August 19 marks National Aviation Day in the United States, celebrating the development of flight. First proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, the annual observation falls every year on Orville Wright’s birthday – born Aug. 19, 1871.

We have received questions why GE Aviation’s blog, telling our ongoing story of innovative work with state-of-the-art jet engines and integrated systems, is called The Bike Shop. That too is a hat tip to the founding fathers of flight and the innovative work they did.

The first successful airplane factory began in a bike shop. Just over a decade before Orville and Wilbur Wright conquered powered flight, the two brothers opened The Wright Cycle Exchange in Dayton, OH.

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Wilbur Wright pictured working in the bike shop he owned with his brother, Orville. Photo credit: National Archive
Top: Orville Wright. Photo credit: National Archive

In the 1890s, the bicycle business was booming as old-fashioned high-mounted “big wheel” bicycles gave way to the conventional bikes of today with two equal-sized wheels. Orville and Wilbur set up shop, first selling and repairing brand-named bikes in 1892, then manufacturing their own by 1896.

During the late 1890s, the Wrights were selling about 150 bikes per year. Wright bicycle models included the Van Cleve, St. Clair and the Wright Special, ranging from $30 to $65. The Wrights’ bicycle shop was actually shops – they had five different Dayton locations during their 16 years (1892-1907) in business.

The Wright’s top-of-the-line bicycle, the Van Cleve, was priced at $65.

It was their last location at 1127 West Third Street in Dayton where they conducted most of their aviation experiments. First gliders, then powered flight. The Wrights built a wind tunnel there in 1901 to produce their own flight data. Results from these wind tunnel tests led to breakthrough aerodynamic improvements demonstrated in their 1902 glider, paving the way to the Dec. 17, 1903 historic flight.

With the help of engineer Charlie Taylor, 1127 West Third Street was also used to build the 12-horsepower engine used on the Wright Flyer. When the Wright airplane business grew, the location was used to make parts for airplane engines and drive trains.

Orville and Wilbur managed to save $5,000 in profits from their bike business, which is credited to financing their aviation experiments. Travel included, the Wright’s spent just under $1,000 to develop, build and fly the 1903 Wright Flyer. Meanwhile in Washington, money was flowing in for inventor Samuel Langley’s quest to fly. The War Department spent around $50,000 on Langley’s Great Aerodrome, which failed to fly.

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The Wright Cycle Shop. Photo credit: National Archive

Today, only five known Wright bicycles exist – all in museums. The Wright’s bicycle shop at 1127 West Third Street was unearthed and moved to the Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, MI.

On National Aviation Day, we can celebrate a bike shop, bicycles and the role they both played in the development of flight. And everyday we continue to tip our hats to the founding fathers of flight through GE Aviation’s blog, The Bike Shop.

Learn more about the Wright brothers’ bike shop: