Orville and Wilbur Wright, the founding fathers of flight.
"Neither could have mastered the problem alone. As inseparable as twins, they are indispensable to each other. (Howard 1)" Some have called mans creation of heavier than air flight a miracle. It almost was. It was merely by extreme chance that two men with just the right amounts mechanical know-how, aerodynamic logic, and creativity would join together to create the worlds first heavier than air flying machine. (Combs 23) It would almost seem that Wilbur and Orville Wright were destined for greatness the very first time that they saw a toy helicopter whiz into the air with the greatest of ease. The Wright Brothers fully realized the dream of flight only because they were the first to successfully combine the scientific methods of the past with the creative vision of the future.
The uniqueness of the Wright brothers was obviously a direct result of their parents uniqueness. The boys father, Milton Wright, was the son of Dan Wright, a farmer that lived with his wife in a log cabin in Indiana. Milton was born in 1828. By the time he was eighteen, Milton got religion like his father. He was ordained at the age of 22. Milton would turn out to be an excellent father, who was both stern and nurturing. In 1859, he married Susan Catherine Koerner, the daughter of a German-born wheelwright. Like Milton, Susan was unique. With her mechanical skills and scientific knowledge, she was an extraordinarily unique woman for her time. For the first 25 years of their marriage, they moved from town to town. Milton Wright was made a bishop in 1878. Wilbur and Orville had two brothers named Reuchlin and Lorin and one sister named Katharine. (Howard 4) Wilbur, the third son, was born on a small farm near Millville, Indiana on April 16, 1867. Orville was born four years later in Dayton, Ohio. (Bradshaw Web) Because of their fathers occupation, the family was often moving around. When Milton was made a bishop in 1878, the family moved from Dayton to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Then, in 1881, the family moved again to Richmond, Indiana. Finally, in 1884, the family moved back to Dayton, Ohio into the cramped house that they had been renting out for the six years of their absence.
The Wright children lived in a very stimulating household. There was much encouragement for the children to learn and explore, and both parents were very loving. As Orville Wright said, "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. (Bradshaw Web)" Susan and Milton Wright nurtured their childrens creativity and created an environment that was well suited for learning. The house in Dayton in which Orville and Wilbur spent the majority of their childhood had two libraries. The upstairs library was located in the Bishops study. Although it was a bit cramped, it contained many books on theology. The downstairs library was much more fashionable and contained more eclectic works. (Howard 6) The Wright Brothers had always been interested in tinkering with things. They had an "ingrained curiosity about the way things work". (Moolman 107) This trait of theirs was most definitely reassured in the Wright household. Both of their parents always encouraged the children to experiment with things that they did not understand. For instance, in a letter to his father, who was away at the time, Orville once wrote, "The other day I took a machine can and filled it with water then I put it on the stove I waited a little while and water came squirting out the top about a foot. (Howard 5)" This shows that, even from a young age, the Wright children had the fire of curiosity burning within them.
The most important aspects of the environment in which Wilbur and Orville grew up were their parents. In this aspect, at least, the Wright household was definitely unique. Their mother, Susan Koerner Wright, was a huge influence on the two boys. Not only was she a wonderful mother, but she broke through many of the sexual stereotypes of the time. Unlike most women then, she had wonderful mechanical abilities. These she inherited from her father. Susan Wright also did many jobs that were traditionally reserved for men, such as fixing things around the house and making sleds for the children. But what would prove to possibly be the most important skill that Susan passed on to her children was her strong grasp of the basic principles of physics. So she was indeed a rare woman from her time. (Combs 27)
The Wright father, as well, was especially good at engaging children. Although his household was fairly strict in an intellectual sort of way: card playing was forbidden as a waste of time and Santa Claus was outlawed, Milton Wright was a very kind, loving father. Because he was a Bishop, he would often go on trips. Many times, he would return with gifts to engage the children. One day, when he was returning from a trip into the hinterland, Milton brought with him a special gift for Orville and Wilbur. Before the brothers had a chance to see what the gift was, it whizzed up towards the ceiling and hovered there. They watched with awe and amazement as it slowly descended towards the floor. It was a toy helicopter. The two boys were absolutely fascinated by it and began thinking about how a larger version of the flying machine could be constructed. Their life long love affair with flight had begun. This was the kind of challenge and inspiration that Milton Wright brought to his children. (Howard 5) Wilbur and Orville were, as they later realized, incredibly lucky to have been raised in a household run by a man like their father. (Combs 28) He gave them all of the qualities that they would require later in life and opened their minds to limitless possibilities.
Ironically, with all that the Wright Brothers accomplished later in life, neither of them ever graduated from high school. In fact, formal education was a never a huge part in either of their lives. Of the two, Wilbur definitely cared more for school than Orville. Wilbur was an excellent student and excelled in all areas. Unfortunately, though, when the Wright family back to Dayton in 1884, they did so the same month that Wilbur was supposed to graduate from high school. So Wilbur never got his high school diploma. The next school year, Wilbur immersed himself in his studies, taking Greek and Trigonometry. Unlike his brother, Orville was merely an average student and was known in particular for being mischievous. (Henry Ford Museum Web) Although during his senior year, Orville had studied Latin specifically to get into college, by the end of the year, he had abandoned all thought of going to college. (Howard 8) He then started his own printing business. This soon came to a halt, and Orville returned to his studies. But, once again, he soon became incredibly bored with this and returned to doing printing full time. (Moolman 109)
In the partnership of the Wright Brothers, possibly the greatest miracle of all was the fact that Wilbur and Orville were able to cooperate so well that they could function as one person with all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses. (Combs 24) This was not only because they were brothers, but also because their characters fit perfectly together. They had what could almost be described as a "psychic bond". (Howard 10) In addition to their parents teachings, the Wright Brothers characters were also shaped very much by the important events that happened in their lives.
When Wilbur was nineteen years old, he and some friends were playing a game on skates on an artificial lake. A bat accidentally flew out of one of his friends hands and hit Wilbur in the face, knocking him down. At the time, it didnt seem to do much damage, but later, he began to be affected by heart palpitations. Wilbur had a "vaguely-defined heart disorder." This kept him from going to Yale as he had wished. Instead, he had to spend most of the next several years homebound helping take care of his mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. (Bradshaw Web) This strongly affected the rest of his life. It changed both his physical well being, and his outlook on life. Wilbur Wright always had a very serious attitude towards things. He always showed a face of "hawk-like determination". (Combs 25) This was probably the aspect of his personality that most clashed with Orvilles. But the differences of the two brothers are what made them such a great team.
One of the great passions in Orvilles life was printing. He was fascinated with it every since he first began experimenting with woodcut illustrations. When the family was living in Richmond, Orville saw an issue of Century Magazine that contained some woodcuts, and was inspired to make some of his own. That Christmas, Wilbur gave him some engraving tools. They used their fathers letterpress to print the resulting woodcuts and Orville was hooked. That experience gave Orville a love for printing that would stay with him his entire life. When the family moved back to Dayton, Ohio, Orville was twelve. He rekindled an old friendship with a boy his own age named Ed Sines. He found Ed a more suitable companion that Wilbur, who was seventeen at the time. Another reason for the friendship was Eds ownership of a toy printing set with movable rubber type and an inkpad. Orville and Ed began doing printing projects together. The first project they did was a four-page magazine called The Midget. Orvilles father put a stop to The Midget because of his disapproval of using an entire page for what was essentially just an ad. After that, Orville built his own printing press using a gravestone as a press bed. They received enough orders from patronizing storekeepers to occupy them. Orville then decided that he wanted to start his own newspaper called The Westside News, which after lasting for a little more than a year collapsed because of competition from the major newspapers of Dayton. Orville did, however continue working at a print shop part-time. Through out the years, Orville became an expert typesetter, and, with Wilburs help, he eventually constructed an even larger printing press than the one he had built before. During his senior year of high school, Orville decided to open his own print shop instead of going to college. He hired his friend Ed Sines to work there. (Howard 6-8) All of these experiences molded Orvilles personality. Although to strangers, he showed a stern, serious façade, to people that knew him it was obvious that this was only a tool he used to serve his purposes. He was really a warm, caring, inquisitive person who was known for his occasional pranks. (Combs 25-28)
Wilbur and Orville could never have accomplished what they did without a lot of help along the way. Most of this help came in the form of inspiration. There were many people that influenced the Wright brothers, and all of these influences were completely necessary to their accomplishments. When they were young, the boys generally looked to their mother for mechanical expertise. (Henry Ford Museum Web) It is often said that they inherited their mechanical abilities from their Grandfather through their mother. And this is most likely the case, as their mother was a very smart woman and definitely had a "way with tools." (Howard 5) They generally looked to their father for intellectual stimulus. (Henry Ford Museum Web) In this he came through wonderfully, providing the young Wrights with both creative inspiration and mental challenge.
