Chapter III – PRINTING - AND BICYCLES
At the age of twelve, while living in Richmond, Indiana, Orville Wright became interested in wood engravings. His curiosity had been stirred by seeing some woodcuts by Timothy Cole and T. Johnson in the Century magazine. Wondering how the cuts were made he began to search the encyclopedia and one or two other books that told a little about the technique used. He then decided that he might be able to make some woodcuts himself if he had a suitable tool – and he went ahead to fashion such a tool from the spring of an old pocketknife. (The next Christmas, Wilbur gave him a set of engraving tools.)
After trying his hand at his first few woodcuts. Orville naturally wished to make prints from them, and for this purpose he used a press his father had for copying letters. Today seldom seen, the old-fashioned letter-press consisted to two horizontal metal plates that could be forced close together by turning a little circular handle at the top of a threaded rod attached to the upper plate. One’s letter was moistened and placed next to a thin tissue sheet in a record book which went between the plates of the press. Under pressure, a copy of the letter was transferred to the tissue. Such a press was a fascinating device for a boy to play with. Indeed, Orville had used it for other purposes than that for which it was intended. It had also served him as a vise. And now it worked fairly well for making proofs from his woodcuts.
It was at about this time that the Wright family returned to Dayton from Richmond, and Orville renewed close relations with his old chum, Ed Sines. To his delight he found that young Sines was already interested in printing. He had a small press, obtained by trading a file, covering more than a year, of a boys’ magazine called Golden Days. This press was little more than a toy, capable of printing only on narrow line at a time, and the boys were never able to make much use of it. But, nevertheless, they immediately formed the printing firm of Sines & Wright.
At the beginning of the partnership of Sines & Wright, their printing establishment was in a corner of the Sines kitchen. Ed’s mother summed up the situation there when one day she noticed an envelope addressed to “Messrs. Sines & Wright,” from a type foundry. “It must be for you,” she said to the partners, “for you certainly are a pair of messers.”
Interested as they were in printing, Ed Sines and Orville had time for other hobbies. One of these was a telegraph line they rigged up between their homes. For years Wilbur Wright referred to it as the first wireless telegraph,” because the boys used to shout the
messages back and forth to verify whatever they clicked on the keys.
It soon became evident that Orville had printers’ ink in his blood. This printing hobby was more than a passing fancy. His father was impressed by the boy’s persistence in trying to use inadequate equipment. The father knew that two of his older sons, Wilbur and Lorin, had recently had a chance to trade a boat they had made, now seldom used, for a small printing press. If they would make that trade, he suggested, and donate the press to Orville, then he would buy for the youngster twenty-five pounds of brevier type. This deal was made. The new press would print anything up to 3 by 4 ½ inches.
As the Sines kitchen was not quite the ideal location for their printing plant, Orville arranged for quarters in a “summer kitchen,” not often used, at the Wright home.
It now occurred to Messrs. Sines & Wright that it might be a good idea to print a newspaper for the benefit of their eighth grade classmates. They called it The Midget. Because of the limited capacity of their press, the paper was necessarily small, two narrow columns wide and four and one-half inches long. Most of the items in it were put directly into type, as they thought of them, and not from previously prepared copy. They found that the four pages they had planned entailed a surprising amount of work and to reduce this they put nothing on page three except “Sines & Wright,” twice, diagonally across the page, in script type. After they had printed about one hundred copies for distribution, Orville’s father saw one of these and immediately placed a ban on the whole issue. He insisted that the boys had not done themselves justice in slighting that third page. Readers of the paper, he said, might get the impression that the publishers were lazy or shiftless.
In a way, this suppression of the issue came almost as a relief, for the publishers had begun to feel misgivings about one somewhat daring item they had taken the liberty of printing. It was about their teacher, Miss Jennings, who was a strict disciplinarian. The item read: “Next week we propose to publish one of Miss Jennings’ famous lectures before the pupils of the Intermediate School on the Inherent Wickedness of School Children.”
Before long the partners had an opportunity to buy a quantity of display type for $2, and then they began trying to establish themselves in the job-printing business. They set up their headquarters in the Wright barn, though on cold days they were likely to do their typesetting on a table in the Wright dining-room. Neighborhood storekeepers gave them a few orders for printing, and the firm began to take on airs. They employed Forrest Whitfield, a neighbor boy, as printer’s devil. He commanded a weekly wage of fifteen cents.
All was going well until one day they received an order from a man who wished to pay for his printing not in money but in popcorn. He assured them that this popcorn, on the cob, was worth more than the $2 the printing would have cost. But before deciding if they should accept the popcorn in payment, the partners prudently went to a grocer to get an estimate of its value. Sure enough, it was worth $2, and the grocer offered to buy it from them at that price.
