I have read many biographies but none have been as awe-inspiring as the new Wright Brothers biography by David McCallum. The Wright Brothers story may be the greatest story of accomplishment of all time.
It was an unusual family situation. A family in Dayton, Ohio with 5 kids (4 boys and a girl) where the mother died at age 58 of tuberculosis when they were adolescents to young adults. Their father, Milton Wright, was a Protestant Bishop. I don't know how religious the Wright Brothers were, but I did find out that they refused to work or even fly on Sundays because of the Sabbath.
Two of the boys followed the typical course of leaving home getting married and having children. But, Wilbur, Orville, and their sister Katharine continued living at home with their father. And that played a crucial role in the development of flight because how could the Wright Brothers have done what they did if they had wives and children? There aren’t enough hours in the day.
But, trauma played a role in it too. Wilbur was extremely bright and very scholastic, and he was definitely college-bound. But, he was viciously attacked during a hockey game by a boy who went on to become a famous murderer. Wilbur was too injured to meet the deadlines for college, and the whole idea faded away after that.
While still in high school, Orville started his own printing company, which was done by building his own printing press. The printing business grew after high school, and Wilbur got involved with him, although it was always Orville’s baby. And something they did in association with the printing business was publish a local newspaper for their section of Dayton, Ohio. And both boys contributed to the writing of it.
But, bicycle fever hit Dayton in the late 1890s. It was a real craze, and they got into it themselves. They loved to ride, and they became absorbed with the mechanical side of bicycling, which they mastered. And then they saw an opportunity to capitalize on it, so they opened their bicycle shop. But, many people mistakenly believe that they just repaired bicycles. They built bicycles from scratch. They had a whole line. It was called the Van Cleve, which was their grandmother’s maiden name. It was a high end bike costing $65, which was a lot then. But, they proudly claimed that it the best built and most durable bicycle in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
The thing about Orville and Wilbur Wright was: they liked to work. They liked to be productive, to see something built, fixed, improved or enhanced by their own hand. It gave them more satisfaction than any kind of entertainment or recreation. I’ve known people like that. My father was like that. Like the Wright Brothers, he was happiest when he was doing constructive work, accomplishing something, especially mechanical.
The Wright Brothers had always been fascinated by the flight of birds. As lads, they had played around with airborne toys. But, the way the serious flying idea got started was that Orville got sick with typhoid fever.And it was a bad case. He very easily could have died, as many did. He was laid up in bed for weeks and weeks. And while he was convalescing, Wilbur would come in and read to him. And they started reading about this glider enthusiast in Germany whose name was Otto Lilenthal. He was known as the Glider King, and he was the first man to glide long enough and high enough to call it a sustained flight. Lilenthal controlled his glider entirely by shifting his body weight. And, he died in a gliding accident in 1896.
Something struck Wilbur and Orville that now that Lilenthal was dead, somebody needed to carry on the work of developing a flying machine. And their first thought was that control had to come from something other than the pilot shifting his weight.
So, the first thing Wilbur did was write to the Smithsonian Institute and ask for scientific resources on aviation. He was referred to the work of Octave Chanute who was French and to Samuel Langley who was American and the head of the Smithsonian. I don’t believe the Wright Brothers ever met Langley, but they did become friends with Chanute. So, Wilbur and Orville took to reading the known materials on flight. And Wilbur took up bird-watching as a serious hobby. He also read a book about the flight of birds called Empire of the Air by Pierre Moullard. And with that, the Wright Brothers became, as they said, “infected” with the desire to fly.
So, the first step was to build a glider that could fly for a sustained period, but more important, that could be precisely and accurately controlled.
Their very first discovery, which was really Wilbur’s and came from his bird-watching, was “wing-warping”. He demonstrated it to Orville and his sister with a model that he made of a double-wing bi-plane, that if you twisted the wings on one side, it changed the air pressure, causing more “lift” on one side than the other side, causing the plane to turn. That idea of “wing-warping” or “wing-twisting” was the first great idea of the Wright Brothers, and it came directly from watching birds.
It was the summer of 1899 that they started building their first aircraft, a glider. Just think: it would be only four years later, in 1903, that they make history and change the world forever by building the first real airplane. But this first unit was really just a glorified kite. It was bi-plane, with two sets of wings. They liked the bi-plane design because Chanute recommended it and used it in his experiments, and it seemed more stable than a monoplane. A bi-plane was like a box, and a box is more stable than a board.
But, what made their glider different was that they had long cords that allowed the operator on the ground to manipulate the plane in the air to effect the wing-warping. No one had ever thought of that before.
So, they spent 3 years just working with gliders, to gain the greatest control of the aircraft at all times. And it was very important to them that their motorized plane also be able to glide- in case the motor failed.
But, when they were ready for a motor, they first tried to buy one from a car manufacturer but with no success. So, they had this guy named Charlie Taylor, who worked for them in the bicycle shop for $18/week, build them a motor from scratch, using a 4 cylinder aluminum block.
They took everything in pieces to Kitty Hawk and assembled the plane there, including the motor. And, against a strong head wind, Orville made the first flight. It was December 17, 1903 at 10:35 AM. The course of his flight was “erratic”. The distance he flew was 120 feet, and the total time being air-borne was 12 seconds. That was the first time someone had flown a manned aircraft that was heavier than air and powered by a motor. Before the day was done, Wilbur would fly for half a mile in a time of 59 seconds.
