Hello and welcome to How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson.
This is part two on the series on the Wright Brothers. On this episode I’ll be talking about the rest of the story, how they found success in flight, the company they founded, how they became celebrities, and more.
And then at the end of the episode I have a bunch of my takeaways.
Before we get started just a reminder that if you want to listen to the endnotes episode I’ll be releasing it shortly and that will be for subscribers only.
It’ll contain more information about their family, including their sister Catherine. I’ll talk more about how they became accidental fashion icons in Europe, I’ll run through some of the speeches that Wilbur gave, and of course even more insights and takeaways.
So if you want to listen to the endnotes episode and support the show, just click the link in the show notes.
With that said, let’s get into it and hear about the rest of the story of the Wright Brothers, after this quick break.
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1901 is the year of disaster for the Wright Brothers. It’s the year that Wilbur declares that man will not fly for a thousand years.
They thought progress would be rapid year over year as they came every summer to Kitty Hawk to learn to fly, and instead in their second year they go backwards, because they had tried to rely on the calculations of others, and those calculations had proved to be completely wrong and useless.
The brothers began the journey from North Carolina to Dayton in near total despair. But as the journey wore on, the silence gave way to wearied talk about what they would do when they returned home. And then small talk turned into big talk.
By the time they got home, a few days after departing Kitty Hawk, the brothers were excited about the prospect of flight once again, and had a number of ideas of things they could improve and processes they could implement to speed up progress.
It reminds me of the Steve Jobs quote from Pixar when things were not working out he said “We would all get depressed… but not all of us at once.”
It’s natural as a founder to get depressed, or as anyone who’s trying to accomplish something great, by virtue of what you’re trying to do, it’s going to be hard. There are going to be moments of depression and difficulty.
The important thing is to have a partner or support network in place that can help pull you out of those difficult times.
So shortly after they get home, their sister Catherine writes to their father complaining that “We don't hear anything but flying machine from morning till night.”
So clearly the enthusiasm was fully back.
What they realize they ended are scientific calculations. All of the data they had been given on wind coefficients and wing angles was wrong. So they wanted to get even more data than what they were able to gather in the summer at KittyHawk.
And so above their bike shop they build one of the world’s first wind tunnels. Not the first but it was ingenious in its ability to measure drag and lift.
It was a box, 16 inches by 16 inches and six feet long, with a fan at one end and open at the other end.
And they essentially built and tested a bunch of miniature gliders, they tested 38 different wing surfaces in winds of up to 27 miles per hour.
And this allows them to speed run the process of calculating the proper wing curvature and angle.
It’s slow and tedious and they’re often up past midnight running tests.
It is of course reminiscent of Thomas Edison go back and listen to those episodes if you haven’t. But Edison reaches a point with the light bulb where he says okay, the only way to figure it out from here is to just test a bunch of substances until we find the right one that will act as a filament for the light bulb.
And similarly they are at a point where they just need to test a bunch of different variations and this wind tunnel allows them to do that.
And again, I think this is what allowed the Wright Brothers to succeed. It is the combination of passion and enthusiasm, which mostly comes from Orville, and really rational structured thought that comes from Wilbur. And you see that with this wind tunnel.
Now, I told you that a lot of people were working on flying machines at the time, and they are all having a really rough time. And enthusiasm is actually waning.
At a certain point people throw their hands up and say this is just a waste of time guys.
Chief Engineer of the United States Navy, Rear Admiral George Melville writes in an article that year, “A calm survey of certain natural phenomena leads the engineer to pronounce all confident prophecies for future success as wholly unwarranted, if not absurd.
Where, even to this hour, are we to look for the germ of the successful flying machine?”
At the same time, there is this guy Chanute. He had tried to be an aviation pioneer himself and it had never quite worked out. And he had become friendly with the brothers and now he tried to convince them that they were on better track than anyone else, and they should forget the bicycle business and go all-in.
He says, you know, I’m friends with Andrew Carnegie, can I just raise a couple million from him and convince you guys to quit your jobs?
And they turn him down. They like the independence that comes with working with their own money.
Well they improve their glider with the calculations that they make from the wind tunnel and in 1902 return to Kitty Hawk with this new, improved glider.
For one thing this glider is much bigger, the wings measuring 32 feet by 5 feet.
