“Where Professionals Connect”
Story and art by Mark Martel
Originally published in the Dayton City Paper
At rare intervals a few truly indispensable individuals take us where no one has gone before. A century back in Dayton it was Kettering, Patterson, Deeds, and a few rare others who achieved big. Of those, the rarest bird 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. He traveled often so 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 in his senior year. Even so, he had been accepted to attend Yale University. Then 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. She died three years later. By then 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, 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 become avid followers 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; he’d survived his dental trauma but general life expectancy then was only 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…5 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, thinking outside the box.
Another way to slice it: Dayton’s Aviation Trail saluted four 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 airfield at Huffman Prairie, which trained 119 pilots.
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