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December 09, 2003

Sons of the Midwest


December 17 will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the first flight of the Wright Brothers. As a Midwesterner, I think I can justifiably point out this feat as probably the high point of Midwestern American civilization.

Wilbur (left) and Orville Wright and Their First Flight

As remarkable as the brothers were, they were also very much men of their time-and-place. They were born in Ohio (like me) within five years of the end of the Civil War (well, not exactly like me)—Wilbur in 1866, Orville in 1870. They came from a religious family, but of a recognizable Midwestern type. Their father was a bishop in the United Brethern Church; no mystic (we’re not really natural mystics in Ohio) but rather a tireless traveling evangelist, organizer and religious politician, whose faith gave him a firm sense of his own righteousness. In the opening days of the Civil War he wrote in a letter:

The President does not want to end slavery. The Congress does not want to end slavery. But the Lord God Jehovah wants to end slavery, and slavery shall come to an end.

And, by golly, the Bishop was as good as his word on racial matters; the Wright home in Dayton was in a racially mixed neighborhood (pretty much on the wrong side of the tracks) and both brothers grew up with black friends and classmates. (In fact, Orville wanted a black preacher whom he admired to deliver his eulogy, but the scandalized younger generation wouldn’t hear of this and ignored his wishes at the funeral.)

I took a trip to Dayton a few years ago and decided to check out where the Wright home stood. It was actually a pretty depressing trip; today the lot sits in a grim inner-city neighborhood. As I drove around slowly looking for the exact address (there is, astonishingly, no marker or sign) I was constantly accosted by men on street corners trying to sell me drugs. When I got out to survey the now-empty lot where the Wright house stood (Henry Ford bought it and moved it to Dearborn), I noticed that the house immediately to its left, no doubt standing in the brothers’ day, had a hand-lettered cardboard sign in the window:

We don’t sell crack. Please don’t knock.

I came away thinking that it was time for the Bishop to rise up from his grave and reassert control over his turf. Even the guys selling drugs seemed pretty dispirited; it was as if everyone in the neighborhood was desperately looking for a dose of old-fashioned religiously inspired moral suasion (and the Bishop would have been just the man to supply it.)

The brothers were from a large family which very much revolved around Dad. The older brothers rebelled, made inappropriate marriages, and struggled financially, while the three younger children (including Orville, Wilbur and their sister) gave up and stayed at home, never to marry or even have much in the way of significant others. (Actually, the sister eventually seized her chance and made a happy marriage, causing huge family tensions.) Hey, another recognizable Midwestern pattern: dysfunctional families maintaining strict social respectability.

In fact, the (well disguised) inner turmoil of the family—gosh, how Midwestern— ultimately led to the brothers’ investment in the problem of flight. Wilbur was a born intellectual who had been prevented from attending college because of a physical and mental breakdown at the age of 18 that was followed, once he had recovered, by a lengthy bout of nursing his dying mother. By the time he emerged from these experiences he felt he was too old for college. He eventually found commercial success with his younger, very mechanically inclined brother servicing the bicycle craze that swept over America in the 1890s, but his higher skills and powers were going unused, and he knew it.

While once again serving as the family sick nurse for his brother in 1896—Orville had a potentially fatal case of typhoid fever—the 30-year-old Wilbur noticed a newspaper article about the death of German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, the inventor of the hang-glider. Suddenly he knew he had found his calling: he would conquer flight. An ambitious and dangerous (hence manly) goal, it would occupy him while, of course, occurring in a sphere so remote from his father’s activities there would be no possibility of overt rivalry.

Wilbur Wright Gliding At Kitty Hawk

And he had found his calling; Wilbur was a born engineer of genius who developed theories out of factual observations and then rigorously tested them against further observational data, meticulously recorded and analyzed. (We may not be mystics or even great scientists in the Midwest, but there is no denying that we are damn fine engineers.) One small example; after building his first large glider and taking it to Kitty Hawk for experiments, Wilbur became the first person in history to measure the actual lift being generated by an aircraft in action by using a little windmill air speed meter and attaching a fish market scale to the rope he was using to hold the kite in place. People had been seriously pursuing flight research for at least 30 years by that time, but no one had ever thought to make those kinds of measurements on large structures under real world conditions.