And they have the opposite experience from 1901. It immediately becomes clear that their wind tunnel had yielded good calculations and this glider flies really really well.
On October 2nd in North Carolina they stay up late talking about theory and designs and Orville accidentally drinks too much coffee. And so when everyone goes to bed, he’s just laying in bed tossing and turning.
And while he’s awake in the middle of the night thinking, he has an idea: What if the rear rudder was movable.
So up to this point they are just manipulating the wings, and this would give them an extra dimension of control.
In the morning, Orville tells one of their companions, check this out. I’m about to tell Wilbur something and I guarantee you we get into an argument about it.
Wilbur was the Steve Jobs of the group, he loved to attack an idea just to make you defend it and see if it was really a good idea.
So Orville tells him the movable rudder idea, and winks at his friend and gets ready for the confrontation.
And Wilbur sits there and thinks about it for a few seconds, and says, that’s actually a really great idea.
Well this was the last major control issue they needed to figure out.
With the movable rudder, they are soon able to make glides of more than 600 feet.
And it’s not just the distance that matters, it’s what they could do for that 600 feet. Reading now from The Wright Brothers by David McCullough:
“They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.”
As they closed up the gliding season for 1902, they were truly able to fully control their glider. All that was left was to add a power source.
In the Bible, in Genesis chapter 6 verse 1, it says “There were giants in the earth in those days”
And that is what I think of when I think of the United States of America in the early 1900s. It was just full of brilliant innovators. Turn over a rock and you might find a genius.
Well it turns out that one such genius was right under the brother’s noses.
And his name was Charlie Taylor.
Charlie was a first-rate mechanic. He lived close by in Dayton and he had been introduced to the brothers by a business associate, their landlord actually.
He was a very good employee. Trustworthy, proactive, and mechanically extremely gifted. And as the brothers were spending more and more of their time working on flight, they turned over more and more of the operations of the bike shop to Charlie until he was basically running the thing.
So Charlie was this trusted business associate, who they knew was a great machinist, and he would be the one to build their motor.
First they try to reach out to existing engine manufacturers. People building gasoline engines for automobiles and tractors.
And they reach out to ask if they have anything meeting certain specifications. And essentially what the brothers needed was something that could give decent output, but the really important thing was that it be a very light engine.
And all of the engine manufacturers come back saying “sorry, no can do.”
This is nothing like what we build.
So they ask Charlie if he can do it.
Now keep in mind, Charlie worked on bikes.
The entirety of his experience with gasoline engines was that a friend had asked him a couple years previous if he could help repair his broken car engine.
So they give Charlie the lightest of instructions.
They give him a few rough sketches and tell him it needs to be no more than 200 pounds and deliver 8 horsepower.
And using the same metal lathe and drill press that they use to manufacture bicycles, he builds an engine that delivers 20 horsepower and weighs only 150 pounds. And he does this, builds an engine that meets their specifications even though he has never built or really even worked on an engine before, in just six weeks.
Absolutely remarkable. I think he is someone who deserves to be more well known. I think he is emblematic of the kind of quiet genius that made this country great.
He was kind of a character, he smoked 25 cigars a day and constantly provoked and fought with their sister Katherine.
No one really knew who he was then, and now. And that didn’t bother him. He thought the brothers gave him plenty of credit. He later said in an interview, speaking of the Wrights:
“They appreciated that I had a part in giving the airplane to the world, though nobody made any fuss about it, and I didn't either.”
I think he deserves to be more well known. I’m not saying the Wright Brothers are overrated or that he is the real genius of flight or anything like that. Just that he also played a pivotal role, one that is today mostly forgotten.
Well with an engine built, the last thing to figure out was the propellers. And they were a doozy. Wilbur and Orville obsessed about the propellers day and night.
In one incident, they get into a heated shouting match, each telling the other one that he was completely wrong.
Catherine cries out, nearly hysterical “If you don’t stop arguing. I’ll leave home.”
The next morning at 7 AM when Charlie opens up the shop, Orville comes in and tells Charlie that he thinks he’d been wrong, and they ought to do it Will’s way.
A few minutes later Wilbur comes through the door and says “Perhaps Orv was right.”
Well they come to an agreement on the propellers and on March 23rd, apply for a patent on their flying machine.
By the summer, they think that everything is set. The brothers are pretty well convinced that they have their flying machine.