Over the next two years, the Wright Brothers built bigger planes with larger, more powerful motors. They put on public demonstrations but forbid picture-taking. They were afraid that a blow-up of a photo might give away crucial details of their design. And there were several times that Wilbur caught someone, usually a journalist, taking a picture, and he stormed over and demanded the film. And I mean “demanded” as in: “give me that film, or else.” And the guy invariably handed it over.
Of course, word spread quickly, and it was the talk of the country. But, it wasn’t until 1906 that things really bounded forward in terms of national and international recognition. It was the French who had always been most keen on developing manned flight, and the French government, through emissaries, approached the Wright Brothers about buying a fleet of planes. But, the condition was that they had to come to France to demonstrate the plane and also provide instruction in its use to French pilots.
So, Wilbur went to France, alone, while Orville stayed behind to take care of things on the home front. And in France, Wilbur stunned the French. He put on air shows. And just think: from the beginning, aerial acrobatics was part of it. He did repeated figure-8s to the crowd’s amazement and delight. And since the plane was now a 2-seater, he took people up for rides, including dignitaries, government officials, and posh ladies. It was done at Le Mans, and you just can’t overstate what a spectacle it was.
But then, disaster struck. Back in the States. Orville was putting on similar demonstrations for the Americans, which happened near Washington. He had a passenger riding with him, a high-ranking military officer. Suddenly, the propeller broke. It was a mechanical failure; it was not pilot error. But, the broken propeller tore through the cable that controlled the rudder, and the result was that they plummeted to earth- nose first.
That the military officer, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, died (the first aviation casualty) is no surprise. What’s astonishing is that Orville survived. But, he was badly hurt with bones broken all over his body. It took him months to recover, and he never fully recovered. He walked with a limp and needed a cane after that, and one leg was more than an inch shorter than the other.
Wilbur came back from France, and the sister Katharine took leave from her teaching job to take care of Orville. The eerie thing is that there had been talk of President Theodore Roosevelt wanting to go up with Orville. When told about it, Orville said, “He’s the President of the United States, and I’ll do whatever he says. But personally, I don’t think he should take the risk.”
But, Orville did become functional again, and he did fly again. He and Wilbur started a new company to manufacture airplanes. And there were more big events ahead for them. The pace of the development of aviation soared immediately after that. By 1908, just two years after Wilbur dazzled the French at Le Mans, they had an air competition in France with 20 contestants. The Wright Brothers were invited but didn’t attend. But a few weeks later, Orville and Katharaine went to Germany, and there, Orville broke the world records for speed and altitude that were set in France just a few weeks before. Another big event was Wilbur’s flight up the Hudson River Valley which included him doing several circles around the Statue of Liberty, to the crowd’s delight.
Wilbur’s last flight was as a passenger. It was the first and only time that he and Orville flew together. That was in 1911 at an air show. They had always said they wouldn’t fly together so that if one died the other could carry on the work. So, by flying together, it was their way of saying that they had accomplished all that they had set out to do. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. He was 45 years old.
How ironic that is. Wilbur, who was older, was always the bigger and stronger of the two. And the disparity became even greater after Orville’s catastrophic accident. That Wilbur would precede Orville in death is something that nobody expected.
Orville continued piloting Wright planes for another 7 years. But then, he had to quit because of his disabilities from the near-death disaster. Severe arthritis set in, as it often does after such traumas. He just didn’t have the dexterity to fly any more. So, his final flight was in 1918 at age 46. He also sold the Wright manufacturing company and devoted the rest of his life to aeronautical research at the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory which he started.
And, he spent much of his time in the latter years in lawsuits for patent infringement. And, it wasn’t so much about money. He was famous for saying that all the money that anybody needs is enough to not be a burden on others. But, nothing mattered more to him than the legacy of the Wright Brothers.
Orville died of a heart attack on January 30, 1948. He was 77. But, just imagine what he lived to see: jet propulsion, rockets, and the breaking of the sound barrier- all in his lifetime. However, he also lamented greatly the use of aviation in warfare, which of course happened as early as World War 1. So, just a few years after Wilbur died, they were having air battles and using airplanes to drop bombs on people.
So, did health play a role in the developments of the airplane? I would say so. I mentioned that it was when Orville was convalescing from typhoid fever that Wilbur sought things to read to him, which wound up including the reports about Lilenthal perishing in a crash. I really think the Wright Brothers felt an obligation to Lilenthal to carry on his work. But, they also saw a fatal flaw in his approach: lack of control, the fact that Lilenthal tried to control the aircraft just by shifting his body weight like a sledder does going down a course. But, they knew that would never suffice in aviation.
There is no denying that Wilbur and Orville Wright were two very unusual guys. They were extremely bright, and they were very mechanically gifted. And, they loved to work. They loved to solve mechanical problems. Just think: Wilbur Wright, though he was only a high school graduate, gave speeches to prominent engineering groups which included complex mathematical analysis. And these speeches were translated and published all over the world.
I don’t think anyone doubts that manned flight would have happened without the Wright Brothers. How much later would it have been? That’s anyone’s guess, but I’d say at least 5 years. But maybe longer than that because it was the Wright Brothers who stirred up the whole worldwide frenzy to fly.
But, I have to say that I think it’s one of the greatest things that Americans have to feel proud about , that it was Americans who accomplished flight. And not just Americans, but regular working-class Americans who had no advanced education, little money, and very little help. You can have your military heroes, your sports figures, your Hollywood celebrities and your distinguished statesmen. I’ll take the Wright Brothers as my heroes any day.