Chapter I – BOYHOOD
From earliest years both Wilbur and Orville Wright were motivated by what Thorstein Veblen called the instinct of workmanship. Their father, the Reverend Milton Wright, used to encourage them in this and never chided them for spending on their hobbies what little money they might have. But he did urge them to try to earn enough to meet the costs of whatever projects they were carrying on. “All the money anyone needs,: he used to say, “is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others.”
Both brothers were fascinated by mechanics almost from the time they were conscious of interest in anything. The childhood events most vivid in the recollections of Orville Wright have had to do with mechanical devices of one kind or another. One of the high spots was the day he attained the age of five, because he received for a birthday gift a gyroscopic top that would maintain its balance and spin while resting on the edge of a knife-blade.
Shortly after that fifth birthday, and partly because of his inborn enthusiasm over mechanics, Orville began an association with another boy that had an important influence on his life. His mother started him to kindergarten. The school was within a short walking distance of the Wright home and Orville set out after breakfast each morning with just enough time to reach the classroom if he didn’t loiter. His mother bade him return home promptly after he was dismissed and he always arrived punctually at the time expected. When asked how he was getting along he cheerfully said all was going well, but did not go into details. At the end of a month his mother went to visit the kindergarten to learn just how Orvie was doing. “I hope the child has been behaving himself,” said the mother to the teacher.
The teacher stared at her in astonishment. “Why,” said she, “you know, since the first few days I haven’t seen him. I supposed you had decided to keep him at home.”
It turned out that Orville had almost immediately lost interest in kindergarten and instead had regularly gone to a house two doors from his own, on Hawthorne Street, to join a playmate, Edwin Henry Sines. With an eye on the clock to adjust himself to the kindergarten hours, he had stayed there and played with young Sines until about a minute before he was due at home.
Orville’s father and mother were not too severe when this little irregularity was discovered, because the boys had not been engaged in any mischief. On the contrary, their play had been the sort that might properly be called “constructive.” The thing that had occupied them most was an old sewing machine belonging to Sines’ mother. They “oiled” it by dropping water from a feather into the oil-holes!
Both Orville and Wilbur followed their father’s advice and earned whatever money they spent. One source of income was from wiping dishes in the evening, for which their mother paid a flat rate of one cent. Sometimes she employed them to make minor household repairs. Orville seemed to find more outlets for money than did Wilbur – but he kept his credit good by sticking to an arrangement they always made that the next money earned should be applied on the debt.
One of Orville’s early money-making ventures was the collecting of old bones in near-by alleys, vacant lots, or neighbors’ yards, and selling them to a fertilizer factory. He and another boy first did this as a means for raising funds with which to buy candy for use while fishing. They accumulated a weight of bones that it seemed to them must represent a small fortune – and were shocked when the buyer paid them only three cents.
At first, Orville’s associates in his projects were boys of his own age rather than Wilbur, who was more than four years older and moved in a different group; but a day came when the brothers began to share curiosity over a mechanical phenomenon. In June, 1878, when Orville was seven years old and Wilbur eleven, the Wright family left Dayton, because of the work of the father, who had been made a Bishop of the United Brethren church, was shifted to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And it was in a house on Adams Street in Cedar Rapids, not long after their arrival there, that an event occurred which was to have much influence on the lives of Wilbur and Orville – as well as to have its effect on the whole human race.
Bishop Wright had returned from a short trip on church business bringing with him a little present for his two younger sons.
“Look here, boys,” he said to Wilbur and Orville, holding out his hands with something hidden between them. Then he tossed the gift toward them. But instead of falling at once to the floor or into their hands, as they expected, it went to the ceiling where it fluttered briefly before it fell. It was a flying-machine, a helicopter, the invention of a Frenchman, Alphonse Penaud. Made of cork, bamboo, and thin paper, the device weighed so little that twisted rubber bands provided all the power needed to send it aloft for a few seconds. As the brothers were to learn later, Penaud, an invalid during most of his short life, had not only invented, as early as 1871, various kinds of toy flying-machines – both the helicopter type and others that flew horizontally – but was the originator of the use of rubber bands for motive power. Simple as was this helicopter – they called it the “bat” – Wilbur and Orville felt great admiration for its ingenuity. Though it soon went the way of all fragile toys, the impression it left on their minds never faded.