That year on October 7th 1903, one of their biggest competitors attempts to beat them to the punch.
He was the head of the Smithsonian and had raised seventy thousand dollars to build his flying machine. By contrast, the Wrights had spent less than a thousand dollars total on theirs. Langley had built his in secret, and was set to unveil it at a big event where it would fly.
It was enormous and clunky looking. Langley invites observers and journalists and hundreds of people show up to watch the launch.
After hours of anticipation, Langley announces the launch. It takes off, and promptly drives straight down into the Potomac.
He regroups and tries a second flight on December 8th, and if anything the attempted flight goes even worse. He’s completely pilloried in the press. He becomes a laughing stock. And the Wright brothers never took an opportunity to rub it in his face
Wilbur said that the presses treatment of Langley was “Shameful. His work deserved neither abuse nor apology.”
In the meantime, the brothers were in Kitty Hawk getting ready to test a flying machine of their own.
All of their tests and calculations suggested that success was likely. But there was a big difference between the wind tunnel and the actual open skies.
We will hear about the Wright Brothers pivotal flying tests of 1903, after this quick break.
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During the flying season of 1903, the brothers worked their way up slowly, as they usually did.
They spent weeks gliding just to make sure that the wings of the plane were still in working order and to get some practice. They wanted to make sure that they were accustomed to steering before attempting the first flight.
On December 11th, 1903, Wilbur attempted the first flight. They started the engines, and Wilbur climbed aboard. It took off and he surged into the cold winter air. Almost immediately, he pulled to hard on the rudder, sending the flyer upward, before it lost lift and plunged down. The glider hit the sand only 100 feet from the starting point.
The attempted flight was a failure, but the brothers were actually elated. Everything had worked just how they wanted to. There were no obvious failures in the engine or propeller. The only mistake had been Wilbur’s. He was unused to flying with the extra weight and had overcompensated. But this could be easily corrected on the next attempted flight.
The plane took two days to repair and another attempt wasn’t made until December 16th. This time, Orville would be at the controls.
Conditions tended to get blustery in the winter, and the weather was not cooperative. Winds of up to 27 miles per hour were blowing on that day.
The flier used a track to launch. And as it slid down the track, Wilbur ran beside the right wing of the flier. The wind slowed it down enough that Wilbur had no trouble keeping up.
It was slow going, but at the end of the track, the plane lifted, and Orville was flying.
The ride was rough. It bucked up and down in heavy turbulence for the entire flight.
And then it was over. It only lasted twelve seconds and 120 feet.
When later asked if he was scared during the first flight, Orville smilingly responded “There wasn’t time.”
The boys went in to warm their hands by the fire, and then resumed attempting flights later that morning.
The next flight went 175 feet, the third went 200. And then finally at about noon, on the fourth test Wilbur flew 852 feet over the ground in 59 seconds.
A twelve second flight could be doubted. But a one minute flight couldn’t be.
And even more impressively, he had complete control of the plane the entire time.
One of their local North Carolina assistants, John T Daniels, later recalled
“I like to think about that first airplane, the way it sailed off in the air, as pretty as any bird you ever laid eyes on. I don't think I ever saw a prettier sight in my life.”
The brothers and their companions got together and began to plan a flight to the lifeguard station on the beach when the wind snatched the untethered flier, and flipped it end over end.It was a total wreck, nearly all the ribs of the wings were broken.
But even the accident couldn’t dampen their spirits. They knew the flyer could easily be rebuilt.
Soon, back in Dayton, Bishop Wright received a telegram.
“Success. Four flights Thursday morning. All against 21 mile wind. Started from level. With engine power alone. Average speed through air, 31 miles per hour. Longest, 59 seconds. INform press. Home for Christmas. Orville Wright.”
There have been a lot of other flyers who claim to have had the first flight, but this was the first flight of a piloted machine to take off under its own power into the air in full flight, maintained air speed, and landed at a point as high as that from which it started.
It was a flight by every possible definition.
The broken flyer was put into storage and was never flown again. It had one mission. Take man into the air under his own power for the first time. And that was all it did.
The brothers and their family begin to notify the press, but no one takes any notice.
Frank Tennyson of the AP, and also the Dayton Daily Journal, read the telegram and showed no interest, saying “59 seconds, hey? If it had been 59 minutes, then it might have been a news item.”
