CHAPTER XII - THE WRIGHTS IN EUROPE
The Wrights were at work in 1906 developing a new engine having vertical instead of horizontal cylinders. Though they were doing no flying, brief references to them occasionally appeared in newspapers. These caught the attention of a New York businessman, U. S. Eddy, who thought the Wrights and their patents might be of interest to Charles R. Flint & Company, New York bankers and promoters. Eddy was a former partner of Flint in a shipping line and knew that there were constantly on the lookout for new inventions worthy of their consideration. Partly to do a favor for an old friend and associate, he decided to go to Dayton for a talk with the Wrights.
Eddy arrived in Dayton on Thanksgiving Day and saw the Wrights the next day. They did not discuss business at this meeting. Eddy simply got acquainted with them, and satisfied himself that any statements they made about their invention could be depended upon; but he did tell them he felt sure the Flint firm would be much interested in helping them develop the machine’s financial possibilities.
The Wrights left Dayton on December 5 for New York, to attend an exhibit to be given by the newly formed Aero Club of America. Before leaving New York they went with Eddy to meet F. R. Cordley, a member of the Flint firm. At this time Flint was in Europe, but the Wrights met him in New York not long afterward. Flint was often over-enthusiastic about new projects, and Cordley was the more cautious member of the firm. His job was to hold Flint in check. But he, as well as Flint and other associates, was favorably impressed by the Wrights, and they began to talk business. On December 26, 1906, George H. Nolte, an employee of the firm, went to Dayton to work out preliminary details. At first the Flints spoke of the possibility of buying all European rights to the airplane; but the deal finally made was that the Flints should be the Wrights’ business representatives, on a twenty per cent commission basis, in all countries except the United States. A year or two later it was agreed that the Wrights should manage their own affairs also in Great Britain and its colonies.
The Flints proposed that they would have the Czar of Russia, and certain other crowned heads, request private demonstrations of the flying-machine. But the Wrights were not impressed by such suggestions and in a letter to the Flints said they thought it would be better for them to “look the ground over first before making arrangements with the Czar.”
The Flints had an associate in Europe, Hart O. Berg, who, in 1899, had helped to introduce American electric automobiles on the continent. He had acted, too, for Simon Lake, inventor of the submarine, in dealing with Russia and other foreign governments. They thought Berg might be able to start negotiations for forming a European Wright company. But Berg, not knowing the Wrights, and feeling scant confidence in what they were reported to have done, was less than lukewarm over the idea. Flint suggested that it would be well for at least one of the Wrights to go to Europe with expenses paid, to discuss their invention with Berg and give him more faith in it. The Wrights themselves, said Flint, could do more than anyone else to implant in Berg the wholehearted enthusiasm he would need to convince possible buyers.
On May 15, 1907, a telegram came from the Flint office urging that one of the Wrights should start to Europe at once. Wilbur “grabbed a few things” and prepared to go to New York the next day, to sail on the Campania. As he planned to tarry abroad only a short time – only long enough to convince Berg – his baggage consisted of one suit case. He would stop first in England for a brief stay before going to Paris.
Wilbur was to land in Liverpool on a Saturday. Berg, eager to see one of the Wrights face to face and settle in his own mind if these inventors were really dependable, went to London to meet him.
“I knew him the minute he stepped from the train,” said Berg long afterward. “To begin with, it is always easy to spot an American among Englishmen, and I saw no other American coming down the platform. But even if there had been other Americans I’m sure I would have known which was Wilbur Wright. There was a modest self-assurance about him that tallied with his character as I heard about it.”
After the first greetings, Berg said: “Now, let’s see about picking up the rest of your luggage.”
But Wilbur smilingly explained that the one suit case was all he had brought.
On the way to the hotel, Wilbur decided that it might be advisable for him to buy a suit of evening clothes and they went at once to a tailor shop on the Strand.
It didn’t take long to convince himself that Wilbur Wright was no slicker, but decidedly on the level, and that if he said his machine would fly, then it must be true.
A day after their first meeting, Berg and Wilbur were joined by P. R. Cordley, of the Flint firm, in Europe on a vacation trip, and the three went to Paris together. They “descended,” as the French say, at the Hotel Merurice, on the rue de Rivoli.
It was still broad daylight when they arrived and Berg almost immediately led Wilbur across the street into the Tuileries gardens. They strolled to the Place de la Concorde and looked up the length of the magnificent Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. The horse chestnut trees were still in blossom, and Berg, a resident of Paris during most of his life, was feeling happy over the opportunity to show this stranger his first glimpse of the most beautiful city on earth at its loveliest season.
Before he had been long in Paris, Wilbur attended a balloon meet at St. Cloud, and a few days later made his first trip in a balloon.
A Paris Herald reporter, who talked with Wilbur at St. Cloud, was impressed by his reticence and made this statement: “Mr. Wright talked carefully, as if all was mapped out in advance. It was obvious that he feared to be caught in a trap concerning his remarkable machine and what he wants to do with it. At the end of each question his clean-shaven face relapsed into a broad, sphinx-like smile.
