Tuesday, August 1, 2017

McCullough on the Wright Brothers

I've read one other McCullough book (his first-- on the Johnstown Flood) and I own one other (on the Panama Canal). His most famous work is on John Adams, but that doesn't grab me. I suspect that all of his works are interesting and easy-to-read. This one on the Wright Brothers got a read and gets a review, since it has a bunch of connections to economics, entrepreneurship, Christian theology and practice, and events in my life. (On the latter, we've seen the Wright Brothers' home and bike shop at Greenfield Village in Detroit. And we've been to the historical site at Kitty Hawk.)

In the Prologue, McC lists pre-Wright flight attempts and innovations: a guy in Spain with bird feathers in 875; daVinci's studies starting in 1490; and a flying toy made by a Frenchman, Alphonse Penaud, which inspired the Wright Brothers (WB) to fly someday (1). Beyond a cute intro, the mentions tell some of the WB's story: their emulation of birds; their avid study of flight mechanics; and the repeated connections of their work to the French.

McC opens with and overview of the WB's partnership and lifestyle (6-8). They lived together; they worked hard six days a week and rested hard on Sunday; they were both bachelors. They wore aprons over their suits and ties-- and they loved to tinker. They knew their strengths and weaknesses-- and how they complemented each other. They generally got along well and were more interested in progress than fame. An interesting example: Wilbur's journal features "we" instead of I, sharing the glory, even when he was acting in the first person (55).

Then, McC describes their family background (9-15): their younger sister Katherine who played a big part in their success; a deceased mother and a father who were both greatly influential. Two quotes from their father: "Old folks may be as right about new fangles as young folks are about fogy ways." (13) And "All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one becoming a burden on others." (14) Their father was an itinerant preacher and regional church administrator. They also had two older brothers who had relatively standard middle-class lives. The family read a ton; they had an impressive book collection. They were formally educated, but informal education was valued more highly; they were allowed to skip school if they were in the middle of worthy project (17). 

The first observation from economics: When we talk about "poverty", it's difficult to escape it without sufficient "resources". Of course, it's easy to focus on the material part of those resources, but the non-material components are arguably more important-- e.g., people who can model, assist, provide counsel, etc. The WB had sufficient material resources and ample non-material resources. Late in life, an interviewer commented how the WB were great examples of how far Americans could go with no special advantages-- and they replied that this was not true: "the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity." (18) Along those lines, Wilbur would say this is how to be successful in life: "Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio." (12)

Some other early-life experiences: The WB started a newspaper-- their first foray into entrepreneurship (18). One of their partners was Paul Laurence Dunbar, the great poet-to-be (19-20). Their mother died on July 4th, forever "ruining" that holiday for them (20). They took up bicycling (a craze of the time) and then started a bicycle shop-- eventually making their own bike models (25). Some of the contemporary concerns about bikes are hilarious today: less time with books; getting too far from home; and more op for moral failings and "seductions" (21-22).

From there, McC turns to the history of efforts to fly and the WB's efforts in the realm of flight.  They wrote a letter in 1899 to the Smithsonian, successfully requesting resources (32). These were very helpful, including materials from two men whose work and lives would intersect with theirs: Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. Chanute became a mostly-friendly collaborator. Langley was the head of the Smithsonian; the recipient of big government money for his flying projects ($50K in grants vs. the $1K that the WB spent in total); the producer of some ill-fated (and now-humorous) attempts at flight (93-100, p. 114's picture); the inspiration behind the naming of Langley AFB; and the head of an organization which later schemed to take credit for manned flight. 

Over the years, the WB used the bike shop profits to finance their gliders and planes (70-71). Langley's subsidy did not pay off for taxpayers. In France, Clement Ader received govt funds, but all that survives of his efforts is the term avion for "airplane" in the French language (33). Who will build the roads indeed. Here, who will build the airplanes?

McC notes the risks and ridicule that went with the efforts (33): failure, injury and death-- but also being "mocked as a crank, a crackpot" for trying the impossibility or the foolish (even if possible). It was well into their success that scientists/academics and the media finally recognized their success and the value of their innovations (69, 109-110, 113, 116). And this, in a period of great innovation (35)! The initial story was covered in Gleanings in Bee Culture rather than a newspaper or academic journal (118). They were ignored by Scientific American (121) until April 1906 (133). The American govt was uninterested (122-123) until 1908 (153), although the French and Germans were excited early-on. One wonders if cronyism (e.g., Langley's subsidy) was part of the story (128).