What actually does get them some press is a fake story. One of the telegraph operators had told a friend who was an aviation enthusiast and he concocts this fake story that say that it had one propeller on bottom for upward thrust and one propeller on back for forward thrust.
And he says that they flew to 60 feet and that they flew for three miles over hills and waves, and Wilbur’s first words upon Orville’s return were “Eureka!”
So this obviously fake account gets carried in the New York Times and Washington Post, but nothing happens as a consequence, probably because most people could tell it was fake.
One person in Boston does recognize the importance of the announcement, and tries to get the brothers put in touch with the war department in Washington DC but the army completely blows them off and don’t take them seriously.
Even back home in Dayton, 99% of people think that they are exaggerating.
And life goes on as normal.
And so at the start of the year of 1904, the brothers slip back into work at the bike shop.
And they alone are the keepers of this secret.
So in 1904 they quietly set about building a new flyer. This one is heavier and more sturdy than the 1903 model with a more powerful and efficient engine.
And they decide that they are not going to return to North Carolina anymore. The flyer can fly under its own power now, they don’t really need the wind that North Carolina provides.
They find a field just outside of Dayton that belonged to a farmer named Torrence Huffman. And he allows them to rent his field, but he doesn’t believe in them at all, and tells a neighboring farmer that the boys are quote “fools.”
And at first he seemed to be right. WIthout the North Carolina wind, the boys struggle to get back in the air.
Their first test flight is scheduled for May 23rd, but they don’t actually get off the ground for a real flight until August 13th, Wilbur finally gets off the ground and flies more than a thousand feet.
Part of the problem was the starting distance. The field wasn’t that big, they didn’t have a huge runway. And so they needed to get more power at the start.
So they designed a simple catapult system that essentially launched them off a little ramp.
And with the catapult in place, they were able to fly more tha half a mile, and on September 14th, 1904, Wilbur managed to turn in a half circle, the first time it had ever been done.
And so all through 1904 these test flights are happening right by Dayton and no one notices. In fact a major station of the commuter trolley was right by the field. And none of these commuters notice that humans are flying right over their heads.
James Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, remembers reports coming, quote, “To our office that the airship had been in the air over the Huffman Prairie, but our news staff would not believe the stories, nor did they ever take the pains to go out to see.”
Later someone would ask the editor of the Daily News why they hadn’t reported on such a momentous occasion happening right at their front door and he paused and then said “I guess the truth is that we were just plain dumb.”
One person who does take interest is this guy named Amos Root. He’s a huge enthusiast for driving and automobiles and he loves the idea of flight.
He hears about what they’re doing and he writes to them and asks if he can come watch. And initially they basically say “We’ll let you know.” Basically don’t call us we’ll call you.
But he persists, he keeps writing them. At one point writing “Excuse me friends, but I am so anxious to see that airship, I can hardly sleep at night.”
So eventually they relent and let him come down and watch. He lived further north in Ohio.
And he gets to see the first complete circle ever flown. And this is what he writes. He’s a very excitable character, you can’t help but love him. Here’s a few quotes from his article about the incident:
“God in his great mercy has permitted me to be at least somewhat instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank electric cars and automobiles, and may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy.
“When it first turned that circle and came near the starting point, I was right in front of it. And I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life.”
And you might be asking yourself, where did he write this? Well Amost Wright was a successful entrepreneur who had become rich manufacturing and selling bee-keeping equipment. And he had started a magazine called Gleanings in Bee Culture.
So the first credible eye-witness account of powered manned flight appeared in Gleanings in Bee Culture. Just an amazing historical fact.
Root sent his article to a more reputable magazine, The Scientific American, and told them it could be reprinted at no charge. They declined, and instead, their next article about flight was published a full year later and it was titled “The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances.” And the article basically says, these guys are full of it. They say, you’re telling me that these guys are actually flying and they just can’t convince anyone to go check it out?
Now this really makes the press out to be the bad guys, I should note that when the Wright Brothers first started test flights in May of 1904, a bunch of Dayton journalists had showed up to cover the flights. But that was when they were having their issues with takeoff. And so all they saw was a dud, they saw the brothers unable to fly, so that might explain some of the skepticism.
