Wright Brothers – Wright Contemporaries

Articles relating to friends of the Wright Brothers.


The 1890 Dayton, Ohio Central High School class was a most unusual class. Among its 28 members were two world-class prodigies who were destined to become world famous. One was Orville Wright, who with his brother, Wilbur, invented the airplane. The other was Paul Laurence Dunbar who became the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet and the founder of African-American popular literature.

Orville and Paul knew each other well while they were in school. Paul, talented in writing and literature, would help Orville with his school assignments in those subjects, and in return, Orville would help Paul with math and science.

The accompanying photograph shows the Dayton Central High School class of 1890. Paul Laurence Dunbar is on the left in the back row. Orville Wright is the third person to his left.

Orville began a printing business while still in high school and was the first to print Dunbar’s writings including advertising flyers and tickets for poetry recitals. One was a neighborhood newspaper edited by Paul named the Dayton Tattler. Once Dunbar wrote on the wall of the Wrights’ print shop some humorous graffiti:

“Orville Wright is out of sight
In the printing business.
No other mind is half so bright
As his’n is.”

Later, when Orville and Wilbur were in the business of manufacturing bicycles, they gave one to Paul. It can be viewed today in the Dunbar House.

Orville never received his high school diploma because he dropped out of school before his senior year to work full time on his printing and newspaper business. Paul did graduate with a distinguished record, although he had trouble with trigonometry and had to retake the course delaying his graduation. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school newspaper, president of the school’s literary society and also wrote the lyrics to the class song.

Dunbar’s Career

Paul obtained fame and fortune before the Wrights, but his future didn’t look very bright after graduation. As with most unknown artists, he couldn’t make a living writing poetry, and he couldn’t find a good job befitting his education, because he was black.

Undaunted, he found a job as an elevator operator in a downtown Dayton office building and turned it into an opportunity. He sold his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, at the age of 20 for one dollar each to passengers he met on the elevator.

Dunbar asked Orville to publish the book, but Orville’s printing shop lacked the equipment to bind books. Orville recommended he use the United Brethren publishing house in downtown Dayton. Orville’s father, Milton Wright, was a bishop in the United Brethren church and in charge of the publishing operation.

There is some dispute over how many of the books were published but the estimate ranges from 300 to 500 books. It is estimated that around 200 of these books still exist. In March 2006 one of the books appeared on Ebay with a starting bid of $2,000. The book is estimated to be worth $5,000-$6,000.

Gradually Dunbar’s reputation spread. His first break came when he was invited to recite his poems at the 1893 Worlds Fair. There, he met Frederick Douglas, the famous abolitionist, who was impressed with the young poet and gave him a job.

His second break came from attorney Charles Thatcher and psychiatrist Henry Tobey, who enjoyed his poems and arranged for recitations at literary meetings and funded the publication of Dunbar’s second book of poems, Majors and Minors.

This book came to the attention of William Dean Howells, a novelist and critic and the dean of late 19th-century American letters who was also a friend and advisor to Mark Twain. Howells’ praise of Dunbar’s second book in the Harper’s Review launched Dunbar into the big time among literary circles.

The two books of poems were subsequently combined into one book named Lyrics of a Lowly Life with an introduction by Howells and became a best seller. With Dunbar’s national fame now established, he traveled to London in 1897 to recite his poems. The youngster, born June 27, 1872 in a house on Howard St. in East

Dayton, wrote his first poem when he was only six years old, and recited publicly at age nine, was now an international celebrity.

After returning from London, he married Alice Ruth Moore, herself a writer and also a teacher and proponent of racial and gender equity. Paul settled down into a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Tragedy Strikes

Then tragedy struck. He developed tuberculosis. His marriage dissolved, and declining health lead him to dependence on alcohol and depression.

He returned to Dayton in 1904, a year after the Wright Brothers famous first flight, and bought a home for his mother that is now the Dunbar House Museum. He new he was going to die soon. She took care of him while he continued to write until his premature death in 1906 at the age of 34. His mother, Matilda, who had been born into slavery, lived on to her 95th birthday. She had a great influence on his life. It was she who urged him to educate himself and encouraged his talent.

During his short lifetime, Dunbar wrote 600 poems, 12 books of poetry, 5 novels, 4 volumes of short stories, essays, hundreds of newspaper articles and lyrics for musicals. His “Tuskegee Song” was adopted as the alma mater at the school founded by his friend Booker T. Washington.

