March 05, 2004
The Wright brothers at work and at play

Wilbur Wright was born in 1867, and younger brother Orville in 1871. The Wright brothers were the first people in the world to build and fly an airplane. They first did this on December 17th 1903, when they got their contraption to fly, under the control (and it was control – he wasn't just perched on board) of Orville, watched closely from the ground by Wilbur. On flight number four, they got their airplane to stay airborne for almost a minute and to cover a distance of getting on for a thousand feet.


But how did they get their start as aviation's ultimate pioneers?

The Wright Brothers by Fred C. Kelly was first published in Britain in 1944, and presumably before that in the USA, although I don't know when. My edition is a Panther paperbeck published in 1958. The quotes that follow are the first few paragraphs of this book.

From earliest years both Wilbur and Orville Wright were motivated by what Thorstein Veblen called the instinct of workmanship. Their father, the Reverend Milton Wright, used to encourage them in this and never chided them for spending on their hobbies what little money they might have. But he did urge them to try to earn enough to meet the costs of whatever projects they were carrying on. "All the money anyone needs," he used to say, "is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others."

The economic theme is an interesting one. I believe that this is now under-emphasised. This posting is about the Wright brothers and their education, not about my opinions, but modern education strikes me as not only educationally quite easy to criticise but also an economic absurdity. I can quite understand that looking after the elderly and the very young is sometimes necessarily expensive, but it ought not to cost as much as it does to look after the young and the vigorous. And teaching them to fend for themselves economically should be all part of teaching them generally, as it was for the Wright brothers.

Anyway, on with the mechanical stuff:

Both brothers were fascinated by mechanics almost from the time they were conscious of interest in anything. The childhood events most vivid in the recollections of Orville Wright have had to do with mechanical devices of one kind or another. One of the high spots was the day he attained the age of five, because he received for a birthday gift a gyroscopic top that would maintain its balance and spin while resting on the edge of a knife-blade.

Shortly after that fifth birthday, and partly because of his inborn enthusiasm over mechanics, Orville began an association with another boy that had an important influence on his life. His mother started him to kindergarten. The school was within a short walking distance of the Wright home and Orville set out after breakfast each morning with just enough time to reach the classroom if he didn’t loiter. His mother bade him return home promptly after he was dismissed and he always arrived punctually at the time expected. When asked how he was getting along, he cheerfully said all was going well, but did not go into details. At the end of a month his mother went to visit the kindergarten to learn just how Orvie was doing. "I hope the child has been behaving himself," said the mother to the teacher.

The teacher stared at her in astonishment. "Why," said she, "you know, since the first few days I haven’t seen him. I supposed you had decided to keep him at home."

It turned out that Orville had almost immediately lost interest in kindergarten and instead had regularly gone to a house two doors from his own, on Hawthorne Street, to join a playmate, Edwin Henry Sines. With an eye on the clock to adjust himself to kindergarten hours, he had stayed there and played with young Sines until about a minute before he was due at home.

Orville’s father and mother were not too severe when this little irregularity was discovered, because the boys had not been engaged in any mischief. On the contrary, their play had been of a sort that might properly be called "constructive." The thing that had occupied them most was an old sewing machine belonging to Sines' mother. They "oiled" it by dropping water from a feather into the oil-holes!

Both Orville and Wilbur followed their father's advice and earned whatever money they spent. One source of income was from wiping dishes in the evening, for which their mother paid a flat rate of one cent. Sometimes she employed them to make minor household repairs. Orville seemed to find more outlets for money than did Wilbur, who was more saving, and from time to time borrowed from Wilbur – but he kept his credit good by sticking to an arrangement they always made that the next money earned should be applied to the debt.

One of Orville's early money-making ventures was the collecting of old bones in near-by alleys, vacant lots, or neighbors' yards, and selling them to a fertilizer factory. He and another boy first did this as a means for raising funds with which to buy candy for use while fishing. They accumulated a weight of bones that seemed to them must represent a small fortune – and were somewhat shocked when the buyer paid them only three cents.

At first, Orville's associates in his projects were boys of his own age rather than Wilbur, who was more than four years older and moved in a different group; but a day came when the brothers began to share curiosity over a mechanical phenomenon. In June, 1878, when Orville was seven years old and Wilbur eleven, the Wright family left Dayton, because the work of the father, who had been made a Bishop of the United Brethren church, was shifted to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And it was in a house on Adams Street, in Cedar Rapids, not long after their arrival there, that an event occurred which was to have much influence on the lives of Wilbur and Orville – as well as to have its effect on the whole human race.

Bishop Wright had returned from a short trip on church business bringing with him a little present for his two younger sons.

"Look here, boys," he said to Wilbur and Orville, holding out his hands with something hidden between them. Then he tossed the gift toward them. But instead of falling at once to the floor or into their hands, as they expected, it went to the ceiling where it fluttered briefly before it fell. It was a flying-machine, a helicopter, the invention of a Frenchman. Alphonse Pénaud. Made of cork, bamboo, and thin paper, the device weighed so little that twisted rubber bands provided all the power needed to send it aloft for a few seconds. As the brothers were to learn later, Pénaud, an invalid during most of his short life, had not only invented, as early as 1871, various kinds of toy flying-machines – both the helicopter type and others that flew horizontally – but was the originator of the use of rubber bands for motive power. Simple as was this helicopter – they called it the "bat" – Wilbur and Orville felt great admiration for its ingenuity. Though it soon went the way of all fragile toys, the impression it left on their minds never faded.

Not long afterward Wilbur tried to build an improvement on that toy helicopter. If so small a device could fly, why not make a bigger one that could fly longer and higher? Orville was still too young to contribute much to the actual building of larger models, but he was keenly interested as Wilbur made several, each larger than the one preceding. To the brothers' astonishment, they discovered that the bigger the machine the less it would fly; and if it was much bigger than the original toy, it wouldn't fly at all. They did not yet understand that a machine of only twice the linear dimensions of another would require eight times the power.

Orville, meanwhile, had distinguished himself in another way, by organizing an army. …

But that's another story.

What fascinates me is how very "progressive" this all is. There is the skipping of the kindergarten, but the parents not minding. There is the economic stuff, which, translated into progressive-speak, would now be called "involvement in the local community". And there is the direct connection between play and subsequent achievement, with the very age of aviation itself first coming to the attention of the brothers in the form of a toy, powered by a rubber band. (I used to play with airplanes just like that myself, although they were not helicopters.)

In general, if you want technological innovators, the lesson seems to be (at not just from the story of the Wright brothers): let them mess about with technology. Let them have experience of technology, "hands on" experience. Book learning, if you want inventors, is necessary in a rudimentary form, but it is absolutely not sufficient.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:56 PM
Category: Famous educations