The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur & Orville Wright
240 pp., 22.00
To Conquer the Air : The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight
Free Press, 2003
448 pp., 28.00
First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane
T. A. Heppenheimer
400 pp., 30.00
The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes in Pictures
Owen Findsen; Walt Burton
Harry N. Abrams, 2003
240 pp., 37.50
Albert Louis Zambone
The Wright Brothers and the World they made
The wind is a physical presence on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is a shaping force, bending trees into gentle yet permanent curves, inexorably moving sand dunes into ever-greater heaps, and bringing the surf closer each year to both summer mini-mansions and trailer parks. Above the great sand-dune optimistically called Kill Devil Hill, a vast truncated Art Deco obelisk resists that steady wind—a power so formidable that when construction began on the obelisk in 1927, the hill had already moved a third of a mile since the Wright Brothers began to experiment with gliders on its slopes in the autumn of 1901.
In 1900, Wilbur Wright, with the intimidating meticulousness that he and his brother Orville brought to every task that confronted them, found in a chart of wind tables that the weather station at Kill Devil Hill had the steadiest continual winds of any station in the eastern United States. He and Orville decided that this remote section of the North Carolina coast was the perfect spot to perform the glider experiments which they confidently believed would lead to the first powered flight in human history.
The result is, on all levels, one of the great American stories. It combines populism, entrepreneurship, sports, Christianity, the march of progress, mechanical tinkering, France, moralizing, technology, and lawsuits. As a bonus, the story concludes with the complete reshaping of the world, both physically and mentally.
Of the many books being released in this centennial year to mark the Wright Brothers' achievement, the one that best captures this wonderful all-American chili of a story is James Tobin's To Conquer the Air. T.A. Heppenheimer is an experienced aviation writer who tells the technical side of the story with meticulous care, but his account lacks Tobin's historical perspective and literary verve. On the far end of the spectrum is Noah Adams' The Flyers, subtitled "In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright," a gooey, self-indulgent search for contemporary meaning that leaves the reader in the dark about what the Wright Brothers actually achieved and how they did it.
For it should be surprising that they achieved anything at all. You can easily play the story of the Wrights as a movie in which nothing particular happens. Counterfactual history typically works to make things more interesting; what would happen if, say, the Germans had successfully invaded Britain in 1940, or if Napoleon had not sold Louisiana to the United States. But it would be just as helpful to postulate interesting things not happening, in order to appreciate more fully the strangeness of what actually happened.
Thus if we imagine the Wright Brothers without the airplane, we get a rather stodgy story, hardly the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay, save in some alternate universe where the lives of unassuming people are assiduously chronicled. A happy childhood in the American Midwest is followed by a peaceful adolescence. Wilbur, following an injury while playing a particularly insane variant of ice hockey on an Ohio pond, decides not to go to Yale for a theological education that would lead him to follow his father Milton into the ministry. He remains at home and nurses his mother in the illness that ends in her death. Orville, the youngest brother of the family, tinkers with printing presses and anything else mechanical. Both brothers remain unwed, as does their sister Katharine. Both Wilbur and Orville take up the new hobby of bicycling, the craze of the 1890s. They are not only enthusiasts but also entrepreneurs, who open a bicycle shop; and they are clever mechanics, who are soon designing and manufacturing their own bicycle models. Schwinn eventually buys out the Wrights early in the 1910s; they live happily and quietly on the proceeds, fiddling with bike models in a very long early retirement. They die the grand old men of Dayton, Ohio, their early bicycle models proudly displayed in the museum of the Dayton Historical Society. No one other than three or four local history buffs knows much of anything about them.
Of course this is not the way things happened; but it shows why the Wrights' story requires a great deal of explanation.
If, as the novelist Robertson Davies once insisted, the prerequisite of greatness is an unhappy childhood, then Wilbur and Orville Wright were not great. For their family life seems to have been warm and cozy to an almost unbelievable degree, even by the standards of modern child nurture.
Their father, Milton Wright, was a stalwart preacher in the Church of the Brethren. Milton became active in the politics of the church during the 1850s, at a time when fears of secret societies, in particular the Masons, were so strong that an Anti-Masonic Party participated in the presidential election of 1856. Following the Civil War this became a non-issue, as returning veterans joined the Masons or formed their own societies for convivial fellowship. Yet Milton persisted in his anti-Masonic politics and insisted that the Church of the Brethren do the same. For Milton, the Masons and other secret societies were sinister mimics of Christianity itself, as well as being exclusivist and secretive—and therefore a danger to America as well as to Protestant Christianity.
Thus began a series of battles that Milton Wright fought within his denomination over a period of nearly 40 years. Eventually the focus of controversy moved away from toleration of secret societies to revision of the church's creed. Milton, leading the ever-dwindling Radical wing of the Brethren against the growing Liberal party, led a walkout from the 1889 convention as his wife lay terminally ill at home. As soon as they could, his three children participated in Milton's controversies, assisting him in letter-writing, in pamphleteering, and in constant assessments of the political climate of the denomination conducted in their voluminous correspondence. Orville's early interest in printing was assisted by their father's perpetual need to pamphleteer, and Milton was eventually joined in the labors of polemical literature by Wilbur (who in the summer of 1902 was engaged in the rather diverse activities of selling bicycles, constructing a glider, working on aerodynamic calculations, and writing a tract against the opponents of his father in the United Brethren who sought Milton's expulsion).
Their parents would sometimes keep them from school so that they could read and study on their own, and be intellectually creative in the way that they wanted. It is indicative of the environment in the Wright home that the children were punished not by spanking but by being confined to a downstairs closet that had a window for light and shelves of books to read. From their mother, the daughter of a carriage maker, they learned to tinker and to build. Eventually they and their sister Katharine attended Dayton Central High. But it was only Katharine who received a high school diploma, and only Katharine who went on to college. Orville interested Wilbur in participating in the printing business that he had established. It produced a weekly advertising newspaper, and continued (after failing to succeed as a daily) as a general print shop, which was moving toward becoming a publishing house of Milton's party within the United Brethren, when, at the princely sum of $160 (Milton Wright had spent $1,800 dollars on the modest home in which the family lived), Orville bought a bike.
It is not too surprising that Orville, always the more fashion-conscious of the two brothers, was the one who first became involved in the vogue for bicycling. Nor is it surprising that Wilbur bought a used bike at an auction; or surprising that their mechanical ingenuity, honed by their experiments in printing technology, led them to become both fascinated with the mechanical challenges of bicycle repair and with the financial lure of being the only bike shop in Dayton. (In 1892, when the Wrights opened their shop, just five years after the introduction of the modern bicycle to the United States, there were 1.2 million bicycles manufactured in America.) By 1895 there were 14 competing bicycle shops, but the brothers had progressed to developing and building their own models. This led not merely to a new phase of the bicycle business. As T.A. Heppenheimer writes, it "promised to re-awaken their creativity, in lives that were increasingly routine." To run the machinery of their miniature factory, which included an electric welding set that they had designed, they built a one-cylinder internal combustion engine. With the machinery it powered, they crafted frames that they enameled themselves, and designed new "oil-retaining" hubs to cope with the dust of Ohio country roads. But their frames were always mated with name-brand seats, handlebars, and tires.
For the brothers intuitively understood what many observers of technological innovation, both then and now, fail to grasp: innovation is almost always incremental and system-based. That is, it builds on previous developments, some closely related; it rarely results from a lone genius discovering something mysterious in a beaker. Moreover it is not just one thing but, like the Wrights' bicycles, the combination of many other things, most of which might be wholly derived from someone else. It is the combination that matters. The Wrights' airplane—when they turned their attention to the challenge of flight—was, in a sense, absolutely comprehensible to other engineers working on the problem. But the system they created was unique and ingenious, a hitherto unconsidered combination of elements; rather like mixing a new cocktail, which, as it happens, was another contemporary craze in the 1890s.
Indeed, seen from another perspective, that two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio were the ones to develop the airplane was not as improbable as it first appears. In 1900, Dayton had more patents per capita than any other town in the United States. It had mills and machine shops—and, more important, it had skilled machinists like Charlie Taylor, who would eventually craft a four-cylinder internal combustion engine for the Wrights that produced 12 horsepower, four more than the brothers had required. Taylor had worked on an internal combustion engine only once in his life before building one for Wilbur and Orville.
But of course Dayton was not the place where the inventors of the airplane were supposed to be found. It was Washington where contemporaries expected to find, not only the home of the federal government, but also the chief scientific thinkers of the day. The Wrights began their quest to fly with a letter that Wilbur sent to the Smithsonian Institution politely requesting what information was available on the subject of aerial flight and experimentation. Much of it would prove fallacious when tried in the crucible of the Wrights' experiments. But it was a beginning, and indicative of a cultural and scientific moment when Washington was the center of American scientific and technological investigation. It was the city of the Smithsonian, the Naval Observatory, and the U.S. Geological Survey—federal institutions that were the leaders of scientific pursuits in the generation in which the American research university was just being created. And Washington held a charmed circle of not only a scientific but also a social élite, which created new institutions like the National Geographic Society and dined together at the Cosmos Club. It was a world in which the Wrights had no part, and one from which they would be excluded.
