The Wright Brothers
David McCullough 2015
Another interesting book by David McCullough - I enjoyed "1776", "John Adams", and "The Path Between the Seas", and hope to find time for "The Great Bridge" someday.
In retrospect, the Wrights (brothers, sister, and father) seemed almost uniquely situated to build and fly the first successful airplanes. Bishop Milton Wright ran a book-filled household, and favored knowledge to scholarship: his children could skip a day or two of school if a book or a project was more educational. He taught them to work very hard and pursue long-range and difficult goals.
While not emphasized by McCullough, other sources say that the brothers were keenly observant - they learned how birds controlled flight, and they drew appropriate lessons on stability and control from bicycle design. Indeed, a light-weight, sturdy, fast bicycle is a great analogy for early biplanes.
Most importantly, the Wrights were not rich - they focused on inexpensive learning, not expensive but uninformed large-scale airplanes like Langley. Langley had access to far too much money to invent and build a small wind tunnel and test models. The Wrights spent three years learning to fly gliders, training themselves as the world's first pilots, before they completed the first airplane.
Almost three years of continuing lack of recognition gave the brothers time to consolidate their knowledge, build their team, and plan their next steps. For years after, they got more fame than money, until some contracts started paying off.
p90: ... and Roebling wire would be used for the trusses between the wings -- wire made by the Roeblings who built the Brooklyn Bridge. An interesting tie to the McCullough's Brooklyn Bridge book.
p198: Alexander Graham Bell did a bit of industrial espionage on the wreckage of the Fort Myer crash, and ... took a tape measure from his pocket and made at least one measurement of the width of a wing. That annoyed the secretive Wrights.
p217: One of the few problems to contend woth was the ground filled with bumps, some the size of a bowler hat, that made takeoffs difficult. Someone suggested that with a bit of spade work the ground could be leveled. It was just what Wilbur and Orville had done preparing for their first test flights at Huffman Prarie, but Wilbur by now felt he could dispense with that. "If we have to alter the face of the earth before we can fly," he replied, "we may as well throw up the proposition." Such was the way of the man, observed a writer who was present. "He never sought to escape by the easy way round." Quote from Motor News, June 8, 1912. This passage shows that Wilbur Wright knew he needed to adapt the airplane to the world around him, not vice versa.
Mechanic Charlie Taylor.
The Wright Number
When the Wrights were eventually paid, they trained others to fly. Their first students were three Frenchmen, (p217) the Compte de Lambert, Paul Tissandier, and Captain Paul N. Lucas-Girardville. While the Wrights also taught Americans as part of their Fort Myer demonstrations and subsequent contracts, those Frenchmen trained others, who a few years later built the French air force. They, in turn, taught the American Lafeyette Escadrille, who taught many other Americans after World War 1. They trained and built the US air forces, the barnstormers, and the mail pilots like Lindburgh. Through a long chain of mentors and proteges, the Wrights trained everyone.
Mathematicians who have cowrote a paper with Paul Erdos have an Erdos number of one. Those who collaborated with them have an Erdos number of two. Newly published mathematicians have Erdos numbers in the teens and twenties. Perhapa there should be a "Wright Number", based on how many mentor-protege steps separate a pilot from the Wrights. There should also be a Osler number for doctors, a Newton number for physicists, and a Darwin number for biologists (did Darwin or Newton teach anybody?). For integrated circuit designers, there might be a Moore/Noyce number, or a Pedersen number. I'm proud to have a Pedersen number of one.