Wright Brothers Had Affluence, Leisure Time To Invent The Airplane

In Capitalism, Flight, Government Spending, Income Tax Rates, Kitty Hawk, Patents, Wright Brothers on October 4, 2011 at 12:12 am

We take air travel for granted, but humans desired to fly for millenia and scores had died in the failed pursuit of manned flight on wing-like structures and gliders.  Leonardo Da Vinci had pondered the problem.  In December 1903, the Wright Brothers launched their 16 hp flying machine, named “Flyer”, into the air in fulfillment of the age-old dream. 

Lest we also take the Wright Brothers for granted, how was it the two brothers were able to achieve where all others had previously failed?  There were Orville and Wilbur Wright’s many positive attributes: vision, patience, incredible perseverance, keen observation, painstaking experiments and measurements, and their sheer brilliance at identifying problems coupled with ingenuity at solving the problems, often with common, simple tools and materials such as those found in an ordinary bicycle shop. 

Another fact is the Wright Brothers were successful proprietors of a prosperous bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio where they sold, repaired and rented bicycles. [1]   The Wright Brothers were able to afford a half decade of experimenting and building gliders, a primitive wind tunnel and later the Flyer itself.  Due to weather conditions, the Wrights conducted their experiments on the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  In those days, the trip commonly took a week each way.  The Wrights racked up significant expenses building their Kitty Hawk camps on the remote Outer Bank island where they would stay for months, paying to have food and supplies shipped in, built several structures, and paid local workers to assist them.  The capitalist Wrights delegated day-to-day management of their bicycle shop for months at a time so they could focus on their experiments and even leave town completely for North Carolina.

In the words of Wright biographer Fred Howard, “they were financially secure”.  They had $4,900 “tucked away in two savings and loan associations in Dayton”.  [11]  That $4,900 would be a quarter million dollars in today’s money, and does not include the value of their non-cash assets such as their bicycle shop business.

What motivated the Wrights?  Clearly, they were fascinated, even obsessed, with flight.  They desired to solve the riddle of soaring.  But they were not doing it as charity for mankind.  The Wrights applied for their first patent in March 1903 on their discovery of the 3-D axis of airplane control, months before the Flyer was built or flown. [2]  After Kitty Hawk, the brothers were embroiled in long patent fights with others who lifted from their ideas for the commercial manufacturing of airplanes [4]  Though Wilbur Wright died an early death in 1912, Orville would move from comfortable affluence to become a very wealthy man after selling his interest in the Wright Company, maker of airplanes. [3]

Wright Brothers "Flying Machine" Patent

In today’s political rhetoric and tax debates we hear about how the rich supposedly aren’t paying their fair share.  The wealthy are maligned by populist politicians and our President as “fat cats”, men of leisure who live a grand lifestyle with no benefit to society.   Really? 

The income tax had not yet been introduced in 1903, so the Wrights were able to keep 100% of what they earned from their bicycle shop.  At a time when common workers toiled from dusk to dawn, it took men of some financial independence like the Wrights to invest the leisure time and money to invent an airplane.  Wilbur Wright wrote in his first letter to Octave Chanute, “I feel it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.  I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time a few months to experiment in this field”. [4]  After already putting in many years of time and effort, in 1903 the Wrights invested about $1,000 (around $25,000 in today’s money) into the Flyer and its maiden flight trial. [5]

File:Wright Brothers in 1910.jpg

At the turn of the century, many had intellectual curiosity in human flight but the actual experimentation was dangerous, time-consuming and expensive.  Gliding pioneer Otto Lilienthal was the head of a factory. [6]  Other aeronautical pioneers were leisurely rich men such as machine gun inventor Hiram Maxim, a “most lavish spender.” [7]  Octave Chanute was an engineer by training who became a wealthy man of leisure after designing parts of the Chicago Stockyards and the first bridge across the Missouri River and later establishing a successful railroad-tie manufacturing business in Chicago. [8]  Chanute was a pen pal and a sounding board to the Wright Brothers.

The Wrights, of course, were far from history’s only capitalists advancing the practical application of science and technology.  Most any company of consequence was once backed by some private investor(s).  Many a promising venture or invention came from someone with the financial wherewithal not only to experiment but to take leave of their “day job”.  It is also of note that direct government attempts to invent much of anything or create new companies have largely failed. 

Even back in the Wright Brothers’ day, in the interest of obtaining manned flight for military uses, the US War Department commissioned very expensive manned airplane experiments.  Even spending $73,000 (almost $2 million in today’s dollars) of War Dept. money plus another $23,000 (1903 dollars) from the Smithsonian Institution, the two Langley attempts of 1903, sponsored by the War-Department, ended with plane and pilot immediately crashing into the Potomac River. [8]  

After the press witnessed the second failure of Langley’s government-backed attempt on December 8, 1903, the New York Times editorialized a man-carrying airplane would eventually be evolved if mathematicians and mechanics worked steadily for the next one million to ten million years. [9]  The Wright Brothers’ first flight took place a few days later. 

The French government invested $100,000 (almost $2.5 million in today’s money) in the 1890s backing the failed flight experiments of a Clement Ader.  Although Mr. Ader claimed he had flown 1,000 feet in what were described as “steam-powered batlike contraptions,” his assertions were proven false and the French government cut off future financial support. [10]   Direct government support of soon-to-failed ventures in industries already filled with entrepreneurs and private capital?  They say history repeats itself as farce:  Solyndra, anyone?

Wright Brothers "Flying Machine" Patent

[1] Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.  Pg. 9.

[2] Ibid,  pp. 89 & 100.

[3], retrieved 10/3/11

[4] Howard, Ibid, p. 38.

[5] Ibid, pg. 123

[6] Ibid, page 17.  Lilienthal died in one of his experimental flights.

[7] Ibid, pg. 31. 

[8] Ibid, pgs. 18 & 129. 

[9] Ibid, pg. 130

[10] Ibid, pg. 32.

[11] Ibid, pg. 148.

Pictures from Wikipedia Commons. 

Patent Images from Google Patents:


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