Not long after Wilbur tried to build an improvement on that toy helicopter. If so small a device could fly, why not make a bigger one that could fly longer and higher? Orville was still too young to contribute much to the actual building of larger models, but he was keenly interested as Wilbur made several, each larger than the one preceding. To the brothers’ astonishment, they discovered that the bigger the machine, the less it would fly; and if it was much bigger than the original toy, it wouldn’t fly at all. They did not yet understand that a machine of only twice the linear dimensions of another would require eight times the power.
Orville, meanwhile had distinguished himself in another way, by organizing an army. His grade at school was dismissed one Friday afternoon, though the rest of the school was in session, and it occurred to Orville that it might be amusing to march by, throw gravel on the windows, and taunt those who were still at their lessons. Supported by his friend, Bert Shaffer, he proposed to a dozen other boys in the class that they form themselves into an army, and act not as individuals but as an organization. For having thought of the idea, Orville, who had been doing some reading about Napoleon would be the General, but there would be Colonels and Captains as well. In fact, they used up all the military titles they knew. Lacking guns, they would have to carry wooden clubs, and these they got by removing some loose pickets from the school fence. All went well until the school janitor began to chase them, evidently intending to capture them. One of the boys made him pause by throwing a rock in his direction as he was crawling through a hole in the fence. After escaping into a distant alley, all in the army assumed they would probably be in plenty of trouble when they returned to school Monday morning.
“We’ll be all right,” said Orville, feeling bound, as their commanding General, to try to uphold the army’s morale, “if we stick together. They can’t fire us all.”
He mounted a box lying in the alley and outlined what they should do. The teacher would doubtless single out only two or three of them that had been recognized by the janitor and ask them to stay after school. But if the teacher asked one of them to stand up, they must all stand up; or, if she asked one to stay after school, all must stay, and show their solidarity. “All for one, and one for all,” he quoted.
When they were back in school at the next session, the teacher said nothing to indicate that retribution was in the making; but when the class was dismissed at the end of the afternoon, she asked Orville to “remain.” True to their pact, all of the rest of the army stayed in their seats – or, rather, all except one under-sized lad. A few minutes later the teacher asked Orville to come to her desk. As he stepped forward, all the others started to do likewise. “The rest of you sit down,” commanded the teacher, and then added: “I don’t know why you’re here at all.” Her tone was such that all meekly sat down.
When Orville reached her desk, she said: “You were speaking of a song you could bring for the exercises next Friday” – and went on to talk pleasantly enough, of Orville’s part in a forthcoming school entertainment.
She didn’t even seem to know about the daring behavior of the army in the school yard. Probably the janitor, embarrassed over his failure to capture the culprits, had not reported them.
While in Cedar Rapids, Orville showed enterprise in another direction. He had enough intellectual curiosity to study lessons that the teacher had not yet assigned. When a little more than eight years old he told his father that he was tired of the Second Reader they were still studying at school and wished he had a Third Reader.
One morning, not long after that, at the middle of the school year, the principal came to the room Orville was in and announced that any pupils who showed enough proficiency in reading might be promoted at once, without waiting until the end of the year, and begin the Third Reader. The more promising members of the class, selected by the teacher, then stood toeing a chalk mark, up front, as was commonly done, and took turns at reading. In his alarm lest he might not do himself full justice, Orville, someone told him later, held his book upside down. That did not prevent him from reading accurately, as he knew the book by heart, and he was promoted.
“I’m now in the Third Reader class,” he proudly announced when he reached home that noon.
“Well, that’s a strange thing,” said his father, “Just this morning I bought the Third Reader you asked for. “But,” he added, “you won’t be able to use it today, because you’re going to miss school this afternoon. I have arranged for you and Wilbur to go to the photographer’s and have your pictures taken.”
Orville’s picture thus commemorated what had seemed to him an important event in his life.
After three years in Cedar Rapids, the Wright family, in June 1881, moved to Richmond, Indiana, partly that Mrs. Wright, who was not in robust health, might have the companionship of her sister who lived there. It was in Richmond that Orville took up the building and flying of kites. Though it interested him. Wilbur did not then take much part in this kite-flying sport, because he feared it might be considered too juvenile for a boy of his size. Orville came to be considered an expert at kite-making and sold kites to playmates as a convenient means of getting spending money. He made the framework of his kites as thin as possible, to reduce weight. Indeed they were so thin that they would often bend in the wind and the kite formed an arc. But it did not then occur to Orville that this curvature of the kite’s surface had any relation to its good flying qualities.
