“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but theft is a sin.”
Henry Ford made no bones about the fact that Karl Benz had invented the car – his first prototype landed in 1896, 11 years after Benz had developed a gasoline-powered, three-wheel vehicle. But no one can take away from Ford’s revolutionizing vehicle assembly by brokering the perfect marriage between the assembly line technology of the day and car design. He is, and will always be, a national icon. If I were to suggest that the Wright Brothers hold similar stature in Americana, you would quickly concur. Sadly, though, they had to fight for their place in the history books.
The year 1896 also gave the world its first flying machine. Born inventors, Wilbur and Orville Wright of bicycle fame were entranced. The notable design omission, they flagged, was controls, without which a pilot could never balance an aircraft in flight. 1n 1899, Wilbur devised a system that twisted, or “warped” a biplane’s wings, causing it to roll left and right. The first test flights held at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina provided the ideal setting of strong winds and soft sand that cushioned landings. Despite devising the first three axis control of pitch, yaw and roll, their 1901 and 1902 prototypes failed to provide enough lift to be successfully controlled. It wasn’t until they teamed with mechanic Charlie Wright in the winter of 1902-1903 that they were able to add a gasoline-powered engine that was light enough to propel their biplane. To this, the brothers added the final touch of propellers. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright recorded the first sustained, controlled flight in a powered aircraft.
To be sure, there was competition in the running. In 1896, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Samuel P. Langley successfully flew a small, unmanned “aerodrome” of his design. Subsequent model iterations, however, failed, which should have been where he exits the story line.
The U.S. War Department had other ideas. Why should the glory go to bicycle owners when it could go to the best and brightest Uncle Sam’s money could buy? And so, $50,000 was given to Langley which was then augmented with the Smithsonian’s taxpayer funds. Despite the enormity of the sum for that era, he never identified the missing element of control and instead incorrectly deduced it to be power. In the end, the government resorted to intellectual theft by modifying Langley’s failed prototype with the Wrights’ efficacious designs. Lee Habeeb and Mike Leven’s A Tale of ‘Government Investment’ detailed the smear on U.S. history:
“In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.
Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in…London.
But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.
As for Samuel Langley, he died in obscurity a broken and disappointed man. Friends often noted that he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he’d had more time — and more government funding.”
On Saturday, August 14, 2021, my first born, who is all of 17, became a licensed pilot; he’s yet to attain his driver’s license. As proud as I am, I’ve implored him to equally embrace the challenges presented in his AP Microeconomics/Macroeconomics course this fall. While he was undergoing his check flight, I was on the deck of Leen’s Lodge at my first Camp Kotok in two years debating the fate of the Federal Reserve’s grand experiment.