Whistle While You Work

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

The following article described a day of work in the life of the Wright Brothers as they prepared for their Army test flights as it appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Star in July 1909:

They put their aeroplane together at Fort Myer to the tune of the “Traumerie.” It’s a sad, sweet old tune by Robert Schumann, its name in English means “Dreaming.”

“Charlie (Taylor), where’s the sled hinges?” asks Wilbur in the little shed at Fort Myer.

“There they are,” says Charley, the Wright mechanic.

“Not enough. Ought to have lots of those.” For a minute he looks tired with Charlie. Then he begins to whistle “Traumerie.” And then he becomes gentle again.

He is putting one of those long sled runners on the plane. It is necessary to bore some holes in it. He gets the drill and sits on the floor, with the runner beneath him. It’s an awful hot day. The suit he got in France is of heavy cloth; his funny, foreign shoes squeak with the heat, when he bends.

He drills and whistles the dreaming song.

Orville is on the other side of the workshop, pulling at the lever that twists the planes. At least they’re right. Then he, too, begins to whistle: “Our life is like a busy day.”

Pretty soon Charlie that has been filling a piece at the bench finishes his job. He bends down to examine it carefully, and he takes up the tune:

“When evening comes we look and wonder what our toil has done.” They are all three whistling it.

Then Lieutenant Lahm, the aeronaut of the United States army signal corps, enters the shed. He has a book in which he writes in a very mysterious fashion every now and then.

The Wrights shake hands with him and then go on about their work and their whistling.

Pretty soon Lahm begins to whistle the same air. He stops only when he writes in his mysterious book.

“Charles where’s the center punch?”

“Well, I brought one. It’s somewhere,” says Charles.

“Oh, all right. Here it is. Never mind.” Says Wilbur.

Punch. Punch. Punch. He is marking three holes in the hinge that will fit on the rudder.

Suddenly he stops, goes over to a corner of the shed and gets a small lard pail. He is going for water. There’s a little spring in the rear of the shed. Lots of folks would have had spring water with ice, sent out to them from the city, if they were in the places of the Wright Brothers. But that’s not their way.

Out in the hot sun he goes. Its rays fairly gleam on his bald head. You’d hardly think there in the sunlight, that the laurels of the civilized world are resting on the head of that man with the lard pail – that man who wades through the weeds and whistles as he goes, “The Traumerie.”

“And in our sleeping, dream the sweeter for the vic’tries we have won,” he whistles as he re-enters the shed.

“Oh, good,” exclaims Orville.

He buries his face in the pail. Charlie, wiping his hands on his trousers, comes over and waits until Orville’s face emerges from the lard pail – this face that is known to the whole civilized world.

Its Charlie’s turn.

Orville wheels about to his job and his tune. He’s tinkering with the engine now. Charlie drinks.

Wilbur stands by.

Charlie hands him the pail and goes back to his bench.

And Wilbur’s gleaming dome rises above the shining tin pail, as he pours into his charmed person not less than a pint of water.

Then he gets back to work.

And it isn’t long until they’re all three whistling again. And working. And dreaming, as all the rest of the world is dreaming, of the day when mankind shall be at home in the air.

“Sure that works easy enough?” Wilbur asks Orville. “Better try that lever to see.”

“No it doesn’t,” says Orville, as the planes, in warping fairly squeak.

The rest of the forenoon Orville, who is scheduled to make the flights, works at the warping apparatus.

You see, when a man is going to risk his life in a machine he wants to know how the machine is put together. He’s willing to get his hands pretty horny and dirty in getting things just right.

Noon Arrives.

“For goodness sake, when do we eat?” asks Orville.

Wilbur, who is puttering contemplatively with a hinge, stops whistling and says:

“Well, we might as well go now.”

So off they go across the hot, weedy, clayey testing grounds. No automobiles for them. They wait for the streetcar. It takes them two miles across the Potomac River from Virginia to Georgetown, which is part of Washington. And here, in a little outskirts restaurant they have ham and eggs and buttermilk.

The man who gets to the cashier first pays the bill, and then they hustle back to the shop, where all the afternoon they work the lever, the drill and hammer.

Yes, that machine will be perfect when they make the real fly before Uncle Sam’s scrutinizing eyes.

Previous post:

Next post: