More than a century after making the first controlled, sustained flights of a heavier-than-air aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright remain household names and key figures in the narrative of early 20th-century American innovation and ingenuity. But the Wright Brothers didn’t simply glide over the sandy beaches surrounding Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and into the history books.

With interest in aeronautics reaching new heights, and the race to conquer the skies growing increasingly crowded and competitive, the Wright Brothers’ designation of being “first in flight” was far from inevitable. Wilbur and Orville may have achieved this aviation milestone with a 12-second flight, but establishing their legacy took decades—and the contributions of their sister, Katharine, who brought a different set of skills to the table.

The Wright Siblings' Early Bond

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1874, Katharine was the youngest of five siblings, and Bishop Milton Wright and Susan Koerner Wright’s only surviving daughter. This meant that when Susan died of tuberculosis in 1889, the responsibility of running the Wright household fell to 15-year-old Katharine. At the same time, she also began assisting her father professionally, managing his finances and mail during the several months each year he spent out of town on church business.

At that point, Reuchlin and Lorin, the eldest Wright brothers, had left home, and Wilbur and Orville, who were seven and three years older than Katharine, respectively, ran a printing business, and opened a bicycle shop in 1892. 

“The three youngest [Wright siblings] were virtually inseparable,” says Sara Fisher, executive director of the International Women's Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. “They were close in age, they grew up together, [and] they had a shared trauma of losing their mother so early.”

Despite Katharine’s responsibilities at home, she stayed on top of her studies. “Katharine was the epitome of what was known at the time as the ‘Republican mother’—the idea that women need to be educated so that they could go on and educate their male children to be good voting citizens of the republic,” Fisher explains. “Yes, she did oversee the house, but she did something that none of her brothers did: she went to college.”

After graduating from Oberlin College in 1898, Katharine returned to Dayton, where Wilbur and Orville had begun experimenting with mechanical flight. She got a job teaching high school Latin and English, and resumed her domestic duties. “By running a household for her brothers and her father, she made it possible for them to pursue their work, often while away from home,” says Alex Heckman, vice president of museum operations for Dayton History, the private nonprofit organization that operates the Wright Brothers National Museum and Hawthorne Hill, among other local historical sites.

While housekeeping may not have been Katharine’s most visible contribution to her brothers’ careers, as lifelong bachelors, Wilbur and Orville would likely have been at a distinct disadvantage had she not taken on the various forms of invisible labor otherwise reserved for wives. But thanks to their sister, the Wright brothers could focus on running the bicycle shop and building a flying machine.

Presenting the Wright Brothers

In September 1900, Wilbur and Orville made their first trip to Kitty Hawk to test their flying machine, returning the following summer for their next round of experiments. Their initial findings were published in two scientific journals in July 1901, and Wilbur, who had authored the articles, was invited to present them to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago that September. 

Uncomfortable with public speaking, Wilbur was ready to decline until Katharine “nagged him into going,” as she put in a Sept. 3 1901 letter to their father. “She also helped dress Wilbur—who notoriously didn't care about fashion—in Orville’s nicer clothing so he looked presentable when he addressed the engineers,” Heckman says.

Their first successful flights were still two years away, but Katharine was confident in her brothers from the beginning. Plus, as she told their father in the same letter, the meeting would provide Wilbur with the opportunity to “get acquainted with some scientific men,” which “may do him a lot of good.” That turned out to be an understatement.

“The talk became one of the most important addresses in the history of aeronautics,” former Wright State University professors Patrick B. Nolan and ​​Ronald Geibert write in their 2002 book Kitty Hawk and Beyond: The Wright Brothers and the Early Years of Aviation. “Wilbur's speech brought the Wrights' name out of obscurity.”

Katharine Supports Orville After Crash

For the next several years, Katharine continued to teach, manage the Wright household, and encourage her increasingly famous brothers in their aviation endeavors. This included having a more active role at the bicycle shop, along with their brother, Lorin.

