The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

No one influenced the ideas and philosophies of Orville and Wilbur more than their father, the Bishop Milton Wright. He said, “It is assumed that young folks know best, and old folks are fogies. It may be so, but old folks may be as right about new fangles as young folks are about fogy ways. Make business first, pleasure afterward, and that guarded. All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others.”

A friend once told Orville that he and Wilbur would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages could advance in the world. Orville disagree: “But it isn’t true to say we had no special advantages…the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”

In 1889, Orville started his own print shop. He and Wilbur began publishing The West Side News, “devoted to the goings-on and interests of their part of Dayton on the west side of the river.”

On March 1, a first edition of four pages appeared with a list of local advertisements. You could subscribe for 45 cents a year or two weeks for ten cents.

It strikes me that almost all intellectual figures in the past worked for a newspaper, or started on. Ben Franklin being another prime example. Thoreau and a band of brothers started The Atlantic. It today’s day and age, people start newsletters. Then, they started newspapers.

Occasionally, they would reprint items from other publications. I liked this one a lot. It’s from *Architect and Building News* and titled “Encourage Your Boy”

Do not wait for the boy to grow up before you begin to treat him as an equal. A proper amount of confidence, and words of encouragement and advice…give him to understand that you trust him in many ways, helps to make a man of him long before he is a man in either stature or years…

If a boy finds he can make a few articles with his hands, it tends to make him rely on himself. And the planning that is necessary for the execution of the work is a discipline and an education of great value to him. >

Wilbur didn’t have an act for business right away. He preferred “intellectual pursuits” instead, writing to his father, “I do not think I am specifically fitted for success in any commercial pursuit even if I had proper personal and business influences to assist me. I might make a living, but I doubt whether I would ever do much more than this. Intellectual effort is a pleasure to me and I think I would [be] better fitted for reasonable success in some of the professions than in business.”

Yet he evidently spent quite some time thinking about business. He wrote to his brother Lorin:

In business it is the aggressive man, who continually has his eye on his own interest, who succeeds. Business is merely a form of warfare in which each combatant strives to get the business away from his competitors and at the same time keep them from getting what he already has. No man has ever been successful in business who was not aggressive, self-assertive and even a little bit selfish perhaps…I entirely agree that the boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. That is the very reason that none of us have been or will be more than ordinary businessmen. We have all done reasonably well, better in fact than the average man perhaps, but none of us has as yet made particular use of the talent in which he excels other men. That is why our success has been only moderate. We ought not to have been businessmen…

There is always a danger that a person of this disposition will, if left to depend upon himself, retire into the first corner he falls into a remain there all his life struggling for bare existence (unless some earthquake throws him out into a more favorable location), where if put on the right path with proper special equipment, he would advance far. Many men are better fitted for improving chances offered them than in turning up chances themselves. >

During their third year in business as bicycle repair men, they started designing their own model of bike. It sold between $60 and $65; they called it the Van Cleve, in honor of their great-great-grandmother.

They had advertisements: “Van Cleves get there First.” I thought that was genius. They didn’t focus on the style or the new parts or any “features.” It was all about the benefits, “getting their first.”

Wilbur’s first first step to tackling the problem of flight was to deliberately study all that had been published, tried, and tested. On Tuesday, May 30, 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote a letter addressed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He writes, “I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language.”

*Avion* is a french word for aviation. It was named by a French electrical engineer, Clément Ader.

The problem with flight wasn’t getting in the air…it was staying there. At first, wind would help the brothers achieve this most. They had to find the windiest part of the country, so they asked. Wilbur wrote a letter to the United States Weather Bureau in Washington about prevailing winds around the country. In response, they sent extensive records of monthly wind velocities at more than a hundred Weather Bureau stations. This is where they first picked Kitty Hawk.

A poem under a chapter heading that I liked:

One ship drives east and another drives west With the self-same winds that blow. ’Tis the set of the sails And not the gales Which tells us the way to go.

– Ella Wheeler Wilxox, “Winds of Fate”

“The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and overconfidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.” – Wilbur, writing about his attitude towards testing flights at Kitty Hawk.

The stars were so bright at Kitty Hawk, “he could read his watch by them.” I love that metaphor.