A Wright Brothers' Glider Being Flown As A Kite

Which is not to slight Orville’s contributions. Together, the brothers used their rather limited high-school mathematics to solve very advanced engineering problems. When it turned out—to their surprise—that no one had ever developed a formula for the thrust generated by a propeller despite the use of such propellers on ships for decades, in a mere six weeks they developed one that produced strikingly accurate results when measured experimentally against real propellers. But smart as the brothers were, they had an even more significant virtue: they were unbelievably hard workers. (Midwestern Calvinism strikes again.)

On my trip to the Midwest I stopped in at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan (Henry Ford’s Midwestern monument to American mechanical ingenuity) where the Wright home and their bicycle shop had been relocated. In the back room of the shop there was a partially assembled copy of their Wright flyer, the craft that would eventually make the first flight. I noticed the wings, which were wooden ribs designed to be covered with canvas. Each rib, of course, had to mimic the exact airfoil shape that the brothers had determined was optimal from their wind-tunnel testing. This involved steaming and bending literally hundreds of wooden slats to the precise mathematical shape of the airfoil and then gluing and screwing them to structural supports. Let me tell you, the sheer number of hours and effort (not to mention woodworking skills) involved for two men who were also working full time dwarfed anything I could imagine. If I had hand-made something one tenth as complicated (and beautiful) there’s no way I would have ever allowed anyone to touch it; yet the Wrights were well aware that their painstaking work could be destroyed in seconds by a particularly bad landing at Kitty Hawk. (They were building the flyer, by the way, at the same time they were developing their propeller theory—and working on their home-made internal combustion engine.)

How Many People Do You Know Who Made One of These At Home?

In the New York Times today there is an article (which you can read here) that asks the question of why the Wright Brothers were the first people in history to develop manned, powered and controlled flight—in the process, beating an effort by the Smithsonian Institution led by distinguished scientists that had access to far greater financial resources than two bicycle-shop owners could bring to bear. While the story offers good discussion of the issues, the author misses what is of course the Wright’s main advantage: nobody else researching flight came from the American Midwest.



posted by Friedrich at December 9, 2003


The first flight was December 17, 1903, not December 9.

Posted by: Steve on December 9, 2003 12:48 PM

Golly, you're right, I'll change that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 9, 2003 1:53 PM

A friend of mine once said---don't pay attention to what people say they are doing, pay attention to what they are actually doing. The Wright Brothers actually conquered flight coz they really wanted to (and were smart enough to, etc.). The scientists at the Smithsonian just wanted to talk about how they were working on conquering flight. People who really want to conquer flight figure out how to measure lift and thrust. People who just want to talk about it never do.

Interesting how accurate a barometer that so often is.

Posted by: annette on December 9, 2003 2:39 PM

Here at 2Blowhards, we always prefer talk to action ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2003 6:07 PM

Among the Wrights' scientific achievements, you might add that they were the first people to really study carefully and produce a coherent physical model of how birds steer in flight. Along with measuring lift, this is one of those things that it had never dawned on any other would-be aviators to do, and as a result they came up with something truly original, the aileron (actually, I think the Wright Flyer, like birds themselves, controlled roll with flexible wing surfaces, but the Wrights did refine this themselves into the aileron); had any of the other previous attempts by others at making aircraft actually managed to get off the ground, they would have been totally uncontrollable in flight without roll-control. There are persistant attempts to downplay the heroic achievement of the Wright Bros., but true aviation enthusiasts know better. My grandfather, a pilot, for years flew down to Kitty Hawk for Dec. 17 to meet others flyboys, get loaded, and toast Orville & Wilbur. This year, the anniversary is sure to be an outstanding event. Wish I could go.

Posted by: Evan McElravy on December 9, 2003 7:01 PM

Thanks, Evan for making that point; I'm not quite sure how Wilbur had such insight into all the tasks of flying (before there was such a thing as an airplane) but he obviously did.

Question: Anybody know why nobody ever made a feature film about the Wright Brothers? It would seem to be one of the paradigmic American stories, good characters, crazy ambition. I wonder if the Coen brothers could tackle it; they might get the Midwestern part right.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 10, 2003 12:19 AM

The Wrights were the first to fly, yes. But their powered glider was strictly a one-shot deal. They couldn't make it big enough to carry freight, they could never make it fly for more than a few minutes, and they never landed their plane without crashing it. In fact, their accomplishment wasn't known for several months (luckily, they had a camera to record it).

