The Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright

Editor's Note: The marvel of human flight is often lost on us gluttons of the 21st century. Louis C.K., for his part, has elucidated that point with aplomb. Here to help shed additional perspective on how far we've come in aviation -- from the early awe of air travel to our incessant demands for better wifi, movies and cell service -- is author Lawrence Goldstone. His new book, Birdmen, helps remind readers that what it took to lift hurtling hunks of metal off the ground were two daring minds, hellbent on seeing the invention of flight through to its revolutionary end. Yes, Birdmen is about the famed Wright Brothers, and there's more to the brotherly duo than you know. Below, Lawrence offers eight little-known facts about these frontiersman of flight, including their apparent "no-girls" policy and their snubbed reputation in Brazil. 

1. No distractions in the workshop: Not only did neither Wilbur nor Orville ever marry, but there is no record of either ever having a girlfriend or even going out on a date.

2. Brazilians in the Sky: After their historic flights at Kitty Hawk in December 1903, the Wright brothers did not fly again publicly for more than four years. As a result, to this day, children in Brazil are taught that one of their countrymen, Alberto Santos-Dumont, was the first man to fly because of a short, bouncing run in a glorified box kite across the Bois de Boulogne in 1906.

3. A dangerous business: Orville was flying the airplane that crashed in 1908 resulting in the death of Lt. Thomas Selfridge, the first aircraft fatality in history. Orville was terribly injured and was in pain for the remainder of his life.

4. College degree not required: Both brothers were completely self-taught and neither finished high school, yet they solved one of the great scientific problems in human history.

5. All brothers are not created equal: Orville was more than chronologically the little brother. Wilbur, the source of virtually all the great scientific epiphanies that got their airplane off the ground, began the quest for flight alone. Because of his brother’s sensitivities, however, he later said that Orville was there from the beginning, a lie that Orville perpetuated after Wilbur’s death.

6. Self-promotion has its uses: Another man, Edson Gallaudet, flew a kite controlled by wing-warping, the Wrights brilliantly innovative method, years before the brothers, but never pursued or recorded his experiment.  As a result, no one other than the most ardent aviation buff has ever heard of him.

7. You didn’t want to work for these guys:  Flyers in the Wright exhibition team were paid $50 a day while members of competing teams often made more than ten times that much. In addition, because of their deeply held religious beliefs, no Wright employee was allowed to drink, smoke, or fly on Sunday.

8. Air War: Although the Wright brothers came up with the means to control an airplane, more elements of flight as we know it today -- ailerons, landing gear, steering wheel control -- were invented by their arch-nemesis, Glenn Curtiss. The Wrights loathed him so profoundly that after Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, Orville accused Curtiss of causing his death. Curtiss replied that "no sane man" would make such a charge.