Today, an unfamiliar side of Wilbur and Orville
Wright. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Lots of people had tried to
create the airplane by 1903. Historian Tom Crouch
asks why the Wrights succeeded where others failed.
Wilbur once said that, if time were turned back and
they did it all over, it was unlikely things would
come out the same.
That was an oddly accurate statement. They had to
put so many pieces together to make an airplane
that really flew. And yet, we wonder, was their
success really just chance?
Their father, Milton Wright, was a combative bishop
of the United Brethren Church. His uncompromising
doctrinal fights split the Church in two. While he
waged religious war outside, he made his home into
a fortified oasis of love and peace. His seven
children inherited his rigidity and sense of family
isolation. All obeyed a stern code of work and
In 1889, when Wilbur was 20 and Orville 17, they
set up a printing business under the name, "The
Wright Brothers." They did that work for six years,
redesigning commercial presses and adding the famed
bicycle sales and repair service along the way.
Later in life, they told people that their interest
in flight began when they were children and their
father gave them a toy helicopter. But it was in
their mid-20s that they began reading the work of
Lilienthal, Chanute, and Langley on flight.
For seven years they studied with relentless
thoroughness. They built their own wind tunnel.
They did countless preliminary glider flights. They
designed their own airplane engine.
They also argued furiously with each other. Their
mechanic told how the brothers would switch
positions in the middle of a shouting match without
losing a beat. Wilbur once said, "I love to scrap
with Orv. He's such a good scrapper." Crouch looks
at the two and says, "The whole was greater than
Beyond their ferocity of purpose, they also had an
uncanny ability to abstract problems spatially. We
credit them with inventing the powered airplane.
But others had already left ground only to crash.
The Wrights didn't just power their way into the
sky. They figured out how to stay aloft.
They looked at birds. Birds control their own
unstable flight in three dimensions. Controlling an
unstable bicycle in only two dimensions is complex
enough. They extended that into 3-D and figured out
how to do it using aerodynamic forces.
Wilbur was right when he said it might come out
differently if time were turned back. But their
synergy, based on abstract thinking and practical
sense, coupled with a terrifying passion and
intensity, would've left Earth changed in some way.
Of that I have no doubt.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds