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December 2018

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

U.S. Census Bureau History: The Wright Brothers

Wright Brothers

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the first powered flight of their Wright Flyer I. Orville
piloted the historic flight while Wilbur ran alongside the airplane's wing. They would spend years trying to
prove their claim and the value of flight to a skeptical public.

Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made history when they piloted their Wright Flyer airplane in the world's first powered and controlled flights across the sand dunes of Dare County, NC's Kill Devil Hills. In the decades that followed, aircraft have flown faster, farther, and higher than Orville and Wilbur Wright could have imagined. Aircraft from the 21st century look much different compared to the early flying machines built by the Wright Brothers. Today's military jets, passenger airlines, and even the space shuttle rely on the ideas and principles proven by these two bicycle shop owners who realized their dreams of flight 115 years ago this month.

Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, IN, in 1867, and his brother Orville was born in Dayton, OH, in 1871. Neither received their high school diploma, but had a lifelong interest in tinkering and studying machinery. Following an unsuccessful newspaper printing career (using a press the brothers designed and built themselves in December 1892), the Wright brothers opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in Dayton. In 1896, they began building bicycles using lightweight materials and tubing that would prove crucial to the construction of flying machines.

In the late 1890s, the brothers began experimenting with kites. By 1900, had graduated to larger unmanned and manned gliders. Calm winds near their Dayton, OH, home led the Wrights to Dare County, NC, and the coastal dunes at Kill Devil Hills. Through trial and error, Orville and Wilbur devised a "wing warping" technique that allowed aircraft to climb, dive, and move left and right while maintaining stability. Successful kite modeling of the idea led to manned glider flights in 1901, and testing of aerodynamics and flight control in 1902. By late 1903, the Wrights added a motor and dual propellers of their own design to the flyer and began testing the aircraft in North Carolina.

At 10:35 on the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville made the world's first successful powered flight. Aircraft and pilot remained aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Both brothers successfully piloted the airplane during subsequent flights that day, with Wilbur's final flight covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. The historic flights garnered little attention, as most experts believed such short flights did not prove the viability of powered, sustained flight. The Wrights spent the next decade refining their designs, performing demonstration flights in the United States and Europe, and pursuing lawsuits against those who copied their patented designs.

In 1912, Wilbur died from typhoid fever, leaving control of the aircraft business to Orville. Following his brother's death, Orville Wright spent most of his life defending their 1903 achievement against criticism. After a decades-long feud with the Smithsonian (which claimed Samuel Langley constructed a flyable aircraft before the Wrights), the Institute finally apologized to Orville Wright in 1942. Orville Wright died in Dayton, OH, 6 years later. He is buried alongside his brother and sister Katharine at Dayton's Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum.

Today, the Wright Flyer I which made that historic first flight on December 17, 1903, is on display at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air & Space Museum, in Washington, DC. The exhibit states that, "By original scientific research, the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight. As inventors, builders, and flyers, they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation." In 2017, 849 million airline passengers took to the skies—thanks to the research, courage, and tenacity of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

You can learn more the Wright Brothers and the history of flight using census data and records. For example:

