown the fountain, Harry had commissioned a precise replica of a bronze figure by the 15th-century Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. The bronze featured a small boy playing with a dolphin—a small, delicate sculpture, easy to overlook against the museum's ornate facade. But a close look revealed this as no ordinary boy. He was, in fact, an angel, and he was lifted into the air by wings.

Doug McInnis '70 is a freelance writer in Casper, Wyoming. We thank the staff of the Oberlin College Archives for their assistance with this story.