There used to be a statue of the Wright brothers in the main concourse at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. I first saw it when I was seven on my first trip by air going from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Israel. My mother explained who they were and of course I read the plaque. Since then I have always been fascinated by flight despite the fact that the statue disappeared sometime in the 1980s and Jan Smuts Airport is now Oliver Tambo Airport and bears no resemblance to the building of my memories. When I saw The Flyers (In Search Of Wilbur & Orville Wright) by Noah Adams at my public library, I just had to read it.
The book is part travelogue, part history and covers not only the life and travels of the Wright brothers themselves, but also include the rest of the family, often in quite some detail.
A US Army pilot is quoted as saying that today all pilots are trained by someone who has experience. “The Wrights had to learn how to do it themselves. And when they crashed, they didn’t know if it was their design or their flying.” I think this is the crux of the book. The author shows us how far we have come in such a short period of time and even inadvertently hints at more change. The book was written in 2002 and he describes a huge aircraft hangar near Kittyhawk where all blimps in the USA are prepared. He mentions a blimp advertising Fuji color film and I thought of the Monty Python line: say no more!
We all know that when the Wrights were developing the plane, it was a time of inventors. Bill Bryson even wrote an excellent book that covered part of the period (“Made in America”). They also came from a part of the country, Dayton OH, which led the country in per capita patent grants. It must have been something in the water! That the Wright brothers would not be the first to fly does not appear to have crossed their minds. They always believed that they knew what they were doing and took a very engineering approach. They didn't stumble into being the first to fly despite the claim I once saw in a book (perhaps even the Bryson book) that attributed their success to the fact that they built bicycles which, like the aircraft, are an inherently unstable mode of transport. This book does make the point though, that turning the aircraft was based on the way a bicycle is turned.
They researched the history of flight. The Smithsonian had sponsored some attempts at flight and the Wrights accessed the records. In the 18th century, John Smeaton had calculated the coefficients of lift and drag and the Wright brother used this as well as work from the early gliders like Otto Lilienthal. From the book it appears that not everyone in flight had this methodical and scientific approach. There were numerous setbacks as the brothers attempted launching gliders before their powered flight and almost gave up until they did some pioneering work with a “wind tunnel” which was nothing more than a fan. They discovered that the Smeaton coefficients were significantly out and their recalculated value gave them the edge needed. They had also figured out how to design the propeller, treating it as a rotating wing. They even had to develop their own engine.
The Wrights were given the first contract by the military to develop an aircraft. I don’t know what the modern day equivalent is, but they got $25,000 and 200 days to do it. Now that has changed a lot.
One of their early competitors was a group led by Alexander Graham Bell and Glenn Hammond Curtiss. They were at the military evaluation of the plane and took movies of the tests. There are rumours that Bell in fact cribbed the design of the telephone, so perhaps this was an example of industrial spying. That test ended in a disastrous crash with the first powered aircraft fatality. Orville was seriously injured and troubled by the injuries for the rest of his life. During this time Wilbur was in France trying to create a market in Europe.
What struck me the most was quite how primitive everything was. All Wilbur took with him to Kittyhawk was the fabric and his tools. Everything like the airframe was manufactured locally. He must have been quite a “seamster” (male form of seamstress?) because he stitched the skin of the aircraft. But more than that, the conditions were so harsh. There were no inns, running water, heaters etc. They camped in tents on the ground. If I travel to site, I expect an hotel, all the mod cons, meals provided and more. Even then I regard as working away from home as very trying.
Famous names cross the Wrights’ paths, more so Orville than Wilbur, since Wilbur died from typhoid at a young age. Orville was a celebrity, but seemed to prefer being out of the limelight. Aside from Bell/Curtiss the book mentions Marconi, Amelia Earhart (who went to the 25th anniversary of the first flight at Kittyhawk) and Charles Lindbergh with whom there appeared to be mutual admiration society. There are also touches of what mundane life was like. For instance Wilbur was introduced to alphabet noodles in soup in France and thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. Another interesting factoid is that Western Union provided special codes so that anyone could send an encrypted telegram.
There are some amusing parts as well, as in the case where Orville was taking part in an exhibition in New York. He thought he would try and circumnavigate Manhattan but was worried that the turbulence from the buildings would lead to a crash and so he strapped a canoe under the plane (as the first life raft)!
Orville appears to have kept a very low profile, but had a large dispute with the Smithsonian over displaying the Flyer. The work the Smithsonian had sponsored was close to the administration’s heart and they wanted their “Great Aerodrome” displayed together with the Flyer but stating that the former was the first in flight even though it crashed into the Potomac. For most of Orville’s life the Flyer was displayed in London. He only relented when the Smithsonian agreed to tell the story with the Wright brothers as the first.
I found the book annoying from two perspectives. Firstly the author projects thoughts into the Wrights’ heads with no basis for them, a technique I have seen and been irritated by, in several other books. For instance he discusses what Wilbur must have thought when he first saw the beach at Kittyhawk and waxes lyrical about the wind and the slope. My bet is the Wilbur thought to himself after the difficult trip to get there- “this will do, now where can I get a hot bath?” (Apparently the Wrights did not imbibe, or so their father reported).
My second gripe is that there are hints of patent disputes here and there. Curtiss had invented the aileron which the Wrights felt violated their patent on wing design. There is a mention that Orville disliked writing reports where he felt there were other patent infringements, but the book glosses over them completely. Surely there was some animosity, some hard fought legal battles? Although society was much more genteel back then, I can’t believe that these issues didn’t boil over. Also unclear was whether the Wrights became wealthy like other inventors of their day. There was obviously some money because the Wrights built a large family residence and owned property in Canada but they were obviously not ostentatious, possibly because the family was religious (the father was in fact a bishop). This brings me to a flaw in the travelogue. The author does not mention visiting the original Wright Brothers workshop that has been transported to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, a museum well worth a visit.
I found the book easy to read and enjoyable, but in the end a little disappointing from an engineering perspective. But I would like to propose a work of fiction that would malign Orville’s well deserved good name. The passenger at the military trials who was killed was an Army First Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge who was a pilot in his own right (pun intended). He had piloted the Bell/Curtiss plane and at the time held the record for the longest linear flight. He was decidedly Orville’s rival and to me this has the making of a wonderful conspiracy theory.
Aubrey Kagan is a professional engineer with a BSEE from the
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of the
Witwatersrand. Aubrey is engineering manager at Emphatec, a Toronto-based design
house of industrial control interfaces and switch-mode power supplies. In
addition to writing several articles for Circuit Cellar and having ideas
published in EDN and Electronic Design, Aubrey wrote
Excel by Example: A Microsoft Excel Cookbook for Electronics
Engineers (Newnes, 2004).