The Wright Brothers
One ship drives east and another drives west_With the self-same winds that blow.’Tis the set of the sailsAnd not the galesWhich tells us the way to go._
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Winds of Fate”
No one was less likely to change the world than two poor boys from Dayton, Ohio. But that’s what happened.
After spending two years in Europe for test flights, which were a resounding success, the Wright brothers returned home. Waiting for them in Dayton was a celebration to honor the hometown heroes. But for the quiet town, it wasn’t just about planes or money; it was about showing the world that anyone – no matter where they came from – could do something important.
The Dayton Daily News wrote:
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 celebration 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 would 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.
Here’s what I learned from reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
1. Don’t be a burden
Orville and Wilbur’s work ethic, ideas, and philosophy on life were heavily influenced by their father, Bishop Milton Wright. He saw it as his duty to raise his kids with respect and love and always provide them with wisdom.
He once 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.”
2. Intellectual curiosity is important
A friend once told Orville that he and Wilbur would always stand as an example of how far Americans with no special advantages – old money, power, name, or influence – could advance in the world. Orville disagreed: “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.”
3. Consistency and longevity are the two keys to success
Wilbur, writing about his attitude towards test flights at Kitty Hawk:
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.
A man who works for the immediate present and its immediate rewards is nothing but a fool.
4. It’s all about hard work
The Wright Brothers were smart, undoubtedly, but they also worked harder than anyone else. John T. Daniels, a Kitty Hawk resident who helped the brothers set up their operation, said they were “two of the workingest boys” he had ever seen, “and when they worked, _they worked…_They had their whole heart and soul in what they were doing.”
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. The Brothers first build a glider, a plane that just rode the wind; once they got that design down, they added a motor. After their first flight with a motor, Charlie Taylor, the mechanic who built and maintained the motor, 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.
5. Don’t allow others to pressure your process
Once they figured out how to fly, people came from all over to see the spectacle, but there was always a risk that conditions for flying weren’t favorable. In all his quiet confidence, Wilbur never let the pressure of the crowd get to him. They wanted to see a show, but Wilbur never bet his hard work or pride on someone else’s desires. They’d have to come back tomorrow if he couldn't go up. Surprisingly, people understood this and happily obliged.
When Orville began test flights in the United States while Wilbur was in Paris, Wilbur warned Orville never to succumb to that pressure:
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.
Another time, with the pressure of thousands watching, the brothers had to cancel the flight because the winds were too strong. As 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.”
6. A solution usually leads to another problem
Wilbur and Orville Wright understood one thing that helped them succeed: when they solved one problem, another would almost certainly arise.
Edward Huffaker, a visitor at Kitty Hawk, never understood this. Wilbur wrote: "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."
Wilbur understood something many overlook: when you're doing innovative work, a solution usually leads to a different problem. If you assume the problem you're working on is the last one you'll ever encounter, it can ruin you when you find another.
Wilbur was practicing what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox: "the ability to combine the brutal facts of reality with the unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end." Brutal facts: flying is hard. There were going to be a lot of unforeseen problems that no one had encountered before. Unwavering faith: Wilbur knew, based on his past experiences, that he’d figure it out. If he kept working at it day by day with grit and confidence, he’d fly.
Bonus: Orville on bombers in WWII
Orville Wright lived surprisingly late, only passing away in 1948 due to a heart attack. As he realized the damage and destruction wrought by bombers in World War Two, he couldn’t help but feel some responsibility. Yet that feeling did not outweigh the importance of his and Wilbur’s achievements, and he knew that. He said:
We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong…No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is I regret all the terrible damage caused by the fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire into thousands of important uses.
Bonus: NASA pays respects on the moon
On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he paid homage to the Wright brothers. With him was a small swatch of fabric from the wing of their 1903 Flyer, the first plane that carried them a meaningful distance. Armstrong is also from Ohio.