Another source of inspiration for the Wright Brothers was "cycling". The premier of the "safety bicycle" hit America big. In the 1890s, "cycling" became one of the most popular forms of personal transportation in America. Before "safety bicycles," the only type of bicycle that was manufactured was the old kind with one large wheel and one small wheel. The new, "safety bicycle" used two wheels of equal size, meaning there was less of a distance to fall if you fell off the bicycle. Hence the term "safety bicycle." (Howard 9) This new bicycle was such a huge improvement over its predecessor that it immediately appealed to the Wrights. And with their mechanical inclination and inquisitive nature, they quickly became interested in the "safety bicycle" as a business opportunity as well as a recreational activity. The bicycle ended up being one of the main sources of engineering inspiration for their airplane, although at first, they didnt see it. In fact, at first, the two brothers failed to connect many things. Such as experiments with balancing and bicycling and toy helicopters and flight. And, most importantly of all, they failed to consider the fact that they, themselves, might actually have the skills it would take to build the worlds first flying machine. (Moolman 110)
Man made inventions werent the only source of inspiration for the Wright Brothers. Just as the earliest "tower jumpers" envied the creatures of the sky, so too did the Wright Brothers gain much of their inspiration from nature. This feeling of awe is perhaps best expressed by Wilbur Wright himself. "The desire to fly, is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times looked enviously at the birds soaring freely through space, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air. (Moolman 17)"
Another vital aspect of the Wright Brothers success was the setting in which they lived. At that time, many people were very excited about the prospect of flying, and, although most still scoffed at the idea of a so-called "flying machine," those who were working to accomplish the impossible were very vehement about the inevitable outcome. It could be felt in the atmosphere of every conversation about flight. The age of flight was nearing, and, even though most people would never admit it out loud, almost everyone believed that powered flight was on the horizon. It was into this atmosphere of anxious participation that the Wright Brothers stepped when they first decided to leave their mark on the world of aviation.
As well as having an insatiable appetite for all things new and different, society at the time was developing a real need for heavier-than-air flight. The public wanted to be amused by the wonder of a flying machine, the military wanted to have a weapon that could traverse the sky, and everyone wanted to accomplish the dream that had haunted mankind for an eternityflight. Many different parts of society would stand to benefit much from the invention of the airplane. Ironically, though, at a time when humans were closer than ever to the dream of flight, and when the spirit of creativity and scientific advancement was growing rapidly, popular belief in the plausibility of air travel was actually declining. Echoing these sentiments exactly were the words of H. G. Wells, a normally fanciful and prophetic visionary, who said that a successful airplane will have safely soared and returned home, "long before the year 2000, probably before 1950. (Howard 68)" This mindset was repeated, as well, to a more severe extent when Simon Newcomb, the head of the Nautical Almanac office of the Naval Observatory in Washington, prophesied that the first airplane would be made by a watchmaker and would be able to carry nothing heavier than an insect. He later revised this statement, saying, "It may carry two or three buttons, but will not carry more than four. (Howard 68)" Perhaps it was because the dream of flight was so near that it seemed so far away. But all of this negative sentiment actually helped encourage those who were working to overcome the challenge. The Wright Brothers and others were, in fact, more motivated because of their desire to prove their pundits wrong. In a way, the publics attitude toward flight, however negative may have been, for the sheer reason that it showed the publics interest in the subject, whether or not they believed it possible, was a form of inspiration to the Wright Brothers and all those who strove to fly.
Another factor that drove the Wrights was their competition. Especially as they got closer and closer to their first flight, time became of more and more importance as they realized that if they did not achieve flight first, much of their hard work would be forgotten. The Wright Brothers main source of competition was that from a man named Dr. Samuel Langley. Langley was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and, there fore, had many more resources available to him than the Wright Brothers. He also had a fifty-thousand-dollar grant with which to develop his flying machine. (Moolman 133) It is then doubly Ironic that he was beaten by two brothers alone. They had no association, no fifty-thousand-dollar grant, no connections, and no resources, yet they still beat everyone else to become the first to fly. (Whalley Web) This is part of made the Wright Brothers accomplishments so amazing. Aside from Langley, the Wrights had no serious competition, although they did have quite a few imitators. This was made especially easy by the fact that the Wright Brothers never made a point of keeping what they did secret. Because of this, many of the finer details of their glider experiments found their way into the Aeronautical community. But, as many soon discovered, information is relatively useless without the knowledge to back it up. One Frenchman, for instance, named Ferdinand Ferber, made what could be considered an exact copy of the Wright Brothers except for the fact that Ferdinands was designed much more hastily and built much more cheaply. In fact, there were entire parts of the design which Ferdinand ignorantly discarded. Needless to say, his airplane failed miserably. When Langley failed to succeed for the second time on December 8, 1903, the Wrights realized that they were alone in the race for heavier-than-air flight. (Moolman 139-149) For, aside from Langley and his team, no one could compete with the grouping of science and vision that the Wright Brothers represented. In fact, it would later be shown that even Langleys designs were far too impractical too have ever flown. (Moolman 138) So, even though there appeared to be no competition, it was that very thing that helped drive the Wright Brothers to accomplish what they did. Just knowing that there are many others out there trying to do the same thing that you are but bigger and better.
In the end, the reason that the Wright Brothers accomplished what they did is that they looked at the problem through a scientific point of view and substantiated their beliefs with extensive testing. They single-handedly developed all of the basic principles of flight which are still in use today. Not only that, but in the process, they gathered more data on aviation and aerodynamics than had been compiled in the history of mankind. How did they do all of this? They did it through science. (Whalley Web)
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