Dunbar’s mother and father, Joshua and Matilda, had been slaves in Kentucky. Joshua escaped and served as a Sergeant with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the civil war. He and Matilda separated in 1874 when Paul was twelve.

University of Dayton poet, Herbert Martin, says that Dunbar’s use of Negro dialect spoken in slave days in some of his poems was controversial to some of his modern readers who believe the use of dialect as a detriment and possibly demeaning to blacks. Martin believes that anyone who cringes at Dunbar’s use of dialect must have second thoughts abut listening to rap or vernacular speech. Martin believes “Dunbar sees the humanity, not a stereotype. His ear was marvelously accurate.”

He wrote about the joys and sorrows of life, especially the difficulties experienced by African-Americans. Here is an example from his poem, “We Wear the Mask.”

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream other-wise,
We wear the mask!

On a coastal sand dune at Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903 two brothers realized mankind’s dream to fly. Not as well known is the part their sister, Katharine, played in their success.

Man Will Never Fly

Two years earlier in 1901, the prospect of success had not seemed so sure. After Wilbur and Orville’s glider experiments at Kitty Hawk, they returned thoroughly discouraged. Their glider didn’t fly as their calculations on wing lift had predicted. A frustrated Wilbur proclaimed, “Man won’t be flying for a thousand years.”

Shortly after returning home to Dayton, Wilbur received a letter from Octave Chanute, the President of the Western Engineering Society, inviting him to speak at their upcoming meeting of the society. Wilbur knew Chanute and had had previous discussions with him about the problems of flight.

Speech Leads to Further Research

A discouraged Wilbur intended to refuse the invitation after the poor results at Kitty Hawk. But Katharine intervened and talked him into accepting the invitation. She thought it was a great opportunity to expose the relatively unknown Wilbur to the aeronautical community. She even helped Wilbur prepare for the speech.

She made sure that Wilbur’s appearance would make a good impression. She substituted Wilbur’s baggy suit with one of Orville’s. Orville, unlike Wilbur, had a reputation as a sharp dresser.

The speech was well received and served to bring Wilbur out of his funk. Reenergized, Wilbur and Orville decided to find out why the glider didn’t behave as predicted by published engineering data. This led them to design and build a wind tunnel in which they tested some 200 wing configurations. Their test results enabled them to correctly calculate lift and drag, leading to the design of an efficient wing. All of this was made possible because of Katharine’s intervention.

Success in Europe

Later, after their success at Kitty Hawk, Katharine was a great help to her brothers during their three trips to Europe where they were conducting demonstration flights.

Katharine was hesitant about going at first because she would lose her teaching job if she went. Wilbur kept after her and even promised to pay her teaching salary of $6.00 per day. Besides, she had never been to Europe and it would be fun to go.

She served as a gracious hostess to dukes, counts and kings. Among the royalty were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Edward VII of England, King Victor XX of Italy and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany.

She wrote to her father from Italy, “We have to bounce out early tomorrow morning and take the seven o’clock car to the country. The king is to come at eight o’clock.

The kings are a nuisance. They always come at such unearthly hours.”

King Alfonso wanted Wilbur to take him up for a flight, but the king’s mother wouldn’t give him permission.

She was the first women to attend a monthly banquet of the Aero-Club de France as the members raised their glasses of champagne to toast the Wright name.

The brothers were by nature, shy, quiet and reserved. They didn’t like crowds. She told them how to behave and what they should wear. Unlike her brothers, Katharine was not only outgoing, but also poised and charming. King Alfonso pronounced her the “ideal American.” Crowds in Paris followed her everywhere she went while shopping in Paris and she became famous for her stylish hats with long plumes. She even flew twice as a passenger with Wilbur wearing a fancy dress, the second time in front of King Edward. In so doing, she became one of the first women to fly in an airplane.

Katharine even took French lessons. In the southwestern city of Pau she engaged a French tutor for two hours each morning. Soon she was fluent enough to speak the language with French dignitaries.

She became as well known as her brothers in Europe. All three of them were awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Wright Family’s Close Bond

There were five children in the Wright family. Katharine was the youngest and the only girl. She was born on the same day as Orville, August 19. Orville was three years older and Wilbur, seven years older. The three of them grew up together while their two older brothers married and struck out on their own.

