Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wrong about the Wright brothers

Following up on yesterday's post, the standard narrative about the Wright brothers was they were two nobodies laboring in obscurity. When the breakthrough came, no one could believe it. 

To support this account you'll often see this quote from Scientific American:























This would seem to be another of those "man will never fly" anecdotes, but context matters.  For starters, the Wright brothers weren't unknowns; they weren't even particularly long shots. They were known to anyone who had been seriously following advances in heavier than air flight. Samuel Langley had reached out to them. Scientific American had given them positive write-ups in 1902 and this in 1903:













 Even with the disputed flights, the magazine initially took a more guarded tone:

 The Wright Brothers,  in this  country, who in 1903 made the first successful flight  with an aeroplane, self-propelled and carrying its operator, have recently made a  flight, the particulars of  which have not been given to  the public. 

So if the Wright brothers were recognized as leading pioneers in the field, why was the press so skeptical, even hostile? One reason was that, due to fear of their ideas being stolen, the brothers had become extremely secretive, but the bigger factor was the astounding magnitude of the breakthrough. The brothers claimed to have made one of the all time great advances in transportation technology, but they offered no proof and no explanation for why no one had noticed the airplanes making multiple half-hour flights over the skies of Ohio.

The skepticism was justified. It was also short lived. As soon as confirmation came in, the brothers were hailed as having "already solved the  problem of  the century." Here was the lede of the Scientific American article that appeared less than four months after the "fabled performance" piece:

We love stories about how innocent and clueless our forefathers were about technology, particularly compared with how sophisticated we are today. At least with respect to the turn of the century, I think we may have gotten it exactly backwards.

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