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A New Look At The Wrights

Fall 1989 | Volume 5 |  Issue 2

WASHINGTON, D.C. : On December 17, 1903, a man named Lorin Wright visited the Dayton office of the Associated Press to report that his two younger brothers, Orville and Wilbur, had wired home with the news that they had flown four times that day, their longest flight lasting just under a minute. The AP newsman was not impressed. “Fifty-seven seconds, hey?” he told Lorin Wright. “If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item.”


History overturned the newsman’s judgment, and Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first true heroes of the century. “It was more than just genius that made the Wright brothers what they were,” says Tom D. Crouch, the chairman of the Department of Social and Cultural History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “They were geniuses—they had a unique ability to visualize mathematical abstractions and translate them into concrete reality—but their success was also the result of a long chain of circumstance.”

Crouch explores this chain of circumstance in his new book, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (W. W. Norton & Company, $22.50). The biography is both a rich portrait of the Wright brothers and a first-rate account of how inventors do their work. Crouch drew upon a fertile collection of diaries, letters, and other personal documents largely ignored by other Wright scholars.

Crouch also spent a great deal of time retracing the footsteps of the Wrights, visiting their haunts at Kitty Hawk and helping fly replicas of both the Wrights’ 1902 glider and their 1903 powered airplane. He also participated in reenactments of some of their intricate wind-tunnel tests.

The bishop of the book’s title is Wilbur and Orville’s father, Milton Wright, a bishop of the Protestant United Brethren Church. Bishop Wright gave WiIbur and Orville Wright discipline, curiosity, and force of will. “No full-scale biography of the Wright brothers has really paid attention to the lessons they learned at their father’s knee,” says Crouch. Bishop Wright was a man of such uncompromising principles that in 1889 he led his church into a permanent schism rather than permit liberalization of doctrine. He spent years engaged in legal battles with his old church. Wilbur and Orville were similarly litigious, launching a number of patent-infringement suits against rival airplane builders, most notably Glenn Curtiss. “To the Wrights,” says Crouch, “the world wasn’t a very friendly place. There was a fortress mentality in the family.” Neither Orville nor Wilbur married; when their sister Katharine did, long after Wilbur’s death, Orville would not speak to her for years.

Milton Wright shaped the course of his sons’ lives in another way as well. In 1878 he gave them a toy helicopter designed by the French aeronautical experimenter Alphonse Penaud. “We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully,” recalled Orville decades later. “But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale it failed to work so well.”

The Wright brothers had a highly developed mechanical aptitude that, after a brief stint as printers, led them into the bicycle-making business. Despite a lack of formal technical training, they were true engineers. They tackled the problem of heavier-thanair powered flight with systematic deliberation, working up from models and kites to gliders. They were drawn to powered flight because, for them, it was the supreme technological challenge of the time. “They were hardnosed technical types,” says Crouch. “They weren’t visionaries.” For a time it seemed to them that the obstacles to powered flight were insurmountable. “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!” muttered Wilbur after a particularly discouraging setback. But they were a tenacious breed, and only four years later they had produced a practical flying machine. Wilbur succumbed to typhoid in 1912, but his brother lived to see transoceanic flight become commonplace, and when he was buried in 1948, jet fighters swooped in formation over the cemetery.

For Crouch, the Wrights were a biographer’s supreme subject: “They made reality of the oldest human aspiration.”

BETHLEHEM, PA. : One concern common to all historians arriving at a new academic post is: How good is the library? That question weighed heavily on the mind of Tom F. Peters, a voluble Swiss-educated historian of technology, when he agreed last year to head the Institute for Highrise Habitat at Lehigh University. Peters discovered, deep in the stacks, a “not merely good but superb” collection of forgotten nineteenth-century technical literature. “I was astonished at what I found,” he says. Much of the material was not even cataloged. Further investigation revealed more material tucked away in storage. Lehigh, Peters discovered, unwittingly possessed an invaluable research source for historians of technology. “It’s about as good as any in the country.”