But everything changed on September 17, 1908, when Orville’s plane crashed during a test flight at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia—leaving him seriously injured, and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, an Army aeronautical expert. As soon as Katharine heard the news, she took a leave of absence from her teaching job, and “rushed to be at his hospital bedside and make sure that he was receiving the quality of care he needed,” Heckman says. Katharine stayed with Orville for his entire seven-week hospital stay, then traveled with him back to Dayton, while he was still reliant on a wheelchair.

That December, Wilbur, who had been in France demonstrating the brothers’ airplane, wrote to Katharine suggesting that she accompany Orville to Europe, and act as their “social manager.” They made the trip about a month later, after Katharine stepped away from her teaching position for the final time, and Orville was well enough to travel.

Katharine Promotes Brothers in Europe

Katharine’s people skills were a critical component of this, and other trips she took with her brothers. “She had a very outgoing personality, and was really warm and engaging,” Heckman says. “Wilbur and Orville were both a little more reserved. They weren't showmen, or the kind to promote themselves, and I think Katharine was there to help make those connections.”

Although Katharine provided occasional comments to the press—before, during, and after the European tour—Fisher says that she didn’t serve as the Wright brothers’ marketing manager or press secretary—at least in an official capacity. “While her brothers were shaking hands and making the rounds talking to European diplomats, royalty, and other inventors, her role was to engage with folks and describe what they had just seen her brothers do in the air in an informal, accessible way,” she explains.

Ultimately, Katharine wore many hats—literally and figuratively—while in Europe, taking on “the responsibilities of social secretary, hostess, promoter, diplomat and advocate for her brothers,” according to an article from Wright State University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives. Furthermore, by joining Wilbur for a February 1909 flight in Pau, France, Katharine publicly demonstrated her confidence in her brothers and their aircraft, only six months after Orville’s crash. It was only her first of several trips on a Wright Flyer.

Within a month of returning to Dayton, the Wright siblings traveled to Washington, D.C. in June 1909, where President William Howard Taft presented Wilbur and Orville with medals from the Aero Club of America. Katharine, whom the president referred to as “the most important member of the family” at the event, provided her brothers with her usual moral support and social guidance.

Katharine Wright's Role as Archivist

High-profile events aside, much of Katharine’s work took place out of the public eye. While Wilbur and Orville set and broke flight records, she helped track them, starting at least as early as 1901. “In 21st century terms, we’d call her their ‘records manager,’” Fisher says. “She was like their archivist: keeping detailed records of her brothers’ successes in the telegrams and letters [they wrote] back and forth to one another, as well as their correspondence with other folks.”

Fortunately, some of the people Katharine corresponded with regularly also kept decades’ worth of letters, telegrams, and other documentation—including aviation journalist Earl Findley, who worked with and befriended the Wright family, and held onto a collection of his written communication with Katharine from 1915 to 1928. The letters begin three years after Wilbur’s untimely death from typhoid fever at the age of 45 in 1912, and provide a glimpse into Katharine’s dedication to securing her brothers’ place in history. 

Much of their early correspondence centers on Katharine’s attempts to get Orville to cooperate with Findley on an accurate, comprehensive authorized biography of the Wright brothers. She also provides Findley with detailed updates related to the Wright Company’s ongoing patent-infringement lawsuits, as well as Orville’s feud with the Smithsonian over who invented the first airplane capable of flight, which began in 1915 and lasted until 1942.

“Katharine wasn't interested in pursuing the patents herself, but through her record-keeping, she was [able to] help support Orville and their attorney during the patent disputes, ensuring Orville and Wilbur got credit for what they created,” Fisher explains. “She was integral to why we know her brothers’ names as a first in modern heavier-than-air flight today.”

Katharine Wright’s Legacy

Despite spending a portion of her life in the public eye, it wasn’t long before Katharine was relegated to a footnote in her brothers’ story—if she was mentioned at all. But in recent decades, that started to change.

The International Women’s Air & Space Museum, for example, has housed an exhibit on Katharine since March 1989. A replica of the lace dress she wore to the White House in 1909 to meet President Taft, along with photos and some of her personal belongings, are currently part of the display, which serves as the starting point for tours of the museum, Fisher says. “Katharine represents the multitude of ways that women can be part of our collective air and space history,” she explains, “and all the new ways that women can be involved now.”