Les Avions de la Grande Galerie
Once in a faraway land bounded on all sides by a treacherous river, the King became unusually restless. He was sure that the pastures and the savannas on the other side of the river were more fertile than his. But no one knew how to cross those turbulent waters. The King decreed a great reward of cattle and sheep to be reserved for whoever devised a way to cross the river.
The King’s chief sorcerer in all his regalia, accompanied by his apprentices, announced that he had discovered a magic spell that would force the river god Kol to carry him across the river. The sorcerer climbed to the summit of the sacred rock that rose beside the river. All day and all night his apprentices chanted and danced and brandished torches. At last the sorcerer screamed and leaped from the rock. His long robes floated behind him. Kol seemed to be wafting him toward the other shore. But the sorcerer fell like a stone and hit the surface of the river with a mighty splash. He disappeared. But some said later they saw him climb out on the far side.
The next day two young brothers, bow-and-arrow makers, arrived from a distant region. O King, said the two brothers, we shall cross the river. Leave us alone tonight on the bank so that no one will steal our magic. In the morning, the King saw the two brothers walking peacefully on the far side. A stout rope reached from one side to the other, strong enough for a man to climb along it. The two brothers came back by the rope and claimed the prize and became great heroes.
Soon emissaries arrived from another region. They said the brothers were very clever but those two did not invent the rope bridge. Others had been working on such a scheme long before the brothers came along. But the brothers wouldn’t go away and they wouldn’t show their rope magic to anyone else. Had they really made the rope?
The people were dissatisfied. Who had crossed the river first? Was it workers in another region of the land who knew about ropes? Or the sorcerer whose magic was very strong? Or the bow-and-arrow-making brothers who were so clever and who made claims about their own magic?
The King stayed many hours with his counselors. Then, at a great ceremonial feast he announced his decision. In the morning he had seen only the two brothers on the opposite shore, not the sorcerer and not the rope workers. Therefore the reward belonged rightfully to the brothers. Even if they had not invented the rope bridge, they had used it first. And so the matter was settled, and the brothers earned a place in history. The others were forgotten.
This artless parable comes uncannily close to recapitulating the early history of manned flight. The King embodies the nineteenth-century imperative for mechanical invention. The sorcerer reenacts the story of Samuel P. Langley, the director of the Smithsonian Institution and a research scientist dedicated to aviation, whose government-sponsored Great Aerodrome, manned and self-powered, created front-page news all over the world in 1903. When launched from a catapult, it plopped into the Potomac. The disaster ended Langley’s career in humiliation. The rope makers stand in for the hundreds of nineteenth-century aeronauts everywhere whose failures and partial successes and published accounts opened the way for others. And the two bow-and-arrow makers can hardly be missed as the Wright brothers. In four years of reading, designing, building, testing, and experimenting, they assimilated the whole field of aeronautics as it had developed to 1900 and brought it to fruition.
My parable seeks not to disparage the Wright brothers’ rightful preeminence among pioneers of flight but to dim the portion of the legend that suggests they worked alone and without help. It was their stubborn pursuit of secrecy that brought down on their heads from European skeptics the harsh slogan “Flyers or liars?” They were never liars. But their stubborn, excessive, and seemingly greedy protection of their patents turned them into dogs in the manger. After about 1906 their litigation hindered the development of aviation more than they contributed to it by further invention and licensing.
The way we clutch at centennial celebrations, one might think that many of us were still practicing numerologists. Even the United States Postal Service could not refrain from hyperbole in its official statements:
Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the world on December 17, 1903. This colorful stamp [of the first Wright flyer] commemorates the centennial of their incredible feat near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, their first controlled, powered, and sustained flight in a heavier-than-air flying machine.
Most American schoolchildren learn an even more expansive version of the story, the version set out in the printed label for their 1903 airplane on exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The label does not avoid jingoism. Self-educated and working alone in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright brothers “invented and built” the first airplane and “discovered the principles of human flight.” Hyperbole is hard to beat back.
The brothers’ own two-page statement to the Associated Press on January 5, 1904, was more modest. It noted drily that the fourth and last flight on December 17 lasted fifty-nine seconds and covered 852 feet over the ground against a twenty-five-mile-an-hour head wind. Near the end of the statement they added two terse comments on their accomplishment. “Only those who are acquainted with practical aeronautics can appreciate the difficulties of attempting the first trials of a flying machine in a twenty-five mile gale.” In other words, as their subsequent writings show, their greatest challenge was not developing lift and propulsion, but achieving control, stability, and equilibrium in turbulent conditions. They close with confidence: “The age of the flying machine had come, at last.”
