[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]
At first, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and their sister Katharine, fascinated the Europeans. They were so modest and unassuming, so businesslike, so down-to-earth, so willing and able to deal with workmen and with kings (literally) in an equally friendly but dignified manner. They seemed the very personification of the best of America’s supposedly classless society. Later, when patent infringement suits seemed to threaten the development of the airplane industry, they came to personify another aspect of America, a less attractive side. Yet the Wrights hadn’t changed. Circumstances had brought out a different aspect of their collective character.
It was an attractive partnership. Wilbur and his five-year-younger brother Orville played together as boys, tinkered together as teens, went into the bicycle assembly and repair business together as young men, and together solved the problem of flight by heavier-than-air machine. Together they wrestled with the intellectual and practical problems that had to be overcome – problems that had defeated everyone else from the beginning of time – and together they conquered them, one by one. After Wilbur died in 1912, age 45, Orville lived another three dozen years, but never made another significant contribution to aviation theory or practice. Their life’s work was done together, first to last.
Everybody knows the elements of the story, and those who don’t can Google The Wright Brothers. (Those who live in southwestern Ohio can go visit the Wright Museum in Dayton! In North Carolina, the museum is of course at Kitty Hawk.)
Wilbur was fascinated by the problem of flight; he set out to learn what was being done, hoping to make a contribution to the field. Concentrating not on powerful engines to force a machine into the air but on a reliable method of controlling the machine once it was there, he and Orville developed a method of three-axis control that made fixed-wing flight possible. They tested and developed different wing structures and propeller shapes, and in three years came up with an efficient glider that would carry a man and let him control it. Then they (and their friend and bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor) built their own gasoline engine to power it! The first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flights took place, as all the world knows, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.
But, to paraphrase Churchill, that was not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but more like the end of the beginning. They had a machine that flew. Now they had to patent their control system, and had to develop the airplane, and had to teach themselves how to fly, and had to keep it secret (to avoid patent infringers) while doing all that. And then, if they were going to make a success of all their years of work, they were going to have to sell it.
You wouldn’t think that would be difficult, but it was, because all the government agencies they approached – first the American, then the British and French – were wary of looking ridiculous. The United States government had helped finance Samuel Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and his machine had been an expensive and very public failure. But finally the brothers won contracts from both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate representing the French government. The contracts depended on successful public flights meeting certain conditions, which meant that one brother had to be demonstrating in Europe while the other was demonstrating in America. Wilbur went to France.
On August 8, 1908 at a race track near the town of Le Mans, Wilbur made his first flight. It was only one minute 45 seconds long, but he made banking turns and flew a circle, and, on later flights, flew figure-eights, all of which was well beyond the capability of any other machine in the world. The other machines being developed were not really capable of controlled flight. At best, they could hop.
Wilbur’s triumph was complete, and was rendered particularly dramatic because, during the weeks he had been assembling his airplane, newspapers were calling him a “bluffeur,” adapting the American word. But his skillful piloting and his ingenious and effective flying machine silenced all criticism. Indeed, the very people who had been loudest in their derision fell all over themselves apologizing. The impossible had been accomplished, and they had seen it. And the field where Wilbur was flying became a Mecca for thousands of spectators.
In one flight, Wilbur had made “the Wright Brothers” world famous. Then, the following month, Orville demonstrated another Wright Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. His first flight was on September 3, 1908. Six days later, he made a flight of 62 minutes and 15 seconds, demonstrating that the new machine was not a toy but a useful piece of equipment that could be used – it was thought at the time — for scouting. It would be only half a dozen years before the new machines were being fitted with bombs and machine guns, but, in these final years of Europe’s sanity, that tragedy was yet undreamed of.
And, speaking of tragedy, on September 17, in Virginia, aviation suffered its first casualty, as Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge riding with Orville as passenger (in his role as official observer) was killed in a crash that put Orville in the hospital with a broken leg and four broken ribs and (unsuspected and thus untreated for years) with three hip bone fractures and a dislocated hip. He was hospitalized for seven weeks. Katharine rushed from Dayton to be with him, probably not dreaming that this was the end of her career as school teacher and the beginning of another, quite unprecedented career as hostess/secretary for her brothers.
Wilbur spent the next few weeks setting new records for altitude and duration, observed by – among so many others — the kings of England, Spain and Italy. When, in January 1909, Orville and Katharine joined him in France, they charmed all Europe. From Pau, in the south of France, Wilbur continued his demonstration flights, trained two French pilots, and transferred the airplane to the French company. In April he did the same in Italy, giving demonstrations and training more pilots. By the time they headed back to the States, they were as beloved as they were famous.
But then the patent wars began. It’s a dismal story that arguably cut Wilbur’s life short. The brothers, having made flight possible for the world, logically enough thought that others should not profit from their pioneering work without paying them royalties. But Glenn Curtiss, for one, refused to pay license fees to the Wrights and sold an aircraft equipped with ailerons to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, beginning a years-long legal conflict. They also sued foreign aviators who flew at U.S. exhibitions, including the leading French aviator Louis Paulhan. European companies which bought foreign patents the Wrights had received sued other manufacturers in their countries, and the lawsuits dragged on until the patent expired in 1917.
Wilbur took the leading role in the exhausting patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss. The Wrights wound up spending their time and energy on legal battles rather than on further work on airplane design. By 1911 European manufacturers had surpassed Wright designs. Orville and Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur’s premature death, which occurred in the wake of his travels and the stress of the legal battle. The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who began to be described as greedy. Europeans who were always ready to believe the worst about anything and anyone American seized on the stories of the patent disputes as evidence of a materialist, grasping society. Still, those thousands who saw Wilbur’s European flights never forgot the sight.
Many years later, in his old age, having seen the destruction rained from the air during two world wars, Orville Wright said of flight, “What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.” Perhaps Wilbur was the more fortunate, to die before the end of the long era of peace.