When Katharine was six, Wilbur and Orville began to include her in their activities. She helped them earn money for their hobbies by collecting bones to sell to a fertilizer plant and scrap iron to sell to a junkyard. Later in life, she was alleged to have provided financial help for her brother’s aeronautical activities, but this was false. The brothers paid all of their expenses themselves form their bicycle business earnings of some $3,000 per year.

Their father, Milton, a Bishop in the United Brethren Church, was gone most of the time traveling on church business. Left to themselves, his three children developed ties of loyalty, respect and affection.

Their bond grew stronger after their mother developed tuberculosis and died when Katharine was only fifteen. Her father, recognizing her remarkable maturity, began to share family leadership with her and placed her in charge of running the household, which included paying the bills.

In 1914, she helped organize a march through Dayton in support of women’s suffrage. The march drew 1,300 to the city’s streets, including Orville and her father, Milton.

When her father died in 1917, he left the original house they lived in on Hawthorn Street in Dayton to Katharine. By that time, the family was living in the white brick mansion called Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood. It had been Katharine’s idea to build the house on 17 acres in Oakwood, a city adjacent to Dayton.

Milton encouraged Katharine to go to college as her mother had done, as he was a strong believer that women should have intellectual growth. She matriculated to Oberlin College in Ohio, a center for woman’s rights. She graduated in 1898 with a degree in classics. Orville, who was particularly close to his sister, gave her a diamond ring as a graduation gift. She wore the ring on her trip to Paris.

Katharine returned to Dayton and taught Latin at Steele high school, the same school that my mother later attended. She also wanted to teach Greek but never got the chance. Some writers have written that she also taught English and history but that has not been substantiated. She had a reputation as being an excellent teacher and a disciplinarian in the classroom.

Katharine was a member of an organization of teachers that met monthly to read plays. The club, Helen Hunt Club, was the second oldest women’s club in Dayton.

They didn’t have much in way of costumes and stage settings, but they were a powerful influence for drama among women of the city.

She maintained close ties with Oberlin and was later elected to their board of trustees, the second woman to have the honor. When Orville died, he honored his sister by designating in his will $300,000 to Oberlin. The money was worth millions in today’s dollars.

Oberlin used the money for the Wright Laboratory of Physics which still stands today.

She attended football games with Orville at Oberlin as well as the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University. She wasn’t a strong sports fan but went along to provide Orville company. Orville delegated the task of obtaining the tickets for the games to Katharine.

Katharine Nurses Brothers

She continued teaching until Orville’s near fatal airplane crash during Army trials at Fort Myer, Va. in 1908 that killed his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge. She rushed to the hospital at Fort Myer to care for Orville and never returned to teaching. Wilbur encouraged her to work with them saying that she could make more money than returning to teaching.

Katharine had acquired plenty of experience taking care of the brothers when they were sick. She cared for Wilbur when at 17, he had eight teeth knocked out playing hockey and subsequently developed a severe infection that persisted for months. She and Wilbur took care of Orville when at 25, he developed typhoid fever from contaminated well water and was unconscious for nearly two weeks. She took care of Wilbur for the last time when he developed typhoid fever and died in 1912 at the age of 45.

Since Wilbur was in Europe at the time of Orville’s crash, Katharine represented the family at Selfridge’s funeral and then signed her brother’s request to the Signal Corps for a nine month extension in the flying machine acceptance tests to give Orville time to recover from his injuries.

When Orville returned home from the office he was so frail that Katharine had to help him go everywhere. Orville visited his shop twice a day to see Charlie Taylor.

Orville on crutches needed help from his sister to make the trip.

He couldn’t stay long because it was too cold and he couldn’t stand cold. The house was kept very warm – too warm for Katharine’s comfort – it was her duty to massage Orville’s legs every evening. She wrote his letters and took care of all other household duties. When Wilbur invited Orville and Katharine to visit him in Europe, it was a break she needed. There she led the grand life and enjoyed every minute of it.

Later, when the Wright Company was formed in 1909 to manufacture airplanes, Katharine became an officer in the company and was secretary of the executive committee.

Katharine was active in the suffrage movement. Her father, the Bishop, and Orville supported her in her fight. On Saturday, October 24, 1914, they both marched along side her and 1,300 others through downtown Dayton. The sidewalks were full of thousands of spectators.

Katharine Marries

The brothers never married. After their father’s death, both Katharine and Orville continued to live at Hawthorn Hill until 1926. Then Katharine, at age 52, fell in love and married Henry Haskell, who had been a fellow student and trustee at Oberlin. He was then a widower and the editor of the Kansas City Star.

