Two Wrights make a...
October 2, 2005 11:30 AM   Subscribe

The Wright brothers may not have been the first to fly (fascinating articles on other claims: Sir George Cayley, Richard Pearse and Gustave Whitehead) but they were pretty decent chaps, according to Kate Carew in her strange 1910 interview and delightful caricature. '“Your $7,500 flyers,” I said to the Wright brothers, “will prove very useful, I should think, to establishing a safe and somewhat aloof aristocracy.' Perhaps less well known is the brothers' role in defending America from the Spanish, and Fu Manchu (Comedy Quicktime links).
posted by godawful (13 comments total)
It's my first post, and I've searched the archive every which way to make sure these aren't doubles. How'd I do?
posted by godawful at 11:30 AM on October 2, 2005

Just to add to your list of pioneers, Brazil claims that Alberto Santos Dumont is the father of aviation.
posted by dmo at 11:59 AM on October 2, 2005

The Wrights are endlessly fascinating — I've written about them for aviation, children's, general, history, photography, and travel magazines, plus the Philadelphia Inquirer — and most everything I've read indicates they were genuinely good people. This guy, however, isn't so sure.

Anyone can fly — just throw yourself off a roof. As for the first flight, it's a toss-up. Generally, it's thought that the Wrights were first at flight that was four things: manned, powered, heavier-than-air and controlled. Plus they had hundreds of photographs, notes from wind tunnel experiments, eyewitnesses... not just vague rumors like many of the claimants.

I did an article for Air & Space/ Smithsonian in May 1991 on maybe the oddest contender, a minister in Texas who said he was able to fly thanks to his Bible studies.

His original craft was smashed up long ago, but you can see a great replica of the Ezekiel Airship today in northeast Texas.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:25 PM on October 2, 2005

Sir George Caley was the inventor of the airplane. He was the first to realize that you needed a fixed wing for generating lift, another means for propulsion, and a cruciform tail for stability. He is regarded by many as the first aeronautical engineer.
posted by Fat Guy at 12:30 PM on October 2, 2005

Lelilo - I came to similar conclusions reading through a wide variety of sources for this post (most of which had already made it onto metafilter in one form or another). I thought that interview brought out their social standing and slight oddness quite nicely, and that the videos were just plain funny.

The Ezekiel airship looks amazing, and I'm about to read your article. Thanks.
posted by godawful at 12:33 PM on October 2, 2005

Hang on, it's not online. That's a shame.
posted by godawful at 12:34 PM on October 2, 2005

Didn't the Wright Brothers actively try to suprise someone else from trying to get any recognition for their work on flight?
posted by drezdn at 12:53 PM on October 2, 2005

There are claims relating to Gustave Whitehead (Wikipedia link). Apparently they donated their plane to the Smithsonian on the condition Whitehead wasn't credited as the first. I've never seen any proof of this.
posted by godawful at 12:57 PM on October 2, 2005

Build you own Wright Glider!
posted by caddis at 2:09 PM on October 2, 2005

As lelilo said, the Wright Brothers were the first in flying something that was:

a) Heavier than air
b) Controlled
c) Powered
d) Manned

The Montgolfier brothers were the first to build a flying vehicle (the balloon), Cayley was the first to build a heavier-than-air glider, but it was hardly controllable (a minor problem...), and was the first to fly a controlled glider (but his method of control, by weight shifting, was unpractical for powered flight). Santos Dumont was the first to build a practical airship (controlled, powered, but lighter than air).

A number of people have argued that other people came before the Wrights, but they often forget some aspect of the Wrights' achievement:

The French used to claim that Clément Ader was first. But not only is it controversial whether Ader's machines lifted off at all, Ader also completely disregarded the problem of actually controlling the flight of his machines...

The Brazilians argue whether the Wrights really flew in 1903. Because the Wrights achieved their flights under considerable secrecy, some people doubted that they were real, in which case Santos Dumont's aeroplane flights in 1905 in Paris would have been first. The problem with this is that the Wrights' flights are actually quite well documented, as is their earlier research.