The first functional airplanes owed nothing to the Wright Brothers' designs. The Wrights' use of "wing-warping" to steer the plane basically altered the entire shape of the wing to turn the plane left or right; their rudder controls proved worse than useless. Their aluminum engine was unreliable (it helped that the Kitty Hawk mechanic who built the thing didn't "know" you couldn't make an engine of aluminum); after a few minutes of uninterrupted use it would explode.

True airplanes would not arrive until a few years after the Wrights' powered glider. They would use flaps, not wing-warping, to steer. They would have rudders in the rear, instead of the front, and they would have wheels to soften the landing. Plus, they would be large and reliable enough to fly for an hour or two, and even carry a passenger or a little freight on the way.

Alas, the Wright brothers had no part in any of this. As the first to fly, they held a patent on powered flight, and they collected royalties on airplane manufacturers for decades. But that was all.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 10, 2003 2:35 PM

Hold on a second there, Mr. Hulsey. The historical significance of the Wright Brothers is that all lines of development of air travel narrowed into them and then diverged out of them again. In the time when they succeeded in flying, no one else (other than the bizarre, misconceived effort by the Smithsonian) was actively working on the problem: the French, who had pursued the question most vigorously, had given up in despair of achieving a solution. The French effort was revitalized by photographs and accounts of what the Wrights were doing.

Yes, the original Wright flyer was not a "practical" airplane, and they knew that. They then retired to a farm field outside Dayton (now the site of Wright-Patterson AFB) and worked on developing their machine. In the five years they spent doing this others developed crude airplanes and the Wright's accomplishment was often doubted. Then they came out of seclusion and demonstrated in trials in the U.S. and Europe that their machine was vastly superior to anything else in the air. As a consequence they sold aircraft to the U.S. Army; U.S. Army Aircraft #1 is on display at the air museum at Wright Patterson.

Yes, their airplanes were surpassed in a few years technologically (although not in all details; there wasn't a non-Wright propeller as efficient as the one on their original flyer until 1911.) But who is going to stay at the head of the pack forever?

And their main accomplishment remains: the Wright brothers were the first people trying to crack the problem of flight that understood the importance of active control systems. They developed the three axis control systems used by all subsequent airplanes. (Whether the method was wing-warping or flaps, the concept had been demonstrated.)

In a formula: prior to the Wrights, no active control systems, no flight; after the Wrights, everyone uses active control systems, aeronautics advances at lightning speed.

Or, to put it another way...anybody can do it, once you know the secret.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2003 1:17 AM

I saw a TV special on the Wright brothers a few weeks ago, and it attributed their success (over the Smithsonian) to their understanding of the concept of managed instability.

As bicycle builders, they realized that an inherently unstable system - like a two wheeled bike - were also more flexible, and could be brought under human control to continuously adjust for things like wind speed and direction. The Smithsonian model, alternatively, attempted to build a very rigid and stable airframe - which became a slave to the slightest breeze.

I think that even today, the most advanced aircraft are also the most inherently unstable, and cannot be flown without continuous automated adjustments.

Posted by: kismet on December 11, 2003 2:28 PM

An interesting thesis--I'd never considered the Midwest angle (at least not explicitly) and me from Michigan.

I don't know where I read it, but fairly recently I saw someone note that the Wrights weren't the first people to fly a powered aircraft--they were the first people to land one...

The competition between Langley and the Wrights seems very reminiscent of the current generation of space entrepreneurs and NASA.

Posted by: Rand Simberg on December 11, 2003 4:00 PM

I too must take issue with Mr. Hulsey. Whether due to their midwestern virtues, random genius, or for whatever reason, the Wrights were the first to build a real flying vehicle. What made it real was controllability, and all that followed is only a refinement of the Wright concept.

Wing warping worked because it changes the spanwise lift characteristics of the airfoil. Hinged aelerons are only a refinement of the means of achieving this. The Smithsonian experiments had no means of lateral control. As an aside, there are experiments currently underway with composite materials to develop stiff wings with warping-type controls for some applications - a gradual curve is more efficient aerodynamically than a simple hinge.