At Oberlin he had been her tutor in math. Some writers have written that she had helped her brothers in making calculations on their machines. This was not true because mathematics was never her strong skill.

This was not Katharine’s first romance. She had been engaged in college but never married. Upon graduating from college she began her teaching career and in those days teachers were prohibited from marrying.

She was engaged for a year before telling Orville that she intended to marry because she had a premonition he would be upset. She was right. Orville was so upset by the marriage; he refused to speak to her and remained estranged from her until she was on her deathbed.

He had even refused to attend her wedding that was held at the home of classmates living in Oberlin. The president of Oberlin College was one of those in attendance. After the wedding the couple moved to Kansas City.

She wrote to a friend in 1929, “I will not stay longer than my business keeps me since I can’t go home to Dayton. In my imagination I walk through our Dayton home, looking for Little Brother and all the dear family things that made my home. But I never find Little Brother, and I have lost my old home forever, I fear.”

Orville’s behavior is hard to understand. He had become excessively dependent on her and may have come to believe that she had broken a sacred trust between them.

Wilbur had once written to his father about a quirk in Orville’s personality. He never said what it was. Maybe this was a manifestation of it.

Tragically, Katharine died almost three years after her marriage at the age of 54. She had caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. Orville arrived a day before her death and was at her bedside when she died. He brought her back to Dayton and buried her in the family cemetery lot in Woodlawn Cemetery near the University of Dayton. During her funeral, airplanes from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base dropped flowers on her grave.

Two years after her death, Harry Haskell built a fountain in her memory at Oberlin College. He commissioned a bronze figure by Andrea del Verrachino of a small boy angel playing with a dolphin. The angel is lifted into the air by his wings.

Orville attended the dedication of the statue along with Haskell.

Each year the National Aeronautic Association awards the Katharine Wright Trophy to the woman who is most supportive of someone’s efforts in aviation.

Alexander Graham Bell, the famous scientist and inventor of the telephone, was also interested in inventing a practical airplane. In the process he gave few favors to the Wright Brothers.

Bell believed that the Wright Flyer was dangerous because of the high speeds needed for take-off and maintaining lift during flight. He believed that wing warping, the Wrights’ system for exercising lateral control, was dangerous because it required flexible wings. Bell thought there was a better design solution. Bell’s Interest in Aeronautics

Bell, born in Scotland in 1847, exhibited a lifelong curiosity, which drove him to investigate diverse problems ranging from aeronautics to eugenics. His greatest

interest was in helping the hearing impaired. His mother was deaf, as was his wife, who had been one of his deaf students. Helen Keller credited him for leading her “from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship.” Throughout his life he listed his occupation as “teacher of the deaf.”

His invention of the telephone in 1876 was directly related to his study of sound waves as it related to deafness. The “decibel,” a standard measure of sound intensity was named after Bell.

At the age of 23 he moved to Ontario, Canada and later to Boston, since that was a center of scientific activity.

He became obsessed with the wonder of flight and in 1898 began studying equilibrium and stability by flying kites. He started with simple box kites and expanded into several boxlike cells.

Looking for a strong, but lightweight structure, he began combining and arranging triangles. This led him to build a pyramidal structure with three triangular sides and a triangular base. The geometric form created is known as a tetrahedral.

Bell patented the tetrahedral structure and its use became popular in architecture. Bell, however was interested in using the structure to build a kite-like airplane. He would find out later that he was heading down a blind alley.

Bell Organizes a New Association

Bell was a prolific scientific thinker but he was not good with tools. He needed help to build and fly his cherished tetrahedron. So, he organized a group of young men interested in aviation in 1907 and called it the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA). Its purpose was to build a practical powered airplane.

The Wrights had solved the puzzle of flight in 1903 and had already produced a practical plane in 1905. Bell did not think the Wrights had the ultimate solution, and that he was on the verge of a better answer. His tetrahedral cell structure would be more stable than the Wright machine and add materially to the knowledge of flight.

Among the AEA members was Glenn Curtiss, a famous motorcycle racer, who was appointed director of experiments. Curtiss was good at building gasoline engines and had built an engine that had been used on an experimental airplane. It was Bell’s hope that a propeller-driven tetrahedral kite would provide automatic stability at slow speeds. He believed that Curtiss could provide the engine.