The Wright Brothers didn’t make history without working hard. John T. Daniels, a Kitty Hawk residence who helped the brothers set up their operation there, said they were “two of the workingest boys” ever seen, “and when they worked, *they worked…*They had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing.”

They also had undoubted courage. Said later in the Aeronautical Journal, “Never in the history of the world had men studied the problem with such scientific skill nor with such undaunted courage.”

Daniels later said of the boys achievement:

It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and their energy into an idea and they had the faith.

They also never fixated on their past success. After thier first flight with a motor, Charlie Taylor, the mechanic, said there were no “jig steps” over what had been achieved:

Of course they were pleased with the flight. But their first word with me, as I remember, was about the motor being damaged when the wind picked up the machine and turned it topsy turvy…They wanted a new one built right away…They were always thinking of the next thing to do; they didn’t waste much time worrying about the past.

A visitor to the site at Kitty Hawk, Mr. Huffaker, was amazed by the brothers mechanical ability. Wilbur writes about him:

He is astonished at our mechanical facility, and as he has attributed his own failures to the lack of this, he thinks the problem solved when these difficulties…are overcome, while we expect to find further difficulties of a theoretic nature which must be met by new mechanical designs.

This is a key lesson the Wright brothers understood: just because they figured one thing out, didn’t mean they had the entire thing figured out. They realized that a solution usually leads to another problem, one they didn’t know they would have – couldn’t know they would have.

The brothers “stood on the shoulders of many giants” - Lilienthal, Langley, and Chanute – but what they found out was that their data, the tables and charts their heroes had published before them were all wrong. They didn’t work in reality.

Lesson: Theory rarely matches reality.

Again, the hard part about flight wasn’t getting in the air, it was staying there. To do so, the “pilot” had to learn how to fly the wind, and this was very hard to do. In a wonderful presentation, Wilbur delivered a great example. Taking a sheet of paper and dropping it, he pointed out how it would not settle steadily, “but it insists on contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse.”

Wilbur said you could learn to ride this horse in one of two ways:

One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on the fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders.

He followed up that if one were looking for safety, he would do well to sit on the fence. “But if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

The first critique of a new technology, almost always, is what useful thing will it do? This happened with hot air balloons and Ben Franklin when someone asked him what useful purpose the balloons will be for, to which he quipped “What use are babies for?”

Simon Newcomb, an astronomer, wrote in McClure Magazine, “The first successful flyer will be the handiwork of a watchmaker, and will carry nothing heavier than an insect.”

Talk about an MVP…before they had a motor, the brothers spent three years learning how to just ride and glide on the wind. Once they could soar, float, dive, rise, circle, glide and land…then they tried to add a motor.

The thing that stands out the most to me about the Wright brothers is that they never let fame or success make them cocky or live for money. Samuel Langley was their “competitor” for a brief period of time. After his dismal failure, they never made critical or belittling comments about him. They expressed gratitude and respect. McCullough writes, “Just knowing that the head of the Smothsonian, the most prominent scientific institution in America, believed in the possibility of human flight was one of the influences that led them to proceed with their work…”

Wilbur also said about him:

He possessed mental and moral qualities of the kind that influence history. When scientists in general considered it discreditable to work in the field of aeronautics he possessed both the discernment to discover possibilities there and the moral courage to subject himself to the ridicule of the public and the apologies of his friends. He deserves more credit for this than he has yet received.

The first time Orville flew with a motor he was asked afterwards if he was scared. “Scared?” He replied. “There wasn’t time.”

Samuel Langley, the brothers’ “competition” for a time, had a massive failure with his project. In all, it cost $70,000! For the brothers, their total expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903, including materials and travel from Dayton to Kitty Hawk, was a little less than $1,000, all payed for with profits from their bike shop.

Root would say of the brothers, he had been “astonished” by the extent of their library and to find in conversation that “they were thoroughly versed not only in regard to our present knowledge, but everything that had been done in the past.”

“The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.” – The Wright Brothers

While trying to negotiate the sale of their flyer, naturally, tensions were high, but Wilbur never rattled. McCullough writes, “He could be firm without being dictorial, disagree without causing offense.”

After the big successful flight at Le Mans, Léon Delagrange wrote of Wilbur:

Wilbur Wright is the best example of strength of character that I have ever seen. In spite of the sarcastic remarks and the mockery, in spite of the traps set up from everywhere all these years, he has not faltered. He is sure of himself, of his genius, and he kept his secret. He had the desire to participate today to prove to the world he had not lied.

Another spectator said of Wilbur, “He went his way always in his own way, never showing off, never ever playing to the crowd. The impatience of a hundred thousand persons would not accelerate the rhythm of his stride.

With the increased attention came increased pressure to fly. People would come from all over to see the spectacle, but there was always a risk that conditions for flight weren’t favorable. Wilbur, in all his quiet confidence, never let that pressure get to him. Once, on the very first flight when the motor turned on, Wilbur didn’t like what he heard. He asked an associate if there was a last minute change to the motor. There was. Wilbur got out of the seat and walked over to the motor to ensure there was nothing out of sorts.

When Orville began test flights with the motor in the US while Wilbur is in Paris, he wrote him a letter

Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready…Do not let people talk to you all day and night. It will wear you out, before you are ready for any real business. Courtesy has limits. If necessary, appoint some hour in the daytime and refuse absolutely to receive visitors at any other time. Do not receive anyone after 8 o’clock at night.

Later, after they had much success and were back in Fort Meyer for trials, they experienced a 16mph gale, too strong to fly. With the pressure of thousands watching, they wheeled the plane back to the shed. A senator was overheard saying, “I’m damned if I don’t admire their independence. We don’t mean anything to them, and there are a whole lot of reasons why we shouldn’t.”

Lesson: Don’t let any one pressure you into doing something you’re not ready for.

Amazingly, in the nine years they were flying, they only had one major crash. It was Orville. His guest on the plane, died that day. Wilbur knew it too. He wrote his father it was, “the only time anything has broken on nay of our machines while in flight, in nine years experience.” His was the first death in the history of powered flight. Orville was much too lucky. But the crash did nothing to their reputation. “If Mr. Wright should never again enter an aeroplane,” Squier said, “his work last week at Fort Meyer will have secured him a lasting place in history as the man who showed the world that mechanical flight was an assured success.”

Wilbur blamed himself for the accident. He wrote a letter to Katherine:

I do not mean that Orville was incompetent to do the work itself, but I realized that he would be surrounded by thousands of people who with the most friendly intentions in the world would consume his time, exhaust his strength, and keep him from having proper rest…If I had been there I could have held off the visitors while he worked or let him hold off while I worked…People think I am foolish because I do not like the men to do the least important work on the machine. They say I crawl under the machine when the men could do the thing well enough. I do it partly because it gives me opportunity to see if anything in the neighborhood is out of order.

Wilbur worked so much on the plane, the guys in Paris called him “The Oilcan.”

At a banquet for The Aéro-Club de France, Wilbur Wright and his machine were honored. His speech that night sums up his attitude and reflects his humility in all he had done:

In the enthusiasm being shown around me, I see not merely an outburst intended to glorify a person, but a tribute to an idea that has always impassioned mankind.

Northcliffe would say about the Wrights, that he did not think the excitement over them and the intense interest produced by their extraordinary feats had any effect on them whatsoever.

In a mark of brilliance, the king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, witnessed the flights, but he wanted another demonstration. “I have seen what you [Wilbur] can do. I want to see what one of your pilots can do.”

The time in Europe had amounted to $200,000 in contracts for the family. Nice, but doesn’t seem huge honestly. Later, they signed a contract with the War Department for $30,000.

When the family returned to Dayton, they had a huge celebration put on in their honor. The night before, the Dayton Daily News ran an editorial

There was beginning a great deal of talk about man’s no longer having the opportunities he once had of achieving greatness. Too many people were beginning to believe that all of the world’s problems had been solved…Money was beginning to tell in the affairs of men, and some were wondering whether a poor boy might work for himself a place in commerce or industry or science.

This celebrations throws all such idle talk to the winds. It crowns a new the efforts of mankind. It crushes for another hundred years the suspicion that all of the secrets of nature have been solved or that the avenues of hope have been closed to those who wold win new worlds.

It points out to the ambitious young man that he labors not in vain; that genius knows no class, no condition…

The modesty of the Wright brothers is a source of good deal of comment…But above all there is a sermon in their life of endeavor which cannot be preached too often. >

“A man who works for the immediate present and its immediate rewards is nothing but a fool.” – Wilbur Wright


Recieve new posts and my monthly reading list emails.