An Interview With...
Steve Englehart, the author of Countdown to Flight! (visit page), answers questions as Wilbur Wright, the elder of the Wright brothers.
When and where were you born?
I was born on a farm near Millville, Indiana, in 1867. Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. Between us, our mother had twins, but they died as babies. Even though we were four years apart in age, we became almost like twins ourselves, always working and playing together. Our father was a minister and we moved around the Midwest to various congregations, but eventually we settled back in Dayton. It was a "homey" town, up to date by the standards of the time but still a town of wide, quiet streets surrounded by open farmland. And as anyone who grows up in the Midwest knows, you're always open to the sky.
What were your favorite activities as children?
We loved to invent and explore. We'd get excited about some new idea and throw ourselves into mastering it and improving it. One of our first jobs was printing a newspaper for Dayton, and we were always figuring out ways to make that easier and better, then building whatever we needed to make that happen.
How many siblings did you have and what were their names and what did they grow up to be?
Besides the twins, Otis and Ida, who died, we had one sister, Katharine, and two brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin. Katharine became a teacher, but she was also our confidante; we could always talk our ideas out with her. Reuchlin became a bookkeeper and later a farmer; Lorin became a farmer and later a bookkeeper!
What were your favorite or most interesting subjects in school as young boys?
Our family believed in education so we were interested in everything. We would get caught up in something and go to the library to read up on everything we could find about it.
How much formal schooling did you have?
We went all the way through high school, and I planned to go to college, which was a major step in our time. I was going to study for the ministry at Yale, but I was struck in the face during an ice-skating game and was laid up for two years. By the time Orville was finished with his studies, he decided it was most important to help me get back on my feet, so we started up a printing business together. In the end, we never got to college.
What subjects prepared you best for your future career as inventors? Did you have different strengths, points of view and interests that complemented each other or did you think the same and have similar interests?
Again, there was no particular subject. Our greatest strength was the similarity of our minds. We obviously had different strengths but we were both quite strong when it came to exploring new ideas.
What type of jobs did you have before you started building aircraft? Did you always want to invent things? Why did you think it was possible to create flying machines?
Besides the printing business and the newspaper that grew out of it, our major business was bicycle-making. Bicycles were a big thing in those final years before automobiles came into being, and we made some of the best.
As for flying machines -- we only knew that people had been trying to solve that problem for a long time, and it seemed to us that success was very near. Our original idea was that we might join the crowd and come up with some piece of the puzzle, so that someone else would one day put it all together. We soon found that other pieces of the puzzle, which we thought other people had worked out, were in fact none too solid, so we ended up completely immersed in the project, working on all the pieces.
How did your bicycle shop lead you to creating a powered flying machine? What steps did you take to get to your first flight at Kitty Hawk?
Working out ways to improve the design of a bicycle taught us a lot about mechanical devices in general, and schooled us in machine tools.
As far as Kitty Hawk goes, we wanted a place with steady winds. The five best places in America were built up, but number six, Kitty Hawk, was the large unobstructed space we needed. We found it by writing to the United States Weather Bureau. Once we got to that little town on the outer banks of North Carolina we were directed by the locals to a place out on the open dunes called Kill Devil Hill, and that's where we did our flying.
As noted above, many others were working on flying machines, but, as it turned out, they were not actually making much progress. Still, all the other ideas influenced us, if only to show us what not to do.
We flew in our prototype aeroplanes as gliders as we worked them out. One of us would get on the plane and the others (usually with help) would fly us like a kite on the end of a rope.
As soon as we flew, we knew we'd done what no one else ever had. (And even so, we knew we could make our aeroplanes much better.)
What were the most difficult obstacles you encountered while developing vehicles that could fly?
Why were you not as interested in designing horseless carriages (automobiles)?
For whatever reason, flying machines were what caught our fancy. Possibly horseless carriages were too similar to bicycles in terms of the technology. As businessmen, we naturally thought about making money with our invention, but it was flying machines or nothing; we didn't think about other useful machines.
Did you develop the powered aircraft as a potential method of mass transportation?
We invented it as a means of surveillance by armies, and expected to make our money by selling aeroplanes to armies around the world. Remember, this was eleven years before the Great War (now called World War I), so the horrors of war were not clear to us -- and we had no idea people would fight each other in aeroplanes.
What were some of the major inventions that you saw happen during your lifetime? How much did airplanes evolve during your life?
Horseless carriages and motion pictures would be the major ones in our lifetimes. And aeroplanes...well, our first flight, our success, was just barely able to fly. We set out to improve on that, which we did, and by the time Orville, died in 1948, aeroplanes had evolved all the way through the air forces of World War II. He just missed the breaking of the sound barrier!
If you had been born 100 years later, what do you think you might have invented?
These days, we would probably be working on manned space flight -- not space stations, but actual flight to Mars. People have tried several times to create personal flying packs, but that never seems to work out too well. Of course, we were always machine-oriented, but we must confess that unraveling the mystery of genetics is intriguing.
Do you have any words of encouragement for students reading this interview?
The football coach at Oberlin, a college near Dayton, used to say "Cheer up, boys, there is no hope." That's what we always told ourselves when it looked like we were going to fail...and darn it, we always found a way.
Read more about the Wright Brothers:
- 18 January 2004
24 January 2004
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