Though he had turned his kite-making to profit, Orville’s best source of revenue in Richmond was a job of folding papers, a church publication. For additional spending money he entered the junk business. He would go after school or on Saturdays to pick up scraps of metal thrown out by a chain factory, and hauled them in his “express” wagon to a junk dealer’s yard.
One of his projects was the building of a small wooden lathe. It was too small to be quite satisfactory, and Wilbur offered to help him build a larger lathe, seven or eight feet long. This was the first “big” mechanical job he and Wilbur worked on together.
The lathe was considered a great success, especially by neighbor boys who thought it a privilege to work the foot treadle that provided the motive power. But Wilbur felt that it should be improved. He had noticed that bicycles were being equipped with ball-bearings to give easy running quality and he said the lathe ought to have ball-bearings. He looked about the barn for material that could be adapted and took some metal rings from an old set of harness. When two of these were held tightly side by side they formed the outer track for the ball-bearings; but instead of steel balls, marbles were used – the common kind made of clay, that we used to call “commies.” Within this circle of marble bearings would rest the shaft of the lathe. The idea seemed so sound that the brothers’ friends were much impressed. Many were on hand in the upper floor of the barn awaiting eagerly the final tinkering before the ball-bearing “patent” could be demonstrated. As soon as the lathe was put into operation, there was a terrible noise and then it seemed as if the barn itself was beginning to sway and shake. It was evident that the marbles in the bearing had not been strong enough to withstand the stress; but why should the barn become so agitated? Orville went downstairs to find out if there could be any other cause.
When he reached the outside he saw his sister Katharine held against the side of the barn by an invisible force. A small cyclone was taking place! All the boys upstairs had been too absorbed to notice such minor phenomena as weather.
Some of the enterprises Orville got into at Richmond were not of a mechanical nature; and Wilbur, if sharing in them at all, appeared only in the background as a consultant, for he was at an age when a boy gave thought to his dignity. Orville had noticed that many boys chewed small hunks of tar. It seemed to him that if the tar could be flavored with sugar to make it more palatable, and small pieces were wrapped in tissue paper, a market for the product might be found. He and his friend, Harry Morrow, began a series of experiments in the Wright back yard, and they seemed well on their way to having a saleable article. But as they kept testing their samples both became ill – some kind of stomach disorder, accompanied by nausea – and abandoned their plans. Wilbur, though not a partner in all this, was much interested and for years afterward to refer to “that chawin’ gum corporation.”
If Orville was “into” different things at this time than his brother, it mainly because Wilbur’s great passion was for reading. And what he read, he absorbed. It wasn’t long until he himself began to show a gift for writing. Because of that, Wilbur played an important part in one of Orville’s early business ventures – though behind the scenes.
One of Orville’s friends was a boy living next door named Gansey Johnston, whose father made a hobby of taxidermy. They often played in the Johnston barn where the father had a collection of stuffed birds and animals. One day Orville’s imagination was much stirred. He saw possibilities for putting those birds and animals to good use – especially when he noted that there was even a huge black bear and a grizzly. It was obvious to him that he and the Johnston boy should form a partnership and he asked Gansey how he would feel about such an arrangement.
“Partnership to do what?” asked the boy.
Why, said Orville, to give a circus!
Though he had never thought of giving a circus, the Johnston lad caught the idea and soon was enthusiastic. They then decided to take in Orville’s friend, Harry Morrow, as a third partner. Their show would be known as The Great W. J. & M. Circus.
As the date for the big show approached, sixteen-year-old Wilbur Wright, who had been taking great interest in the preparations, asked Orville what he had done about advance notices in the newspapers. Orville had to admit that he had done nothing.
