The Shop that Became a Shrine
By Howard Egbert
A Recital of the Real Story of the First Flight in an Aeroplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio
Issued and Sponsored by the Dayton Chamber of Commerce
December 17, 1928
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nation’s airy navies grappling in the central blue.”
--Alfred Lord Tennyson
This is a tale of a shop that became a shrine.
It is the age-old story of a man’s conquest of so-called unconquerable things. It is a narrative of trials and tribulations. But out of it all emerges success. Orville and Wilbur Wright conquered the air in precisely the same manner as they set out to do. The jeers of the scoffers rang in their ears. Friends tried to persuade them to go back to the business of repairing and making bicycles. They argued that men of profound scientific training for a thousand years had tried to do what these brothers were attempting to do and had failed; consequently what strange faith did they possess, these two repairmen, that they expected to perform a miracle or accomplish that which others had found impossible and in some instances had proclaimed impractical as a scientific achievement.
It so happens that Orville and Wilbur Wright were different.
Having put their hand to the plow they refused to turn back. It quite frequently happens that Success is ushered into the life of an individual or nation on the strong winds of criticism and amid the shouts of ridicule. So it chances that history once more demonstrated in the case of the Wright Brothers that all things are possible to those who untiringly trudge along the highway of unconquered faith.
From all accounts of the conversion of this shop on West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, into an international shrine the two repairmen who worked therein possessed some definite ideas of what they hoped to achieve long before that epochal flight along the wind-swept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, twenty-five years ago, or more accurately on December 17, 1903. Men who succeed have some definite objective in mind. Orville and Wilbur Wright did, at least.
Man has been imbued with the thought that he should be able to fly for ten thousand years. The fabled Icarus attempted it, you will remember, and by attaching wings to his body with wax, managed to get into the air, but the wax, melting under the glare of the sun, soon robbed Icarus of his powers of propulsion and he came to the ground a wiser man. Of course this is mythology, but it serves to indicate how through the years there has been a longing on the part of some or many to fly. It was a primitive instinct, predicated on the thought that man was made to conquer everything with which he came into contact. In mastering the air, however, he has had his troubles and has made many sacrifices.
Even in this modern age, flights with heavier-than-air machines were attempted. Without exception the failed until Orville and Wilbur Wright in the secret places of their bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio, designed and finally emerged with a type of flying machine that, jeered at, at first, nevertheless furnished the basis for modern aeronautics.
We in Dayton know a little bit more about this invention of the airplane than most people, because it was born among us. Long years ago the little shop has passed into the scrap heap, but the product of its crude laboratory has filled the skies the world over.
Orville and Wilbur Wright appear to have gained their first impressions concerning the subject of heavier-than-air flying or rather their first inspiration along these lines by observing the performance of kites. They made, as young men will when possessed of an inventive mind, a variety of such “toys,” only they were thinking in different terms than the making of mere playthings. When they discovered the wind pressure maintained their device in the air, they reasoned, out of their practical minds, that the same principle, applied to a larger and differently constructed machine ought to be sufficiently well founded along scientific lines to sustain a human being and a heavier load. This principle served as a basis for the whole story of the airplane invention, beginning with the glider.
While other young men flew kites as a diversion, Orville and Wilbur Wright, keeping their secret to themselves, planned something of amazing proportions. The work-shop became a laboratory or research department. It is erroneous to suppose for a moment that the Wright Brothers stumbled across the machine they associated with their names today. The plain truth is they worked hard, probed deep, thought long and studied far into the night with their experimentations, and where learned scientist failed, they ultimately succeeded. At this point, it is interesting to observe and necessary to relate some history of these two brothers that much of the time is overlooked, or as happens in many instances, not understood at all by those who think they know the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
I think I am safe in saying that the scientific minds which they possessed were based in very large measure upon two very important facts: first the training in mathematics which their school careers furnished them; and second the unconquerable desire to get at the truth of some scientific matters. It so happens that they discovered, very early in their investigation and research, that practically everything that had been written and talked about in scientific circles relative to certain subjects, among them screw propellers, air-pressures, etc., were for the most part unreliable guides. They had thought of acquiring the theory of the screw propeller, for illustration, from the marine engineers, and by applying their tables of air-pressure to the engineers’ formulas of designing air-propellers suitable to their purpose. Close study, however, revealed that the “exact action of the screw-propeller, after a century of use, was still obscure.”