Second, the relocation of the rudder to the rear in modern aircraft is an improvement to stability, but it is only a refinement of the Wright design. The Wrights were the first to realize a moveable rudder was required for control.

That aelerons replaced wing warping, and the rudder moved to the rear of the aircraft, are only refinements of the concept that moveable airfoils must be provided for stable control. They are a refinement, and not a repudiation, of the Wright concept.

Dan H.
Aerospace Engineer

Posted by: Dan Hollenbaugh on December 11, 2003 5:31 PM

Actually Glenn Curtis came up with the aileron. It was the source of a major patent dispute between him and the Wrights. He stole the ideal (altering wind flow over the wing for control) and came up with a much better method of accomplishing it. I remain conflicted on how that patent dispute "should" of been decided.

Great article, can you recomend any good books on the Wrights?

Posted by: Joe on December 11, 2003 5:39 PM

I must also point out that Mr. Hulsey has erred. The Wright's stayed in the forefront of aircraft development for about 15 years, and were major figures in the aviation industry till their deaths. In the five years after the first flight, they not only refined their control designs, but also increased payload and endurance. When they went to France to demonstrate their accomplishments, the entire world (and especially the French) went from disbelief to total acceptance and adoration.

Your claims that they only crashed on landing, that they could only fly for a few minutes, and that the engine was prone to exploding are all wrong.
The reason that the accomplishment was not known for several months is because they intentionally kept it a secret.

Most of the "true airplanes" that followed were also developed and manufactured by the Wright Brother's aircraft company, and the first U.S. military contracts were for Wright Brother's airplanes.

There is so much more to the story about the Wright Brothers and the scope and breadth of their contributions to aviation; we are only scratching the surface on this forum.

Posted by: dougger on December 11, 2003 7:39 PM

How about Tyuuhaci Ninomiya? He independently created a flying airplane but lost heart after hearing about the Wright brothers. I think there is a lot of similarity between Midwestern attitudes and Japanese ones. Anyway, just pointing out that it wasn't just the French and Smithsonian who were attempting to create airplanes.

Posted by: eli on December 11, 2003 7:57 PM

As another stalwart son of Ohio (Dayton, in fact; it's a small place: my sister and I went to school with the great-great niece of the brothers, now their closest living descendant), I rather like all this fuss about good ol' Orville and Wilbur. Can't help but think that, even 100 years later, the astonishment that two guys from the Midwest pulled this off is based in no small measure on coastal bigotry.

I happened to fly in and out of Atlanta last weekend, winging it low and slow over every one of that airport's umpteen concourses. As I looked down at the hundreds of aircraft parked at their gates, I couldn't help but smile.

Posted by: billg on December 11, 2003 8:37 PM


> Here at 2Blowhards, we always prefer talk to action ...

May I quote from this guy's bio? (This the the honest-to-gosh bio that appeared under the author's name in an article in Embedded Systems Journal Nov '93.)

Do-While Jones began his career in analog circuit design
but switched to digital circuit design when he discovered that digital
circuits were easier to design. He switched to software design when
he discovered that programming computers was easier than building
them, then transferred to an organization that was planning a large
software project because thinking about programming is easier than
programming. He now lectures on Ada and software development because
talking about programming is even easier than thinking about it. His
first book, Ada in Action, was published in 1989.

What an example to emulate!

Posted by: Kirk Parker on December 11, 2003 9:17 PM

To Friedrich von Blowhard re movie about the Brothers - Some years ago, there was a TV movie entitled (as I recall) "The Winds of Kitty Hawk", with Michael Moriarty as one of the brothers. It followed their gliding experiments over several years, culminating with the first flight on 12/17/2003. A constant leitmotif was how their mastery of the winds was instrumental to their success. This was developed in the latter part of the movie in their rivalry with Glenn Curtis (who was portrayed as an ethically-challenged villain). Supposedly a major competition between the Wrights and Curtis flying their planes over the Hudson River was won by the Wrights, who had a feel for the winds, prevailing over Curtis, who did not.

Posted by: Bruce Lagasse on December 11, 2003 9:19 PM

12/17/1903, dammit, not 2003!!!

Posted by: Bruce Lagasse on December 11, 2003 9:21 PM

I've read Lilienthal's "Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation" and was struck by the fact that while he was trying to be scientific, he was quite willing to assign numeric values and not test them. The infamous "bumblebees can't fly" assertion from the 1930s followed logically from his assigning .5 arbitrarily as a drag coefficient for a range of shapes.

