TCS Daily


The Wright Stuff

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 26, 2003 12:00 AM

"Conceived by genius. Achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith."

-- Inscription on the Wright Brothers monument at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Somewhere you've probably seen the old photos. The two men are wearing bowler hats and sack suits and celluloid collars over their carefully knotted ties. They look older than their years, and oh, so conventional.

And the names, for crying out loud. Wilbur and Orville?

Yes, Wilbur and Orville, the inseparable Wright brothers, the bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Oh. We have seen and will be seeing the old photos of them quite a lot as we come to the culmination of this 100th anniversary year of powered flight.

Just about everything that could be learned and said about them and their achievement has been documented and written. Still, somehow, none of it can do justice to the genius of these two men, whose feet were so thoroughly planted on the ground and yet whose sublime combination of the practical and inspirational opened the heavens and changed the world forever.

Perhaps I am not qualified to write a word about this, because I certainly cannot be objective. Years ago, I went to Kitty Hawk, to the site of the first flight. I looked at the reconstructed workroom and the replica of the first plane. I walked the line of the first, second and third flights.

And, unexpectedly, I cried.

Tears kept welling up in my eyes. I was just overwhelmed by the thought of what had happened that cold, windy day, December 17th, 1903.

It has taken a hundred years and it is still sinking in to the minds of scientists and aeronautical engineers and craftsmen just how deep, how original, how prescient was the genius of the Wright brothers.

We now know, for instance, that the seemingly "crude" propellers on the Wright Flyer were the culmination of bold yet meticulous original calculation, inspired design and awesome hand craftsmanship. With their woodworking tools, the brothers transformed their conception into two works of art that pulled the first airplane through the air with an efficiency very close to the best propellers manufactured today.

They achieved this with nothing to go on but their own calculations and hand skills worthy of the most accomplished carpenter or sculptor. In the summer of 1903, before their first flight, Orville had written in a letter, that "we worked out a theory of our own on the subject, and soon discovered, as we usually do, that all the propellers built heretofore are all wrong, and then built a pair of propellers 81/8 ft. in diameter, based on our theory, which are all right!"

They had an unshakeable and, yes, good-humored determination to fly. They had a remarkable humility about what they did not know. But what they did know carried a powerful momentum because it was combined with their sense of the next thing, whether it was a physical principle of aeronautics or an understanding of what the airplane meant. Had the Wright brothers' genius been merely talent they might have been blinded by the sheer sensation of the first thing (their initial achievement) and not even thought of the next.

But, they had the wit and the sense and, as it turned out, the necessarily dogged resolution to move their invention beyond novelty to practicality. It is absolutely amazing now to realize how long it took the world to fathom the importance of their accomplishment. After the initial public excitement over their first flights, the brothers were able to continue their experiments in relative obscurity for several years.

The brothers welcomed this hiatus. They continued to make their airplanes more reliable and maneuverable. They worked to make them fly faster and farther. All the while they were methodical and careful. They could have flown higher, but they stayed close to the ground because, as Wilbur wrote in 1905, "With only one life to spend we did not consider it advisable to attempt to explore mysteries at such great height from the ground that a fall would put an end to our investigations and leave the mystery unsolved."

They never made grandiose claims. Once, describing the latest of their early machines, they noted simply that "It not only flies through the air at high speed, but it also lands without being wrecked."

When they had finished their first flights that cold, windy December day, the brothers dispatched a telegram to their father and hurried to get back to Dayton in time for the family Christmas they so enjoyed. "We at once packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last."

They were seldom discouraged and never deterred in the unexpectedly hard business of "selling" their invention to the world. They understood that a new age lay ahead. Balloonists might have already journeyed to the province of the sky, but the Wright's machine would conquer it. A journey would become a trip. People would pay more attention to time zones. The medicine would get to Los Angeles that day. Men would look at the moon and say, "Why not?"

All the dreams of DaVinci, the experiments of George Cayley, the anticipatory designs of Felix Du Temple, the gliding flights of Otto Lillienthal, the attentions paid to Langley and Santos-Dumont, were finally synthesized in the work of these two brothers who had toiled and played and thought as one since their early days in the bosom of a happy, loving American middle class family.

They were truly "inspired mechanics," whose exceptional minds were mated to the eyes and hands of superb craftsmen. They could make anything they needed, whether it was a building to work in, an engine to power a plane, or the plane itself. And they did it with their own hard-earned funds -- not a cent from the government or from investors or from family.

They were parted too soon by death (Wilbur's, of typhoid fever, in 1912) and Orville had to fight the rest of his life to secure their fame against false claimants and peel away the myths that grew about their early accomplishments.

Orville suffered a heart attack in October 1947. He died January 30, 1948 following a second heart attack. Only 45 years had passed since he and his brother had ushered in the age of flight. As his coffin was carried to the grave in Dayton's Woodland Cemetery, where his beloved brother lay, an unfamiliar sound filled the air above the mourners. The jet age was in its infancy and a formation of sparkling new jet fighters roared low over the cemetery in tribute to the man who had written in a letter some months before the brothers' first flight:

"Isn't it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them."

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