Why Wilbur Mattered

The Indispensables

Two Wrights made the airplane. But they were driven by Wil.

Remembering the death of Wilbur Wright, 100 years ago this week.

Story and art by Mark Martel

At rare intervals a few truly indispensable individuals take us where no one had gone before. A century back in Dayton it was Kettering, Patterson, Deeds, and a few others who achieved big. Of those, the rarest avis was Wilbur Wright, his success cut short just as he achieved it.

Boss Kett gave us unleaded gas, diesels and the keys to the road. Crazy Patterson created the very model of the modern major corporation. Wilbur and Orville taught us to fly.

Always we’re told about the Brothers plural, as if they were clones. But Wilbur and Orville Wright were as different as the two founders of Apple Computer.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computers in a garage with modest savings and not much college under their belts. Woz focused on the technical innards while Jobs had the vision, bridged the gap with the business world, protected their innovations and put on killer demos.

That’s similar to Orville and Wilbur, except that Wilbur did his bit like a Buster Keaton silent movie, rarely opening his mouth in public while performing heart-stopping flights.

Wilbur hadn’t always been tight-lipped. Father Milton Wright made his boys argue topics at the dinner table like a couple of trial lawyers, then switch sides and argue the reverse positions. That was Milton, the bishop who sued his own church God knows how often. Mother Susan taught her sons to tinker and fix things.

The result was a creative duo that could tackle technical problems by arguing through the roadblocks. “Tis too!” “Tisn’t either!” The air got so hot at times those around them feared violence, but the brotherly bond let them focus their dissent on the problem, not each other.

Wilbur was born in 1867 in Indiana and missed graduating high school when the family moved to Dayton during his senior year. He had been accepted to attend Yale University when one winter day a fateful hockey puck smashed his front teeth and his college dreams. Feeling his health too compromised to pursue a degree, Wilbur withdrew and cared for his invalid mother until she died three years later. Orville was building a printing press of his own design, and the project drew Wilbur out of his funk as they created a business. Then in 1892 they spotted a new tech craze: bicycles.

Like the Internet boom 100 years later, the new “safety” bikes provided radical new access to the world for people, especially women. Selling bikes didn’t seem to improve the brothers’ dating prospects. They remained single all their lives. Still, the bicycle shop did earn enough to finance their next enthusiasm, flying. But first death loomed anew.

In 1896 Wil and Orv had been avidly reading of Otto Lilienthal in Germany, the world’s leading glider designer and flyer. Then in August, Orville came down with deadly typhoid fever, and spent six weeks bedridden. When Wilbur read of Lilienthal’s death in a crash he kept the bad news silent until Orville recovered. Meanwhile it lit a spark. Wilbur was 29; life expectancy then was 45. How would he be remembered?

Wilbur started reading about flight. By 1899 he was writing to leaders in the field about “my” plans. One letter started, “for some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” Orville soon joined in the project. But Wilbur took the lead, then and later.

The brothers together solved the many problems of building a practical airplane. Probably neither could have pinpointed afterwards who did which parts of the work. But there were general differences. Wilbur could visualize a problem and turn it over in his mind.  Orville was a whiz at mechanical tinkering, and an athlete, winning bike races. Both had the tough, wiry build that would suit them to the hard physical work on the ground and piloting in the air.

Wilbur traveled first to North Carolina to test their glider. He did all the flying at first. Again, Orville followed his older brother and racked up his own glides to become equally skilled. Wilbur lost the coin toss that fateful day in December 1903, and Orville made the first official powered flight.

When the brothers returned to Dayton the flights got longer, higher and deadlier at Huffman Prairie. No longer flying low over soft sand, they learned to turn, climb, and stretch their flights to 40 seconds…five minutes…by the end of 1905, 38 minutes. They had mastered practical flight with just cuts and bruises.

Plenty of other accounts detail how the Wrights invented flight. Suffice it to say that Wilbur and Orville solved a half-dozen major problems, including developing 3-axis control, researching the best wing shape, developing a light, minimal engine, designing the first efficient propeller, and conducting a safe development process until they had a truly practical airplane. Only they seemed to truly realize that flight occurred in 3D, and they thought outside the cube.

Another way to slice it: Aviation Trail saluted 4 main Wright accomplishments: the first powered flight, the concept of wing warping and perfecting the wing’s shape, building the first aircraft factory, and creating the first permanent air field at Huffman Prairie, which trained 119 pilots.

Once practical flight had been hammered out, Wilbur pursued their patent rights and attempted to sell their plane. After months and years of official disbelief the Wrights won contracts with both the US Army and a French syndicate. Both deals required public flights thousands of miles apart. Too much delay would let competitors catch up, so the brothers gambled and split up.

In 1908 Wilbur went to France. He faced barriers of language, suspicion and his own reticence. The Europeans, convinced the bicycle mechanics were fakes, were astounded when he took to the air. Soon huge crowds and royalty were showing up. He was suddenly, wildly famous. Every personal detail was analyzed, such as the press could get hold of from the reticent inventor—his plain clothes and cap, frugal living arrangements, nose to the grindstone attitude.

Prodded by reporters he said he “did not have time for both a wife and an airplane.” Toasted repeatedly, he avoided speechmaking by saying, “I know of only one bird—the parrot—that talks; and it can’t fly very high.”

