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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Getting the Story Wright- "Trust but Verify"

(Updated March 2, 2018)
Much research is required in writing a book about the Wright Brothers, and the odds are against the author in producing an absolute error free manuscript.(1) Sometimes the errors are simply typographical, but other times, the facts are just simply incorrect. Ideally, any errors missed during the editing process will come to light after the first printing, and corrections perhaps made in later editions.(2) I've read over 125 books on the Wright Brothers, and have often come across a passage that contradicts another author's writing, or I know does not agree with an original source of information. These can be very minor points, such as a date being incorrect by a year or two, or the errors can be major factual blunders. To begin with, the following are examples of errors I have come across from David McCullough's "The Wright Brothers", published 2015. These are minor factual points, but I offer them up as an example that even amongst the best authors and best titles, as readers, we need to "trust but verify".

David McCullough writes in Chapter Six, "Out at Huffman Prairie", the year is 1904, and the Wrights have designed a catapult "Its components consisted of a 20-foot tent-shaped tower, or derrick. Made with four wooden poles, it looked like a drilling rig. At the apex, over a pulley, hung by a single rope metal weights totaling as much as 1,600 pounds.....With a team of horses the brothers would haul the weights up to the top of the derrick. Then, when all was ready, the pilot would release the rope, the weights would drop, the machine would be pulled rapidly down to the end of the track, then shoot into the air..."
The next paragraph appears to get the facts wrong-
"On September 7, with scarcely any wind, Wilbur tested the new catapult for the first time, starting with only 200 pounds of weights. By day's end, having added another 400 pounds, he could take off with no difficulties and flew longer distances than ever..."
This error here is that the Wrights actually started with 600 pounds, and added 200 pounds, and then another 200 pounds. 

Catapult and Hangar reproduction as displayed at Huffman Prairie, Wright Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio.

James Tobin, in his book "To Conquer the Air", Chapter Eight, "What Hath God Wrought?", page 210, correctly states the following-
" With Kate and her friend Melba Stilliman watching, the brothers tried the catapult for the first time September 7, 1904. The wind was barely breathing. With 600 pounds of weight pulling it, the machine whizzed along the rail- nearly 100 yards in nine seconds- but it flew less than 150 feet. The brothers added 200 pounds to the weight and 'almost got a start'. They added 200 more pounds. Now Will shot forward and up, and stayed aloft for just over 2000 feet."
In a letter written by Orville Wright to John W. Wood, September 25, 1939, Orville offers corrections to a manuscript Wood has prepared, and writes the following-
" Page 3, under "Catapult": The weight used was generally either 1200 or 1400 pounds. I believe only one flight was made with a 600 pound weight." This one flight mentioned by Orville would correspond to the "less than 150 foot" flight mentioned by James Tobin, using a 600 lb weight. The additional flights that September 7th were made with 1000 pounds of weight, as written by Tobin, not just 600 pounds as written by McCullough.(3)

Next, David McCullough, in "The Wright Brothers", pg 127, states the following-
"On the afternoon of October 5, 1905, before more than a dozen witnesses, Wilbur circled the pasture 29 times, landing only when his gas ran out....By the time the experiments ended, the brothers had made 105 'starts' at Huffman Prairie and thought it time now to put their creation, Flyer III, on the market."
But then, on pg 128, McCullough writes
"By this time the brothers were routinely making controlled flights in their aircraft of 25 miles or more."
This sentence as written sounded very familiar. Searching my memory, I recalled I had seen this quote from Mark Bernstein's book "Wright Brother's Home Days Celebration, 1909", 2003, Chapter "The Welcome", pg 1, in which Mark wrote-
"By 1905, their aircraft was routinely making controlled flights of 25 miles or more."
This statement is incorrect. The last flight of October 5, 1905 by Wilbur Wright was 24 1/5 miles in length. There were no more flights until 1908. There were no routine flights of 25 miles or more during this time. The flights were discontinued because the word was out that the Wrights were making substantial flights at Simms Station, and the brothers were concerned photographs and details of their Flyer would be made public.
As recorded by Wilbur Wright in his Diary, Thursday, October 5, 1905, "News of Oct 5th contained article; and Post of October 6th. Experiments discontinued for present."
Wright Brother flights 1905 Simms Station Huffman Prairie
From Aero Club of America, March 12, 1906 statement, flight lengths Huffman Prairie, 1905.
Next, on page 133, "The Wright Brothers", McCullough writes "On May 22, 1906, the patent applied for in 1903 was at last issued on the Wright Flying Machine, patent number 821,393, and through the rest of that spring and summer, preoccupation with a new engine for Flyer III went on, and flight tests continued at Huffman Prairie into the fall."
This perhaps should be worded differently. Flight tests were discontinued in 1905. Engine tests continued, but not flight tests.