The WB began with a bi-plane glider and needed an ideal location-- land to maneuver, strong winds, and soft landing spots. (Another point of comparison with Langley's work. He needed no wind for his contraptions (unrealistic-- even if they had worked!); the WB required wind for their early efforts and could deal with wind or not later on [115].) The dunes along the ocean at Kitty Hawk (KH) were perfect. They found KH through U.S. Weather Bureau data (a second place where the govt was helpful-- again, in the provision of information with a "public good" component to it). McC describes KH in chapter 3-- not much there, including roads and boats! They began their experiments in October 1900 (49).

Machinery was important, but skill was vital (38). Flying required equilibrium and balance-- akin to riding a bike (48)! They would use the wind, observing that "no bird soars in a calm" (52). The KH'ers were friendly (54) and helpful (esp. Bill Tate). One funny detail: when they left the first successful glider behind, they told Bill's wife to put it to good use and she used the wings to make dresses (56). 

In Part II of the book, McC describes the process of moving from glider to airplane-- in adding a motor. Returning from KH, they enlisted Charlie Taylor-- who was helpful both in running the bike shop in their absence (along with their sister; 57) and in building engines (86-88). They were initially relying on others' data, but found out (the hard way) that the data were not accurate (63). They built a rough but effective and innovative wind tunnel to get their own (69). Propellers were an immense challenge-- again with no data (88-89). They used skids instead of wheels for landing (89). All of this led to their pursuit of a patent (90)-- another effective role for govt, in protecting property rights for intellectual fruits. 

The data, the innovations, and their connections to Chanute led to Wilbur's first public talk on their efforts (66-68). He made no mention of their propeller or engine (92). Was he hiding it or being humble? And in that speech and throughout their lives, they were not critical of competition, although Langley's foibles certainly must have been tempting to skewer (101). Again, was this humility or a recognition that they could die on any attempt or be surpassed by others if things broke the right way? 

Their first attempt to fly was on 12/14/03. Wilbur won the coin flip (102) and failed, but they were excited because they believed that the cause was pilot error-- something that could be fixed. Three days later, on 12/17, Orville flew 120' over 12 seconds. Five other men were there to witness it-- locals, including someone who became a rookie photographer. Wilbur flew successfully; then Orville again; then Wilbur flew 852' in 59 seconds (103-105). The day of flying ended with a wind gust that destroyed the plane (106). But history had been made!

With success in hand and less need for the benefits of KH's environs, the WB moved their operations to Huffman Prairie near Dayton (112). There, Wilbur flew in a circle in 1904 (119)-- and in 1905, Orville flew 15 miles (126). 

At this point, flying took a back seat to promotion and sales for a long spell. France had expressed great interest in flying-- the government, entrepreneurs, and the general public interest. Soon, they would take the lead in flying efforts (221), including Bleriot's flight over the English Channel in 1909 (237). For now, they were merely competitive. In 1906, Santos-Dumont had flown 726' (133). And France would host the WB to purchase their work and their expertise. Wilbur went to Le Mans to show and to sell (137ff). Wilbur entertained huge crowds: 200K in six months (203). He trained three French aviators, as per the contract (205). (He later trained Italians too; 223). He enjoyed himself, including the opportunity to fly in a blimp-- a lovely experience, but much more expensive and much less practical than the airplane (143). 

All in all, there was a 2.5-year gap (from Fall 05 - Apr 08) between flights (155). When they next flew, the airplane could handle two people: the pilot and a guest (156). Great fame came with the next flight at Le Mans on August 8, 1908-- the same 888 that started the Olympics in Beijing a century later (167-172)-- when Wilbur flew two miles over two minutes in front of 150 people. Their fame grew as they did different maneuvers (including the first figure 8's) and repeatedly set world records-- Orville in the U.S. and Wilbur in Europe. Wilbur flew over the Eiffel Tower (248) and they finally flew together in 1910 (253).

One unfortunate milestone: Thomas Selfridge became the first passenger to die in a plane accident on 9/17/08. Orville was flying and sustained severe injuries, requiring a long recovery (190ff). 

The pace of technological advance was rapid. A year later, 22 pilots would fly for a crowd of 50K people (240). As is often the case, technological advance of neutral objects can have immense positive and negative effects. Just a few years later, planes would be used in World War I. Halberstam credits H.G. Wells with the first reference of airplanes to war and destruction (186). 

Wilbur died early, of typhoid fever, in 1912 (256). He had taken the lead on lawsuits and patent infringement. Orville continued the battle for money and legacy (259-260). The Smithsonian pulled some shenanigans in the following years. The battle continues to some extent, with others giving and taking credit for pioneering flight. This reminds me of the debate over Shakespeare, which relies in large part on incredulity that someone so plain (no pun intended) could accomplish so much. 

McC closes with other legacy events: Lindbergh's flight over the Atlantic (260); the inclusion of Wright's home and bike shop at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village (261); and Neil Armstrong's steps on the moon, where he brought a small swatch of the 1903 Flier's wing (262).


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