In the Century Magazine of September, 1908, we find this conclusion drawn by the two brothers anent this subject matter:
“As we were not in a position to undertake a long series of practical experiments to discover a propeller suitable for our machine, it seemed necessary to obtain such a thorough understanding of the theory of its reactions as would enable us to design them from calculation alone.”
Faced by a situation that on the surface appeared hopeless, Orville and Wilbur Wright set about to settle this subject to their own satisfaction and their first propellers, built entirely from calculation, gave in useful work 66 per cent of the power expended. “This” we read “was about one-third more than had been secured by Maxim or Langley.”
I go into some detail here because it should be understood that these two men finding themselves hopelessly without scientific figures of value to their experimentation, literally had to start from the ground up and make their own calculations and prove their own problems. And so any person who thinks that they simply picked up what others had done along lines of scientific endeavor or discovery and appropriated it to their own use has an entirely erroneous idea of the whole subject. These men, actually, were pathfinders, not scientific sponges.
What was true with the screw propeller, equally was true with the subject of air pressures. The books they had been reading, proclaimed certain things that they discovered were not correct; practically useless for their work. As a result of all this Orville and Wilbur Wright forthwith made up their minds to rely only upon their own investigations in the future. That’s why they succeeded, it appears.
They set about and built the first wind tunnel ever made and this gave them something of a definite nature by which to measure air pressure and they knew by their calculations that they were correct in their premises after that, because they could demonstrate their findings.
The problem of stability of the machine was another phase of their research work which commanded much time, energy and midnight oil. There followed by the nature of their perseverance, a system of control which is now universally admitted was scientifically correct and as equally important to the science of aviation today as it was a quarter of century ago. Now, all this was not done without hard work, careful calculation and a severe demand upon mental reserves. Many times the two brothers worked all day and all night with their calculations. They were so intent upon discovery and creation that time meant nothing so long as it aided to achievement of purpose. And it is perfectly evident today, 25 years after the first heavier-than-air flying machine was piloted, that but for the energy displayed, the efforts expended and the serious application to principles by Orville and Wilbur Wright, the air era would have been postponed for goodness knows how many years. I repeat, it is important to bear in mind that these two men, having taken their job seriously were not inclined to accept anything short of success, and they built upon their own scientific principles, not upon what others had written or said, which generally was found to unreliable data, but upon what they themselves, through hard work found out to be actually a fact.
The tail spin, for example, about which we read so frequently in connection with the airplane, was nothing new to these brothers. They encountered this with their gliders back in 1901. When these men found this difficulty they overcame it, both with the gliding machines and later with the power driven machines. But they found the solution themselves. No book of rules could furnish them with the basis for their discovery.
So it is, I fancy, with every worth-while thing. Things to be done right have to be understood. Nothing can be taken for granted. There has been no contribution to science, worthy the name, that has not come from brain power and demonstration through severe calculation.
There is a great lesson in perseverance in their life story for young people of today, who in too many cases cast aside some task that has been assigned to them because, in order to succeed they may be called upon to sacrifice something in the way of personal pleasure that proves too alluring as compared with the job in hand.
Having arrived at certain and well defined conclusions regarding the project in hand, it became necessary, eventually for the two brothers to put their machine to the test. It was all very well to do thus and so with designs and calculations carefully noted in the workshop. It was apparent that the actual try-out would be the barometer by which to estimate the value of all the hard work and studious thinking that had been engaged in. A good many friends of the two boys in Dayton, little by little, had become in a less or more familiar way cognizant of what they had in mind. This revealment precipitated some sound advice on the part of some, jeers on the part of others and a nod of the head by that class of unbelievers which generally is to be found in the group of critics who think of invention as absurd and inventors as somewhat mentally upset. Moreover, the work was requiring ever increasing funds and every penny had to be saved by the two brothers because the income at the bicycle repair shop virtually was stopped while experimentation was going on with the new “contraption” that was to carry man through the air like a bird on the wing.
