Remember show and tell? One thing I loved to bring to show and tell year after year was one of the small pieces of the Kitty Hawk fabric that had been divvied up to the members of the Orville Wright’s estate. We had two small pieces that were mounted on certificates of authenticity and elaborately framed. The teachers of course loved it because it was a very educational item to bring in. The kids on the other hand were more enamored of Eric Quandt’s cat than the yellowed square of fabric that covered the wings of the airplane of first sustained, manned flight.
It came as no surprise, then, that when my parents decided to take my brother Chris and me on an educational vacation, that the jaunt was to include a stop in Dayton, Ohio and an ultimate destination of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC . Ohio, whose state motto is “birthplace of flight “, is where the Wrights were born and for the most part lived their entire lives. While born four years apart in 1867 and 1871, Orville significantly outlived Wilbur. When the airplane business began at last to pay off handsomely, they moved from a small clapboard home in unassuming West Dayton to a mansion they had built to their specifications in the exclusive neighborhood of Oakwood. It was a huge leap in social station, but only about three miles in distance. Orville lived in this house continuously until his death in 1948. Wilbur had died 36 years earlier at the age of 45.
We saw many things on that trip, the Washington monuments, Niagara Falls; but for me the highlight of the trip and the thing that I remember most was visiting the Wright mansion in Dayton. The house is not open to the public and was owned by a top executive of NCR, National Cash Register. Owing to our relation, however, we were allowed to visit the mansion and were personally guided through by Ivonette Wright or as we called her, Aunt Ivonette, who was in fact my mother’s aunt. The owner of the house himself also joined us.
To say the house was amazing is an understatement. As a kid I was really into tinkering with things. I would take doorknobs apart to see how they worked. For the most part this was harmless enough but occasionally it would cause problems; like the time I cut the wire to the phone in my bedroom convinced that by doing so I could make a two-line phone. I remember being puzzled when it didn’t work; and being punished when my dad found out. Oh well, two lessons learned. I had to try it to figure it out. We had two lines in our house, the main line and a kid’s line. Later, in a revised plan I routed a new wire under the floor to my room and created a primitive two-line phone that actually worked pretty well…until I decided that I might be able to build a speakerphone like the one my dad had at his office.
The Wright mansion looked as though that tinkering kid had lived there and had pretty much experimented with everything in the house. And many of those things were still in place.
Before we went to the mansion at all we did take the more public tour of the original Wright home behind which is the original Wright bicycle shop. In that shop are all kinds of inventions. Bikes that wouldn’t ride straight or that were so tall you couldn’t stop the thing without falling. There were many experimental items of machinery that for the most part didn’t work at all. There were literally dozens of model airplanes, some very large in size, all of which did not sustain flight and could not carry a man. There isn’t an exact recording of how many failed manned flights the Wrights attempted but most historians have the number in the dozens. In the trips to Kitty Hawk, NC alone, a destination they chose for the wind conditions, they attempted the manned flight many, many times. Each time though they gained valuable insight into how it actually could be done.
“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill,” Said Wilbur.
As we walked around the mansion we looked at various inventions and modifications to the house that Orville had made. He installed a dumb waiter of his invention, he wired an intercom system that would allow him to call the kitchen from the bedroom and one of my favorite items was the surround shower. It was tiled in dark green and charcoal colored tiles and had five rows of chrome pipes that encircled the shower area. From those pipes water would spray inward at you. As we saw each of these I would literally shout out, “cool“ only to hear the homeowner bemoan the fact that none of them worked. The intercom could only talk in one direction. The dumbwaiter had been built too narrow and there was no way to control the spraying in the shower.
The last stop in our trip was at the Smithsonian Museum. Of the various museums at the enormous Smithsonian complex the Museum of Aviation was of course a major stop for us. Here everything from paper airplanes to space capsules are on display and explained in exacting detail. As you enter the giant lobby of the museum, there, hanging from the ceiling on wires is likely the museum’s prize possession, the Wright’s Kitty Hawk Flyer. The fabric that covered the wings has been replaced for the museum as the original fabric, the one that was cut up and given to us heirs had been badly damaged in the great Dayton flood of 1913. The technology that made the Kitty Hawk Flyer capable of sustained and controlled flight was the brothers’ fundamental breakthrough; their invention of “three axis-control “, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. And here’s the amazing thing; that very technology is still at the heart of all fixed wing airplanes.
I got to thinking that I would bet that in Orville’s next home the not so perfect items would work perfectly. They were like the first and tenth attempts at the manned airplane; that the lessons learned in these attempts were not failures but rather, lessons; to be learned no other way. It further occurred to me that we could look upon the stacks and stacks of mechanical drawings and tested airplane designs as failures or we could look at them as the necessary means to a grand success. Why not choose the latter? When we remember the Wright Brothers we remember their great success at Kitty Hawk in 1903 which most people consider a “first”. But that success wouldn’t have been possible without what I saw, a long series of another type of success, ones we foolishly call failures. It is appropriate to celebrate the one where they got it right, but also I think valuable to notice how they got there.
The plane that is celebrated of course is the Kitty Hawk Flyer at the Smithsonian. It wasn’t their first by any means but rather the culmination of the other efforts and the sum total of what they had learned along the way – The one that finally did what they had hoped, and more.
We are that plane; we are that plane.