But I mean, by October of 1904, the brothers are flying circles, s-curves, they had flown in calms and in winds, it was fully controllable, could fly in almost any conditions. I mean, they had an airplane.
And they can’t get any interest.
Their first interest actually comes from across the pond. The British military expresses interest. But the Wright Brothers are very patriotic, so they reject the offer, refuse to show the officer any test flights, and write to the War Department and once again offer to build planes for them.
And once again they are rejected out of hand by the US military.
And so they decide to go back to the British military and re-engaged. Wilbur writes “It has for years been our business practice to sell to those who wish to buy, instead of trying to force goods upon people who did not want them. If the American government has decided to spend no more money on flying machines till their practical use has been demonstrated in actual service abroad, We are sorry, but we cannot reasonably object.”
In 1905, they make even more improvements, and make a truly practical airplane for the first time. The 1904 was a real flyer that could consistently take people for flights, but the 1905 flyer could actually get you places. You no longer had to lay down, you could sit in it. It’s even sturdier and has a more powerful engine, and they are flying more than 15 miles at a time.
This is actually the first time that they begin to write about how much they enjoy flying. I think before it was such a harrowing experience that they were just focused on accomplishing their mission.
And you’re laying down on the glider. Now they write:
“The sensation is so keenly delightful as to be almost beyond description.
Nobody who has not experienced it for himself can realize it. It is the realization of a dream so many persons have had of floating in the air. More than anything else, the sensation is one of perfect peace, mingled with the excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.”
So all throughout 1905 they are improving their ability to fly with the Wright Flyer, and they are in talks with the British government and then with the French government as well.
In 1906, they actually enter into serious discussions over an agreement with the French government, and the general idea is that the French will pay them 1 million francs, worth 200 thousand dollars, for a single flyer, provided that they agree to come to France to conduct demonstrations, train pilots, and the machine has to meet certain requirements around altitude, distance, and speed.
And it’s really the Wrights entering agreements with the French that starts to wake up the American press. This is when they really start to notice.
The French, by contrast, are incredibly hard on the Wrights. The French were aviation nuts. It was a total phenomenon in France. And you have all of these aviation pioneers who are doing their own pioneering work.
The Paris Herald writes an article entitled “Flyers or Liars” and they write “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either flyers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It is easy to say we have flown.”
And part of the suspicion comes from the fact that now that the Wrights are entering contracts to sell their planes, they begin to clam up and get secretive. No more public flights or demonstrations, no more reaching out to the press.
So on May 18th 1907, Wilbur goes to Europe. He is joined by Hart Berg, a Jewish American whose firm had contracted with the Wrights to sell their flyers in Europe.
And I think the Wrights were smart to partner with an outside firm that had expertise in selling to foreign governments. It’s a very complex sale. There are politics involved, and conflicting interests even within these governments. they want to see the plane as is their right before they buy it, but they don't want to give away any secrets. So you know, it's a little touchy.
And Berg proves to be very valuable, but Wilbur also proves to be a great salesman. He’s not slick or smooth-talking like Berg, but he is very direct, and he comes across as intelligent, reasonable, and honest. He comes across as the kind of person that you would want to do business with.
The idea is brought to him to pay a bribe to speed things up with the French and he won’t even consider it.
But as they negotiate further and further, it becomes clear that the French aren’t actually going to do anything until the Wrights can demonstrate their flyer in France.
And by this time, there is a Brazilian-born French aviator named Alberto Santos-Dumas who is flying and one who is even further along named Henri Farman. And Farman can actually fly in a circle, and in the meantime, the Wrights aren’t demonstrating their plane. So it looks like they are getting passed to the general public.
Now in reality, Farman’s plane is nowhere near as good as the Wright Flyer. But only the Wrights really know that for the time being.
So this whole thing takes a long time but finally in 1908 they get an agreement with the French, which spurs the US government who follow behind and sign an agreement that same year.
So the Wright Brothers go back to the US and they actually go back to North Carolina one last time to practice flying. They hadn’t flown since 1905 at this point, so they need the practice, and they’re reluctant to do it in front of a crowd so they’re trying to practice flying basically in secret by going to the Outer Banks which were at the time very remote and hard to visit.
Well this doesn’t quite work, reporters flock to Kitty Hawk to see them. So the brothers practice, but they intentionally keep their flights short. THey don’t want to pull the rabbit out of the hat quite yet.
