Is It About the Money?

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Inventing The Airplane

Fred C. Kelly, the Wright brothers’ first biographer asked Orville in 1939 if it was the profit motive that motivated he and his brother to invent the airplane.

He reflected for a moment before responding, “I hardly think so. I doubt if Alexander Graham Bell expected to make much out of the telephone. It seems unlikely that Edison started out with the idea of making money. Certainly Steinmetz had little interest in financial reward. All he asked of life was the opportunity to spend as much time as possible in the laboratory working at problems that interested him.”

Kelly asked, “And the Wright brothers?”

Orville chuckled. “If we had been interested in invention with the idea of profit, we most assuredly would have tried something in which the chances for success were brighter. You see, we did not expect in the beginning to go beyond gliding.”

“Even later we didn’t suppose the aeroplane could ever be practical outside the realm of sport. It was the sport of the thing that appealed to Will and me.”

“The question was not of money from flying but how we could get money enough to keep on entertaining ourselves with it.”

“It was something to spend money on, just as a man spends on golf, if that interests them, with no idea of making it pay.”

Kelly: “You didn’t foresee commercial planes or transcontinental and trans-Atlantic flights?”

Orville: “No; and in our wildest dreams, even after we had flown, we never imagined it would ever be possible to fly or make landings at night.”

Kelly: “Still, it seems strange that you didn’t have more of a profit motive, inasmuch as you had been in business as a means of making a living and obliged to make the business pay. Didn’t you go into the printing business as a youngster to make money?”

Orville: Shaking his head with a smile replied. “I got interested in printing after my curiosity had been aroused by some woodcuts I saw in the Century magazine, and I tried to make some tools for carving wood blocks. The first tool was made from the spring of an old pocket-knife.”

“Gradually I became more and more interested in printing. But, making it pay its way came as an afterthought.”

Their father, Bishop Milton Wright used to say, “All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others.” Following their father’s advice, the brothers tried to earn their own spending money and never became interested in a hobby because it might be profitable.

When the Wrights were conducting their wind tunnel experiments, they became concerned that their experiments were taking too much time and money for their modest means. They were worried that they would not get their money back and permitting their hobby to become too much of a luxury.

Wilbur was inclined to drop their researches. Orville thought they should continue a little longer. If Wilbur had quit, Orville would have too.

While they were still debating the issue, a letter arrived from their friend and mentor Octave Chanute. Chanute, suspecting their resolve to continue was weakening, urged them to continue with their experiments.

He reminded them that they already had valuable knowledge of aeronautics far beyond that possessed by anyone else in the world. To go on was almost a duty. And so the Wrights shelved their concerns and continued their research.

One thing they did do to save money was to experiment as much as possible on paper rather than making mechanical models. Before they built anything they were reasonably certain it was scientifically correct. They spent much time on grueling mathematical work before flight was possible.

Their insistence on doing everything possible on paper was successful in keeping costs down. Kelly claims that up to the day when they actually flew, the Wrights’ total outlay of money was a trifle less than $2,000. Some more recent estimates are that they spent event less, closer to $1,200.

Even after the Wrights had flown, they still did not know if they had done anything from which they could gain a fortune. They accepted the money that fell unexpectedly into their laps, but Orville said to Kelly, “I am not sure it’s quite decent to live on income from interest-bearing paper.”

Kelly said that he once said to Orville that even though what you accomplished was without the idea of making money, the fact remains that the Wright brothers will always be favorite examples of how American lads, with no special advantages, can forge ahead and become famous.

In response Orville protested, “But that isn’t true because we did have special advantages.

Kelly: “What special advantages?”

“Simply that we were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests. We were taught to cultivate the encyclopedia habit, to look up facts about whatever aroused our curiosity. In a different kind of environment I imagine our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”

Reference: Harpers Magazine, “How the Wright Brothers Began,” Fred C. Kelly, October 1939.

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