Wilbur Wright

You are currently browsing articles tagged Wilbur Wright.


John Lanchester, who wrote one of my favorite articles of the year with “The Robots Are Coming in the London Review of Books, returns to that same publication to think about more tinkerers and their machines, namely the Wright brothers and Elon Musk.

The occasion is a dual review of David McCullough’s new work about the former and Ashlee Vance’s of the latter. As the piece notes, the aviation pioneer Wrights were ignored, disbelieved and mocked during their first couple of successful flights, the press too skeptical to accept what was clear as the sky if only they would open their eyes.

Puzzlingly, Lanchester is of the notion that the SpaceX founder Elon Musk is less than a household name, which is a curious thing since the Iron Man avatar is one of the most famous people on Earth, receiving the type of wide acclaim before coming close to Mars that was denied the Wrights even after they successfully took flight in Kitty Hawk. Just strange.

Otherwise it’s a very well-written piece, and one that astutely points out that tinkerers today who want to do more than merely create apps often need a planeload of cash, something the Wrights didn’t require. Perhaps 3-D printers will change that?

A passage in which Lanchester compares the siblings to their spiritual descendant:

When David McCullough’s book came out, it went straight to the top of the US bestseller list, taking up a position right next to Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. At which point you may well be asking, who he? The answer is that Musk is the South African-born entrepreneur who runs three of the most interesting companies in America, in the fields of clean energy and interplanetary exploration: SolarCity (solar batteries), Tesla (electric cars), and SpaceX (commercial spaceflight). It’s the third of these companies which is the maddest and most entertaining. Where most corporate mission statements are so numbing they’d be useful as a form of medical anaesthesia, SpaceX’s is ‘creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars’. ‘I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,’ Musk explained to Vance. ‘“If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilisation on another planet – to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness – then,” and here he paused for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”’

There are a number of suggestive parallels between Musk and the Wrights, beyond the obvious ones to do with an interest in flight. The bishop had very high standards and set no limits on the intellectual curiosity he encouraged in his children; Musk’s father had the same standards and the same insistence on no limits, but was (is) a tortured and difficult presence, ‘good at making life miserable’, in Musk’s words: ‘He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad.’ The Wrights were poorish, the Musks affluentish, but both grew up with an emphasis on learning things first-hand. ‘It is remarkable how many different things you can get to explode,’ Musk says about his childhood experiments. ‘I’m lucky I have all my fingers.’ One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.

The Wrights took calculated risks. Musk does the same.•

Tags: , , , ,

David McCullough’s latest, The Wright Brothers, details how two bicycle makers with no formal training in aviation became the first to touch the sky. In what might be James Salter’s final piece of journalism, the NYRB has posthumously published the late novelist and journalist’s graceful critique of the new book. Probably best known for his acclaimed fiction, Salter also was a reporter for People magazine in the ’70s, profiling other writers, Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene among them. Here he focuses on the recurring theme of the brothers’ distance from the world in everything from their family life to the relative isolation of Kitty Hawk.

An excerpt about the very origins of the Wrights’ fever dream:

Together they opened a bicycle business in 1893, selling and repairing bicycles. It was soon a success, and they were able to move to a corner building where they had two floors, the upper one for the manufacturing of their own line of bicycles. Then late in the summer of 1896 Orville fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. His father was away at the time, and he lay for days in a delirium while Wilbur and Katharine nursed him. During the convalescence Wilbur read aloud to his brother about Otto Lilienthal, a famous German glider enthusiast who had just been killed in an accident.

Lilienthal was a German mining engineer who, starting with only a pair of birdlike wings, designed and flew a series of gliders—eighteen in all—and made more than two thousand flights in them to become the first true aviator. He held on to a connecting bar with his legs dangling free so they could be used in running or jumping and also in the air for balance. He took off by jumping from a building or escarpment or running down a man-made forty-five-foot hill, and he wrote ecstatically of the sensation of flying. Articles and photographs of him in the air were published widely. Icarus-like he fell fifty-five feet and was fatally injured, not when his wings fell off but when a gust of wind tilted him upward so that his glider stalled. Opfer müssen gebracht werden were his final words, “sacrifices must be made.”

Reading about Lilienthal aroused a deep and long-held interest in Wilbur that his brother, when he had recovered, shared. They began to read intensively about birds and flying.•

See also: 

Tags: , , ,

In defending modern-day billionaire technologists and the technology that enables their wealth and likely contributes to the wage stagnation of those with punier portfolios, Peter Thiel makes an argument to Ellen Huet in Forbes that doesn’t seem fair. He uses the Wright brothers as examples of inventors who didn’t profit from their innovation. Well, they didn’t become the 1903 equivalent of billionaires, that’s true, but there are reasons. While the brothers were (likely) the first to take air in a plane, they weren’t miles ahead of their competitors, so they weren’t able to grow one of Thiel’s beloved monopolies. They also weren’t very good businesspeople; Wilbur who was somewhat better at commerce passed away less then a decade after the historic flight. Orville wasn’t exactly left destitute, selling their company for enough money to build a giant estate and never need work again. They didn’t become billionaires despite being at the vanguard of aviation the way Gary Kildall didn’t become one even though he was at the forefront of computer software. It happens sometimes, but it’s an anecdote that doesn’t really speak to the macro. From Forbes:

“‘When you think about the history of innovation more broadly, the past 200 to 250 years, it’s a sobering fact how many inventors and creators of new things, how little they capture over time,’ Thiel said. ‘You have to create x dollars of value for the world and you have to capture y% of x. And in most cases y equals 0.’

The Wright brothers didn’t make money off of aviation, he pointed out, and even after the advent of the first factories and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, much of the wealth was still held by the aristocratic classes in Europe. In Silicon Valley, a similar split can be seen between software and cleantech, Thiel said.”

Tags: , , ,

The Wright Brothers seemingly ceased to exist the moment after the Flyer lifted off in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, frozen forever in the moment of their greatest accomplishment, the height of their careers. Wilbur, the elder, died of typhoid inside of a decade. Orville, who manned the landmark flights, never handled the controls again after 1918. (Howard Hughes was the pilot for his last air trip as a passenger in 1944.) Perhaps because of competing claims to the title of “first flight” or maybe because the supersonic age had passed him by, Orville’s obituary in the January 31, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle didn’t have the fanfare one might expect. 

Tags: ,