By Walter Boyne
2003 saw long overdue recognition given to the Wright brothers, whose December 17, 1903 flights were being celebrated across the country and around the world. Air shows, first-flight reenactments, and a general sense of wonder that aviation has come so far in just 100 years are at last giving the brothers their due.
Oddly enough, the genuine and perhaps determining influence of the Wright family on Orville and Wilbur’s achievements has been overlooked. . Each member of the family affected the brothers differently, and the family as a whole both prodded and sustained their efforts. This directly influenced the timing of their successful experiments, and this timing, as much as the success itself, was absolutely critical to the progress of flight.
The argument is made here that aeronautical progress might have been set back as much as twenty-five years if the Wright family had not behaved toward Wilbur and Orville as and when it did. Further, in addition to the very real setbacks to technology, there might have been profound military and political ramifications that would have altered the world as we know it.
Before trying to validate these (possibly outrageous) claims, it makes sense to look at members of the Wright family and see just how each person influenced the two most famous brothers in aviation history.
At the turn of the century, the Wrights lived in Dayton, a typical mid-Western city. Known as “a city of rivers”, Dayton had been the statistical center of the population of the United States in 1870, and by 1900 was the fifth-largest city in Ohio. Not yet an industrial giant and still subject to the depressed economics of the time, it was a Sinclair Lewis type of up-and-coming town where new fads such as bicycles could catch on and new businesses could prosper. More than anything else, it excelled in invention; by 1900, it was the nation’s third most productive source of new patents.
Dayton’s position and size was important to the head of the family, Bishop Milton Wright, who was engaged in a continual battle for the purity-and the leadership-of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. The church’s United Brethren Printing establishment, the source of the many journals and newspapers that reflected the views of the church leaders, was located in Dayton, which was also the unofficial “home” of the church. Although his work and his struggles against his more liberal opponents within the church took him way from Dayton periodically, the little $1,800 house at 7 Hawthorne Street became the center of the Wright family’s activities. (Henry Ford moved the house to his Greenfield Village in 1936; it still may be seen there.)
Bishop Wright was frugal, but not above seeking financial stability through a variety of investments, including real estate, both homes and farms. While dedicated to the peaceful teachings of his church-as he understood and interpreted them-he engaged wholeheartedly in bitter political wars to maintain his leadership role.
At home, the Bishop ran such a tight ship that even in their early thirties, Orville and Wilbur were still regarded as “the Bishop’s boys.” Bishop Wright’s iron control was not unusual for the time, when only men voted, and where the father was always officially the head of the household–although many early 20th Century women would have smiled at the thought.
His wife, Susan Catherine Koerner Wright, would not have been one of these-she bowed to her husband’s will with grace and dignity. Well educated at Hartsville College, Susan Wright was shy but very talented with her hands, able to repair almost anything. She was twenty-eight and Milton thirty-one when they married in 1859.
While a man of the cloth, Milton must not have been spiritual all the time, for Susan bore him seven children. Reuchlin was born in 1861, and was the first to rebel against his father. He broke away in 1880, and although Milton claimed later that Reuchlin was a dutiful son, it appears that “Roosh” as they called him, considered himself an outcast. After failing at an attempt at farming, he took a menial position in Kansas City as a clerk with a railroad. Nonetheless he served as an example to Orville and Wilbur, proving that it was indeed possible to live apart from Bishop Wright’s control.
The second son, Lorin, was born in 1862. He attempted to emulate Reuchlin, going to Kansas City in 1886 but returning home in 1889. He married Ivonette Stokes in 1892, settling down initially as a book-keeper, but later working for his two famous younger brothers. While he did not break away from his father as completely as Reuchlin had done, Lorin at least established his own family, complete with children, outside of his father’s house.
Wilbur was born in 1867. Twins followed in 1870, but Ida died at birth, and Otis just over a month later. Orville was born in 1871, and Katharine, the seventh and last child was born in 1875.
While he probably never clearly formulated the idea in his own mind, Bishop Wright apparently wished to keep the three younger children with him permanently, with Katharine essentially assuming all but the conjugal duties of a wife in maintaining the household. Wilbur was of great help to him in his long-running battle with the liberals of the church, acting essentially as a law clerk, assembling briefs, writing pamphlets and conducting investigations. Bishop Wright would have been delighted if either Wilbur or Orville had desired a professional career, but control was more important than cachet, and he was content to let them stay at home, not even requiring that they graduate from high school.
The three younger children became very closely knit, with Orville and Katharine forming an unconventionally strong bond, one that was more meaningful to Orville than to his sister. She graduated from Oberlin College, and was a cheerful, well spoken young woman who encouraged her brothers in their interest in flight.
Curiously enough, the good Bishop tolerated his children’s indifference to religion. It was almost as if he realized that he might be pushing them too far if he insisted both on strict filial obedience and rigid observance of the rituals of his church, preferring the former to the latter.