It is impossible to know precisely when, how, or why the two brothers became interested in flight, either gliding or powered. In later years they would recall that their interest in flight began when Wilbur read to Orville, then bedridden with one of the illnesses that seem to be so integral to the life story of the Wrights, of the death of German glider experimenter Otto Lilienthal. Unfortunately the dates of Orville's illness and Lilienthal's death are off by some two years. But Lilienthal was, for the Wrights, the most important of their predecessors. It was his experiments that inspired them, and it was his aerodynamic tables that gave them the beginning of their mathematical appreciation of the difficulties and parameters of powered flight.
The Wrights' vision—particularly Wilbur's—worked in different imaginative spectrums than those of their rivals, something that James Tobin makes abundantly clear. All of Wilbur's great aeronautical contemporaries—Octave Chanute, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and Alexander Graham Bell—watched the birds and yearned to create what they seemed to them to possess, a naturally stabilizing flight. Chanute was obsessed with building an automatically adjusting glider, one that would change its aerodynamic aspect according to the winds and forces bearing upon it. Bell would spend some years in pursuit of a naturally occurring form that would prove to be inherently stable in the air. And Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, gave so little thought to aerial control, he believed it best if his aerodromes—powered by his ingenious engines—flew only in calm air.
But as Wilbur sardonically observed, "the wind usually blows." Wilbur watched birds and did not believe that they had any sort of inherent stability. He instead observed the flicks of the wingtip that made it possible for either a soaring bird like a vulture or a common pigeon to control its mid-glide flight. Moreover, since the Wrights were both bicyclists, they were drawn to the problem of flight control. They were used to a constant compensation against the forces of drag and gravity that sought to overturn the bicyclist at every instant. Naysayers of later years, who could not initially comprehend the nature of the Wright Flyer's stability, would suggest that it occurred because the two brothers were highly skilled gymnasts and acrobats—that the stability they achieved in the air was that of a tightrope walker or a performer on parallel bars. This was of course ludicrous, but it betrayed an essential truth, that the Wrights thought of balance and stability because they were used to thinking about it in bicycling.
They did not conform to the classical American vision of the cranky backyard inventor. There was really nothing of the crank about them, as Wilbur hastened to explain to the Smithsonian when he first wrote for pamphlets on aerodynamics. It was some time before they could believe that they had gone into areas of technical understanding where no one had preceded them. And even when they so believed—for example when they came to the conclusion that Lilienthal's aerodynamic tables were seriously flawed—their own patient and highly innovative experiments with a wind tunnel chastened them to realize that Lilienthal had, in fact, been partially correct. Moreover it was Wilbur's address to the Western Society of Engineers in September of 1901, at the behest of Octave Chanute, that forced the brothers to work through that which they had up until then discovered, and prevented them from abandoning their experiments—led them, indeed, to the wind-tunnel experiments that would allow them in a matter of months to test a hitherto unheard of number of wing designs not through trial and error on the North Carolina coast but through their primitive but highly accurate wind-tunnel instrumentation.
What made the Wrights the first to fly was experimental participation within the scientific tradition. Their wind-tunnel tests, along with their tests in the summer of 1901 of the world's largest glider, made them the preeminent experimenters in the field. Yet, aside from Chanute, hardly anyone had heard of them. Had they wanted, had they accepted for example the $10,000 that Chanute begged them to accept in order to continue with their research full-time, they might have flown earlier. As it was, they continued to work as bicycle manufacturers, determined to remain independent of anyone or any other interest. In that way, at least, they did resemble the fabled American individualist turned inventor—but the resemblance ended there.
Of course on December 17, 1903, they did fly—or, as Orville liked to very carefully but rather ponderously say, it was the first moment "in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started." As Tobin writes, "They had flown, barely. But they were utterly alone in their comprehension of what that really meant."
As concerned as they always were with their legacy, the Wrights were particularly fortunate to make their first flights during the age of snapshot photography. This was extraordinarily important for them because it enabled them to demonstrate achievements that might otherwise not be believed. The Wright Brothers Legacy, a companion volume to an exhibit of the same name at the Dayton Art Institute, shows that the photographs of Wilbur, Orville, and the various models of their Flyers are not of interest only for the historical record (though in that respect they are invaluable). They are profoundly evocative and strangely intimate, expressing the founding moments of our age with a clarity that makes the viewer feel as if he could step into the frame and listen to the brothers talk.
In one photo, the two brothers are flying their 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk as a kite. It is straight over them, so directly above them that it looks as if they are holding it aloft with the wires that they grasp in their hands, holding aloft a translucent assembly of soap bubbles and struts. In another photo, Wilbur and Orville are deep in conversation in 1904, standing by their latest Flyer; Orville seems to be wrapped around a vertical strut as they talk, while Wilbur stands erect. There is a palpable sense of concentration on each other's thoughts, such that the picture illumines—more than many, many words could—the nature of the brothers' relationship.