Now Orville saw greater opportunities opening before them. With a liquid capital of $2, they could buy more type, do a greater variety of printing, and thus have more fun. But Ed Sines thought there was such a thing as over-extension of plant and equipment. Why not just divide their popcorn and eat it? Each was so uncompromising in his convictions that there was only one thing to do: one must buy out the other and they would dissolve the partnership. Inasmuch as Orville already owned the press they were using and most of the type, it seemed logical that he should be the buyer. By paying his share of the popcorn he was able to take over his partner’s interest without much cash outlay. Thenceforth, when they worked together, as from time to time they continued to do, Ed Sines was no longer co-proprietor but an employee.
At about this time, something set Orville to thinking of how interesting it would be to print circus bills. He wished some of his friends would organize a circus. Then he could do their printing. The idea seemed worth promoting. He went to the Truxell boys, and Fred LaRue, neighbors up the street, and convinced them that they had just the kind of abilities to organize and present a wonderful circus – one that would make a great hit with all the kids. The result of this talk was The Great Truxell Bros. & LaRue Show. Orville refused to accept any payment for printing the handbills and tickets of admission to the big show. The fun of doing it was all the reward he wanted.
Mrs. Wright had cleared out an upstairs room for Orville’s printing activities and that was his base for some time. He began to feel the need for a larger printing press and he determined to build one. The bed for the new press was an old gravestone he got from a marble dealer.
This press would print a sheet eleven by sixteen inches. Orville could now undertake larger printing projects. One order required more type than he had on hand. But that didn’t stop him. After he had used up all his type, with the job only half done, he recalled having heard of stereotype plates. He looked up in an encyclopedia a description of how such plates were cast from the impression of the original type in wet cardboard. And he contrived to make such a plate from the type already set. They he redistributed that type for use in setting the rest of the job.
Ambitious to be a really good printer, Orville took employment during two summer vacations with a printing establishment in Dayton, and worked there sixty hours a week. But he felt that the most fun and satisfaction in connection with printing had been from building his own press. Along in the spring of 1888, when he was nearly seventeen years old, he started to build another press, bigger than any he had used before. He didn’t know exactly what he would do with it, but that question did not give him much concern. He would have the fun of building it. In the family woodshed he made much of the framework, though he had to buy at a lumber yard a few longer pieces. From near-by junk yards he collected odds and ends of iron or steel that could be used. A difficult problem was to find a means of forcing the type against the printing surface, always with the same pressure, just enough and not too much. Orville searched the Wright barn and tool-shed for something that could be adapted, but without success until his eye happened to alight on the old family buggy. The buggy had a folding top, held firmly in place, when raised, by steel bars hinged in the middle. They were designed to force the top just so far and no farther. Exactly what he needed!
The job turned out to be much more difficult that Orville had expected and Wilbur Wright, observing his kid brother at a tough job, offered to help him build the press. Some of the suggestions Wilbur made for moving parts of that press were peculiar in that they seemed to violate all mechanical rules and could not possibly be expected to work. Yet they did. Some time later, a well-dressed stranger entered the shop where Orville, merrily whistling, was feeding paper into his press, and asked if he might look at that “home-made printing outfit.” He had heard about it while visiting in Dayton. What at once astonished Orville and two or three boys in the shop was that the visitor, with complete disregard for his good clothes, lay right down flat on his back on the floor to study the press in operation. After he had observed it for several minutes, he got up, brushed himself off, and remarked: “It works all right, but I still don’t understand why it works.” Before leaving he laid his card on a table. He was the foreman of the pressroom of a newspaper in Denver.
Now that he had his new press, Orville wished he could put it to some purpose to make full use of the greatly increased printing capacity. The press was big enough and fast enough to print a weekly newspaper. Why not start a neighborhood weekly? He had hardly more than thought of it before he decided to do so. It was probably the first time a paper was ever started to use a press.
Orville now rented a room on West Third Street, near Broadway. The first issue of the paper – four three-column pages – appeared on March 1, 1889. In his salutatory, Orville said: “This week we issue the first number of the West Side News, a paper to be published in the interests of the people and business institutions of the West Side. Whatever tends to their advancement, moral, mental, and financial, will receive our closest attention.”
There were seventeen advertisements. A leading feature was a story about Abraham Lincoln and General Sherman, from the Youth’s Companion; and there was an article about Benjamin Franklin. The range of the publisher’s reading was indicated by a number of short paragraphs on foreign affairs and about the approaching inauguration of President-elect Benjamin Harrison. Altogether it was a creditable job. No boyish “boners” or typographical errors were to be found.
All copies of the first issue were distributed free, as samples, but the paper was soon a fairly profitable enterprise. After the first few numbers, it was enlarged from three columns wide to four columns. Ed Sines devoted himself to rounding up advertisements and news items. From time to time Wilbur Wright helped to fill space by writing humorous essays, and after a few weeks his name was added to the paper’s masthead as “editor,” along with Orville’s as publisher.
Another contributor to the West Side News was a young Negro lad, a friend of Orville since grammar grades, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry afterward made him famous. Dunbar, in 1890, started a paper, The Tattler, for Negro readers, and Orville did the printing.
By the time the West Side News had been running a year, Orville had completed his course in high school. He thought the final year, devoted in the regular course largely to review, would hardly justify the time. Instead, having it in mind that he might decide to go to college and would need additional credits for college entrance requirements, he was a special student in Latin during that fourth year, attending high school an hour or two a day. The two elder Wright brothers had attended college in Iowa and Indiana, and later their sister Katharine took a degree at Oberlin, both Wilbur and Orville gave up the idea of going to college, and neither ever received a diploma from high school. It may be added, however, that Orville in later years never agreed with those who suggested that
“college might have ruined the Wright brothers.” More than once he said they doubtless could have done their scientific work more easily if they had had the advantage of college education.
Having decided, partly because of interest in the job at hand, not to go to college, Orville, in April, 1890, with Wilbur as partner, converted the West Side News from a weekly to a four-page, five-column daily, called The Evening Item.
This venture, though it showed no loss, was never profitable. At that time the perfecting-press was coming into use and Dayton newspapers were issuing big, thick editions that proved to be increasingly keen competition for a small neighborhood sheet. After about four months the paper was suspended. But, as late as 1894, Orville and Wilbur published for a time a little two-column weekly called Snapshots, devoted to vigorous comments on current local events. After the first issue or two these were usually written by Wilbur.
Both Orville and Wilbur now became absorbed in one more new interest. Orville had owned in Richmond an old high wheel bicycle for which he had paid $3 – borrowed from Wilbur. Now, a new European type of bicycle with wheels about the same size, and called a “safety,” had begun to be popular. In 1892, Orville bought one of these, a Columbia. It had pneumatic tires and cost $160. Six months later, Wilbur got a bicycle. His was an Eagle and he was able to get it at an auction for $80.
Orville promptly became interested in track-racing and began to enter his name in various local racing events. Wilbur, though he had been a great athlete – a wonderful fancy skater and the best performer in Dayton on a horizontal bar – never went in for racing, because not yet completely recovered from the effects of his skating accident.
Within a few weeks or months from the time they bought their bicycles, these Wright brothers decided to go into the bicycle business – to sell certain well-known makes. Then they soon found that they would have to add a repair shop. Their first sales room was at 1005 West Third Street. They rented it in December, 1892, to be ready for business when the bicycle season began in the early spring of 1893. For a while Orville divided his time between the bicycle shop and the job printing business across the street in which Ed Sines was still employed. (Sines continued to work there until 1898 when an accident to a lame knee forced him to seek another kind of work, and a few months later the shop was sold.)
The brothers soon had to move their bicycle business to larger quarters, at 1034 West Third Street. They were successful in selling new machines and general repairing. Among the bicycles they sold at one time or another were the Coventry Cross, Halladay-Temple, Warwick, Reading, Smalley, Envoy and Fleetwing.
By 1895 increased business had caused them to move once more, to 22 South Williams Street, and soon they began to manufacture bicycles. The first “custom-made” model was called the Van Cleve – after their pioneer ancestors. A later and lower-priced model was the St. Clair; and finally they made a still lower-priced machine called the Wright Special. It sold for as low as $18. Before they were through with the business they had put out under their own brand several hundred bicycles. Many of these were built in the last building the brothers occupied, a remodeled dwelling house at 1127 West Third Street – the building afterward preserved as a museum at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
Much of their work when building new bicycles was done in winter, when selling was slack, in rooms upstairs over the shop, and from time to time the brothers were interrupted by the necessity of going down to attend to wants of customers. Sometimes they went down to meet a caller who wished only to borrow their air-pump to inflate a tire. They had no pressure-tank but kept a large hand-pump on the wall near the front door. To avoid needless trips downstairs, the Wrights contrived a mechanical means by which they could tell if a caller’s wants required their attention. They took an old two-tone bell, intended to be fastened to a bicycle handle-bar, and attached it to the wall in their upstairs work-rooms. By means of wires and other mechanism, the opening of the downstairs door yanked the thumb-lever on the bell in one direction, producing one tone; and shutting the door pulled the little lever in an opposite direction to cause the other tone. The hook on which the air-pump hung was also connected by a wire and a spring to a pointer upstairs. Thus it was possible to have secret knowledge upstairs if the caller might be a real customer or if he “only wanted air.” If he promptly helped himself to the pump, there was probably was no need for anyone to go down. Then when the pointer showed that the pump was back on the hook and the bell signaled the closing of the door, on the caller’s departure, the brothers could feel sure they had not missed a sale of any kind by sticking to their work.