Another member of the AEA was Lieutenant Thomas F. Selfridge, a recent graduate of West Point who was appointed secretary. He came to Bell’s attention after he had sought an interview with Bell regarding his kite experiments. Bell was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and used the President’s influence to have the Army Signal Corps assign him to the AEA for one year.

The Army later assigned Selfridge to the committee reviewing the performance of the Wright Airplane in accordance with the Signal Corps performance contract.

Orville was not pleased with the Selfridge assignment because of Selfridge’s association with the AEA. Tragically, Selfridge became the first airplane fatality when as a passenger riding with Orville, the airplane crashed at Ft. Myer in 1908.

AEA Flying Experiments

Returning to the AEA activities, they built a large kite that was named the Cygnet, meaning, “little swan” in French. It was composed of over 3,000 tetrahedral cells. Lt.Selfridge was the test pilot in the first test flight of the Cygnet as a glider towed by a boat. Unfortunately, it crashed and was dragged to pieces by the towline.

Bell made two more versions of the Cygnet, but neither one was successful. In 1912 his Cygnet III with a 70-horsepower motor was reported to have flown one foot.

In the meantime Curtiss and other members of the AEA were more interested in producing more conventional aircraft. They designed a series of airplanes with the stylish names of Red Wing, White Wing, June Bug and Silver Dart.

The “June Bug” won the Scientific American Trophy in an exhibition on July 4, 1908. Curtiss flew 5,360 feet in just under 2 minutes. The flight made the newspaper headlines.

Bell increasingly became more of a figurehead for the organization. His one significant contribution to flying machines was the fundamental concept of the modern aileron. Casey Baldwin, an AEA member designed it following Bell’s instructions. Bell never did like the Wrights’ wing warping mechanism and he thought the new design would get around the Wrights’ patent on wing warping. The aileron was first used on the White Wing.

The Wrights Protest

Orville wrote Curtiss that the June Bug contained key elements covered by the Wright patent and that permission had not been given to use their patented features in a machine used in exhibitions or for commercial purposes.

Curtiss answered that he was not intending to enter the exhibition business and that the matter of patents had been referred to the AEA. Despite his declaration, he ignored the Wrights and entered the exhibition business.

Subsequently, Curtiss challenged the patent in court and lost. In 1914, The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Wrights’ patent covered the concept of ailerons.

Curtiss, still searching for a way to avoid the patent, participated in a new approach to undermine the patent. He and others believed that if it could be shown that Langley’s unsuccessful Aerodrome could have flown in 1903, it would undermine the Wright claims.

Dr. Samuel P. Langley, the former Director and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution designed the Aerodrome and was a good friend of Bell. The Aerodrome crashed

into the Potomac on its two attempts to fly. The last attempt to fly occurred a mere nine days before the Wrights’ successful first flight on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk.

Reconstruction of the Failed Aerodrome

Bell, a member of the Board of the Smithsonian and a strong supporter of Langley who had died in 1906, proposed that a medal be established in Langley’s honor and awarded annually to an aviation pioneer. He suggested that the Wright Brothers be the fist medal winners. Both proposals were accepted and the first award ceremony was held on February 10, 1910.

The Wrights graciously accepted the award, but unfortunately the event created difficulties for them. In making the principle address at the ceremony, Bell seemed to place more emphasis on honoring Langley than on the Wrights.

He made a point to honor Langley by referring to his airplane, the Aerodrome, “as a perfectly good flying machine.” “It was simply never launched into the air, and so has never been given the opportunity to show what it could do.”

The aggrandizing of Langley continued after the ceremony. The report of the event in the Smithsonian Annual Report stated that the Wrights credited Langley with a critical role in their own success. This false statement subsequently was used by opponents of the Wrights to undermine their standing as the true inventors of the airplane.

On March 30, 1914 Bell hosted a meeting at his Washington home of those interested in rebuilding Langley’s Aerodrome. It was hoped that, if successful, this would restore Langley’s tarnished reputation and undermine the Wright patent claims. Among those attending that meeting were Curtiss and the current Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Charles D. Walcott. The group gave Curtiss $2,000 of Smithsonian funds to reconstruct and test the Langley Aerodrome.

The reconstructed Aerodrome briefly flew, although hopped may be a better description. Curtiss and the Smithsonian claimed that this proved that the original Aerodrome could have flown before the Wrights’ success in 1903. Ultimately, the claim was rejected, but not until the Smithsonian admitted almost 30 years later that they had covered up the fact that the Aerodrome flown by Curtiss had been redesigned from the original.