It now seemed wise to try to form a company to buy European rights to the airplane, or to sell the rights to a private financier, rather than to deal with the Government through politicians, and a wealthy man had become interested: M. Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe, an oil magnate, who had also been a patron of ballooning.
When Wilbur Wright met Deutsch de la Meurthe, the latter, a cautious trader, said that before investing any money he wanted to make sure the French Government would be interested in buying airplanes.
Wilbur then decided that it would be both discourteous and imprudent not to have a talk with Letellier or Fordyce, with whom there had been previous negotiations, and let them know what was going on – particularly since Deutsch de la Meurthe was known to have close relations with Le Matin, a rival of Letellier’s newspaper, Le Journal. He got in touch with Fordyce, and told him a little of the current situation. Shortly afterward, Letellier invited Wilbur to lunch. Letellier seemed indignant that the Wrights had not resumed negotiations with him. Wilbur told him he could doubtless be included if a company should be formed. But that didn’t suit Letellier. He didn’t care to join a company organized by Deutsch de la Meurthe; if a company was formed he wanted to be the prime mover in it himself. He said nothing however, about interfering with efforts being made to form a company – possibly because he thought they would not be successful.
Deutsch de la Meurthe now went to call upon the Minister of Marine, with whom he was well acquainted, and was escorted by him to meet the Minister of War, General Picquart, a hero of the Dreyfus case.
Deutsch de la Meurthe was not familiar with what had previously been done regarding the possible purchase of a Wright machine, as the negotiations had been carried on during the regime of his predecessor. But he had Commandant Bonel bring the records to him and when he looked them over was impressed by the fact that the Wrights’ invention had been considered seriously. No less impressed was Deutsch de la Meurthe. General Picquart said he realized the importance of the Wright invention and was disposed to take favorable action toward buying planes, provided the Wrights would guarantee that their machine could fly at a height of 300 meters.
That was enough encouragement for Deutsch de la Meurthe. In fact, he became highly enthusiastic over the outlook. He had not before appreciated the seriousness of the previous negotiations. Now he began to talk about details of the articles of incorporation of a proposed company.
Commandment Bonel was elated over the news that his government might at last be buying Wright airplanes. His pride and prestige had been hurt by the failure of his recommendations to be accepted. Moreover, for patriotic reasons, he wanted the French Army to be the first to adopt what he regarded as an epoch-making new invention. Now that the outlook was once again more favorable, he was in a communicative mood when he chanced to meet Fordyce, with whom he had traveled to Dayton.
Fordyce showed his surprise at what Bonel told him. He went at one to tell this news to his employer, M. Letellier. Now Letellier expressed great indignation. He had an agreement in writing, he said, that if the War Ministry bought any Wright airplanes the purchase should be made through Le Journal, and any departure from that plan he must construe as an unfriendly and illegal act. Immediately he went to the office of the Minister of War where with great politeness he showed to General Picquart a letter obtained from his predecessor.
Since the option the Wrights had given to Fordyce had expired, the agreement between the War Ministry and Letellier was no longer in force. But General Picquart, if he understood that, after a hasty examination of the records, did not argue the point. Possibly he was too practical a politician to enter a controversy with a influential publisher. At any rate, he asked Deutsch de la Meurthe to withdraw from the negotiations.
It was Deutsch de la Meurthe’s turn to be indignant. He believed at first that the Wrights had simply used him for a tool. But later, when he understood the facts and saw that the Wrights were not to blame for what had happened, he once more was friendly with them.
The Wrights saw their most promising opportunity for an immediate contact was through Letellier and Le Journal. Consequently, Fordyce, representing that newspaper, came back into the picture. Within a day or two after negotiations were thus resumed, Fordyce came to Berg in an apologetic mood, showing deep embarrassment. He said he had been asked to submit a proposal that it hardly seemed worth while to discuss at all; and yet he had no choice but to convey a message, as had been requested of him, by a man high in government circles. The deal might go through at once, said Fordyce, but there would have to be a little rewording of the contract. The Wrights must not ask 1,000,000 francs but 1,250,000 francs. Then they would receive their million francs.
Berg knew well enough what would happen when he told this to Wilbur.
There would be no objection to having the contract call for more money than the Wrights were to receive, said Wilbur calmly, but the contract must give the name of the man who would receive that additional sum.
Berg went to the office of the man who had communicated, by way of Fordyce, the astounding suggestion. He hoped there had been some misunderstanding. But to Berg’s astonishment and disgust, the man said with shocking candor that he would indeed expect 250,000 francs ($50,000) as his reward for putting through the deal.
Before indignantly walking out of the man’s office, Berg told him the Wrights would never be a party to such financial irregularity and that the negotiations with the Minister of War would have to be carried on without the co-operation of anyone in the Government who expected to be paid for his efforts. (After the first World War that same man was tried for treason.)
Meanwhile, Wilbur had cabled to Orville to join him in Paris. And with the prospect that it might be necessary to make a demonstration of what the Wright machine could do, a plane was crated and shipped from Dayton to France.
Orville arrived in Paris around the first of August, and the Wrights’ chief mechanic, Charlie Taylor, came about a week later.
