Skip to main content

The Bishop’s Boys

March 2023
1min read

A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright

by Tom D. Crouch; W. W. Norton & Company; 606 pages.

When Orville Wright was buried in Dayton, Ohio, in 1948, four jet fighters swooped low over the cemetery and dipped their wings in honor of the first man ever to fly. Forty-five years earlier above the windswept hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, heavier-than-air flight began when Orville spent twelve seconds aloft in the wood-and-cloth aircraft he had built with his brother Wilbur. Tom Crouch’s absorbing new biography of the Wright brothers explains how two bicycle makers from Dayton managed to succeed where others with far greater technical credentials and a lot more money had failed.

The Bishop’s Boys provides a fascinating chronicle of the process of invention, as well as a rich portrait of an extraordinarily close-knit family, headed by the imposing Bishop Milton Wright, a leader of the Protestant United Brethren Church. Bishop Wright was an uncompromising and litigious man; in 1889 he forced a national schism within his church. His sons inherited those qualities. They spent years mired in patent suits against rival airplane builders, most notably the aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.

A strict and loving father, Milton Wright also sparked Wilbur and Orville’s interest in flight in 1878, when he bought the boys a rubber bandpowered toy helicopter designed by the French aeronautical experimenter Alphonse Penaud. The brothers were CSI enthralled. “We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully,” Orville recalled decades later. “But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale it failed to work so well.”

For the adult Wright brothers aeronautics began as something of a sophisticated hobby that occupied the winter months, when sales of bicycles declined. Despite a lack of formal technical training, they were true engineers, painstakingly methodical and almost inhumanly patient, encountering frequent failures and occasional success and facing “the grit and wind of each new day with a clean tie and fresh celluloid collar.” Much of their drive came from their clergyman father, who in 1910, at the age of eightyone, flew in a plane piloted by Orville above an Ohio prairie. Orville feared the experience might unnerve the old clergyman, but the bishop “shouted above the combined roar of engine, propellers, and slipstream: ‘Higher, Orville. Higher!’”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "November 1989"

Authored by: Ken Heyman

Occupational tintypes are about as cheap today as when they were made, but they offer a valuable look at working-class America during and just after the Civil War

Authored by: Roger J. Spiller

Walt Whitman said, “The real war will never get in the books.” The critic and writer Paul Fussell feels that the same sanitizing of history that went on after the 1860s has erased the national memory of what World War II was really like.

Authored by: Alexander O. Boulton

The medieval look that swept America a hundred and fifty years ago wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia for pointed archways and crenellated towers; it was also the very model of a modern architectural style

Authored by: The Editors

A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service

Authored by: The Editors

A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright

Authored by: The Editors

The History of Animation

Authored by: The Editors

Recollections by Men and Women of World War II Aviation

Authored by: The Editors

Brick Wall Signs in America

Authored by: Bruce Curtis

A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.

Authored by: Richard M. Ketchum

The bombs that fell that Sunday didn’t just knock out some battleships; they roused America into a new age. Here is how the long, unforgettable day unfolded.

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.