Susan Wright: Neighbors said she could repair `just about anything.'
KITTY HAWK, N.C. - A bishop's wife. Mother of five. Went to college in an era when it was rare for a woman. Top of her class in math. Died young.
Nobody would be surprised to learn that's a thumbnail portrait of someone named Susan Catharine Koerner. But add “unsung hero behind invention of the airplane” and eyebrows might furrow.
Clues: The bishop was Milton Wright. Susan's children included two famous brothers.
“It is she, not me, who should be remembered as aviation's greatest pioneer,” Orville Wright wrote.
“We fell in love with machines because of my mother,” Wilbur added.
Why did two bicyclemakers from Ohio succeed in inventing the airplane when the world's most famous scientists and engineers failed?
For starters, Wilbur and Orville had the right family.
Orville wrote of his childhood:
“We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.”
Orville, left, and Wilbur Wright gave their mother a great deal of credit for encouraging their interest in machines.
Both parents loved learning, had a houseful of books, and encouraged the children's curiosity.
Dad was a bishop in the United Brethren Church and when the children were young, the family frequently moved before finally settling in Dayton in 1884.
Bishop Wright traveled on church business, and often brought presents home.
In 1878, Milton brought Wilbur, then 11, and Orville, 7, a toy helicopter powered by rubber bands. It sparked their interest in aviation.
Wilbur and Orville made copies - the first powered aircraft they built together. As the helicopters got bigger, they became less airworthy.
Only as adults would the brothers discover the reason: Double the linear dimensions of an aircraft and it doesn't need twice the power to fly. It needs 8 times as much power.
The toy was based on a design by French inventor Alphonse P naud, whose work Wilbur and Orville would study years later.
Susan Koerner Wright was the daughter of a carriage-maker. She loved spending time in her father's shop, and developed great mechanical skill.
Bishop Milton Wright encouraged the children's intellectual curiosity.
Neighbors claimed Mrs. Wright could repair just about anything. She also built household appliances for herself and toys for her children.
“She taught them the fundamentals of engineering,” said Darrell Collins, a historian at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills.
One winter, the children wanted a sled. Mom gathered them around, drew the design on a sheet of paper, and built it. From that day, Wilbur and Orville always treasured her advice: Get it right on paper from the start, and it will work when you build it.
Five of Susan's and Milton's seven children survived past infancy. Sons Reuchlin and Lorin were the oldest: Katharine, the baby, ran the house in Dayton after Mom died from tuberculosis in 1889.
The children sat through a Bible reading every night. “Study to show thyself approved unto God,” was a favorite verse.
But Charles Darwin's book also was in the home library, and the children were encouraged to read and discuss what was regarded as its challenge to the Bible's account of creation.
Bad luck also helped the brothers on the road to flight.
At age 18, Wilbur was on track for Yale University divinity school and a career in the clergy. Then he was hit in the face by a stick during an ice skating game. The blow knocked out his teeth and caused a head injury.
Complications set in. Wilbur abandoned plans for college, and became a recluse for four years. He stayed at home and cared for his mother, who was terminally ill with TB.
If the bishop had not bought that toy airplane, if Wilbur had not gotten hurt, if Susan had not been the right mom, somebody else might have invented the airplane.