I paid a recent visit to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the site of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flights. The Memorial Tower isn’t especially large, but its spirit reminded me somehow of the Tower of Babel. It stands atop Kill Devil Hill on a pentagram base with views of the sea to the east and west. Engravings portray various episodes of ancient mythology depicting humankind’s long held aspiration to conquer the sky. The tower bears in large, encircling, all-caps letters the chest-thumping phrase “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.” I loved learning that Orville himself attended the dedication and that an American flag was ceremoniously unveiled to reveal the word “GENIUS.”
What was most fun about the Memorial though was the flight path. A large granite marker stands on the spot the 1903 Flier lifted off the ground on each of its flights. Four more markers stand on the spots that each of the flights ended including the fourth and the longest flight 852 feet from the takeoff point.
I love so many of the photos of the Wright Brothers like the one here. The photos depict men of science and of action, iconic American ingenuity.
That impression, that mystique surrounding the Wrights arose, I begin to see, from a very deliberate effort on the part of the Wright Brothers themselves. Lifelong bachelors and very conscious of their public image, Wilbur and Orville Wright poured tremendous effort in a competitive field into becoming known as the inventors of the airplane, and on so many fronts – scientific, legal, public relations, marketing and lobbying, and, of course, through careful documentation. Their own ever-present camera recorded each take-off of each secret flight on the remote and obscure dunes of Kill Devil Hills and this was hardly a trivial effort at the time. Despite freezing temperatures the morning of the 1903 flights, the Wrights were photographed dressed, as dapper and camera ready as ever, in formal jackets and starched collars: gentlemen inventors, international heroes of science and innovation.
But what seems to have motivated the Wrights even more than the desire for a legacy might have been the desire for money. They threatened to do business with foreign governments when the US military failed to jump at a contract to buy their planes. And they tarnished their own reputation and alienated some friends and admirers over the course of multiple lawsuits aimed at defending against perceived theft of their patented designs.
Be that as it may, I’m satisfied that the brothers are appropriately lauded as “the inventors of the airplane.” They were more than mere tinkerers who got lucky. They appear to have been years ahead of their competition and, in fact, the only ones even on the right track in terms of engineering controlled flight. Those successful flights in 1903 happened only as the culmination of years of unglamorous study and experimentation conducted in their Dayton office, including hundreds of tests in a small, homemade wind tunnel.
Another reason to admire the Wright Brothers: one can divine they were not blindly optimistic positive thinkers. No happy-clappy, yes-we-can thinking inspired them. Of course, they were hopeful and determined. But many of their comments indicate they entertained the real possibility that their hard work would finally prove that flight could not be achieved as a practical matter.