PERSPECTIVE: Looking back at the ‘more imaginative’ Wright brother

Orville Wright poses in front of a 1912 model C machine at Simms Station. This was one of the first 5 machines ordered by the Army.
Orville Wright poses in front of a 1912 model C machine at Simms Station. This was one of the first 5 machines ordered by the Army.

Recalling Dayton’s famous sons

In 1911 – by then world famous — Wilbur Wright was asked the secret to success. Simple, he replied: “Choose good parents, and be born in Ohio.”

Wilbur’s answer was more than local pride. It was a fair statement of the unusual role Ohio in general and Dayton in particular had played in this nation’s development.

When, at the end of the eighteenth century, Americans started spilling over the Appalachians, Ohio was the only adjacent place where slavery had been banned. It therefore drew to it people and groups who intended to place their stamp on the future. It was a fertile ground for small colleges and utopian communities. While the former colonies along the Atlantic still looked back to Europe, Ohio was the first place that looked to the ever-beckoning West.

It was, most of all, a vast, relatively underpopulated resource. That disproportion between people and resource put a premium on self-reliance, on improvisation, on inventiveness. Nowhere was more inventive that Dayton. By 1900, the U.S. Patent Office ranked Dayton first in the nation in the number of patents produced relative to population.

That was the doing, of course, of Wilbur and Orville Wright. And of Charles Kettering, who with his self-starter made Dayton the center of technical innovation in the burgeoning auto industry. And John H. Patterson at NCR, and others. Dayton was, in short, the “Silicon Valley” that came before Silicon Valley.

That work is the theme of “Grand Eccentrics,” a recently re-released book by former long-time Miami Valley resident Mark Bernstein, published by Orange Frazer Press. Bernstein has written on other Ohio themes. His “John J. Gilligan: The Politics of Principle” is the first biography of the governor who was Ohio’s most important twentieth century Democrat. His “McCulloch of Ohio: For the Republic” is the first biography of the conservative Republican congressman known as “Mr. Civil Rights” for his key role in passage of the 1960s civil rights legislation. Locally, he is also the author of the recently produced 125th anniversary history of Miami Valley Hospital.

This excerpt from “Grand Eccentrics” profiles one of those who brought Dayton fame, and does so on Dec. 17, 2017 – the 114th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight.

Around the First World War Orville Wright kept an airplane at South Field, outside Dayton, Ohio. The craft was stored in a hangar that sat in a pasture; one night the caretaker forgot to close the hangar doors. Cows wandered in. They nibbled on the cloth stretched over the aircraft’s wings, apparently found to their liking the taste of the dope used to seal the fabric, and tugged it off, chewing and swallowing the cloth by section. When Orville arrived the following morning he, for once, blew his top. An observer reported: “But still it wasn’t the kind of blow up that, for instance, you had out of (Dayton inventor Charles) Kettering. Orville’s was one of these very nice blow ups.”

Orville Wright was mild, mannered and impish. Returning once from a speech given by a candidate for lieutenant governor, he commented, “If that man is honest, he should sue his face for slander.” In politics, he talked Socialist, voted Republican and praised Franklin Roosevelt, just to scandalize his sister-in-law.

He did not so much challenge authority as ignore it. Orville dropped out of kindergarten on the fourth day of class. He neglected to inform his mother that he had given up on formal education. He continued, as before, to leave home each morning, to return home each noon and to speak brightly of the day’s activities. Actually, he was playing at the home of a friend, with an eye on the clock. Susan Wright did not learn of her son’s truancy until several weeks had passed, when she went to school to see how he was faring. Orville, unabashed, returned to school.

Orville was kind, sweet in fact, and all but morbidly afraid of appearing in public. When President Franklin Roosevelt came to Dayton to campaign for re-election, Orville was invited to lunch with the President. It was an invitation he could hardly refuse. Later, however, Orville found himself in the back of the President’s touring car, being driven through cheering and curious throngs. When the car stopped momentarily in Orville’s own neighborhood, he hopped out, thanked the President for lunch, and walked home.

He walked with a limp. In 1908, he crashed while demonstrating for the U.S. Army the flying machine he and his brother had created. His injuries left him with recurring sciatica, one leg shorter than the other and an extra heel in his left shoe.

He was the son of a bishop of the United Brethren church, but he was not himself particularly religious, only rarely a churchgoer, a fact his father appears to have taken in stride. Orville avoided passing judgment on others, a trait he shared with his brother Wilbur, though in Wilbur’s case such restraint may have taken some effort. A younger relative said of the pair: “It’s a funny thing. They could both stand anything but dishonesty. A person that they knew could fail in business and do a poor job and not apply themselves well, but if they were honest, they would forgive them everything.” Honesty was the linchpin of Orville’s moral universe, just as accuracy was the central virtue of his professional life. Dishonesty, inaccuracy — both simply got things off course for no good cause.

Orville was saving by nature. Around 1910, a job applicant at the Wrights’ factory noticed that during his interview, Orville kept bending down to pick up brass screws and other small parts that shirtcuffs had brushed off workbenches during the day. This made an impression on the job seeker: “They had financed the world’s first airplane by the very meager earnings from their bicycle shop and he (Orville) realized the intrinsic value of those things.”

When Orville and Wilbur set out to conquer flight, they had no very great expectation of success. Better men than they, as they at first reckoned things, from Leonardo to Alexander Graham Bell, had failed in the attempt. “They first started flying kites when they were grown men,” one Dayton resident recalled. “People in Dayton thought they were a couple of nuts. Flying kites, you know.” Likely, it did not help that they wore suits while flying those kites. They almost always wore suits. In their shop — tinkering with engines, tightening bicycle chains — the Wrights dressed as though they had just stopped off on their way back from a wedding, in white shirt and starched collar. Invariably, they emerged immaculate.

Orville and Wilbur had only a rough division of labor between them. Orville was the more imaginative, the better mathematician and, when faced with discouragement, the more optimistic of ultimate success. Wilbur was the more organized thinker — he had to a remarkable degree the engineer’s capacity to assess a task in its whole and its constituent parts, and to keep parts, whole and the relationship between continuously and clearly in mind. Wilbur had drive, the impulse to do something large. Without his brother’s directedness, Orville might have spent his life as what he, after Wilbur’s death, became, as a kindly favorite uncle who turned up at his nieces’ and nephews’ house with some new and imaginative toy. In achieving flight, it was Wilbur who played the public role — he conducted the voluminous correspondence, he presented papers at scientific conferences.

Orville did nothing similar. When in the 1920s Orville agreed to serve on the board of trustees of the public library half a dozen blocks from his home, he set two conditions: that he would never have to chair a meeting and that nothing he ever said at a meeting would be quoted in the newspapers. Orville thought reporters were idiots.

During Orville’s library years, the experimental section of the United States Air Corps was located near Dayton at McCook Field. Aviation then glowed with promise, and of the pilots at McCook, some were future generals, others expected to be, and all — in their youthful razzing and bravado — considered aviation to be the corner of the universe given freshly to them for the making of things grand, themselves included. Sometimes, when an experiment was scheduled at the field, Orville Wright was invited out to watch. He would drive out in the car with the special suspension system that cushioned his back and the OW-1 license plates he got every year, and climb out. As he walked, one leg shorter than the other, to where the others were assembled, the razzing and joking died down. One present recalled, “There was always a little awe whenever Orville Wright would come around.”

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