I have been fascinated by aviation for my entire life. The park near where I lived around 6 or 7 years of age featured a stripped World War II bomber (either a B-17 or a B-24, I can’t recall) that us kids loved to climb through and play on. Many family trips included visits to various museums dedicated to flight and there was a branch of the Confederate Air Force near our little West Texas town that had frequent air shows. My first foray into collecting first day covers was when the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight was commemorated in May 1977; my mother had signed me up for membership in the Postal Commemorative Society and this was the first cover I received from them. I also affixed a copy of this stamp into my paperback copy of The Spirit of St. Louis and had that postmarked as well. The movie based on this book is still my favorite Jimmy Stewart film.
Today is National Aviation Day in the United States, an observation that celebrates the development of aviation. It was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (perhaps the most famous American stamp collector) who issued a presidential proclamation in 1939 designating the anniversary of Orville Wright’s birthday to be National Aviation Day. Wright, born in 1871, was still alive when the proclamation was first issued, and would live another nine years. The proclamation was codified (USC 36:I:A:1:118), and it allows the sitting US President to proclaim August 19 as National Aviation Day each year, if desired. The annual proclamation encourages citizens to observe the day with activities that promote interest in aviation. The Wright Brothers are also honored with their own holiday on December 17 each year, marking their first successful flights on that date in 1903.
As mentioned, Orville was born on August 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio, while his older brother had been born on April 16, 1867, in the Indiana town of Millville. Neither brother ever married. Their father was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and traveled extensively in the United States as part of his duties. In 1878, he brought home a toy helicopter for the young brothers. About a foot long and made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its motor, the device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the spark of their interest in flying.
Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur’s help. Wilbur joined the print shop, and in March the brothers launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News. In April 1890 they converted the paper to a daily, The Evening Item, but it lasted only four months. They focused on commercial printing afterward. One of their clients for printing jobs was Orville’s friend and classmate in high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who rose to international acclaim as a ground-breaking African-American poet and writer. For a brief period the Wrights printed the Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper that Dunbar edited.
Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze (spurred by the invention of the safety bicycle and its substantial advantages over the penny-farthing design), in December 1892 the brothers opened a repair and sales shop (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company) and in 1896 began manufacturing their own brand. They used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. In the early or mid-1890s they saw newspaper or magazine articles and probably photographs of the dramatic glides by Otto Lilienthal in Germany. Various aviation events around this time lodged in the consciousness of the brothers and in May 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics. Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci, and Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation that year.
The Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899–1900, writing of “my” machine and “my” plans before Orville became deeply involved when the first person singular became the plural “we” and “our”. Author James Tobin asserts, “it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of a store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the beginning to the end.”
An excellent book simply called The Wright Brothers was published in March 2015 by noted historian David McCullough. It details, in very entertaining fashion, the trials and tribulations of the brothers’ first theories on how to tackle the problem of heavier-than-air flight though all of the test flights and perfections made after the initial successes. It also gives space to the competing claims of other first flights and the legacy the Wrights left behind. I highly recommend it.
It was truly difficult choosing just one stamp to honor National Aviation Day today. I have a great collection of stamps picturing the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers as well as all sorts of aircraft — not only from the United States but from many other countries. Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers remain two of my favorite topicals to collect stamps of (not to mention covers as well!).
I decided upon using an airmail stamp issued in 1949 — Scott #C45 — as today’s stamp. While not the first to feature a Wright Brothers plane (that would be Scott #649 from 1928) nor is it the most recent (I believe that would be #3783 released in 2003), I chose this stamp because it was the type of stamp that I was first exposed to when I began collecting around 40 years ago. I believe it was on my tenth birthday that I was given my mother’s childhood stamp album — a Scott Modern published in 1938 — that included worldwide stamps from the early 20th century up to the mid-1940’s or so. In order to try and fill the remaining spaces, I used to buy packets of used U.S. stamps from the local stamp dealer (we lived in central Tennessee by this time), which were filled with issues dating mainly from the late 1940’s and through the 1950’s. I probably had a copy of this stamp in my collection at the time; I obtained this mint copy about a year ago. Released on the 46th anniversary of the first flight, the 6 cent magenta stamp was engraved (flat plate printed) on unwatermarked paper that was then perforated 11×10½.
Happy birthday, Orville.