Wright wrath

I’ve just finished reading David McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers, inventors and flyers of the world’s first airplanes. I’ve been mulling over an incident that preceded the first exhibition flights in France in 1908. Here’s what happened.



Their revolutionary breakthroughs at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, were behind them, but the Wrights had yet to demonstrate their invention to a government interested in adopting the technology. The US government had rebuffed their offers twice, so the Wrights accepted an invitation to show their latest flyer to representatives of the French government.

While Orville continued with various responsibilities in Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur went ahead to France, stopping first in Paris to make connections and discuss potential contracts. The demonstration proving that their plane could fly would take place at Hunaudières race course in Le Mans, south of Paris. The day after his arrival in Le Mans, as he began opening the shipping crates containing the components of their flyer, Wilbur made a terrible discovery.

McCullough recounts, “Now he was looking at the flyer in shambles, and could barely control his fury. A dozen or more ribs were broken, one wing ruined, the cloth torn in countless places. Everything was a tangled mess. Radiators were smashed, propeller axles broken, coils badly turned up, essential wires, seats, nuts, and bolts, all missing.”

Wilbur immediately fired off a furious letter to Orville, berating him for his carelessness, manifested in the wreckage he saw before him. The letter included these lines: “I am sure that with a scoop shovel I could have put things in within two or three minutes and made fully as good a job of it. I never saw such evidence of idiocy.”


Orville and Wilbur in one of their planes


The crated chaos (which would take Wilbur two months to repair) turned out to have been been the work of careless French customs officials at Le Havre.* We can’t know exactly what Wilbur thought as he contemplated the extensive damage to their beloved invention, but there are a series of assumptions he would have to have made in order to believe that Orville had packed the airplane’s components haphazardly. I can compose a train of thought that could have riled him up sufficiently to have exploded as he did. It would have included elements like these:

Knowing how high the stakes are,
knowing how essential precision and care are
in preparing this flyer that we’ve both been working on for years,
and knowing how disastrous it would be,
not only for our reputation
but for my personal safety,
to attempt a flight without the assurance
of correct adjustment and perfect structural integrity
throughout the entire machine,
my brother has taken our life’s work,
these components that we have labored painstakingly over,
and shoved them recklessly into these crates
without taking a moment’s thought for their fate in transit.

Wilbur didn’t think that–of course he didn’t. In all likelihood he didn’t think at all, but just gave vent to the anger that the lizard part of his brain stirred up for him. The exercise of writing out, or at least mentally spelling out, the implications and necessary preconditions of his first reactions, would undoubtedly have clued him in to the errors inherent in them.

But we don’t tend to take that time, do we?


Wilbur Wright at Le Mans, 1908


The Wright brothers’ pioneering inventions have had enormous impact on the way our world has unfolded, without a doubt. If only someone could invent and pilot a solution to the destructive, near-universal cognitive tendency to ascribe malice or incompetence to innocent people and circumstances. Now that would have potential to change the world.

If you’re interested in the Wright brothers, there’s a lot to explore at this virtual museum of all things aviation. And here’s Ken Burns’ interview with David McCullough on The Wright Brothers.


Quarter featuring the Wrights’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, 1903


*If you have ever been frustrated to find that your previously neat suitcase has been mussed by airport officials poking around, thinking on Wilbur’s travail can certainly act as an instance of how much worse it could have been.


[Images: wright-brothers.org, biography.com, Wikimedia Commons x 2]

2 thoughts on “Wright wrath

  1. Does the book say how Orville responded to this letter?

    Also, I think it is interesting that we talk nowadays about the Wright Brothers’ revolutionary invention, but apparently it wasn’t viewed as revolutionary by everyone at the time.

  2. Apparently, once Wilbur learned that the fault lay with the customs inspectors, he wrote to apologize at once. The book goes on to say, “Orville, knowing the stress his brother was under, made no issue of the matter.” Quite commendable, especially because, as I recall, there were instances when Orville would get into quite a temper.
    To your other point–there was quite a variety of reactions. There seemed to be almost no limit to the number of people willing to go on record saying that human flight would never happen, while others implied, oh, I’ve almost got it solved myself. But there were a fair number who recognized the clear superiority of the work the Wright brothers did, and the sharp divide their work laid down between the world before and the world after.

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