Next, chapter Eight, "Triumph at Le Mans", pg 155, McCullough writes about the Wrights returning to Kill Devil Hills in 1908, "Though he had been forewarned that the camp at Kill Devil Hills was in shambles, what Wilbur found was worse than he had imagined. Of the original building, only the sides still stood. The new building was gone, carried off by violent storms or vandals.....Walking among the ruins he kept turning up pieces and parts of the 1901, 1902, and 1903 machines."
The error here, is the mention of the 1903 machine. The 1903 machine (the Wright Flyer) had been crated and sent back to Dayton Ohio, late December 1903. The glider that was used for practice in 1903 was the 1902 glider that had been left behind in 1902. There was no 1903 machine at Kill Devil Hills in 1908 of which to find pieces and parts.

Within the first group of photos within the book, Steele High School and the Main street bridge is shown. David incorrectly identifies the photo as "The Third Street Bridge over the Miami River, with the towered Steele High School on the right..."

Again, these are minor errors within a 267 page book. "The Wright Brothers" is an enjoyable read. David McCullough's positive portrayal of the brothers is refreshing and his book is welcomed as a defender of the Wright Brother's accomplishments.

Another enjoyable read is "Gentleman Amateurs- An Appreciation of Wilbur and Orville Wright" by Mark Bernstein. The pictures depicted throughout this book are a pleasure to view, as they are often full page, or spread across two pages. There are a number of quotes given however that could use correction or clarification, and those are offered here.

Under the section "The Bishop and His Lady", we read "In the mid-1800's Susan contracted tuberculosis, which is a slow death. Hers came on July 4, 1889. Wilbur was 22; Orville, 18. Milton wrote in his diary, "And thus went out the life of my home." Milton actually wrote "And thus went out the light of my home."

In section "A Propeller is a Spinning Wing", we read "Wilbur later wrote: 'Nothing about a propeller, or the medium in which it acts, stand still for a moment. The thrust depends upon the speed and the angle at which the blade strikes the air, the angle at which the blade strikes the air depends upon the speed at which the propeller is turning, the speed at which the machine is traveling forward, and the speed at which the air is slipping backward; (while) the slip of the air backward depends upon the thrust exerted by the propeller, and the amount of air acted upon. When any of these changes, it changes all the rest.'" This was actually written by Orville, not Wilbur, as discussed in McFarland's The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Vol 1, The Wright Propellers, page 596, quoted from Orville's 1913 Flying article.

In section "A Team No Longer", we read "Wilbur died early on May 30, aged 45.......Wilbur had several months earlier provided a sort of epitaph for himself. In a letter to Octave Chanute, he wrote:
"If there be a domineering, tyrant thought, it is the conception that the problem of flight may be solved by man. When once this idea has invaded the brain, it possesses it exclusively. It is then a haunting thought, a walking nightmare, impossible to cast off. If we now consider the pitying contempt with which such a line of research is appreciated, we may somewhat conceive the unhappy lot of the investigator whose soul is thus possessed." Wilbur died in 1912, and Octave Chanute died in 1910, so obviously, Wilbur did not write this in a letter several months prior to his death to Chanute. The quote was written by Louis Pierre Mouillard in his 1881 book "The Empire of the Air". Wilbur quoted Mouillard in an article published by Literary Digest April 27, 1912.

Page 234-235 of Gentleman Amateurs depicts a biplane passing through Tower Bridge, titled "The old meets the new"- In 1912, a Wright airplane made a demonstration flight in London, including a pass through Tower Bridge."  The picture however does not show a Wright biplane, but instead shows Frank McClean in a modified Short seaplane.

I'll add to this post over time with other examples.  

(1) My intent in writing this post is two fold. First to point out that errors do exist in many of the historical books we read, and that given, we need to be watchful, and careful not to repeat any error. Second intent, is to simply correct the history.

(2) For the errors I mention, I don't know if corrections have been made in later editions. I am simply using the edition within my own library collection.

(3)  McFarland "The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright" as recorded in Wilbur Wright's Diary, 1904-1905, pages 13-17, Wednesday, September 7, 1904-
Derrick. Drop 16 1/2 (ft). Geared 3:1 = 50ft. Wind about 2 mi. 
(40.) 1st trial. Wt. 600 lb. Distance 136 ft. Time 6 sec. Slowed and stopped. 89 meters (in) 9 sec.
(41.) 2nd trial. Wt. 800 lb. Distance 200 ft. Time 7 sec. Wind about 2 mi. Almost got a start. 
(42.) 3rd trial. W.W. 1000 lbs. On track 77 ft. 2 4/5 sec. Distance 1,360 ft. Time 37 sec....K. W. & Melba S(illiman) (present).
Friday, September 9, 1904
(43.) Wt. 1,200 lbs.....
(44.) W.W. Wt. 1200 (lbs)....
Tuesday, September 13, 1904
Wt. 1,200 lbs., &c.
Wednesday, September 14, 1904
1,200 lb. wt.
Monday, September 26, 1904
(54.) 2nd flight. O.W. 1,400 lbs.....

For David McCullough's Miniseries parody script, see "Tom Hanks and the Wright Brothers Miniseries"

Also check out "American Genius- Wright Brothers vs. Curtiss- The True Story"

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