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Once practical flight had been hammered out, Wilbur pursued patent rights and attempted to sell the plane. After months and years of disbelief by the outside world the Wrights won contracts with both the U.S. 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 language barriers, suspicion and his own reticence. Convinced the bicycle mechanic was a fake, Europeans were astounded when he took to the air. Soon huge crowds and royalty were showing up. Wilbur was suddenly, wildly famous. Every personal detail was analyzed, or as much 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 U.S. Army. The shy, younger brother was battered even worse by the wild 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 Army contract.
The brothers ended their public demos in 1909 after Wilbur made a last spectacular flight down the Hudson River, past New York City, and around the Statue of Liberty. Altogether a million people witnessed their first flight.
Now famous as the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville tried to dodge a triumphal homecoming in Dayton but failed. The 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; then the 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 Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle racer who at first tried to sell engines to the Wrights and later built near knock-offs of the Wright design. Thus 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 it was that gave him typhoid fever. He limped home ill, then hovered near death 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 in 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 Curtiss-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 one of Dayton’s most irreplaceable men. In five years we can more happily celebrate the 150th anniversary of his arrival.
What about Orville?
Orville Wright’s achievements after his brother’s passing highlight Wilbur’s side of the duo. In private a genial prankster, Orv was intensely shy in public. Never married, he proved a devoted uncle.
In 1914 Orville ended the patent fight with Curtiss after a minor court victory and sold the Wright Company. He built a private lab and continued to tinker on his own. Orville’s 1921 split-flap patent was far ahead of its time, and 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 Katharine married in 1926. The house contains many of his inventive 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—rightly—that the airplane would mainly prove a tool for peace.
Photo of Wilbur Wright Courtesy of Special Image Collections, Wright State University
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