Even four years later in the widely read ten-page account for Century Magazine (September 1908) of their four years of test flights in Kitty Hawk, the brothers limit their claim: “The first [flight] in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction in speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked.” They could write more graphic and more accurate copy than the Post Office or the Smithsonian Institution.
Not until 1920, in the title of a legal document he wrote to be used in court for their patent defense, did Orville use the expression “How We Invented the Flying Machine.” Elsewhere they remained circumspect enough to claim only that they had carried out the first manned flight.
Some aviation historians in the United States tend to be impatient with that sober version. Fred C. Kelly, a biographer of the Wright brothers, makes this sweeping statement in his introduction to a collection of their writings: “They knew that the stunt of flying was a minor feat, that their big achievement was inventing the machine.”
It is as if the word “invention” has special claims over these events. Peter Jakab, a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum, has written a fine short account, Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. In his next-to-last chapter Jakab reproduces the genuinely historic photograph of Orville piloting the 1903 Flyer precisely at liftoff into its first successful heavier-than-air flight. The picture shows Wilbur virtually dancing on the sand beside the plane. Jakab captions this precious image: “The ‘moment’ of invention.” I bridle. It would be more accurate and more apt to say, “The long-prepared feat of controlling an imperfect and unstable machine into free flight.” The invention of the airplane occurred for no camera to catch during an ex-tended moment lasting a hundred years from the enterprising English baronet George Cayley to the Wright brothers. True, the Wright brothers made the most substantial contribution to the sustained collaboration. But as Orville is said to have declared in an interview just before he died in 1948, “We stood on the shoulders of others.”
There is another reason why I balk at the unqualified statement that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. In three major published pieces on their accomplishments in aviation, two talks Wilbur gave to groups of engineers in 1901 and 1903, and the 1908 Century Magazine article they wrote together, the brothers laid great stress on a word that does not appear in the index of their writings: practice. They could not get enough of it. They meant the time they spent lying prone on the lower wing of one of their machines, without safety belt, often with their hips in a movable cradle to control their special banking technique of “wing-warping.” Through practice they gradually learned to pilot the gliders and fliers they took to Kitty Hawk.
Wilbur’s 1903 talk in Chicago to the Western Society of Engineers does not concentrate on technical and scientific discussions. “The prime object in these experiments [with the 1902 glider] was to obtain practice….” The Wrights did not try, as many others did, to achieve automatic control of their machines:
…To my brother and myself it has seemed preferable to depend entirely on intelligent control… and on the skill and on the constant vigilance of the aviators…. The soaring problem is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators.
The Wright brothers displayed singular gifts as systematic investigators of aviation history, as inventors, and as research scientists in the laboratory. They had no interest in stunt flying and trained themselves for nearly a decade as careful, adept, patient, resourceful pilots. Their skill became an inspiration to Glenn Curtiss and to a whole generation of flight-dizzy French aviators, including crash-prone Louis Blériot. His flight across the English Channel in 1909 was the most celebrated aviation feat of the century until 1927, when Lindbergh’s thirty-three-hour solo crossing of the Atlantic virtually transformed him into a god among mortals. The Wrights were no more tempted than Lindbergh by the razzle-dazzle of flying. I have come to believe that the first old saw I learned in flight school was inspired by the Wright brothers: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are no old bold pilots.”
Still, with all their steadiness and competence, there was nothing stodgy about the Wright brothers, even with their starched collars, dark suits, and snap-brim caps, which created a male fashion. When Wilbur went to France in 1908 and performed a series of unprecedented demonstration flights, the French formed a cult for his laconic, unflappable behavior on the furthest frontier of mechanical innovation. He and his brother led the most glorified of vanguard groups: aviators.
Not long after the Wright brothers’ triumph in France, two of their cultural peers in Paris paid them a revealing and endearing tribute. The newly formed group of Cubist painters was then entering the period of its most intense experiments in the fragmentation and distortion of appearances. The acknowledged leaders of the Cubists, Braque and Picasso, shared the popular enthusiasm for flight and sometimes compared their own exploits to those of the Wright brothers. When Wilbur died suddenly in 1912, Picasso began to address his friend as “mon cher Veelbure.” Picasso may have suspected that Braque held a small lead over him in the development of papiers collés. In any case, Braque’s tall frame and gaunt features gave him a distinct resemblance to the older Wright brother. Those of us who resist numerology may have a weakness for physiognomy.