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The Improbable Story of How the Wright Brothers Changed World History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 22, 2024 3:02 am

The Improbable Story of How the Wright Brothers Changed World History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 22, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, much was at stake in this first race to space. Nations and top scientists across the globe pursued the elusive goal of powered flight, but two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio - brothers with their own scant resources - made it happen. This is their story.

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See AT&T.com slash Samsung for details. And we continue here with our American stories. And up next, the story of the Wright brothers and their battle to be the first in space. It was the early 20th century and world leaders everywhere were in a race to create what we now call the airplane. And not just for the sheer wonder of it, to the winner would go the spoils of commerce and war. The stakes were high and our government feared that the British, Germans or French might win the first race to space. What was the American response?

We chose to invest in a person. Samuel Langley and his team of experts. Langley at the turn of the 20th century was a big name. He was the head of the Smithsonian, our nation's preeminent source of government research and an acclaimed scientist, having taught mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy and physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh. He also wrote a lot about aviation.

The prevailing wisdom was simple. Give the nation's top government scientist a pile of cash and see if his band of scientific appointees could crack the manpower flight code. That's precisely what happened when the War Department handed Langley a princely sum and set his team to work. What did the American people get for their government investment in flight? Langley and his team called it the great heriotrome.

But there was nothing great about it. In front of a crowd of onlookers and reporters, Langley's machine launched from a catapult on a houseboat in the Potomac River and after a short time in air, quickly plunged into the river. It fell like a ton of mortar, one journalist wrote. A few months and tweaks later, Langley tried again and got the same result. The press had a feel that the Boston Herald suggested Langley ought to give up airplanes and try submarines. You tell Langley that the only thing he ever made fly was government money, a skeptical member of Congress told a Brooklyn Herald reporter. Rather than criticize Langley, government officials covered their guy and pled for more money and more time. Here's the official War Department memo.

We are still far from the ultimate goal and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines. Two inventors from Dayton, Ohio didn't get the War Department's message. Only nine days after Langley's failed experiment, with a mere $2,000 of their own money and no reporters or fans around to watch, Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first men in history to launch a sustained power and pilot-driven air machine into flight, flying for 59 seconds and covering 852 feet of ground, a few miles from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Who were these two brothers and why did they succeed where others failed?

Author David McCullough, who wrote a terrific book about the Wright brothers, said this. They didn't have any money. They didn't have any political contacts. And they didn't have a great university or foundation behind them. But they thought they could figure out how it is that birds soar. They had been making bicycles, by the way, and selling bicycles in their little shop in Dayton, Ohio.

And of course, bicycling is about balance and equilibrium. Langley had failed, it turns out, because he and his team were working on the wrong problem. They were focused on power. The Wright brothers focused their efforts on the problem of balance. Their practical and applied experience as world-class bicycle makers and engineers gave the two guys from Dayton advantages no amount of government money or scientific pedigree could match. That wasn't the only reason the Wright brothers succeeded where Langley failed.

Here's McCullough again. What they realized is that it isn't enough just to invent, theoretically, or invent, in fact, a machine that might fly on its own power, but to know how to do it, to know how to fly just as if you made a bicycle. You can't just say, here's the bicycle, but you don't know how to ride it. And the only way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride a bicycle. So they didn't just invent the airplane, they learned, as no one ever knew before, how to fly the airplane. And that means riding with the wind and having wings that will do the necessary adjustments that will make it possible to stay in the air. It was dangerous work.

Every time they went up, they would go up 50 or 100 times a year. They had a good chance of being killed. For that reason, they never flew together.

If one got killed, the other would be alive to carry on with the mission. The Wright brothers succeeded because they not only knew how to build the machines, but how to use them. There was no disconnect between the engineer and the pilot. Indeed, these two became the first test pilots in world history. What really propelled the Wright brothers into the air and the record books was their pioneering work on what's known in aviation as three-axis control, which allows the pilot to steer the aircraft and maintain the machine's balance.

It would become an industry standard and remain standard on all fixed-wing aircraft. The Wright brothers had another advantage, freed from the perils of government subsidy. They had to think of ways to innovate with less, explained author James Tobin in his book To Conquer the Air. Because they couldn't afford the costs of too many failed flight tests, the Wright brothers designed their own wind tunnels to test various designs for aerodynamic effectiveness.

From those simulations, they amassed real-life practical data sets that they used to hone their aircraft designs. As with so many great innovations in our time, powered flight in America was propelled by amateurs with less funding and expertise than their private and public competitors. The Wright brothers, neither of whom had a college degree, found themselves in the flying business, wrote author James Tobin, in the sheer spirit of play, as mere hobbyists.

This was a distinctly American attribute. This is what Alvo Wright had to say about it. If we had been interested in invention with the idea of profit, we most assuredly would have tried something in which the chances for success were brighter. You see, we did not expect in the beginning to go beyond gliding. Even later, we didn't suppose the airplane could ever be practical outside the realm of sport.

It was the sport of the thing that appealed to Will and me in the first place. The question was not of money from flying, but how we could get money enough to keep on entertaining ourselves with flying. Though the Wright brothers beat Langley in the Smithsonian to the man-powered flight race, the race for a patent and credit was just getting started. With Smithsonian approval, an aviation expert made some slight modifications to Langley's aerodrome and made some short flights in 1914, all to bypass the Wright brothers' patent application and vindicate the Smithsonian's leader. In 1914, America's most esteemed historical museum displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its own museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight. Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Will, was so angry that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that actually made aviation history, to a science museum in, of all places, London.

But truth is a stubborn thing. After considerable embarrassment and pressure, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome in 1942. That British museum? Well, they returned the Wright brothers' historic flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft's only flights. A grand government deception, at last foiled by facts and by fate. Samuel Langley died in obscurity, a broken and disappointed man. Friends often claimed he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he had more government funding and more time. As for the Wright brothers, the memory of the two men live on, their legacy emblematic of all that is possible in America, and improbable, too.

The story of the Wright brothers, and how they beat the fancy, well-paid scientists to space, here on Our American Story. Hello there. I'm Anne Thompson, editor-at-large for IndieWire. And I'm IndieWire's deputy film editor, Ryan LaTanzio. And we're the co-hosts of IndieWire's weekly ScreenTalk podcast. Join us each week for an in-depth discussion of the latest in film and TV industry news, with special guests along the way, including filmmakers and executives.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-22 04:47:06 / 2024-03-22 04:52:01 / 5

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