Scott Rasmussen: The tech firm that changed the world in 1903
Americans today talk of how technology and tech firms are changing the world. That’s true, but it’s nothing new. One hundred-twelve years ago, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright changed the world by accomplishing the miracle of flight.
It’s hard for us to appreciate how radical that concept was at the time. Just 10 years earlier, the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, opened a shop to manufacture the new techy toy of the era – bicycles. “Bicycles had become the sensation of the time, a craze everywhere,” according to historian David McCullough. While building bicycles, the brothers dreamed of flying.
Starting in 1899, the pair began a personal journey that led to the historic moment at Kitty Hawk. In his wonderfully readable book, “The Wright Brothers,” McCullough noted that they “had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies and little money of their own.”
They, did, however, recognize the value of hard work and experimentation. They studied how birds flew and built gliders to learn about flying by doing it themselves.
The brothers even built a wind tunnel in their bicycle shop for testing new ideas. Their practical experience led to numerous innovations of rudder and wing design that made flight possible.
The Wright brothers, of course, were not alone. They were competing with some of the greatest scientific minds of the era. Notably, the Smithsonian Institute spent $70,000 of public money in pursuit of a flying machine. Wilbur and Orville bested them for less than $1,000 in expenses, plus countless hours of toil and sweat.
By luck of the draw, Orville was in the pilot’s seat to become the first man to fly. As word of their accomplishment spread, the Wright brothers became international celebrities. Kings and commoners alike showed up to watch their airshows. McCullough noted that “Not since Benjamin Franklin had any American been so overwhelmingly popular in France” Over a million people reportedly watched a flight alongside New York City.
Perhaps the saddest part of the amazing story was the petty response of the Smithsonian.
The humbled agency actually had the gall to claim that their aircraft would have been the first to fly except for a faulty launching device. After a fraudulent demonstration, the institute endorsed a formal statement claiming that their team “had actually designed and built the first man-carrying flying machine capable of sustained flight.”
The Smithsonian refused to even accept the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer for their collection.
It wasn’t until 1928, 25 years after Wilbur and Orville made history, that the Smithsonian acknowledged the truth. By then, the plane was on loan to a museum in London.
It was not accepted for display at the Smithsonian until 1948. Neither Orville nor Wilbur Wright was still alive.
But the pettiness of the Smithsonian could never dim what the Wright Brothers accomplished. In just 10 years, they took the world from seeing bicycles as the next big thing to proving that man could fly.
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