Wilbur is just a great salesman by virtue of who he is. So, he does his first interview, and this guy is very reluctant. He's a Frenchman, um, writing for a French newspaper. And, this is what he writes. Mr. Hart O Berg warmed up for the interview by offering me a cup of coffee and laid out a box of cigars. I felt my doubts fly away one by one in the blue smoke.
Through curls of smoke, I examined Wilbur Wright. His thin, serious face, lit by the strangely gentle, intelligent, and radiant eyes. I had to admit, I had to admit, no, this man was not a bluffer.
So in the summer of 1908, Wilbur returns to France. He needs to find a place to actually fly the thing, obviously Paris doesn’t have many open fields, but he gets an attractive offer from a guy named Leon Bollet. He’s a successful industrialist and he has a factory and a big open field in a nearby town called Le Mans.
So Wilbur accepts his offer to help and goes to Les Mans. Well, when he gets there he opens the crate with the flyer shipped from the US, only to realize that the French had completely mangled the thing in customs. It’s basically going to need to be rebuilt.
Wilbur tries to employ some of Bollet’s French workers who were enthusiastic but ultimately not very skilled. So day after day, Wilbur Wright rebuilds the airplane by himself in Bollet’s factory.
He lives in very spartan conditions, he actually sleeps in a shed with the airplane, he’s so worried about people breaking in to sabotage or spy on or even just take a peek at his plane.
Finally, on August 8th, he decides that the plane is ready.
Wilbur could never be rushed. As locals saw him making preparations on the field, they began to fill into the grandstands to watch what was happening.
He wore no helmet, no uniform, no special aviation clothing, he wore his normal gray suit that he always wore.
The people are waiting from the early morning, watching for anything to happen, but Wilbur is in no rush.
At three in the afternoon, he finally wheels the thing out onto the racetrack, and then proceeds to check it over and fiddle with it for three and a half hours while the crowd watches impatiently.
His sales guy, Berg, would later recall “Neither the impatience of waiting crowds, nor the sneers of rivals, nor the pressure of financial conditions, not always easy, could induce him to hurry over any difficulty before he had done everything in his power to understand and overcome it.”
Well at six thirty PM on August 8th, with the sun just starting to set, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and walks over to Berg, Bollet, and those around them, and quietly but confidently says “Gentleman, I’m going to fly.”
He started the engine and propellers. Sat in the seat. Asked a mechanic if a certain adjustment had been made. He then left his seat to check for himself to make sure the adjustment was indeed made to his satisfaction.
Then he sat back down, and took off.
The flight lasted for a little less than two minutes during which he traveled a little more than two miles.
The French crowd absolutely lose their minds.
They are cheering, shouting, yelling, nearly hysterical.
Men start shouting “C’est l’homme qui a conquis l’air.” THis is the man who conquered the air.
One of the French pilots who had conducted his own test flights, who had been waiting around since the morning, told a reporter “I would have waited ten times longer to have seen what i have seen today.”
Another French aviator told a newspaper “We are children compared to the Wrights.”
Skepticism disappeared over night. Newspapers all over Europe and the United States carried headlines declaring it a triumph.
Le Matin writes “The mystery which seemed inextricable and inexplicable is now cleared away. Wright flew with an ease such that one cannot doubt those enigmatic experiments that took place in America.
No more than one can doubt that this man is capable of remaining an hour in the air. It is the most extraordinary vision of a flying machine that we have seen.”
And they hit the nail on the head there on what made the demonstration so special.
It wasn’t the height or the speed or the duration or the or any one of those measurable technical milestones that impressed people. It was the control. Other aviators who took to the air always looked like they were on the verge of death. They were just trying to keep their plane aloft long enough to set some new record.
Wilbur’s flight, on the other hand, looked smooth and fully in control. This was a plane not meant for arbitrary records, as others were, but the French immediately grasped that this was the only plane around that could produce consistent, safe, practical flights.
And Wilbur becomes a huge celebrity in France overnight. Not that he lets it affect him at all. He changes not at all, and basically refuses to acknowledge his celebrity status.
When crowds are gathered outside his window in Le Mans, he will occasionally come out to the balcony and wave to them. That is the extent of his playing into the hype.
