By Shilo Brooks, Scientific American Magazine, 3/14/20.
… The Wright brothers’ success at solving an engineering problem that captivated the human imagination for millennia was not a fluke. Flight is far too complex an undertaking merely to chance upon. To see what made the Wright Brothers successful and what we can learn from them today, we must consider what made them different. What qualities of character, curiosity and temperament did the Wrights possess that enabled them to conquer the air when specialists couldn’t? And what kind of problem was the problem of flight such that unique minds like theirs were required to solve it?
Thirty-one years after their famous first flight, Orville Wright reflected on what made the Wright brothers different. A journalist told him in an interview that he and his brother embodied the American dream. They were two humble boys with “no money, no influence, and no other special advantages” who had risen to the heights of fame and fortune. “But it isn’t true,” Orville replied, “to say we had no special advantages. We did have unusual advantages in childhood, without which I doubt we could have accomplished much…. The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity. If my father had not been the kind who encouraged his children to pursue intellectual interests without any thought of profit, our early curiosity about flying would have been nipped too early to bear fruit.”
The Wrights’ father, Milton, was a Protestant bishop with a zeal for books and inquiry of all sorts. His wife Susan was a mechanical whiz who studied math, science and literature in college, and who often built toys for the Wright children. The bookshelves in their home were filled with novels, poetry, ancient history, scientific treatises and encyclopedias. They encouraged their children to read widely and to take responsibility for their own education. When the Wright brothers were asked about their early interest in flight, they always said they got interested in it “for fun,” and that they wanted to use their profits to fund future scientific explorations.
In his late 20s Wilbur Wright began reading books on the anatomy of birds and animal locomotion. These investigations would eventually lead the Wrights to develop their innovative three-axis control system, which mimicked the torsional movement of bird wings. Wilbur soon wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution to request pamphlets published by Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute on aerodynamics. “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank,” he said, “in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”
Shortly after the brothers began conducting their experiments in North Carolina, they discovered that the tables of air pressure data provided by Smithsonian scientists were “unreliable” and riddled with errors. They promptly set about building their own wind tunnel to acquire accurate measurements. “We did that work just for the fun we got out of learning new truths,” Orville said in retrospect. They also built their own motor with the aid of their chief bicycle shop assistant when no engine manufacturers responded to their inquiries about building one small enough to fit the flyer…
The Wrights’ insatiable curiosity and love of truth enabled them to bring to bear on the multifaceted problem of flight the full range of their capacities as human beings in ways that others could not. They began to see that it was, as Wilbur put it, “the complexity of the flying problem that makes it so difficult.” It was a problem that “could not be solved by stumbling upon a secret, but by the patient accumulation of information upon a hundred different points some of which an investigator would naturally think it unnecessary to go into deeply.”