The pressure was intense to attend every social invitation, interview and honorary dinner. Instead Wil kept his head down, mouth shut and took meticulous care of the craft —refusing to fly when conditions weren’t right, despite frustrating the crowds and VIPs.

A month later Orville made similar headlines flying before the US Army. The shyer brother was battered even worse by the sudden publicity. That may have contributed to the nasty crash that seriously injured him and killed his passenger. But within the year Orv returned to the air and won the contract.

The brothers ended their public demos in 1909 after Wilbur made one spectacular flight down the Hudson River, past New York City and around the Statue of Liberty. Together, a million people witnessed their first flight.

Now famous as the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville tried to dodge a triumphal homecoming to Dayton, but failed. A parade and grand celebration at the fairgrounds let everyone bask in the glory.

The brothers were world famous and soon rich, winning $30,000 from the Army contract, worth nearly $700,000 today.  By 1910 the Wright Company, with Wilbur at the head, was churning out Model B airplanes for $5000 a pop. A flying school was started, then an exhibition team. They planned a mansion in Oakwood. And Wilbur came to a fateful decision.

Steve Jobs was always obsessed by design, his eye constantly on the future. The Apple II pioneered personal computing and the first Macintosh introduced the graphical interface to the masses. Apple became an instant success before Jobs’ ouster in 1985. He had changed the world, made a bundle and was then “freed” for his most creative period founding Next Computers, Pixar, etc.

By contrast, Wilbur sacrificed the Wright lead in design to pursue patent infringements. To avoid jeopardizing their patent, the brothers resisted a newer, safer design that put the engine up front and protected the pilot in case of a crash. Such single-mindedness proved Wilbur’s fatal flaw, and it tarnished their public reputation as greedy moneygrubbers who spurned the “open source” approach. But the Wrights had spent years and risked their lives to perfect flight, and felt it unjust that others could use their work without payment. The most aggravating example was Glen Curtis, a motorcycle racer who at first sold engines to the Wrights, and later built near knock-offs of the Wright design.

From 1910 onward, Wilbur crisscrossed the country with his lawyers. The road took its toll. Then in April 1912 came that fateful bowl of Boston chowder, or whatever gave him typhoid fever. He limped home ill, then hovered for weeks before succumbing at age 45.

Dayton mourned Wilbur’s death on May 30, 1912. Their native son, who found fame overseas, was given a final procession up 5th Street before 25,000 people. The entire city held a collective wake as businesses closed, telephone exchanges were silenced and streetcars froze, all to the sound of church bells. “A short life, full of consequences,” Wilbur’s father wrote.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “there are no second acts on American lives.” Steve Jobs was the rare exception, achieving more after his return to Apple. Had Wilbur Wright survived, what encore might he have achieved?

The Wright Company had a brief opportunity to regain the lead in aviation before WWI radically reshaped the airplane. Instead, Orville sold the company and retreated from the limelight. Even so Dayton remained a center for aviation technology. Today you can spot the ironic name of aerospace contractor Curtis-Wright as you drive past Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

We’ll never know how history might have been. But clearly, this Memorial Day is a fitting time to celebrate the loss of Dayton’s most irreplaceable man. In five years we can more happily celebrate the 150th anniversary of his arrival.

Wilbur Wright Remembrances

Aviation Heritage Speaker Series

Peter Jakob of the National Air and Space Museum

May 23, 7 pm at the Engineers Club of Dayton

Going to the Dogs with Wilbur and Orville Wright

May 26, 9 am walk and talk at Huffman Prairie

Dayton Heritage Festival

Patriotic celebration and Philharmonic concert dedicated to Wilbur

May 27, 11 am at Carillon Park

Wilbur Wright Exhibit

May 27-November 2 at Carillon Park

Graveside Memorial Service

June 1 at 3 pm at Woodland Cemetery

107th Anniversary of Practical Flight & Balloon Glow

October 5, 6 pm at Carillon Park

Anniversary of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park

October 20 at 9 am at Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center

What about Orville?

Orville Wright’s lesser achievements after his brother’s passing highlight Wilbur’s part of the duo. In private a genial prankster, he was intensely shy in public. Never married, he proved a devoted uncle.

In 1914 Orville ended the patent fight with Curtis after a minor court victory and sold the Wright Company. Instead he built a private lab and continued to tinker on his own. Orville’s Split-flap patent was years ahead of its time, not appreciated until years later. He also invented toy airplanes that proved popular with kids. He fought the Smithsonian Institution until they gave proper recognition to the Wrights, finally bequeathing a Wright airplane to the museum in 1942. He also served for decades on aviation advisory groups.

Wilbur never saw the Oakwood mansion that became Hawthorn Hill. Orville lived there the rest of his life, alone after father Milton died in 1917 and sister Susan married in 1926. The house contains many of his touches, like a multi-jet shower and built-in vacuum cleaner system.

Orville Wright lived until 1948 to witness the supersonic jet age arrive; just 20 years after his death, men circled the moon. During WWII a reporter ran into him on the street and asked about his legacy. Despite the growth of military aviation in two world wars, Orville felt that the airplane would mainly prove a tool for peace.

Mark Martel is a former local Mad Man from the Dayton ad scene. These days he does illustration and comics for clients across the web. With wife Kate he created DaytonInnovationLegacy.org to chronicle local innovators past and present. 

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