Neither Wilbur nor Orville ever married in their life. But I don’t think their story lacks a love interest. I think the love story of the Wright Brothers was between Wilbur Wright and France.
On days when Wilbur wasn’t working, he wandered the Louvre and took in the Tuileries. He was incredibly well read and had a great grasp of art, literature, and history. And as such, he could truly appreciate not just Paris but France, the French, and the beauty of their culture.
And for their part, the French loved Wilbur. They loved his straightforward American mannerisms. They loved the genius of his engineering. They loved his shy and understated demeanor.
And you get these great quotes from French journalists about Wilbur at this time:
“Wilbur Wright is the best example of strength of character that I have ever seen. He is sure of himself, and of his genius.”
My favorite interaction actually is when Wilbur is awarded a gold medal from the French Aero Club. The presenter says in part:
“Mr. Wright is a man who has never been discouraged, even in the face of hesitation and suspicion. The brothers Wright have written their names in human history as inventors of pronounced genius.”
And then Wilbur gets up and gives a speech, and in part of it says how much the French have meant to them.
“For myself and my brother, I thank you for the honor you are doing us, and for the cordial reception you have tendered us this evening. If I had been born in your beautiful country and had grown up among you, I could not have expected a warmer welcome than has just been given me.
When we did not know each other, we had no confidence in each other. Today, when we are acquainted, it is otherwise. We believe each other and we are friends. I thank you for this. In the enthusiasm being shown around me, I see not merely an outburst intended to glorify a person. But a tribute to an idea that has always impassioned mankind.
I sometimes think that the desire to fly after the fashion of birds is an ideal handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands and prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.
Scarcely ten years ago, all hope of flying had almost been abandoned. Even the most convinced had become duped, doubtful. And I confess that, in 1901, I said to my brother, Orville, that men would not fly for fifty years. Two years later, we ourselves were making flights. This demonstration of my inability as a prophet gave me such a shock, that I have ever since distrusted myself and have refrained from all prediction, as my friends of the press especially well know.
But it is not really necessary to look too far into the future. We see enough already to be certain that it will be magnificent. Only let us hurry and open the roads. Once again, I thank you with all my heart. And in thanking you, I should like it understood that I am thanking all of France.”
Over the coming three months, Wilbur flew demonstration after demonstration. And thousands of people flocked to Les Mans to see each one.
And the details of his existence in Les Mans are quite charming. A stray dog starts following him around which he eventually adopts and names flyer.
The boys from Les Mans also follow him around. And they are the only ones who can pronounce his name. Everyone else in France calls him Monsieur Wreecht. But they have learned to pronounce his name and they call him Monsieur Wright.
On August 25th, 1908, the city of Les Mans throws him a massive banquet to celebrate his accomplishments and his contributions to the city of Les Mans.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to the French as having a feminine culture. And what he meant by that is that they take the ideas of people from elsewhere and incubate them and cherish them. So the great example is Da Vinci, right? He was not truly appreciated in Italy, but the French truly recognized Da Vinci as a genius, they celebrated him, they enabled him, they did whatever they could do encourage his genius.
And the French did much the same thing with the Wrights. I find it to be one of the most charming things about French culture that they do this.
Well while Wilbur was carrying on his love affair with France, Orville was getting ready to conduct demonstrations in Washington DC for the US War Department, which had finally woken up to the Wright’s accomplishments after Wilbur’s triumphs in France.
Because Wilbur has already been flying in France, the reactions to Orville’s demonstrations are a little more muted, but not much. Thousands of people flock to the see the flights. It’s a huge phenomenon and an enormous popular success for the Wright brothers.
He pushes his flyer a little harder than Wilbur, and keeps setting records, mostly for time in the air. His longest flight is an hour and six minutes. A pretty big leap from the twelves seconds of his first flight.
But his pushing of the limits eventually has consequences. On September 17th 1908, for the first time in nine years of flying, a Wright flying machine experiences a malfunction, and Orville and his passenger, a handsome and ambitious young luitenant named Thomas Selfridge, suddenly dive from an altitude of 100 feet.
Selfridge was killed, and Orville was badly injured.
He had broken his leg, his hip, and four ribs.
He’s badly shaken, and it takes a long time for him to fully recover. His sister Katherine is a hero at this time, and stays by his bed day and night to care for Orville and help nurse him back to health.
