The Wright Stuff

On May 30, 1899 an impecunious 32-year-old man who, along with his brother, ran a small bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, with a request:

“I have ben interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes . . . . .I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject . . . .”

Four and a half years later, toward the end of 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright completed their first flight in a “flying machine” at Kitty Hawk, a windy, isolated, desolate expanse of sand dunes on North Carolina’s outer banks. By 1906 the Wright Brothers were global celebrities. They took up residence in the luxurious Hotel Meurice in Paris, where they consulted with military officials and cut deals with European capitalists.

The Wright Brothers’ historic triumph, we learn in David McCullough’s superb new book, was the result of concentrated effort by exceptionally smart, determined, resourceful, courageous and yet humble Americans. To crack the code of manned flight, they intently studied birds in flight, built increasingly sophisticated “flyers,” created their own wind tunnel, devised a gasoline engine for their flying machine, developed a weight-driven catapult to launch the flyer, and methodically overcame a host of other technical, practical, and theoretical challenges. They did all this while running their bicycle shop. While camping at Kitty Hawk they braved at various times clouds of voracious mosquitoes, hurricane-force winds, frigid temperatures and a near shipwreck while traveling to Kitty Hawk. Theirs was dangerous work; a crash in 1908 permanently disabled Orville and killed the soldier who was flying with him. The one thing these unlikely capitalists lacked was capital; their project cost all of $1,000, versus $70,000 spent by Samuel Pierpont Langley in a failed attempt at manned flight.

The Wright Lessons

  • Interestingly, many auto pioneers also started their careers in the bicycle business, which was booming in the 1890s after a long gestation period. Don’t dismiss the bicycle as just an “intermediate technology;” it sill provides millions of people with comparatively fast, clean transportation. (If you cross a Shanghai street during the morning commute, watch out for clouds of cyclists; they don’t stop for pedestrians.)
  • Like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, Wilbur and Orville remind us that very smart and determined entrepreneurs can work wonders on a slender budget, beating out competitors with copious funding from Wall Street, Washington, or corporate coffers. Focused smarts and lack of bureaucracy are big advantages.
  • Hey, you liberals: don’t forget that often the best antidote for capitalism is more capitalism. While autos and airplanes were—pardon the pun—getting off the ground in the first decade of the 20th century, “monopolistic” railroads seemed to rule the economy, which is why Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 brought an anti-trust suit against railroad conglomerate Northern Securities. Two palatial new train stations (Penn Station and Grand Central) were built in New York in the first decade of the 20th century, just as railroads’ dominance was cresting. Which is one reason why Obama’s decision to use the FCC to impose “net neutrality” on Internet infrastructure is absurd.
  • Give the government its due; the Wright brothers received valuable information from the Smithsonian institution in Washington. Today the Library of Congress could provide similar assistance to citizens, but it is being mismanaged by politicians. Following a senseless tradition that Librarian of Congress is a lifetime appointment, it is now run by an 86-year-old historian, James Billington, who is a nice man (I once took a course from him) but utterly clueless about digitizing information; he does not even use e-mail.


Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2015. All Rights Reserved.


About tomdoerflinger

Thomas Doerflinger, PhD is a prominent observer of American capitalism – past, present and future.
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