This is not to say that his musings did not provide a good starting point from which others more rigorous could build.

Posted by: triticale on December 11, 2003 9:28 PM

Just two minor points:
1. the elevators of the Wright Flyer were ahead of the wings, in a canard configuration; Santos-Dumont was the designer who put them on the tail;
2. the rudders on the original flyer were fixed and intended for yaw stability; turns were accomplished by roll (wing warping) and pitch (elevator) movements.


Posted by: J,M, Heinrichs on December 11, 2003 9:36 PM

Quite a few countries around the world teach that the Wright Brothers were not the first to fly.

I have some friends from Brazil who claim that a French-Brazilian was the first to fly.

I was at one time an Aerospace Engineer and found the history of flight to be very interesting.

I found that depending on how you define "flight" the Wright brothers may or may not have been first.

It's an interesting discussion nonetheless...

Posted by: OdysseusInRTP on December 11, 2003 9:43 PM

While the Wright brothers were no doubt the first to acheive sustained, controlled, powered flight, they didn't have a monopoly on understanding how to do it.

For example, it seems that Richard Pearse may have flown before the Wrights, though perhaps with less control (he once ended up on top of a ten foot high hedge). Like the Wrights, he understood the need for lateral control, and equiped his aircraft with ailerons.

In fact his aircraft shares almost exactly the same basic layout as many modern ultralights: tricycle undercarriage high wing monoplane with standard 3-axis controls and the engine mounted in front of the wing.

Unfortunately, however, Pearse stopped while the Wrights continued with development. They had only a few months lead for the first flight, but their lead increased very rapidly and things they did in the next two years (closed curcuit flights, 30 mile cross country flights, carrying passengers) weren't duplicated by others for five years or more.

Posted by: Bruce Hoult on December 11, 2003 11:35 PM

>>Actually Glenn Curtis came up with the aileron. It was the source of a major patent dispute between him and the Wrights. He stole the ideal (altering wind flow over the wing for control) and came up with a much better method of accomplishing it. I remain conflicted on how that patent dispute "should" of been decided.

Quite right you are; I had forgotten entirely about poor Glenn Curtiss. See what you get when you trust to memory. Here's a concise summary from Wolfgang Langewiesche (S&R 163):

When the Wright brothers invented the airplane, the thing they really invented, the key thing, was quite small. It was the device which banks and unbanks the airplane, the device we now call the aileron. All the othe elements of the airplane were then already in existence. [...] But the aileron was created new and was the one thing that made it possible to combine all those other elements into a flyable machine. Strictly, in the case of the Wrights, one should not speak of the aileron but of "lateral control." What the Wrights used was not the aileron as we know it now, but the expedient of warping thw ings in opposite senses, bending the whole airplane out of shape. Glenn Curtiss used ailerons, that is, movable control surfaces hinged into the trailing edge of the wing tip. A gigantic lawsuit soon developed concerning this point and retarded American aviation for years. Whether or not the hinged ailerons and the warping wing were essentially the same thing was the controversy."
Langewiesche, of course, is concerned with aeronautics and not patent law, and notes that "for the following discussion the two are exactly the same thing." He also notes that the first time the Wrights tried it out, their plane went the opposite direction they had intended and broke apart. "And fundamentally the same thing can still happen to you today -- if you don't watch out. If you ever break your neck in an airplane, your ailerons will probably have much to do with it." (p. 164)

Posted by: Evan McElravy on December 12, 2003 11:30 AM

One other brief point, which is the dangerousness of the Wrights activities. A number of the pre-Wright pioneers of flight ended up dead, usually from stalling out their aircraft. When asked how the Wrights accomplished flight within a 4-year effort, Wilbur replied that if they had taken a more leisurely approach they probably would have died too; he was quite conscious of being in a race to achieve control in the air before he and Orville crashed one too many times.

I remember one writer explaining that the large canard elevator on their gliders and on their airplanes were actually the reason the Wrights lived long enough to invent the airplane. In a stall, the canard actually helped their aircraft to drift down to earth in a more gentle fashion.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 12, 2003 5:35 PM

Hello all

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:17 PM

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