There are other images in The Wright Brothers Legacy that speak to the hysteria and wonder released by their achievement. The most fascinating are the collections of memorabilia and ephemera from France that celebrated Wilbur's flights of 1908 at Le Mans. For two months Wilbur had worked tirelessly to reassemble a Flyer that had been nearly destroyed by inquisitive customs agents; the French press, anxious to preserve France's reputation as the home of flight since Montgolfier's balloon, began to wonder in print if the American interloper was not a mere bluffeur. Thus Wilbur's first flight, demonstrating not only that they were not bluffing but that they possessed a far superior technology, caused a near hysteria among the French spectators, a hysteria soon translated into a blizzard of postcards celebrating Wilbur and his plane, as well as advertisements that sought to associate their product with the latest and the best of human achievement.
The transportation innovations of the 19th century could be readily conceptualized by referring to something with which observers were familiar. The railroad was a carriage on rails (the first railroad cars actually were carriages). The automobile, born at the century's end, was a horseless carriage.
But the airplane, while it was every bit as much as product of incremental innovation, was truly revolutionary in a way that these earlier innovations in transportation were not. The airplane created a new relationship between man and nature. What some have said of the railroad can genuinely be said of the airplane; there was "nothing like it in the world." Attempts to explain it floundered as its early observers tried to compare it to something that both they and their readers could understand. Reactions to watching a flight for the first time were remarkably similar. A reporter for the Washington Star noted that at Orville's first flight at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908, there was very little reaction from the crowd, just a "faint cheer and scattered clapping of hands." This he thought strange, until he heard one man ask another, "Did you cheer him?" to which the other fellow replied, "Nope, too busy thinking." The same silent shock was reported by other observers, such as those who watched Wilbur in 1909 circle the waist of the Statue of Liberty.
Contemplation was, apparently, the most mild of the reactions the Wrights' Flyer produced in its viewers. There was a feeling of great exultation in the power and the motion of the airplane, in the miraculous possibility of its existence. The first man to publish a serious report on the Wright Flyer, an evangelical Christian beekeeper, entrepreneur, and technological enthusiast by the name of Elihu Root, wrote that the Flyer was "like a locomotive." The Flyer, of course, looked nothing like a locomotive. But as James Tobin writes, "Perhaps Root had in mind not so much the Flyer's actual appearance as the complicated emotional response that it provoked. Like a locomotive, the Flyer was technological power in motion." Root was attempting to relate the motion and power of the locomotive to that of the airplane, and in so doing tracing an emotion common to all those who behold a new technology that alters their imaginative framework.
No other innovation of the 20th century so altered the imaginative framework of culture as did the airplane. Similar claims are often made for the automobile. It is said to have changed our communities, our cities; it has made us fat and lazy. It has led to oil-dependence, to war and rumors of war in the Middle East.
This is all partly true, and to appreciate the distinctive impact of the airplane it is hardly necessary to underestimate the consequences of the ubiquitous car. Still, the comparison fails to do justice to the deeper underlying power of air travel. The great migrations of peoples throughout the world are conducted via the jet, altering age-old patterns of immigration. Globalization, beginning as a trickle with the Portuguese caravel, became a river with the steamship and a flood with the oil-powered freighter. But it is the jet airplane that made it into a tide, into something akin to a natural force.
The airplane and its related technologies probably cannot have the impact upon the human imagination that they did when the Wrights began their first public demonstrations. But flight has as many future possibilities as, say, wheeled transport did after the first tests of steam locomotives. The technologies of flight continue to develop at upper and lower ends of a vast scale. Small companies like Eclipse and Cartercopter experiment with incremental technologies-ultralight jet engines, rotor blades, new safety features for light aircraft—that have the potential to create revolutionary new systems. At the upper end of the scale, vast corporations like Boeing and Lockheed conduct feasibility studies on aircraft so massive they can compete with oceangoing freighters, or experiment with engines that could potentially allow flights from subsonic to high Mach speeds.
But let us leave them there, the two brothers, forever frozen in our memory on that North Carolina beach by a photograph of casual genius that bears witness to their first flight—intent on their purpose, their backs to us, joined together at that moment of triumph, with only the empty horizon ahead of them. There is no more romantic picture of the modern age. Of all the evocations of modernity, it is one of the few that can summon tears of joy. Even after a terrible century, that photograph urges us forward—faster, faster, farther, farther—into a hopeful future. And it stands with almost prophetic judgment above us when we fail. It is a strange legacy, to say the least, for two bachelors from Ohio.
Albert Louis Zambone, a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.