Kitty Hawk, on the North Carolina coast, is about as isolated a place as one would care to find. A life saving station is situated at Kill Devil Hill nearby and that is about all that marks the location as human habitation. Sand dunes stretch for miles. It is a windy location not far from Cape Hatteras. But it was admirably suited to the needs of these two young men who, possessed with an idea now set out to demonstrate the value of the thing they had made. It was but perfectly natural that the two inventors should desire to try out their ideas unmolested by gaping, whispering, criticising crowds. They arranged with the crew of the life saving station to assist them in taking off with their craft and an agreed signal was decided upon. Orville Wright has described how difficulties were confronted from the very start. To begin with, it became necessary for the two brothers to build a motor for their machine, and after testing it indoors for several days the discovery was made that one of the tubular propeller shafts had cracked. A trip back to Dayton was necessary to build a new shaft. The brothers had left Dayton on September 23, 1903, for their great enterprise and adventure. They arrived at Kill Devil Hill two days later, and on Friday, on November 28, the discovery was made of the motor trouble. It was December 11th before Orville got back to camp with the new shaft. On the night before December 17th a cold wind came from the north and by the next morning ice was formed on small puddles of water about the camp, following recent rains. Hoping the wind would die down sufficiently to enable a test flight, the two men waited impatiently for a turn for the better. By ten o’clock that morning conditions had not changed and the signal was given to the life saving crew to come over and help. There was unquestioned danger in such an attempt such as was about to be made in so high a wind. Orville took the controls. He released the wire that held the machine to the track and it started in the face of a twenty-seven mile wind and very slowly. Wilbur ran along the side to hold the wing and balance the machine on the runway. For forty feet the machine ran along and by the time it had reached the end of the track it had risen to a height of two feet. This was a rather erratic air trip, up and down, due to air irregularities and in part due to the inexperience Orville had in handling such a machine. It must be remembered that this was the first trip of such character ever made and man, despite his genius, needed much schooling on the subject. Sometimes the machine was ten feet in the air. Then it swerved toward the ground with undulating motions. One hundred and twenty feet from the starting place and the machine struck the earth. The initial flight had lasted twelve seconds, but it was the first made in history in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight; had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and finally had landed at a point as high as that from which it started.
Wilbur took the controls at 11:20 o’clock with about the same results, except that the distance covered was about seventy-five feet greater. Twenty minutes later a third flight began. Wind currents again caused trouble and almost an upset, but the machine was brought down to earth after being in the air fifteen seconds and covering about two hundred feet. It was at noon on the same day that the fourth flight began with Wilbur at the sticks. After moving along with some degree of regularity for about eight hundred feet, irregularities once more came into the picture and finally the machine darted downward to the ground. The distance covered was eight hundred fifty-two feet and the time of the flight fifty-nine seconds. In coming to the earth the frame supporting the front rudder was broken, but the main body of the machine was undamaged. Orville and Wilbur Wright, however, had demonstrated that man had begun to conquer the air.
It is one of the strange things about all this success that the Wright Brothers never dreamed when they first began their experiments with toys and later gliders that eventually they would solve the problem of flying for humans. By nature of an inquiring turn of mind and possessing a scientific foundation, what they did in the early days was more of a gratification of a desire to learn certain things that interested them. Even after they had been to Kitty Hawk upon one occasion Wilbur incidentally remarked to Orville on the train as they were returning to Dayton: “Man will not fly for more than a thousand years.” What a strange turn of fate that these men who had no particular idea of designing and building a flying machine should in the end have contributed this important scientific element to the world.