Unauthorized Examination of the Flyer

One other episode involved Bell. Bell and two other members of the AEA tried to visit Orville in the hospital after Orville’s brush with death after his crash at Ft. Myer in 1908. Orville’s Doctor denied them admission. Leaving the hospital, they visited the barn where the wrecked Flyer had been crated for return to Dayton. The box had yet to be nailed shut because some of the parts had been taken to Orville for his examination. Bell, who was not authorized to visit the barn, was observed to pull a tape measure from his pocket and make at least one measurement. To say the least, Orville was disturbed about the incident.

Alexander Graham Bell won the honor to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and contributed five papers to the academy’s proceedings, but none were about aviation. While he was one of America’s famous scientists he did not have the mathematical sophistication to do more theoretical work. He made no further contribution to aviation.

The AEA lasted until 1909. By that time, Selfridge had died and Curtiss had left to form his own company. In a solemn ceremony at Bell’s summer mansion in Nova Scotia, the remaining members voted to dissolve the association at the stroke of midnight, March 31.

Octave Chanute

One of the most extraordinary relationships involving the Wright Brothers is the one with Octave Chanute, 45 years Wilbur’s senior. It began when Wilbur wrote to Chanute introducing himself and asking for information on aeronautics.

“For some years I have been inflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man,” Wilbur wrote on May 13. 1900. It was the beginning of a ten-year close relationship between Chanute and Wilbur. Their age difference was not apparent in some 400 hundred letters between the two.

Chanute, a well to do businessman, civil engineer and railroad bridge builder, was well beyond middle age when he became interested in aviation. He conducted flights with multi-wing gliders on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1896 searching for a design that would provide automatic stability.

His experiments convinced him that it was possible to develop an inherently stable airplane; an unrealized hope that clouded his understanding of how the Wrights’ control system worked. This would have consequences that adversely affected their future friendship.

Chanute corresponded with airplane experimenters all over the world and was regarded as an expert on the history of aviation. In 1894 he published, “Progress in Flying Machines,” a compendium of practically all significant aeronautical work up to that time. It was considered the primary reference book for anyone interested in flight.

The Wright Brothers became aware of the book after Wilbur’s inquiry to the Smithsonian Institution in May 1899.

Wilbur wrote, “I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style

of Cayley’s and Penaud’s machines.” Wilbur continued, “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.”

The brothers, particularly Wilbur, became good friends with Chanute, even inviting him to visit their home in Dayton, and Kitty Hawk during their flight experiments.

On one matter they didn’t agree. Chanute believed that all advancements in aeronautical science should be shared with other experimenters around the world. The Wrights believed that their ideas and discoveries should be kept secret until they were ready to reveal them.

This difference in philosophy, as well as some other issues, led to conflict between them and eventually resulted in a serious break in relations that was only partially healed before Chanute’s death.

The dispute began over an article about the Wrights’ 1902 glider experiments Chanute planned to publish in a French scientific journal. At the time the Wrights had filed for a patent on their breakthrough 3-axes control system that they had validated in these experiments.

Wilbur was concerned about Chanute’s persistent requests for detailed information about how the control system worked and coldly responded:

“I can only see three methods of dealing with this matter. (1) Tell the truth. (2) Tell nothing specific. (3) Tell something not true. I really cannot advise either the first or the third course.”

Chanute responded:

“I was puzzled by the way you put things in your former letters. You were sarcastic and I did not catch the idea that you feared that the description might forestall a

patent. Now that I know it, I take pleasure in suppressing the passage altogether. I believe that it would have proved quite harmless as the construction is ancient and well known.”

The last sentence was particularly troubling to the Wrights because it was an indication that Chanute did not grasp the significance of what the Wrights had accomplished nor appreciated their achievement.

Chanute didn’t write the article but it didn’t make much of a difference because in January of 1903, he made a four-month trip to Europe in which he told members of the aeronautical community of the Wright’s progress. This had a number of unfortunate effects for the Wrights.

First it reinvigorated European, especially the French, interest in manned flight in which many had lost interest.

Second, Chanute’s lack of understanding of what the Wrights had accomplished created confusion when copy cat efforts failed. This undermined the Wrights’ credibility.

Lastly, Chanute exaggerated his own role in the Wrights accomplishments and misrepresented his relationship with the Wrights.