  • Wilbur and Orville Wright were born in Dayton, in 1867 and 1871, respectively. They opened a bicycle sales and service shop in the city in 1892. At the time, Dayton's population was 61,220. By 1900, when they began building and experimenting with glider flight, Dayton's population was 85,333. Seven years after the brothers made their historic first flights aboard the Wright Flyer I, the 1910 Census counted 116,577 in Dayton. Today the city has a population of 140,371. In addition to being known as the "Birthplace of Aviation," Dayton is home to the National Park Service's Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The park commemorates three of Dayton's most famous residents—Orville and Wilbur Wright, and African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
  • Although Orville and Wilbur Wright were involved in serious research and experimentation with kites and gliders by the 1900 Census, they still listed their occupations as "bicycle merchants." Ten years later, the brothers' occupation was "airplane inventor." Orville listed his occupation as "aeronautical research and engineer" in 1920, but did not specify a job or industry when the enumerator visited in 1930 and 1940.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright began experimenting with gliders in the Dare County, NC, town of Kill Devil Hills in 1900. At the time of their historic powered flight on December 17, 1903, Dare County had a population of 4,757. By 2017, the county's population grew to 36,099. Census data for Kill Devil Hills were first reported in 1960, when the town was home to 268. Today, Kill Devil Hills, NC, is home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and a population of 7,117.
  • On September 17, 1908, less than 5 years after the first flight of the Wright Flyer I, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge became the first passenger killed in a crash of a powered airplane. Selfridge was seated beside Orville Wright when the Wright Military Flyer's propeller broke apart during a demonstration flight at Fort Myer, in Arlington, VA. Orville was hospitalized for 6 weeks with a broken leg, broken ribs, and injured back.
  • The Wright Brother's historic flight inspired many early American aviation pioneers whose names are recognizable to even the most casual air travelers, including: Glenn Curtiss; William Boeing; James S. McDonnell and Donald W. Douglass, Sr.; Clyde Cessna; Allan H. Lockheed and Glenn L. Martin; John K. Northrop and Leroy Grumman; and polar explorer Richard E. Byrd.
  • On June 15, 1921, African American pilot Bessie Coleman became the first American of any race or gender to receive a license from the Federation Aeronitique Internationale in France— nearly 2 years before Amelia Earhart earned her international pilot's license. One year after Coleman's 1926 death, there were 1,572 certified pilots (of both sexes) in the United States. By 2010, the Institute for Woman of Aviation Worldwide Link to a non-federal Web site estimated that there were 27,451 women holding "other than student" pilot certificates in the United States.
  • Thirty years after the Wright Brothers proved powered flight was possible, aviator Wiley Post became the first person to fly solo around the world. Post departed from Brooklyn, NY, on July 15, 1933, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and made stops in Germany, Russia, Fairbanks, AK, and Canada. He returned to Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Airfield on July 22, 1933—7 days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes after leaving. Post (along with American humorist Will Rogers) died in a plane crash 2 years later in Point Barrow, AK.
  • In 1937, Model T inventor Henry Ford purchased the Wright Brother's Dayton, OH, home and bicycle shop. After meticulously disassembling and cataloging the buildings, Ford moved the structures to his Dearborn, MI, museum complex. Today, the home, shop, and other artifacts are part of the Henry Ford Museum's "Heroes of the Sky" Link to a non-federal Web site exhibit.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 119,200 people working as airline and commercial pilots in 2014. In 2016, the median salary for airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers was $127,820.
  • California led the nation in the number of aircraft manufacturing (NAICS 336411) establishments with a total of 39. It was followed by Texas (30), Florida (23), and Washington (21). Washington employed between 50,000 and 99,000 aviation manufacturing employees. Texas and Florida employed 24,197 and 21,829, respectively.

Maine Game Wardens

In the decades after the Wright Brother's first flight, airplanes were being used to deliver mail, carry passengers, fight wars, and even conduct the census.
Maine Fish and Game Wardens used airplanes to reach remote populations and count the state's population. In this photo, wardens transfer 1950 Census
schedules to Census District Supervisor Gerald Keenan.

Fish and Game Wardens assisted the Census Bureau because they were so familiar with Maine's sparsely populated areas and rugged terrain. One
of these remote areas was Maine’s Piscataquis County. The county is home to Maine’s highest peak (Mt. Katahdin) and largest lake (Moosehead Lake).
In 1950, the nearly 4,400 square mile county was home to 18,617. In 2010, Piscataquis County’s population was 17,535, qualifying it as one of just
seven “frontier counties” east of the Mississippi River because it had fewer than six inhabitants per square mile.

Skyhaven Airport

Skyhaven Airport operated on the site of the Suitland Federal Complex, in Suitland, MD, from 1938 to 1941.

Congress considered the airfield as the site for the new National Capital airport; however, President Franklin Roosevelt chose land along the Potomac River as the home for today's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Construction of government office buildings replaced the airfield in late 1941, and the Census Bureau moved into Federal Office Building #3 in Spring 1942.

Amelia Earhart
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First Flights

Eight years after the Wright Brother's historic 1903 flight, Calbraith Perry Rodgers piloted a Wright Model EX across the United States from Brooklyn, NY, to Long Beach, CA.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop solo trans-Atlantic flight on May 21, 1927. Five years later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration oversees the transit of approximately 2.6 million passengers flying aboard nearly 42,000 flights in 24.1 million square miles of American airspace every day!

Photo courtesy of the state of Hawaii.

Santa Receives His Pilot License
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Santa's Pilot License

On December 24, 1927, Santa Claus received his pilot's license at the U.S. Department of Commerce (parent agency of the U.S. Census Bureau).

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, William P. McCracken (seated) and Director of Aeronautics Clarence M. Young (right) provided Santa with airway maps and their assurances that airway lights would remain burning that night to guide the "jolly old elf's" sleigh.

A few years earlier, McCracken received the first federal pilot license in the United States. McCracken offered Orville Wright the first license, but he declined because he was no longer flying.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 14, 2023