Bishop Wright loved his children in his own way, and provided them a comfortable life for the time. He encouraged Wilbur and Orville in their businesses-first printing and then bicycles-and could be counted on for at least limited financial assistance from time to time. When his boys became interested in solving the problem of flight, he did not discourage them, even though their flying kites in 1899 had provoked some ridicule from his colleagues. Bishop Wright knew that their new interest would not prevent them from running their bicycle business satisfactorily. Perhaps more important, their interest in flight had the imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institution. Its leader, Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley, was conducting experiments in the field of flight, and it was to the Smithsonian that Wilbur had made his first inquiries about reference material.
Yet on balance, Bishop Wright was unquestionably oppressive, and by 1900, Wilbur, Orville and Katharine must have felt condemned to an unusual adult life, living at home with all activities revolving around and all decisions emanating from their father.
Solving the secret of flight must almost certainly have had a double incentive for the two brothers. On the one hand, they knew that creating a flying machine meant freeing humanity from the surly bonds of earth. They also knew that it might mean freeing them from the bonds of their father. In Orville’s case, freedom from his father also implied Katharine’s freedom.
The Importance of Timing
Thus it was that a combination of familial pressure and encouragement set Wilbur and Orville on their way to the four years of experiments that led to their surprising triumph in 1903, a triumph which came at exactly the right time for progress in aviation.
At that point in time, those few people in the United States who believed that flight might some day be possible thought that the Smithsonian’s Langley would be the first to succeed. More than twenty years of experiments, including flying the first successful heavier than air powered models, established him as the premier proponent of flight.
Langley was amply funded, but departed from sound engineering practice. He simply scaled up his successful models and created the Great Aerodrome, a tandem wing aircraft designed to be launched by catapult from a houseboat in the Potomac. He took his time, and quite by chance turned his own efforts into a closely run race with the Wright brothers. He had heard of them through a mutual friend, Octave Chanute, but he discounted them as mere mechanics who were not seeking the principles of flight, but were just hammering out hardware.
Charles Manly, who had designed the magnificent 52-horsepower engine powering the Aerodrome, was also designated to fly it. This was an unfortunate leap of faith, for Manly never had even a single flight in a glider. To make matters worse, the Aerodrome lacked both effective controls and a means to land. It was intended simply to flop into the water, as Langley’s models had done, even though this mean that Manly would have been submerged.
Langley’s unfortunate personality antagonized most who came into contact with him, and he alienated quickly the press by his haughty manner. The reporters, eager to see the Aerodrome fly, camped out for weeks on the banks of the Potomac, faced with bad food and water and millions of mosquitoes. They drank to kill time and tempers frayed. Langley’s repeated abrupt announcements of delays were greeted with the rich reportorial cursing for which they were famous.
On October 7, 1903, the press was alerted that Manly was at last going to fly the Great Aerodrome. After suitably tense preparations, the huge machine moved forward swiftly on its catapult, then in the words of a reporter, slid into the Potomac like a handful of mortar.
Hastily repaired, a second attempt was made on December 8th. This time the structure of the giant tandem-wing machine collapsed on launch, and it again dove straight into the Potomac. This time Manly, who still holds the record for crashes per seconds of flying time, narrowly escaped drowning, for he was trapped first in the wreckage of the Aerodrome and then under the sheet of ice covering the river.
The vengeful reporters reacted with furious condemnation. Editors all across the country pointed out that the idiotic War Department had wasted $50,000 of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money on, of all things, a “flying machine.” Other writers hinted of a greater expenditure and they were correct, for Langley had used Smithsonian funds to raise the total investment to $73,000 in his house-boat-catapult-Great Aerodrome combination.
Langley was soon such a laughing stock that his name became a punch-line in vaudeville routines. No indignity was spared him, and even his status as a revered scientist was assaulted, leading to a decline in his health. As head of the Smithsonian and a scientist, Langley had previously lent dignity to the pursuit of flight, for if he was experimenting in the field, other experimenters could not be considered as crazy for doing so. Now his failures had a disheartening effect upon any would-be aviators, of which there were precious few in the United States.
By 1903, attempts at powered flight were already moribund in Europe, where the leading pioneers of flight had been killed in accidents. The foremost of these, Otto Lilienthal had crashed in 1896, followed by Percy Pilcher in 1899. Most others had abandoned their work, and only the valiant but untalented Ferdinand Ferber was feebly attempting to copy the Wright brothers’ ill-starred glider of 1901.
It was thus all the more significant that only nine days after Langley’s second fiasco, the Wright brothers succeeded at Kitty Hawk. Even though the correct story of their flight did not get much attention, the news of their success stimulated competition both in the United States and abroad, especially in France.
Modest as they were, the Wright brothers knew that they were at least ten years in advance of all potential competitors. They knew that besides their hard work and their correct decisions, they had also been inordinately lucky. They believed that it would take a decade or more for any team to duplicate their efforts.