While crossing the Atlantic, Orville had a talk with another passenger that illustrates his possession of a freakish kind of memory. An Englishman had been introduced to him and, after a few moments of conversation, Orville asked if they had not met before. No, the Englishman said, they had not. He had no recollection of any previous meeting, and he was sure if there had been one he would remember it. The man’s face was not familiar, but there was something about his voice and gestures that somehow stirred in Orville old memories. Finally, Orville inquired:
“Were you by any chance at the World’s Fair in Chicago back in 1893?”
“And,” asked Orville, “did you ever have occasion to explain to a bystander some kind of device at one of the exhibits?”
Yes, that also might have happened.
“There,” said Orville, much relieved that his memory had not played him tricks, “must have been where I saw you. I felt sure I couldn’t be mistaken about your voice.”
After Orville had joined Wilbur at the Hotel Meurice, the brothers did not find their affairs too pressing to do a lot of sight-seeing. Neither one spoke French, but Orville had acquired a fair reading knowledge of it. Oddly enough, Wilbur, who had learned Greek and Latin easily, made no effort to learn French. He jokingly said it was a convenience not to know it, as it saved him from a lot of talking.
As they went about their sight-seeing, Wilbur, always a reader of history, was especially fascinated by all places of historic interest. Orville found himself spending much time each day in the Louvre. Those days gave him an appreciation of good paintings that he never lost.
Negotiations with the French Government dragged on. For weeks the Wrights were kept in uncertainty. They never saw any of the people they were dealing with. Their only contact with anyone at the War Ministry was through Fordyce, and they had no way of knowing, except from what he told them, whether any progress was being made.
Nothing came of the long negotiations. The Wrights were not alone in being disappointed. Commandant Bonel, not long afterward, perhaps as a consequence of the failure of his recommendations to be accepted, resigned from the Army.
Late in the summer of 1907, the Wrights left Paris. Orville went first to London, at the suggestion of Flint & Co. to have a talk with the receiver of the Barnum and Bailey circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, then in bankruptcy. The receiver wondered if the Wright plane could be flown within an enclosure where an admission fee could be charged.
Wilbur Wright had set out with Berg for St. Petersburg. They changed their minds about going to Russia, however, and, instead, stopped at Berlin where Orville shortly afterward joined them.
As the train on which Wilbur and Berg traveled was passing through Belgium, Wilbur noticed a sign indicating that they were in the little town of Jemappes. Then he recalled that a great battle took place there back in 1792. He began to discuss the battle with an exact knowledge of details that astounded Berg. Wilbur had read about it in his youth. Over and over again, Berg and others who dealt with Wilbur Wright, were similarly impressed not only by the range of his reading but by the fact that no knowledge he had once acquired ever seemed to grow dim.
In Berlin, the brothers were able to gain direct contact with important men – with the minister of the department of transportation. These German officials were highly intelligent and not slow about recognizing the tremendous importance of the Wright machine if it would perform as the brothers said it could. The Wrights had proposed a contract in which they would agree to furnish a machine capable of carrying, at a speed of forty miles an hour, two men and a supply of fuel for a flight of 125 miles, and to make a demonstration flight of one hour fulfilling every requirement of the contract before one pfennig should be paid to them. The German officials could not deny the fairness of the offer, and could see no reason why the Wrights should have made it unless they could carry it out. Besides, they were not altogether unacquainted with the earlier work of the Wright brothers, accounts of whose glider and power flights had been appearing for five or six years in German technical publications. But in spite of all this the officials were in a quandary. They could not bring themselves to believe that what the Wrights now offered could be possible. They were afraid to sign their names to a contract that generally would be considered as foolish as a contract for a perpetual motion machine. They might become the laughingstock of the world.
On the other hand, these officials did not want to let an invention of such potentialities, if it really existed, slip through their fingers. They therefore gave, instead of a signed contract, their solemn verbal promise that if the Wrights would make a flight before them, such as had been offered in the proposed written contract, they would buy planes on the terms the Wrights had offered.
The Wrights felt that these officials, being at the head of important departments, could be relied up, and they were willing to take their verbal guarantee to buy planes upon the successful demonstration of the machine. When they left Germany, they fully expected to return the next March to make such a demonstration. (They could not foresee that they would have too many engagements in definite contracts elsewhere before another four months had passed.)
Wilbur Wright returned from Europe in November of 1907. But Orville remained a little longer to attending to having a number of engines built in Paris by the firm of Barriquand & Marre. The Wrights wanted to have in reserve duplicates of their American engine, at that time in customs, at La Havre, for use the next year. Barriquand & Marre were manufacturers of precision instruments and had built light motors. They doubted if the Wright motor gave as much power as was claimed for it, but they felt sure that if it did, the copies they made of it – on account of more careful workmanship – would give considerably more power than the original. But as later events showed, they gave less. At that time it was not known that when one motor is made as an exact copy, to the thousandths of an inch, of another motor of supposedly the same steels and other metals, but from different foundries and mills, months of experiment are required before the new motor can be made to work properly.
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