In a letter to Arnold Kruckman, Wilbur commented on the situation with Chanute. “Mr. Chanute is one of the truest gentlemen we have ever known and a sympathetic friend of all who have the cause of human flight at heart. For many years we entrusted to him many of our most important secrets, and only discontinued it when we began to notice that his advancing years (78) made it difficult for him to exercise the necessary discretion.”

By the end of 1909, the relations between Chanute and the Wrights took a decided turn for the worse. An interview with Chanute appeared in the New York World that among other statements claimed that the Wrights were not the first to use wing warping as a means of flight control.

Wilbur took umbrage with this statement in a letter to Chanute in January 1910. Wilbur pointed out that “This opinion is quite different from that which you expressed in 1901 when you became acquainted with our methods, I do not know whether it just newspaper talk or whether it really represents your present views. So far as we are aware the originality of this system of control with us was universally conceded when our machine was first made known —.”

Chanute quickly responded three days later, “I did tell you in 1901 that the mechanism by which your surfaces were warped was original with yourselves. This I adhere

to, but it does not follow that it covers the general principle of warping or twisting wings, the proposal for doing this being ancient.”

The basic problem was that Chanute did not grasp the basic principles of wing warping and thought that the Wrights were just superb mechanics.

Later in the same letter Chanute gives the Wrights a another jab by saying, “I am afraid, my friend, that your usually sound judgment has been warped by the desire for great wealth.”

Six days later, the piqued Wilbur didn’t mince any words. “Until confirmed by you, your interview in the New York World of January 17 seemed incredible. We had never had the slightest ground for suspecting that when you repeatedly spoke to us in 1901 of the originality of our methods, you referred only to our methods of driving tacks, fastening wires, etc., and not to the novelty of our general systems.

As to inordinate desire for wealth, you are the only person acquainted with us who has ever made such an accusation. We believed that the physical and financial risks which we took, and the value of the service to the world, justified compensation to enable us to live modestly with enough surplus income to permit the devotion of our future time to scientific experimenting instead of business.

You apparently concede to us no right to compensation for the solution of a problem ages old except such as is granted to persons who had no part in producing the invention. If holding a different view constitutes us almost criminals, as some seem to think, we are not ashamed.”

Wilbur continued by addressing the complaint that the Wrights had not given proper credit to Chanute for his help by summarizing their personal contributions to manned flight.

“However, I several times said privately that we had taken up the study of aeronautics long before we had any acquaintance with you; that our ideas of control were radically different from yours both before and throughout our acquaintance; that the systems of control which we carried to success were absolutely our own, and had not been embodied in a machine and tested before you knew anything about them and before our first meeting with you; that in 1900 and 1901 we used the tables and formulas found in books, but finding the results did not agree with the calculations, we made extensive laboratory experiments and prepared tables of our own which we used exclusively in all our subsequent work; that the solution of the screw-propeller problem was ours; that we designed all of our machines from first to last, originated and worked out the principles of control, constructed the machines, and made all the tests at our own cost; that you built several machines embodying your ideas in 1901 and 1902 which were tested by Mr. Herring, but that we had never made a flight on any of your machines, nor your men on any of ours, and that in the sense in which the expression was used in France we had never been pupils of yours, though we had been very close friends, had carried on very voluminous correspondence, and discussed our work very freely with you.”

“I confess that I have found it most difficult to formulate a precise statement of what you contributed to our success.”

Chanute didn’t immediately respond. Instead he wrote to George Spratt, a mutual friend, telling him of the controversy. “I am reluctant to engage in this, but I think I am entitled to some consideration for such aid as I may have furnished.”

Three months later after having not heard from Chanute, Wilbur took steps to restore their friendship.

“I have no answer to my last letter and fear that the frankness with which delicate subjects were treated may have blinded you to the real spirit and purpose of the latter.”

“My brother and I do not form many intimate friendships, and do not lightly give them up.”

“We prize too highly the friendship which meant so much to us in the years of our early struggles to willingly see it worn away by uncorrected misunderstandings, which might be corrected by a frank discussion.”

“It is our wish that anything which might cause bitterness should be eradicated as soon as possible. If we discuss matters in this spirit I believe all serious misunderstandings can be removed.”

Chanute responded two weeks later on May 21.

“I am in bad health and threatened with nervous exhaustion, had to go to New Orleans for a change in March, and am now to sail for Europe on the 17th of this month.