Wilbur appeared to be shocked that no one had taken steps to fully prepare the public mind for the coming event, and offered to write a suitable reading notice about the street parade. This, he said, should be placed in the Richmond Evening Item. He had absorbed the method of expression used in circus bills and his forecast of the parade was a masterpiece. There was nothing amateurish about the way he introduced such words as “mammoth,” “colossal,” and “stupendous,” nor about his use of impressively large figures – “thousands of strange birds from all parts of the world” that the proprietors of the big show would personally lead the parade on “iron horses”; and that Davy Crockett would positively appear with a grizzly bear. At the end of the notice, in professional manner, was the exact route of the parade, that the populace might not miss the great free exhibition of wonders. The notice also gave the prices of admission to the big show – three cents for children under three years; others, five cents. Wilbur gave the piece of publicity to Orville to take to the Item office.
There was a little box just inside a door to a stairway leading to the editorial rooms, and the boys knew it was intended for news items. But they walked up and down the street in front of the newspaper office for a long time before they had the courage to enter the stairway. What if someone should see them! Finally, when they thought no one was looking, one of them ran up to the box and in desperate haste deposited their piece of publicity. They both ran up the street at a speed that could have attracted attention.
The editor of the Item evidently had a good news sense and recognized the mysterious “press release” as a local item worth printing. He had no way of knowing who “W. J. & M. were, but felt sure the account of that forthcoming parade had plenty of reader interest. It came about, therefore, that Wilbur’s advance notice had a prominent position in the Item of September 10, 1883, under a heading that asked: “What Are the Boys Up To?”
Though some of Wilbur’s figures about the number of rare birds and wild animals may have been a bit overdrawn, to conform to circus bill standards, he had not exaggerated the amazing nature of the parade. Two of the proprietors, Wright and Johnston, actually appeared at the head of the parade on their “iron horses.” These were high-wheel bicycles, one of them having wooden spokes. The third associate proprietor of the big show, Harry Morrow, was unavoidably absent, because his parents had gone on a vacation trip to Michigan, and had insisted, much against his wishes, on taking him with them.
A principal “parade” wagon was the running gear of an old buggy, with no body but only a few planks to make a platform on which were some of the “thousands of rare birds,” and also the great, frightful grizzly bear held in leash by Davy Crockett. Though no horses were hitched to this “wagon,” plenty of boys had volunteered their services as “slaves” to pull it through the streets. At the last minute, “Corky” Johnston, nine-year-old brother of one of the proprietors, got into a fight with the circus bosses, and they felt compelled to deny him the privilege of participating in the parade. This created a problem, for he had been cast for the role of Davy Crocket, wearing his father’s hunting togs, including high boots. The circus chiefs got around that, the best they could, by assigning the Davy Crockett part to Corky’s younger brother, Griswold, not yet five years old. He was almost overwhelmed by the hunting suit; but in the rush of getting the parade started he was the best Davy Crockett available.
Wilbur’s advance notice was more successful than he had hoped for. It had aroused so much curiosity that when the parade reached that part of the announced line of march in the business section, the streets were lined with people – almost as many, in fact, as if the circus had been Barnum’s.
Messrs. W. & J., astounded by the unexpected attention the parade was attracting, began to feel much too conspicuous. They hastily decided that their route much be changed, and the parade turned up an alley.
So many customers came that not all who clamored for admission to the Johnston barn could be accommodated, and it was decided to repeat the show. But while those who got into the barn were viewing the “menagerie,” the boy who had been denied the privilege of appearing as Davy Crockett saw an opportunity to get his revenge. He got up on the barn roof and addressed the multitude, telling they might as well disperse and seek their homes, because, he said, there would be no other performance.
The crowd took him at his word.
Orville Wright had previously organized another circus, in partnership with a neighbor boy named Miller, who had a Shetland pony. For this show the admission was only one cent. Though the gross receipts were not vast, the show was a great success, partly in consequence of the profound impression it had made on the Miller boy’s father At the close of the performance, he announced that the show people would be guests of honor at a reception, to which the spectators also were cordially invited. Lemonade, ice cream, and cake were served in lavish quantities, and every boy felt that, taking the afternoon as a whole, he had had his money’s worth.
But of all the enterprises in which the Wright brothers showed their initiative in Richmond, the Great W. J. & M. Circus probably caused the most talk. People thought the boy who had organized that show would doubtless amount to something. Many ventured the opinion, too, that the youngster, whoever he was, who had prepared that notice for the newspaper about the parade, would surely be “heard from.”
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