Na­tional Trea­sure: The Wrights’ stuff

A new book ad­vances a con­tro­ver­sial the­ory about the sin­gu­lar con­tri­bu­tion that went into the broth­ers’ first flight

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features - By Wil­liam Hazel­grove

WE BE­LIEVE IN MY THS. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton did cut down a cherry tree. (Never hap­pened.) Ben­jamin Franklin did fly a kite with a key to dis­cover elec­tric­ity. (Not ex­actly.) Wil­bur and Orville Wright, the leg­endary broth­ers, to­gether in­vented manned me­chan­i­cal flight.

To de­con­struct that myth to­day, all we re­ally have to go on are two foun­da­tional sources: the Wil­bur and Orville Wright Pa­pers, housed at the Li­brary of Congress, and the 1903 Flyer, the pro­to­type plane they suc­ceeded in send­ing aloft on that sto­ried morn­ing of De­cem­ber 17. The Flyer it­self, in­clud­ing its pro­pel­ler, re­side in the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum. “All pro­pel­lers built hereto­fore are all wrong,” Wil­bur wrote in a let­ter to fel­low sci­en­tist Oc­tave Chanute in 1903. Af­ter con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments on ma­rine pro­pel­lers and de­vis­ing a kind of wind tun­nel for test­ing, Wil­bur en­vi­sioned cut­ting-edge pro­pel­lers “which are all right!”

When I be­gan re­search for what would be­come my book, Wright Broth­ers, Wrong Story, im­mer­sion in the doc­u­ments led to a new nar­ra­tive, and it coun­ters the defin­ing as­sump­tion: that Orville and Wil­bur jointly pro­duced the Flyer. That makes for the ul­ti­mate team­work epic—but the Wrights’ saga is ac­tu­ally the story of Wil­bur.

The crude pro­pel­ler is, I would ar­gue, wholly the prod­uct of Wil­bur’s vi­sion. To him we owe that first 12 sec­onds of suc­cess­ful pow­ered flight.

Wil­bur may never have ap­plied his ge­nius to aero­nau­tics if it hadn’t been for a ran­dom mis­for­tune. In the win­ter of 1886, Wil­bur, age 17, suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing set­back when his jaw was shat­tered dur­ing a hockey match. Wil­bur’s dream of at­tend­ing Yale was dashed. In­stead, at home in Day­ton, Ohio, he en­dured a gru­el­ing con­va­les­cence and, for three years, se­ri­ous de­pres­sion. It was dur­ing this en­forced in­ac­tiv­ity that Wil­bur alone be­came ob­sessed with fig­ur­ing out the se­cret of manned flight.

In 1896, Wil­bur, on his own, con­tacted the third Sec­re­tary of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, Sa­muel Pier­pont Lan­g­ley, re­quest­ing in­for­ma­tion on hu­man at­tempts at mech­a­nized flight, in­clud­ing “such pa­pers as the Smith­so­nian has pub­lished on this sub­ject, and if pos­si­ble a list of other works in print in the Eng­lish lan­guage.” Lan­g­ley’s as­sis­tant, Richard Rath­bun, obliged by send­ing a “list of books and pam­phlets on avi­a­tion.” Wil­bur alone con­tacted the United States Weather Ser­vice, ask­ing for data on me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions, in­clud­ing wind speed, at lo­ca­tions through­out the United States—in­for­ma­tion that would lead Wil­bur to choose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as the test site. Wil­bur wrote to the Chicago-based aero­nau­ti­cal sci­en­tist Chanute. Their cor­re­spon­dence would pro­duce 500 let­ters and cul­mi­nate in Wil­bur’s break­through think­ing. Wil­bur built the first “kite wing,” a box-shaped wing with two lev­els, and tested that pro­to­type alone in a field near the fam­ily home in Day­ton. Wil­bur then built a glider,

in his work­shop above the broth­ers’ bi­cy­cle re­pair shop, and shipped it to Kitty Hawk. And in the first year of the new cen­tury, Wil­bur headed to this fish­ing vil­lage . . . alone.

On Septem­ber 23, 1900, Wil­bur wrote his fa­ther, Bishop Mil­ton Wright, “I have my ma­chine nearly fin­ished. . . . I do not ex­pect to rise many feet from the ground and in case I am upset there is noth­ing but soft sand to strike on. . . . It is my be­lief that flight is pos­si­ble.”

His fa­ther, in turn, ac­knowl­edged Wil­bur’s lead­ing role. In a let­ter, he ad­mon­ished his son to be mind­ful of safety: “You have so much that no one else can do so well. And alone, Orville would be crip­pled and bur­dened.” Orville would not make his first at­tempt at flight un­til 1902, long af­ter Wil­bur had made hun­dreds of tries.

Orville was Wil­bur’s stu­dent and help­mate. But he was also the keeper of his­tory. The Wright broth­ers’ story was the prod­uct of death, a friend­ship and a bi­og­ra­phy that would set the stage for every fu­ture chron­i­cle. Fred C. Kelly pub­lished The Wright Broth­ers: A Bi­og­ra­phy Au­tho­rized by Orville Wright in 1943. Wil­bur Wright died in 1912 from ty­phoid fever. Orville would live un­til 1948, the survivor who gave ac­cess to some fam­ily let­ters and doc­u­ments to Kelly, a friend who ad­hered to the dic­tate that Orville must ap­prove every page of the bi­og­ra­phy. The book is ul­ti­mately Orville’s ver­sion of events, which was that the broth­ers de­served equal credit for the in­ven­tion of the air­plane. (In­deed, Orville’s name ap­pears in the bi­og­ra­phy 337 times to Wil­bur’s 267.)

Wil­bur Wright was the man who re­ally in­vented con­trolled flight, though it is nearly hereti­cal to say so. Orville, though a gifted me­chanic, never had the ge­nius to make the leap from the­ory to ap­pli­ca­tion.

The broth­ers took turns pi­lot­ing the air­craft at Kitty Hawk that month, and a coin toss de­ter­mined who would be at the con­trols on the morn­ing the plane first suc­cess­fully lifted off: Orville, his his­toric tri­umph im­mor­tal­ized by a box cam­era.

Wil­bur pos­sessed the imag­i­na­tive in­tu­ition that trans­formed a crude wooden pro­pel­ler into an in­stru­ment that vaulted hu­mans into a new era. That is the dif­fer­ence between the poet and the scribe. And that is all the dif­fer­ence in the world.


Pho­to­graph by Eric Long

The breakthrough pro­pel­ler, its blades shaped by hatchet and drawknife from two-ply spruce, was sheathed in linen and sealed with alu­minum pow­der mixed into a heavyvar­nish.

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