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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Were Wilbur and Orville Wright Equal Partners in the Invention of the Aeroplane?

(Revised November 28, 2015) Yes, per Milton Wright, who wrote on Dec 22, 1903- "Wilbur is 36, Orville 32, and they are inseparable as twins. For several years they have read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books, and they have studied, discussed, and experimented together. Natural workmen, they have invented, constructed, and operated their gliders, and finally their "Wright Flyer", jointly, all at their own personal expense. About equal credit is due each."

From the article "In the Interpreter's House" American Magazine, July 1909- "They took hold of the thing together.....Probably their method of work saved them from failure at this stage of the undertaking. It was this: When one made a suggestion the other attacked it- but not without reasons, of course. The outcome was that frequently a whole day's discussion- and they often talked at home until the women folks felt like sweeping them out with a broom- would result in each one accepting the position of the other. Then the next day the whole thing would be gone over again, until they had got the truth and both were persuaded. In this manner they undoubtedly avoided 'going off on a tangent' and also attained each others determination. And for this reason everybody in the family, and everybody in Dayton, is satisfied that neither brother could have mastered the thing alone."

Wilbur Wright, 1912- "From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together. We usually owned all of our toys in the common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us."
West Side News, July 3, 1889 issue. Wilbur and Orville were involved first in printing, then bicycles, and then aviation.

Mark Eppler in his book "The Wright Way" explains this partnership well..."The Wright Brothers are forever fixed in our minds as one personality because of the extraordinary cohesion of their partnership. It was a collaboration of minds the world has not seen since."

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, James Tobin, 2003- In his chapter "Truth and Error Intimately Mixed", I take exception to the author's suspicion that "Perhaps when this offbeat hobby became something much more than a hobby, Orville felt defensive about his own claim to the original idea, and his brother knew it, and wanted to ease any strain. From long experience in the Brethren battles, the Wright family had the habit of solidarity. One suspects there was an unspoken rule: It must never seem to be Wilbur versus Orville." I doubt there was an unspoken rule in the case for their inventive process, as there was no need for one. Wilbur and Orville were a team. It is just speculation from the outside looking in to say otherwise.  One without the other would not have succeeded.
In his Epilogue, James Tobin concludes "If any more proof was needed of his brother's dominant drive during their years together, it became obvious in the quiet, uneventful days of Orville's life after 1912." Perhaps another way to look at this was after the patent battles, the death of Wilbur, the Smithsonian controversy...wasn't enough enough?
As Mark Eppler wrote in his Epilogue, "..Orville was tired. With the passing of his brother, the light had gone out of his life. Orville would never be the same, overcome for the rest of his life with what his niece, Ivonette Wright Miller, called a 'spirit of loneliness'."

Aero Club of America Bulletin, July 1912, "With the death of Wilbur Wright, on May 30, 1912, at the age of forty-five, there closed the prologue of the great drama of human flight. In less than a decade after its inauguration the better known of its authors has passed away, and thus is torn asunder that remarkable dual personality, the Wright brothers, whose genius the world has treated as a unit.....The brothers, Wilbur and Orville, have ever seemed the indivisible halves of a single personality, the younger of which possessed its contemplative, and the older its actively expressive, qualities. Orville, the man of thought, was expressed by Wilbur the man of action; while the two, who always spoke of themselves as the Wright brothers, appeared in all things a unit......Further than this is seems neither useful nor delicate to go; these remarkable men chose to blend their identities, and between them share equally the glory of their astounding achievement: so let it be."

One aviation author has put forward the idea that the invention lay solely with Wilbur, and that Orville manipulated history to elevate himself above his own brother through lies and distortions, which is slanderous to Orville's name and unwarranted. This insult to Orville would have saddened his brother greatly.

It was this unique team, and unique circumstances that led to the solution. And for those who view Wilbur has having the sharper mind, and therefore the greater share of ownership to the invention, consider the following. In Fred Kelly's "Miracle at Kitty Hawk", 1951, Kelly documents Wilbur Wright's letter to Octave Chanute, October 28, 1906-
"I am not certain that your method of estimating probabilities is a sound one. Do you not insist too strongly upon the single point of mental ability? To me it seems that a thousand other factors, each rather insignificant in itself, in the aggregate influence the event ten times more than mere mental ability or inventiveness. The world does not contain greater men than Maxim, Bell, Edison, Langley, Lilienthal & Chanute. We are not so foolish as to base our belief, (that an independent solution of the flying problem is not imminent,) upon any supposed superiority to these men and to all those who will hereafter take up the problem. If the wheels of time could be turned back six years, it is not at all probable that we would do again what we have done. The one thing that impresses me as remarkable is the shortness of time within which our work was done. It was due to peculiar combinations of circumstances which might never occur again. How do you explain the lapse of more than 50 years between Newcomen and Watt? Was the world wanting in smart men during those years? Surely not! The world was full of Watts, but a thousand and one trifles kept them from undertaking and completing the task...We look upon the present question in an impersonal way. It is not chiefly a question of relative ability, but of mathematical probabilities."
What were these circumstances? First and foremost, that Wilbur and Orville were brothers, close in their relationship in friendship, and "in their thoughts and aspirations". Secondly, that they had supporting parents, else their "curiosity might have been nipped in the bud long before it could have borne fruit" (Orville Wright to friend). Thirdly, that their bicycle business was doing financially well enough, and being seasonal in nature, they were able to devote time to their inventive interests. And countless other factors- good health, lack of serious accidents, etc.

Again from "Miracle at Kitty Hawk", Kelly documents Wilbur Wright's letter to his father, Le Mans, November 9, 1908-
"...The government had decided to confer upon me the "Legion of Honor" but on learning of it privately, I sent word that it would be impossible for me to accept an honor which Orville could not equally share.....The Aero Club of Great Britain has also voted a gold metal, the first in the history of the Club, to Orville and me......I was offered the honorary presidency of the new English Aeroplane Society, but I declined it as I have declined all formal honors in which Orville was not associated. He must come over here next year...."

From the Dayton Daily News, January 31, 1948, James M. Cox, publisher of the Dayton Daily at that time, said the following, "I have known Orville Wright for almost 50 years. Others more acquainted with the sciences than I can better speak of his genius, but my admiration for the fine qualities of his character has amounted almost to a reverence. History will give him equal rank with his brother, Wilbur. In the first days of their fame, Wilbur made stronger appeal to the eye and imagination of the publicist and at that time Miss Katharine Wright, the sister, spoke to me of the injustice of public appraisal. The two brothers, unlike in many ways, still supplemented each other in their great achievement. In their day of glory when they were probably more talked about than anyone in modern history they maintained a quiet dignity in keeping with the pattern of their lives. They never sought to be seen or heard. People placed a halo upon them, but it never unbalanced them in manner or speech."

Here is where I believe the difference of opinions arise- the measure of importance placed on different gifts. Perhaps Wilbur had the gift of initial interest and ideas. He had the gift of oral presentation and of enjoyment of written word. Orville had the gift of implementation of ideas, of going after the answers with the art of "scrapping" and experimentation. Others have described the talents and contributions of each to the invention effort, and clearly it can be seen that it was a team effort. Wilbur had his talents, and Orville his; gifts that complemented each other and enabled them as a team to accomplish the task. 

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