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The Wright Stuff

How The Impossible Happened


One thing you have to say about the Wright brothers. They were a little weird. OK, "iconoclastic," let's say. You have to admit it's a bit peculiar, even crazy, for a couple of guys in a bike shop -- who had no college education and little apparent social life, who never married and lived with their father and a sister, and who were named Wilbur and Orville for heaven's sake -- to decide all of sudden that they could do what famous civil engineers had failed to do: fly in a powered airplane.

Will and Orv set out in mid-1899 with virtually no preparation except reading some books from their father's home library and with no experience except their mechanical skills as pressmen and bike-builders.

But four-and-a-half years later, they did it. On Dec. 17, 1903, they flew all of 120 feet in an odd-looking biplane, with Orville lying across the lower wing. One of humanity's most longstanding dreams had finally come true.

And thus they joined a long line of eccentrics, iconoclasts and downright nutcases who changed the world. Like many others, they had to fight for the credit due them and were unable to translate their inventiveness into wealth. And like many others, they succeeded because of the intensity of their focus, their invulnerability to doubts and jeers -- and above all, their ability to think about things differently from everyone else.

To the proprietors of the Wright Cycle Company, flying was just like riding a bike. Leaning into a curve gives a bike-rider balance and control. The biggest problem afflicting glider experiments in those days was that pilots had little control. Otto Lilienthal, the world-famous German engineer who had made a number of advances in glider flight, was killed when his glider suddenly stalled out of control. He was trying to steer the plane simply by throwing his legs around and shifting his weight from one side to another.

The Wrights' solution to the problem was a thing they called "wing warping," which morphed into what today we call ailerons. By making air flow at different speeds across the left and right wings, wing-warping made the airplane bank, or roll over a bit, at the same time the rudder was making the plane change direction -- just like a bicycle leaning as the front wheel turns. At the time, others thought the challenge was to stop the plane from doing that.

It seems so obvious now, looking back 100 years. But not everyone got it at first, even when Orville and Wilbur patiently explained it. One who didn't was the man often considered a leading American expert on aeronautics in the 1890s, civil engineer Octave Chanute, builder of railroads and bridges.

"Safety, strength and stability were the watchwords on which Chanute had built his reputation," says Wright biographer Tom D. Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. "Some men might have overcome the limitations of personal experience and tradition. Chanute was not one of them. He could conceive of the problem of flight control in only two dimensions. The idea of a roll axis did not even occur to him when Wilbur described his notion of twisting the wings to raise or lower the tips."

But, notes Crouch, "Wilbur's experience with cycling had stretched his imagination and focused his attention on the need for active control in all three axes of motion" -- up and down, side to side, and rolling over. (The aeronautical terms are pitch, yaw and roll.)

Eccentrics Rule
We celebrate the off-beat thinkers who overcome the doubters and become heroes. But we don't celebrate them until they succeed. While they are in the midst of their struggles, their unconventionality, wackiness, obliviousness, deviancy and occasionally clinical madness draw jeers and sneers from conventional souls around them. The creators see things in ways that others don't.

"Our entire society and, in fact, all societies, are the outgrowth of deviant thinking," say trend-watching consultants Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker in a book called The Deviant's Advantage. "The great inventions of all time, the most successful corporations in history, the greatest works of art and triumphs of science have their roots in the twisted mind of the deviant, the pariah, the social leper."

That describes Charles Goodyear in mid-19th century America. The man whose name would one day adorn a blimp, not to mention a major tire company, endured dire poverty and repeated stays in debtors' prison, pawned prized possessions, bummed off of acquaintances, suffered health problems. The best thing going for him was that his wife was steadfastly devoted.

"Goodyear was rubber," writes biographer Charles Slack in Noble Obsession. "He spent his days stirring it, boiling it, kneading it, reeking of it. ... He wore caps, shoes and coats made of the stuff. His strange attire made him an object of much ridicule as he wandered with his family from one town to another."

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