Throughout the time they were repairing, selling and building bicycles, the Wrights continued to make various experiments, just for the fun of it. They made in 1893 what was doubtless the first pair of “balloon” tires ever installed on a vehicle. It was necessary to build a special “front fork” and widen the frame at the rear to make room for the oversized pneumatics.
Orville even found time during this period for experiments having nothing to do with bicycles. Along about 1895, he made a new kind of calculating machine for multiplying as well as for adding. He worked also on a typewriter more simplified than any in existence.
Occasionally the brothers took in trade an old high wheel. They had two of these, about the same size, that they couldn’t sell for much, and the only way to get any benefit from them was to use them in a new way for sport. Why not, they asked themselves, convert them into a tandem? No one had ever heard of two high wheels operated as a unit, and though riding such an outfit might be dangerous, it also would be exciting. They put a swivel in the steel tube connecting the two wheels to prevent it from twisting and breaking. Then they began to practice, to learn the special technique the man on the rear seat had to know. It was a little different from any a bicyclist had needed before – a little like that of a man steering the rear end of a long fire truck. Though it looked fairly easy, only one person besides the Wrights ever succeeded in staying mounted. Indeed, riding even on the front seat was perilous enough. One afternoon Orville took the rear seat with a boy names Tom Thorne in front. As they tried to steer around a hole in the muddy street, the handle-bar caught the leg of the lad in front, which prevented his turning far enough.
Of course there was a spill. Orville from the rear seat managed to land on his feet, but Tom Thorne was hurled headfirst to the street. When he came up for air none of his features was to be seen, so thoroughly was he plastered with mud. He looked so frightful that none of the boys who saw the mishap showed any amusement. They were afraid he had ruined his face. Bur Orville at once realized that the soft mud had prevented any injury and his young friend’s appearance struck him as the funniest thing he had ever seen. For some moments he was doubled up with mirth, unable to control himself, while the other rider, not exactly indignant but unable to enter into the hilarity, stood trying to gouge the mud out of his eyes with his thumbs. It happened that Tom Thorne had an intimate acquaintance with a family living near by and he went there, accompanied by Orville, to ask permission to wash up; but the girl who opened the door, though a lifelong friend, was unwilling to believe the strange-looking creature was anyone she know. Tom asked her to call her mother. The mother had known him almost from the day of his birth, but she showed no sign of recognition now. She did finally identify him by his voice, however, and told him he might wash at the pump. He was able to remove some of the larger chunks of mud. Then he and Orville took the machine back to the shop. The epidsode was not one of the Wright triumphs. But neighbors who heard about it smiled and wondered:
What will those Wright boys be doing next?
As boys and girls of high school age were potential customers for bicycles, Wilbur Wright thought there should be an effective way to stir their interest in the makes of bicycles sold by the Wright Cycle Co. and he hit on a plan that showed him to have latent genius as an advertising man. He got a copy of a high school examination paper and had printed what appeared to be a set of examination questions – using the same kind of paper and the same topography. Then he arranged with one or two students to distribute these sheets at the high schools. At first glance a student would think he had got hold of an advance copy of an examination paper. But all of the questions related to bicycles on sale by the Wrights!
A chum of the Wrights, Cordy Ruse, in 1896 had built the first horseless buggy even run over the streets of Dayton. The Wrights and others used to sit and talk with him about some of his problems. They had many jokes about of the difficulties of hitting upon a suitable ignition system, a workable differential, and other seeming insurmountables. Another problem, caused by the vibration of a horseless carriage, had impressed Wilbur most of all.
One day when the Wrights and several others were chatting with Cordy Ruse, Wilbur suddenly slapped his thigh and said:
“I’ve just thought of a wonderful invention” I’ll have it patented. It’s simple enough. All there is to it is a bed sheet to be fastened beneath an automobile to catch all the bolts, nuts, and other parts that’ll keep dropping off.”
Orville thought that, crude as horseless carriages were, they were probably the coming thing, and that eventually they might even hurt the bicycle trade. In 1897 he suggested to Wilbur that perhaps they might well give thought to the idea of going into the business of building automobiles.
No, insisted Wilbur, shaking his head, they would never be practical.
“To try to build one that would be any account,” declared Wilbur, “you’d be tackling the impossible. Why, it would be easier to build a flying machine!”
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