Eventually, Katherine and Orville go out to France where the join Wilbur. They keep putting on demonstrations in France, and also in Italy and Germany.
When they all finally come back to America together, they are greeted in Dayton with the largest parade that the city had ever seen. More than ten thousand people come just to meet them at the train station before the actual celebration.
There is a parade, speeches, marching bands, concerts, they are presented with the keys to the city.
And amazingly, during these two euphoric days of celebration, the brothers from time to time, manage to slip back into their old bike shop to get some work done.
Making money had never been the point for the brothers, but their initial sales to the French and American governments had made the Wrights rich men.
They did eventually start a company called, unsurprisingly, the Wright Company.
They manufacture airplanes, as you might imagine.
But they honestly spend about as much time enforcing their patents as they do on actual manufacturing.
Wilbur died of typhoid fever at only age 45 on May 30th, 1912.
Orville would live until 1948, when he died of a heart attack.
Orville sold the Wright Company in 1908, and it merged a couple times until it became the Curtiss-Wright company. It still exists today and manufactures parts for airplanes. The company has a market cap of about $7.5 billion.
And as successful of a company as it is, that is not their main legacy and was never supposed to. The Wright brothers did not undertake the project of powered flight to make money. They did it to fly. Just to fly.
It’s amazing to think that just two hundred years ago no one had flown. Absolutely nobody. And now in large part because of the Wright Brothers, we are an airborne species.
So what can we learn from the Wright Brothers? I think there is so much, so I’ll just key in on a few ideas:
The first is this commitment to not change from what got you there. Even when the brothers were receiving ecstatic celebrations in Dayton and France and across the world, their true desire was to quietly get back to work.
Even at their big celebration in Dayton they are slipping back into their bike shop.
It reminds me of Genghis Khan. I think the main thing that separated him from other steppe conquerors is that he was never seduced by the empires that he conquered. He slept in a Mongolian tent until the day he died. He never gave up his original way of life.
So Genghis Khan and the Wright Brothers are alike in that way.
It also reminds me of the Rothschild brothers who never lost their love of finance even as they became enormously wealthy.
Okay lesson two is that constraints improve performance. The Wrights were smart not to take endless amounts of funding from Andrew Carnegie. They ended up spending something like 1% what Langley spent on his failed monstrosity of a glider.
And I think that their frugal budget actually helped them. When money is no object, sometimes you tend to overlook things, whereas when you are on a shoestring budget you are by necessity intimately familiar with every detail of the project you’re working on.
So I think it is often the best policy to do what the Wrights did. To stay lean, stay hungry, and operate within helpful constraints, financial or otherwise.
Of course there are unhelpful constraints as well, no one is saying you need to compete with an arm tied behind your back but especially when it comes to money I think frugality forces creativity.
Third is to break down problems and solve them piece by piece. I think it’s overwhelming to think about how you would create the first powered flying machine from scratch. But if you break down the problem into its parts: Balance, lift, and power, then it starts to seem more approachable.
We just design a glider for the lift, add some controls for the balance, and then we just need to add a light weight power source at the end. And that’s exactly what they did. And so when you are up against a really problem, that seems impossibly difficult, just break it down.
What are the individual pieces I actually need to solve here. And then don’t solve them all at once, solve them one by one if you can, just like the Wright brothers did.
And my fourth takeaway is just that anything is possible. This episode made me so proud to be an American. And I was so proud of the Wright brothers for the grit and determination that they demonstrated. Everyone around them was failing, for a time they were failing.
And at a time when everyone was saying that it was impossible and that even if it were possible, they were not the ones to do it. They didn’t know what they were talking about it.
They just put their heads down and did it anyway.
I want to resurface a quote from John T Daniels, who was a local from Kitty Hawk who helped them from time to time. He said:
“It wasn't luck that made them fly. It was hard work and common sense. They put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea, and they had the faith.”
And that’s a pretty simple statement, but I also think it’s an incredibly profound formulation of what it takes to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Work hard. Have common sense. Put your heart and soul and all your energy into an idea. And have faith.
And if you do those things, you can truly accomplish the impossible, just like the Wright Brothers did.
Okay, I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you are a subscriber, tune in next week to hear Wright Brothers end notes.
Until then, thank you for listening to How to Take Over the World.