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When Flying Machine Stock Went Up


This was written on August 24, 1936 as part of the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression.
Leonard K. Henry was listed as Editor, Lewis F. Carr was Associate Editor


When Flying Machine Stock Went Up


            A RATHER SMALL modest man was showing a visitor through a factory.  They were on the third floor.

            “Would you mind looking down that elevator shaft and seeing where the elevator is?” asked the host.

            “Surely,” smiled the visitor, and did as requested, adding as an afterthought, “Why did you ask me?”

            “It always makes me nervous and dizzy to look down from any place higher than the second floor,” was the reply.

            Coming from an average person that answer would not have been surprising.  But the host was no average man.  He was Orville Wright, co-inventor of the first heavier-than-air flying machine, now observing his sixty-fifth birthday; a man who has gambled his life countless times in the past, in flimsy contraptions that passed for airplanes and at varying giddy heights.

            Orville Wright explains the odd contradiction this way: when he was flying those fragile gliders at Kitty Hawk, N. C., in 1902, risking his life daily on nothing but home-made kites constructed of fir wood and cotton, he was “too busy thinking to feel.”

            When he seated himself at the controls of the first heavier-than-air flying machine ever to fly, he was still too engrossed in the task to think of fear.  He frankly admits now, however, that had he known the hazards attendant upon that adventure, he might have shirked the experiment.  Yet, he did make the flight, and thus bequeathed to mankind a priceless legacy.

            Mr. Wright further explains the strange paradox by revealing that the experience of flying is totally different from other sensations induced by being above the ground.

            He may shun skyscrapers, maintain his office and laboratories in one-story buildings and avoid elevators whenever possible, but flying—well, that’s different.

            In the first place it embodies, for him, all the exhilaration of a great adventure.  From time immemorial man has tried to fly and has pictured heaven as a place where man was equipped with wings and soared through the air in the manner of birds.

            Secondly, there is the rushing wind, the excitement of the ground men, their hopes, their fears and their prayers; and there has always been for Orville Wright, the memory of his brothers, Wilbur, his sister, Katherine, his father, Milton, and his mother, together with the dawning consciousness that he was helping teach men to fly.  And finally, there is the comforting thought that flying is an entirely different matter from being stationary high above the ground.  There is the consciousness of breath-taking speed and forward movement that precludes any cognizance of the fear that sometimes clutches one in high buildings.

            Assuredly, Mr. Wright’s self-reliance in the air traces to his knowledge of and his confidence in airplanes.  Nowhere is this expression more clearly outlines than in a telegram he dispatched to his siter on December 14, 1903, three days before he and Wilbur made their first successful flight.  That succinct message read: “Quotations on flying machine stock are at the highest point in history.”

            Up to that date everything had failed.  The Wright Brothers had accepted as gospel truth the calculations of Lilienthal and Canute but three trying years of experimentation had proved those calulations wrong.

            Then it was that the Wright Brothers threw everything away and made their own calculations.  They constructed the first wind tunnel in the world, conducted their own experiments, tabulated their own calculations.  With them came the knowledge that at last they were on the right track.

            Now they knew what their machine would do with the arrival of the first favorable day.  They knew it would fly and come back to earth without accident.  Just how long it would fly was a matter for conjecture.  But that it would fly, without mishap, they were thoroughly convinced.  That was why on December 14, 1903, three days previous to the initial successful test, Orville wired his sister that flying machine stock was at an all-time high.

            The rest is now glorious history; how they made four successful flights that day, December 17, the first one lasting only 12 seconds, and the last one only 59 seconds; how they lifted the curse of Prometheus, of man bound to earth, and how Wilbur sent a telegram to their father, the beloved bishop, which read:  “Success!”  Four flights Thursday morning all against 21-mile wind.  Started from level with engine power alone.  Average speed through air 31 miles.  Longest 59 seconds.  Inform press.  Home Christmas.”

            It would be unkind here to detail how the Dayton press responded to this news.  It was the old story–“A prophet is not with honor”---

            Though the Wright Brothers refuted a doubting press by flying their airplanes over Dayton in 1904, it was not until they had exhibited the product of their genius before the King of Spain and the President of France that their home town accorded them the honor they so richly deserved.  That belated honor was conferred in the great Wright Brothers Homecoming Celebration of June 17, 1909.

            And so in his sixty-fifth year, as he gazes in retrospect upon those days of trial and humiliation, it is not surprising that a combination of innate modesty and natural resentment causes Orville Wright to bow and smile and decline all interviews.