Wrights Sell Flyer to France

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

Harper’s Weekly of September 26, 1908 reprinted an interview that a London newspaper reporter conducted with Lazare Weiller. Mr. Weiller is the head of a French syndicate that had just signed a contract in New York with Wilbur Wright.

Under the terms of the contract, the syndicate would purchase the Wright French patent rights to manufacture, sell and license Wright airplanes in France as soon the conditions of the contract were fulfilled.

The article stated that “the conditions (roughly) are that the machine shall make a flight of fifty kilometres (thirty-one miles), rising from ground under its own power in a wind of at least eleven miles an hour.

Mr. Weiller said that if the trials at Le Mans succeeded he would build a factory and make and sell the machines, to be used as instruments of sport.

He expressed great admiration for Mr. Wright, not for his dexterity, for he thought him rather clumsy, but because he is a genius and a scientist and has a perfect mechanical intelligence.

The French aviators he considered to be still in the stage of complications which Mr. Wright had passed.”

Weiller was a businessman involved in a variety of businesses, including a lucrative Paris taxicab business. His interest in the aeroplane was more than financial. He was interested in scientific and aeroplane speculation. The syndicate he headed was called La Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne.

The contract was the first contract that the Wrights had successfully negotiated in France or anywhere else in Europe and even though terms were not as good as they wanted, it seemed to have profit potential. Upon satisfactory completion of the demonstration flights, the Wrights would receive (a) 500,000 francs upon delivery of the first machine, (b) 50% of the founders shares in the company and (c) 20,000 francs apiece for each of four additional machines.

The year before, Wilbur had been unsuccessful in negotiating a contract with the French Government. At that time he thought that contracting with the government as the Wrights had done in the U.S., rather than with a commercial firm, was the preferred approach.

That approach had resulted in a ten-month delay in getting started in France. By that time several French aviators were making flights with machines that imperfectly copied the Wright machine.

On January 1, 1908 Henri Farrman won the Archdeacon 50,000 francs cup for a flight lasting one minute, 28 seconds. The flight was far from perfect and his turn at the halfway point was awkward and the machine wobbled as it made a wide flat turn.

The day after Wilbur’s arrival in France, Leon Delagrange flew for 8 miles at Rome and Farrman flew the first flight with a passenger on board at Issy.

Although the French machines were technologically behind the Wright’s machine, Weiller began to get cold feet about the contract and feared the Wrights’ machine might be overtaken. When Wilbur arrived in France in June, he had to shore up Weiller’s confidence.

Wilbur wrote to Orville, who had stayed behind in the U.S. to fulfill the Army’s contract requirements: “The situation in France was similar to how an old-time circuit rider had found religion in his district, in other words flat on its back. — Our position is improving rapidly as it always does when one of us is here to meet people and infuse a little confidence in them.”

Wilbur was optimistic about the time it would take to build the machine that was still stored in crates at Le Havre, having been sent to France the previous year. He estimated that it would take a few weeks to build the machine and complete the demonstration flights. The few weeks turned into six months.

When Wilbur opened the crates, he found the disassembled machine had been severely damaged during the French custom inspection. Initially, he thought it was Orville’s fault, so he sent him an angry letter.

He wrote: “I opened the boxes yesterday and have been puzzled ever since to know how you could have wasted two whole days packing them. I am sure that with a scoop shovel I could have put things in within two or three minutes and make as good a job of it. I never saw such evidence of idiocy in my life.”

Seven weeks were required to build the machine. It didn’t help that Wilbur received a severe burn on his arm when a radiator hose broke during an engine test. The burns left a blister as big as Wilbur’s hand on his left side and another blister a foot long on his forearm.

Finally on August 8, Wilbur was ready for a demonstration flight of his assembled Wright Model A Flyer at the Hunaudieres racetrack near Le Mans.

Wilbur was dressed in his usual suit, a visor cap set backwards and starched collar. The engine started and quickly died when Wilbur’s back collar stud caught on the control wires.

Soon after, the weight dropped from the launching derrick, propelling the machine into the air.

French aviation reporter, Francois Peyrey, describes what happened: “We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting and position of the rudders. After one minute and 45 seconds of flight, Wright returned to the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision.”

The crowd cheered loudly. “Well, we are beaten!” exclaimed one spectator. Another said, “We are as children compared with the Wrights.”

Wilbur wrote Orville on August 15, “In the second flight, I made an “eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators went wild with excitement. Blenot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.”

Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than one hundred demonstration flights in France at Le Mans and Pau. He took up 60 passengers including the first woman to fly (Mrs. Hart Berg, whose husband had put the Weiller syndicate together), astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.

On the last day of 1908, Wilbur won the Michelin prize for circling above snow covered Camp d’Auvours for 2 hours, 20 minutes. The distance covered was about 90 miles. Wilbur was told that the French government was going to bestow the Legion of Merit on both Wright brothers.

After his last flight in France near Pau in March, Wilbur gave the machine he flew at Le Mans and Pau to Weiller and the members of the syndicate.

Weiller’s doubts had vanished and investors clamored to join the syndicate. His syndicate did not intend to build the machine. They would function as sales agents, contracting other firms such as Societe Astra and Chantiers de France.

The syndicate eventually claimed that it had received 50 orders, but probably one-half that was ever constructed. The trouble began when Societe Astra, the company that had constructed most of the machines under contract for the syndicate, was taken over. The legal complications of this take-over might take years to straighten out. In the meantime, profits were falling and Weiller’s syndicate was about out of business.

Orville sailed to France to investigate the situation, leaving New York on November 15, 1910. He returned home discouraged. Their contract in Germany was also in bad shape.

Orville returned to Europe in 1912. He found that Weiller’s syndicate was virtually defunct. Societe Astra had taken over the entire operation. The change was disastrous. Quality of the machines had deteriorated, particularly the engines, and their business practices, according to Orville, were hopeless.

Neither the Wrights nor the investors would ever get rich on the profits from the sale of the license-built machines in France.

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