Prior to their early tests at Kitty Hawk the two men had been busily engaged as always with their research and experimentation in Dayton. In 1901 and 1902 they designed and brought out the wind tunnel for air pressure measurements, working in many instances all night to gain perfection. They achieved astonishing results through their studies. Then came 1903 with the actual first flight at Kill Devil Hill. The brothers remained only a short time in that section after the first triumph, returning home where they worked still further upon their invention. Their equipment was shipped back to Dayton and during 1904 and 1905 they carried on flying tests at the field which is now part of the Wilbur Wright government reservation east of Dayton, Ohio. In 1908 Wilbur went to France and to the amazement of the people of the country made a number of important flights. In the same year Orville took a machine to Ft. Myer and demonstrated the airplane before United States government officials. From that time on the heavier-than-air flying machine could be said to have a permanent place in world affairs. Its place was secure.
During all the years which intervened between the glider flights and then the first trip with a power driven machine the newspapers of this country and Europe began taking cognizance of what was transpiring. They were cautious at first, because the whole business seemed too wonderful to be thought an actuality. Away down in Kitty Hawk newspaper correspondents were curiosities in 1908, but one chap, a roving newspaper writer by the name of D. Bruce Salley, in the course of his wanderings happened to get an inkling of what was going on and what had transpired. He sent an inquiry as correspondents do to their home papers, to the New York Herald and later sent a short story of the early flights. The narrative was almost buried in the newspapers, the yarn being considered pretty much the product of a reporter’s imagination at the time. But gradually editors came to know that something of tremendous importance had happened at Kitty Hawk and forthwith photographers and trained writers went south and pitched headquarters near the Wright Brothers improvised home on the sand dunes. On May 9, 1908, we find this story in the New York Herald:
“The aeroplane of the Wright Brothers was flown almost at will over the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hill today, according to D. Bruce Salley, a spectator.”
But the story was tucked away in an obscure place on that day. The newspaper men set up camp away from the Wright camp to avoid being ordered off the reservation. Here they kept guard and unconsciously were spectators of a momentous and epochal event in the world’s history. One of the newspaper writers, in describing one of the early flights of the machine says:
“A hundred yards away the great bird swung to the right and swept grandly by, broadside on. Some cows, grazing on the beach grass, threw their heads upward and whirling around, galloped away in terror ahead of the approaching machine. It swept on far above them, indifferently, approaching the sand hills, three-quarters of a mile to the left, rose to them, soared over and down the other side.”
It soon became apparent to newspaper editors and scientists that something of an unusual character had transpired. Caustic comment on the part of the uninformed was turned to laudations. Satire was buried in satisfaction. A new era had opened and the two bicycle repairmen of Dayton, Ohio, became the center of world-wide interest in a short time.
Of course, the first flights were succeeded by longer and more important ones. The initial machine in the course of time was changed, as new discoveries were made. But Orville and Wilbur Wright had been successful and where others had failed they had made good. Europe opened her arms to the two inventors. Spectacular flight demonstrations were made before royalty. The two brothers were lavishly entertained and welcomed. A world that had been waiting for man to complete the conquest of the air acclaimed these Dayton citizens and made of their tiny shop a Shrine.
Much has transpired since the beginning of things twenty-five years ago. We can look into the skies almost at will today and see them dotted with the great winged ships, covering great distances, carrying commerce through the air. Pilots in the “purple twilight” fly from one coast to another in the United States without a stop. A group of airmen soar around the world in heavier-than-air flying machines. The oceans have been spanned. Wars have been fought in the azure blue and death has rained “from the nation’s air navies grappling in the central blue.” Tennyson’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Giant aircraft today carry great commercial argosies hither and yon. Distance has been annihilated by the use of the airplane and the world is not only entering but is in the midst of the air age.
It is a far cry back to that little crudely built bicycle shop in West Third Street, Dayton. Time has obliterated all marks of it. New structures have taken its place; and yet it has become hallowed in the history of the world. It is a Shrine today made so by the acclaim of millions who upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first successful flight made by man in a heavier-than-air flying machine, pay tribute to Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventors and pilots of the craft which pointed the way to all that we have in the world of aviation at this moment.
Commemorating the Twenty-fifth
Anniversary of the first human
flight in a heavier-than-air flying
machine by Wilbur and Orville
Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C.,
December 17, 1903
THE BRELSFORD PRINTING CO.—DAYTON, OHIO