“They were geniuses,” says their biographer Tom Crouch, but they also benefited from “a long chain of circumstance”—which he explores.

Founded in 1866 by Asa Packer, a Pennsylvania railroad builder and congressman, Lehigh quickly earned a reputation as a topflight engineering school. It made a conscientious effort to obtain a comprehensive library of technical literature, including a wide range of engineering texts and complete runs of journals, some dating back to the 182Os. Then the collapse of Lehigh’s railroad stock in the 189Os plunged the school into a financial crisis. The acquisitions program languished while the rapid pace of technological change rendered much of the library’s holdings obsolete. But where most libraries would have simply discarded superseded material, Lehigh let the bulk of its technical literature remain on the shelves or sit in storage.

Time transformed the mass of out-of-date material into an invaluable historical resource. “I’m finding stuff I didn’t even know existed,” says Peters. An example: a rare monograph by John Roebling describing his plan for a Mississippi River bridge at St. Louis. The bridge, never built, is a curious hybrid structure, part arch and part suspension. “Roebling would try anything that worked,” Peters notes. (See “The Greatest Bridge Never Built?” on page 24 of this issue.)

Among other intriguing holdings is the so-called Telford Bible, a mammoth 1838 volume illustrating the works of the British civil engineer Thomas Telford, who built some of the largest suspension bridges of his day. His extensive highway projects earned him the title the Colossus of Roads. An 1839 book detailing the construction of the London and Birmingham Railroad offers a close look at early-nineteenth-century construction practices. And a slim, unassuming pamphlet proved to be nothing less than a broadside by John Fitch asserting his place as the inventor of the steamboat.

Philip Metzger, Lehigh’s curator of special collections, is working to expand the university’s already large history-of-technology holdings, which are now being cataloged. Meanwhile, the history department, acting on the advice of an outside consulting committee headed by MIT’s Merritt Roe Smith, is placing an increasing emphasis on the study of the history of technology. The department is now seeking to attract additional faculty and graduate students in the field.

“The department is poised to offer one of the leading history-of-technology programs in the country,” says Peters. “I’m quite excited by everything that’s happening here. It’s reaching a critical mass.”

QUEENS, N.Y. : Few things more vividly illustrate the evolution of computer technology over the past two decades than the evolution of the video game, as I realized while visiting “Hot Circuits,” a special retrospective about computer games at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

“It’s a brief but dense history,” notes Sharon Blume, deputy director of the museum. The exhibit, which runs through November 26, assembles fortyseven video games spanning the eighteen-year history of the medium, from the simple monochrome blips of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s 1971 Computer Space to the alarmingly realistic and violent drug-war scenarios complexly depicted in NARC, a 1988 game from Williams Electronics. The games reflect not only advances in hardware and software (expanded memory, faster processing speed, more sophisticated image generation) but also the changing interests and increasing skills of the video-game patron. While the early games tend to be of the basic aim-and-shoot variety, more recent games engage players in a broad spectrum of complex activities, including medieval quests, karate matches, and intricate skateboarding arabesques.

Roger Sharpe, who wrote what has been called the definitive book on pinball, selected the games on the basis of their popularity, creativity, and technical accomplishment. Tracking them down proved to be an archeological challenge for the museum’s curators. “We thought it would be easy,” says Blume. But once-ubiquitous arcade hits like the oral-compulsive 1980 PacMan had become scarce. Games whose popularity had waned were usually discarded or outfitted with new circuitry and returned to active duty as completely new attractions. Pong, Bushnell’s popular 1972 follow-up to the unsuccessful Computer Space, eluded the curators until only a week before the exhibit opened. Historic games like Space Invaders turned up in basements and warehouses; only a very few were still in service in arcades.

The video-game craze of the early 1980s aroused the concern of parents who feared that the high-tech amusements were conditioning their children to enjoy violent behavior. Blume believes, however, that video games play a valuable role as vanguards of the information revolution: “They’ve made people comfortable with the computer and helped them allow computers to become an integral part of their lives.”

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