Yet the Wrights were faced with a dilemma. They wanted recognition for their flights, and they wanted ultimately to sell their Flyer to the United States government. But they also needed secrecy, to protect their ideas, and their patented method of control.
The French wanted desperately to be the first to fly a powered heavier-than-air craft, just as they had been the first to fly a balloon. It seemed impossible that Americans could have flown, and many chauvinistic Frenchmen believed that the Wrights were “liars not flyers.” There was a general call to arms, led by Ernest Archdeacon, Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe and others, demanding that their wealthy colleagues and the French government fund experiments that would lead to powered flight.
There was also serious competition in the United States. The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907. The AEA’s stated goal was to “Get in the Air.” Bell recruited four bright young men, John McCurdy, Casey Baldwin, Thomas Selfridge and Glenn Curtiss, to join him. The four, like every other successful aircraft builder after 1903, built on the success-and the patent–of the Wrights, and created in swift succession four aircraft. The third of these, the June Bug, was successfully demonstrated by Curtiss on July 4, 1908, when he won the Scientific American Trophy. The Wrights believed, correctly, that the AEA had infringed on their patent.
The AEA anticipated patent fights, and tried to maneuver around them by substituting (at Bell’s suggestion) ailerons for wing-warping. The Wrights protested with suits that began an almost decade long legal battle that saw the Wright patent upheld at every decision.
The competition to use the Wrights’ ideas aroused the interest of foreign governments in aircraft. By 1914, at the outbreak of what later became known as the First World War, every major European power had an air force. Germany had about 250 aircraft, Russia the same, Great Britain had about 180 and France about 140. Aircraft (and lighter-than-aircraft) went into action on the very first day of the war, and remained so until the November 11, 1918, Armistice.
Aircraft were important from the very first days of the war, and both sides rapidly expanded their air forces. Up to 1914, less than 3,000 aircraft had been built, world-wide. By 1918, that number had risen to 225,000. Whole industries were established to build and maintain the aircraft, and air forces increased vastly in size with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force growing to 29,000 aircraft by November 1918.
The leap in technology was even more remarkable. At least twenty years of ordinary progress were crammed into the four years of the war, with advances in engineering, manufacturing, training, quality control and most of all, performance. Aircraft went from fragile types like the Blériot and the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c to such robust machines as the SPAD S. XIII and the Fokker D VII. Speeds increased from an average 60 mph to as much as 140 mph. When the war started, aircraft could often carry an observer or bombs, but not both; by the time it ended, there were gigantic four engine aircraft capable of carrying tons of bombs for long distances. By 1918, almost every aspect of modern air warfare with the exception of nuclear weapons, space-based satellites and precision- guided munitions had been demonstrated.
(For the ardent what-ifer, the world’s military and political history would have been vastly different if the Wrights had not flown in 1903 and there had been no air forces in 1914. The pivotal Battle of the Marne occurred because the primitive 1914-style aircraft had reported the advance of the German Army, and allowed the British and French Armies to stop it. Without those airplanes and the consequent Battle of the Marne, Germany almost certainly would have defeated France in 1914, and then gone on to victory over Russia in 1915. Had this been the case, the Soviet Union might never have come into being, there would have been no communist era, and Hitler might have remained a failed artist.)
And this returns us to the thrust of the article. Bishop Wright’s full control of the Wright family had driven Wilbur and Orville to engage in their far-off experiments in Kitty Hawk beginning in 1900. Yet the Bishop and Katharine’s support had sustained them, and encouraged their success. If the situation had been different, if the Bishop had been more encouraging and less demanding, the Wright brothers might have married, led conventional lives and never even experimented with flight. Had that been the case, the first successful flights by other inventors almost certainly would not have occurred until 1913, or perhaps even later, for the Wrights, you will recall, were ten years in advance of all others in 1903.
In this event, the major nations of Europe would not have had air forces in 1914, and the great technological leaps crammed into four years of warfare would not have taken place. The implications for the development of aviation are enormous; instead of SPADs and Fokkers in 1918, there would have been aircraft comparable to those of 1908. The great industries fostered by World War I aviation requirements would not have existed, and it probably would have been 1944 before the first laborious flight had been made around the world, and 1947 before a Lindbergh-like flight of the Atlantic had been made.
The effects of this delay would have been widespread and cumulative. All of the progress that aviation brought in the twentieth century, including the advances in electronics, materials and most of all, computers, would have been pushed back by decades. The tremendous innovations that have done so much for agriculture (crop spraying, fertilizing, seeding) and medicine (suppression of infectious insect borne disease) would have been similarly delayed, and millions of people would have suffered and died as a result.
So, on balance, it is a good thing that Bishop Wright ran his family with such an iron hand; if he had been a kindlier person, allowing his children freedom to roam, Orville and Wilbur might have passed into history as two dull bicycle manufacturers from Ohio, and we would have been the poorer for it.