Meeting Wilbur and Orville
To understand the brothers, one historian found that what you know is less important than who you know.
- By Tom D. Crouch
- Air & Space magazine, March 2003
(Page 3 of 4)
I treasured a friendship with the late Wilkinson Wright, the son of Ivonette’s older brother Milton. When he was a young man in the 1930s, “Wick” and his cousins had spent summers with Orville at his vacation home on an island in Canada’s Georgian Bay. As he told it, however, there was little vacationing going on. “Uncle Orv” kept his grandnephews busy shifting the location of buildings on the island, building a “junction railroad” to bring luggage up from the beach to cabins on the bluff, and performing general chores.
The opportunity to know members of the Wright family, their wives, children, and grandchildren, has been one of the great pleasures of my professional life. It occurred to me many years ago that I knew far more about their family than I did about my own. Relatives further back than my grandparents are only names to me, or unfamiliar faces in fading photographs. I can, on the other hand, recite from memory much of the Wright lineage back to the 17th century. I can tell you something about the personalities of family members, including the two Wright brothers you never hear mentioned—Ivonette’s dad, Lorin, and first-born Reuchlin. I can tell you how they lived and died, their triumphs and disasters. I have read the letters and diaries of generations of Wrights. I am certain that Orville Wright, that most private of men, would be very unhappy knowing how familiar I am with his inner life and that of the other members of his family. He did what he could to discourage would-be biographers. I find it hard to believe that he would accept anyone as nosy as I am.
For all of that, I would know more. Several years ago one of my favorites of the present generation of the Wright family introduced me to an audience as “our family Boswell.” I could not have been more proud. At the same time, I have had none of the advantages James Boswell had in spending years in the constant company of the writer Samuel Johnson. He traveled with him, discussed everything under the sun, met his friends and family. I would be happy just to spend an afternoon in the company of Wilbur and Orville.
As noted, I would not choose a time when they were preoccupied with their experiments. Rather, I would stroll into the Wright Cycle shop at 1127 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, on any afternoon in early August 1899. Just three months before, the brothers had announced their interest in flight for the first time in a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information on the state of the aeronautical arts. Recognizing that other pioneers had built wings that would lift them into the air, and that propulsion was an issue that could wait, they quickly decided to focus on aeronautical control.
Standing in this very shop that spring, idly fingering a long, narrow box that had contained an inner tube, Wilbur had come upon the notion of moving the top wing of a biplane fore or aft of the bottom wing, and even inducing a helical twist across both wings in a way that would enable a pilot to control the movement of the center of pressure on the wing, and thus the motion of a flying machine. He built a small skeletal model of such a biplane out of bamboo slivers, rigged with thread, just to clarify in his mind the mechanics of the thing. Then he built a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan to test the principle.
He walked out of the bike shop one day late in July with the kite carefully tucked under his arm. He walked four or five blocks west on Third Street, then turned north for two blocks. Along the way, he collected a crowd of boys who had abandoned their own kite flying activities to follow Wilbur. Arriving at an open field at the corner of West First Street and Euclid Avenue, near the Union Theological Seminary, he set up the kite and unwound the four 20-foot lines that would control its motion.
Wilbur asked one of the boys, Johnny Myers, to hold the kite as far above his head as he could and to let it go when instructed. “There was quite a big wind that day,” Myers reported many years later. “I recall that when he tilted the planes, the kite came down very rapidly.” With a bit of practice, Wilbur was able to maneuver the kite in the air. It was a tricky business, however. Once, when he allowed the lines to go slack, the kite darted toward the ground, scattering the young onlookers. On that quiet summer afternoon, Wilbur Wright had taken the first step toward the invention of the airplane.
I have a kite like that. A friend who is far better with his hands than I am built it for me. It is not easy to fly. Without some weight in front of the leading edge, I can’t keep it in the air at all. For a long time, my record duration aloft was 20 seconds. My kite, and all of the other replicas that people have built, are based on a simple drawing that Wilbur sketched one morning before testifying in a patent suit. I would like to see what his kite was really like. And I would like to ask how long he really kept it in the air on that first day. Maybe he could give me a few tips.