Your letter of April 28th was gratifying, for I own that I felt very much hurt by your letter of January 29th, which I thought both unduly angry and unfair as well as unjust.

I have never given out the impression, either in writing or speech, that you had taken up aeronautics at my instance or were, as you put it, pupils of mine. I have always written and spoken of you as original investigators and worthy of the highest praise. How much I may have been of help, I do not know. I have never made any claims in that respect, but I do confess that I sometimes thought that you did not give me as much credit as I deserved.”

“The difference of opinion between us, i.e., whether the warping of the wings was in the nature of a discovery by yourselves, or had already been proposed and experimented by others, will have to be passed upon by others…”

“I hope, upon my return from Europe, that we will be able to resume our former relations.”

Chanute did not make the trip and there was no further contact between the two of them. Six months later on November 23, 1910 Octave Chanute died at his home in Chicago.

Wilbur paid tribute to Chanute in The January 1911 edition of Aeronautics.

“By the death of Mr. O. Chanute the world has lost one whose labors had to an unusual degree influenced the course of human progress. If he had not lived the entire

history of progress in flying would have been other than it has been, for he encouraged not only the Wright brothers…”

“No one was too humble to receive a share of his time. In patience and goodness of heart he has rarely been surpassed. Few men were more universally respected and loved.”

Thus, came to an end their unique friendship. One can not help but experience some sadness to it all.

Reference: The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright edited by Marvin W. McFarland.

Bleriot Trumps Orville

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

July 30, 1909 was an exciting day for the Wrights. Orville completed the final army contract requirement for selling their airplane to the U.S. War Department. He flew the Wright Flyer in a speed trial to Alexandria, Va. and then back to Ft. Myer at an average speed of 42.58 mph over the 10-mile round trip.

It would have made headlines around the world except that a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, had flown his airplane, the Bleriot XI, across the English Channel five days earlier.

In 1908, Lord Northcliff had offered a prize of $5,000 for the first pilot who flew across the English Channel. Bleriot, an avid aviator who was close to bankruptcy, decided to try for it.

He pointed a finger toward in the direction of Dover, England and took off from France on a rainy morning of July 25, 1909. He had no compass. Crutches were strapped to the side of the airplane because he had badly burned his foot on his plane’s exhaust pipe on a previous flight.

He headed for a place along the English coastline known as Northfall Meadow beside Dover castle. The meadow was only 100 feet off the water and the only site where he could safely land because the white cliffs were too high for him to reach and the beach at Dover was too small for a plane to land.

A French newspaper reporter standing in the meadow would wave a flag to direct Bleriot to the spot.

It was a calm day. It was so calm he didn’t have to use wingwarping or the rudder to fly a straight path. Events were going smoothly until he saw the English coastline in the distance. Then a strong wind came up and with it a mist that made it hard to see.

The wind was blowing him off course to the North. Just as he appeared to be in trouble, three ships came into view. He gambled and followed the ships, hoping they were headed to Dover. He guessed right.

He then headed southward along the famed white cliffs. Suddenly, he saw the flag being waved in the meadow and headed for land.

By now the wind was blowing harder, making a landing extremely difficult. He cut the engines as he neared the ground and made a controlled crashed landing. It broke

the landing gear and damaged the propeller, but he had made it! The flight lasted 37 minutes.

The Wrights had flown much farther by that time, but flying the English Channel had the crowd appeal that Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic would have 18 years later. The French newspapers immortalized the moment for the glory of France.

A crowd of over 100,000 welcomed Bleriot back to Paris as a national hero with a grand parade. It was comparable to a reception for Napoleon Bleriot was born in Cambrai, France in 1872. He established a successful automobile accessories business and then turned his interest to aviation around the turn of the century.

He made a series of airplanes with little success. His model XI first displayed in 1908 would be a success. The monoplane weighed about 500 pounds and was constructed of a frame consisting of ash and spruce covered in Irish linen. The wing area was 150 square feet. It employed an adaptation of the Wright Brothers wingwarping, the first European machine to employ it effectively.

A 3-cylinder, 25-hp engine built by an Italian named Alessandro Anzani powered the airplane. The engine spewed out a cloud of castor-oil vapor oil that covered everything including the pilot. It was crude but reliable.

Eventually, 132 of the airplanes were built. Some of them were used by the French military in the early years of WW1. A few of them still exist and can still become airborne.