The reason why Orville Wright gave the 1903 Flyer to the Smithsonian on the explicit condition that it would be recognised as the first of its kind is because the Smithsonian was long embroiled in the very bitter patent fights between the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss (who had the support of Alexander Graham Bell). After losing in the Federal Circuit, the Curtiss/Bell camp, now backed by nobody less than Henry Ford, tried to discredit the Wright's achievement before the public opinion by "proving" that Samuel P. Langley's "Aerodrome" could have flown before the Wrights' Flyer. Langley was the curator of the Smithsonian, and with its support had carried out several attempts to achieve manned, powered, controlled flight between 1901 and 1903. While he managed to fly a small model, the manned attempts always ended in disaster, which the Curtiss/Bell camp tried to blame on its launching system, rather than the "Aerodrome" itself. In this they were supported by Langley's successor at the head of the Smithsonian (Langley died in 1906). They recovered the remains of the Aerodrome, "restored" and flew it.

However, the original "Aerodrome" could never have flown. Langley had committed serious mistakes in the design of its airfoil profiles, mistakes that the Wrights had avoided by painstaking aerodynamic research. The "restorers" had actually made use of the Wrights' own research to correct Langley's mistakes, as was quite expectacularly exposed by a "spy" of the Wrights who took pictures of the "restored" Aerodrome in flight...their own brother Lorin. The Smithsonian, however, took a long, long time to admit the deception and this, together with the fact that Wilbur was so exhausted by the patent fights that they led to his premature death, made Orville extremely bitter with the Smithsonian. It took nearly three decades for him to hand over the Flyer...

As for Whitehead, while he seems to have built a powered airplane, proof that it actually flew is scarce, and it seems to me even more doubtful that he had any means of controlling its flight.

The Wrights achievements are undeniable. By their painstaking research they advanced aerodynamics by a decade at least. They were the first to recognise the possibility to control an airplane's roll by differential lift of its wings and the first to devise a system to make it possible (wing warping). They then were the first to encounter the problem of adverse yaw and to solve it by coordinated use of a rudder. They then built their own engine and developed the first efficient airscrews. All on their own.
posted by Skeptic at 4:13 PM on October 2, 2005

The interesting thing to me about Langley vs. the Wrights (and indeed, the subject of my first Air & Space article in September 1987) was the fact that Langley, trying to achieve results using brute force, spent $50,000 in government money to construct a ridiculously complex houseboat/catapult launching system. And yes, his aerodrome flew — right off the end of the boat and straight down into the Potomac River.

The Wrights, taking their time to research the aeronautics, and utilizing glider testing, needed only $4 of their own money for their launch track (which they called the Junction Railroad). And they succeeded.

Hang on, it's not online. That's a shame.

godawful, email me (mine is in my MeFi profile) and I'll send you copies of both articles.
posted by LeLiLo at 4:44 PM on October 2, 2005

There's a model of Gustave Whitehead's airplane on display at Captain's Cove Seaport, in the heart of Opposite George land. I really want to want to believe that my 'hood is the birthplace of the airplane, but given Bridgeport's dysfunctional relationship with reality (heck, we elected P. T. Barnum mayor!) I'm not 100% there.

Not that the Park City doesn't have a legitimate spot in aviation history; our second-most- famous adopted son (well, third-most-famous son if you count Cliff Clavin*) made his first helicopter flight in neighboring Stratford, and made history's first helicopter rescue from Penfield Reef, just off Fairfield Beach where Whitehead supposedly made some flights. Coincidentalriffically, Bridgeport 's Sikorsky plant is just across the harbor from the site of Whitehead's workshop.

*It's a little-known fact that a sworn affidavit witnessing one of Whitehead's flights was submitted by one Joe Ratzenberger of the Bridgeport Ratzenbergers and almost certainly a relative of John's.
posted by Opposite George at 2:05 AM on October 3, 2005

From the linked interview:

“We’ve taken other women passengers, too,” said Wilbur.

“Have you found them hard to manage?”

“They’re much better than men,” said Wilbur warmly. “They don’t fidget and jump around at the start, as men always do.”

And yet they deny us the suffrage, dears.

What a delightful tidbit.
posted by raedyn at 2:33 PM on October 3, 2005

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