So this is what we rushed out of the Air Force Museum to see. There are actually five different NPS-run sites scattered around Dayton, and I think about six more aviation related sites partnered with them (the NPS website is a little confusing), so there was no way we were going to be able to see them all (though if you have more time, and you pick up a special passport in the gift shop, you can apparently get a free stuffed “Wil-bear” if you get it stamped at seven of the historic sites. Not sure if there’s a charge for the passport). Therefore, we settled on one the Wright brothers had actually spent time in; the former Wright Cycle Company, and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center next door.
This too, was free to visit, and we began with the “interpretive center,” which I guess is just a fairly interactive museum? I think we were probably meant to start upstairs, but being contrary, we walked through the ground floor first, which explained the mechanics of flight with the help of a variety of hands-on examples.
Someone had taken the trouble to build quite a few little wooden models of planes, and you could do various things to them, like putting them in a mini wind tunnel, or tilting the body of the little figure strapped inside to see how it affects steering. Here it was also explained why the Wright brothers chose to test out their plane in North Carolina, rather than give their home state of Ohio the glory (those smug North Carolinians with their “First in Flight” license plates). Basically, they needed somewhere that was both windy and isolated, since they were paranoid someone else was going to steal their idea. After scouting out a number of locations, it was found that Kitty Hawk best fitted the bill, particularly the “isolated” bit. To get there around the turn of the century required travelling by train, boat, horse-drawn cart, and possibly automobile as well; I would imagine the trek alone would have been a powerful motivator for them to perfect their airplane!
Upstairs, we got to learn more about the early life of the Wrights. Although they did have some formal schooling, they never technically graduated from high school, and all their mechanical skills were essentially self-taught. As young students, they turned their hands to printing, publishing a small newspaper with their friends, which gave them the know-how to later build their own printing press (no one could ever figure out quite how it worked, but it did!).
The museum talked about their close-knit family life, including their sister Katharine, who travelled with them and helped them promote their flying machine (she was mentioned at the tiny International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, but it was nice to learn more about her, since she seemed like a pretty cool lady. She was far more personable than Orville and Wilbur, and was vital to making their reputations in aviation circles, which didn’t stop Orville from breaking off all contact with her when she decided to get married. What an ass). The museum also discussed the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet who lived a few blocks away (you can visit his house as well) and was friends with the Wright brothers. This seemed a bit out of place with all the aviation stuff, but I suppose Dayton doesn’t have that many famous people, so they reckoned they might as well combine them all in one museum. Besides, they were friends, so at least there’s some sort of connection.
Also upstairs was the National Parachute Museum, which was really just one small room, but I still learned more about parachutes than I ever wanted to. There were interactive things in here too, to explain how parachutes worked, and you could feel all the different fabrics parachutes have been made from over the years.
Finally, we headed over to the old Wright Cycle Company. The building is apparently kept locked (at least at non-peak times) so we had to ask at the desk to be escorted over by a ranger. He gave us a brief tour, and then stayed and very patiently answered all of my parents’ many, many questions (since we were the only people there). He mostly talked about the Cycle Company, and the relevance of cycling to early flight, as the steering mechanisms in bikes and planes were similar. Essentially, cycle manufacture was the perfect business for the Wrights to be in to give them a jump on aviation. According to the ranger, without the Wright brothers, manned flight might not have happened for another decade, which would pretty much have changed the entire history of the world, especially the First World War. I mean, obviously he was a Wright enthusiast, but it’s still something that’s interesting to think about.
And speaking of the Wright’s cycles, they had some pretty luxe models. Although factory-made bikes were well in the range of the middle class, and the Wrights did carry some of those, their bespoke models cost around $65, the equivalent of around $1500 today, which is probably not extortionate if you’re really into cycling, but that’s more than 5 times as much as I’ve ever spent on a bike. And of course, the few that have survived today are probably worth millions, but they’re all in museums, including the one we saw at the US Air Force Museum earlier that day.
I reckon the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Cycle Company, though much smaller, might have a more widespread appeal than the Air Force Museum (or maybe not, because it’s all aviation when you get down to it). After all, everyone has heard of the Wright brothers, and it’s neat to see where they got their start (I feel like I must have been here before at some point, but probably when I was too young to remember it). It’s also nice that it’s free, as are most of the other NPS aviation sites around town, and I could definitely see spending a day going around and visiting them all. Worth a stop for any history buff in the Dayton area; although the museum isn’t terribly big, it is informative, and seeing the Wright brothers’ shop is undeniably cool. 3.5/5.