The Woodward Breakfast and Book Club met on December 9, 2016 over breakfast and discussed the Wright Brothers biography Chapter 4: Unyielding Resolve. The brothers persevered to solve the mystery of flight, achieving success so that by the end of the chapter, the closing sentence was “Now they had only to build a motor.”

The brothers had returned from Kitty Hawk discouraged that they would have to repeat experiments and not count on the data of other aviation pioneers. In the words of Orville Wright, “We had to go ahead and discover everything ourselves.”

In late August, 1901, Wilbur Wright received an invitation from Octave Chanute to speak on gliding experiments at the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago on September 18. He reluctantly accepted, thinking he’d have too little time to prepare anything of substance. Persuaded by Katherine to go, he accepted the invitation. On September 6, Ohio native President McKinley was fatally shot by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. On September 14 he died, and Dayton was draped in black like the rest of the country. Through the turmoil surrounding the assassination, the Wright brothers continued to work. Asked before leaving whether his talk would be scientific or witty, Wilbur replied, “Pathetic.”

His speech “Some Aeronautical Experiments” was a rousing success and was later widely reprinted in full or quoted in scientific journals and popular magazines. A modern era aeronautics specialist at the Library of Congress called it “the Book of Genesis of the twentieth-century Bible of Aeronautics.”

Pages 78-81 is the best section of this chapter, perhaps the entire book. It describes gliding successes and a crash, the arrival of Lorin Wright and George Spratt in camp, a windless few days where the visitors went fishing, and a delightful rendition of Orville Wright’s flight control idea.

Sleepless after a late night aeronautics discussion and too much coffee, Orville thought a movable rudder would be more effective than the fixed rudder they were using (probably copied from ships). Knowing Wilbur’s penchant for shooting down new ideas when discussing their merits, he winked at his brother Lorin before sharing the idea and waited for the fireworks. To their surprise, Wilbur thought it was a great idea and suggested connecting control of the rudder with the wing warping. Similar to leaning a bicycle, this rudder system with a hip cradle for hands-free operation became a hallmark feature of the Wright Flyer.

The last two paragraphs are worthy of quoting verbatim:

“They broke camp at first light on October 28 in a cold, driving rain and walked the four miles to Kitty Hawk to start the journey home and in a frame of mind far different from what it had been at their departure the year before. All the time and effort given to the wind tunnel tests, the work designing and building their third machine, and the latest modifications made at Kill Devil Hills had proven entirely successful. They knew exactly the importance of what they had accomplished. They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.”

“Now they had only to build a motor.”

Study Questions for Chapter 4

  1. What lessons can be learned from the way Wilbur Wright approached his aeronautics speech?
  2. How did the Wrights treat other aviation pioneers? What adjectives come to mind?
  3. How did the Wright wind tunnel enable their success at Kitty Hawk? Did other pioneers use this technique? Were the principles of wind tunnels known?
  4. How did the Wrights handle the church Masonic controversy and subsequent embezzlement by someone on the opposite side of the debate? What did they do Wright? What could they have done differently?
  5. What movie does the chasing and shooting of the mouse story written by Orville remind you of? Why?
  6. Does reading this biography want to make you become a better letter writer? Much of McCullough’s material is taken from letters the Wrights wrote and saved. Do you save any of the cards and letters you have received? Too many or too few?
  7. The movable rudder was a breakthrough for control. Have you ever had a great idea in the middle of the night? Was it ever improved upon in the light of day? With someone else’s input as Wilbur did for Orville?
  8. What did you think of the surprising story of Wilbur liking Orville’s idea? Do you think Wilbur’s confrontational style is the best for encouraging innovation?
  9. What do you think is the best method for new technology development: total secrecy (Langley), open sharing of ideas (Chanute), or a hybrid approach (Wilbur Wright’s technical presentation, SAE presentations, for example)? How could this best method be improved upon?
  10. Why do you think the Wrights declined to let Samuel Langley visit them at Kitty Hawk? (Langley had shown no interest until hearing of their progress from Octave Chanute.)
  11. What does your company learn from benchmarking methods and products from other companies? How could the benchmarking process be improved?
  12. What do you think of David McCullough’s writing style shown in these last two paragraphs? Is the short one-sentence paragraph “Now they had only to build a motor” an under-statement, an over-statement, or both? Why?

December 9 discussion highlights:

  1. If you love the topic and know a lot about it, preparing will be easier. Still not easy.
  2. The Wrights honored their predecessors and assumed their data was correct until proven otherwise.
  3. The Wrights were able to test multiple iterations on a small scale in their lab.
  4. “Go to war with enough ammunition to win the fight.”
  5. Second Hand Lions – bachelors doing something they probably wouldn’t if women were present, aviation link
  6. Written letters are more lasting than emails.
  7. Most people had good ideas in the middle of the night, refined in the light of day.
  8. As ideas are refined, criticism and considering all alternatives is needed. Being critical of every new idea can stifle creativity during the brainstorming phase, though.
  9. Most people thought a hybrid approach similar to the Wrights’ was best.
  10. Perhaps Langley was perceived to be a taker, not a giver like some of the others the Wrights did let in.
  11. There was an interesting discussion of this topic for those who attended.
  12. Perhaps it’s both. They did solve the most difficult mystery of how to control flight. Making a suitable engine that is reliable also proved to be a challenge (and still is, after more than 100 years of development).

Note that this is not meant to be a summary of each chapter but rather questions designed to spark interesting discussion. Hopefully it encourages you to get this great book and read it for yourself.

More details about the Woodward Breakfast and Book Club (our first book is the Wright Brothers biography by David McCullough), and what we hope to accomplish are in this blog post.

The notes from the first meeting are here and notes from Chapter One are here. Here are notes from Chapter Two with some great links, including an Otto Lielenthal video sequence. The extra information in the article about Chapter 3 about Augustus Woodward and the history of Woodward Avenue is quite interesting.

We hope everyone enjoyed the Woodward Dream Cruise. The epicenter of next year’s Cruise may move to Pontiac; good news for Pontiac!

If you can’t attend the next meeting, please leave your ideas in the comments or send us an email. You don’t need to live in the metro Detroit area to participate. So far we have Woodward Breakfast & Book Club members from Arizona, New York and Germany. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!


Other articles

Last summer I gave a talk at work about my brain tumor and the depression which followed it. You can see the slides and the text of the talk. Below that there are also links to the presentation our USA Melting pot club gave to the Troy City Council.

Having recently started a word-by-word translation of Martin Luther’s Bible from German to English, I introduced the project and published Matthew Chapter 1 . Later I wrote commentary on it; my church background and theological training is in my USA Melting Pot bio.

Dale Murrish writes on historytraveltechnologyreligion and politics for the Troy Patch and USA Melting Pot club. You can help this non-profit club by making your Amazon purchases through the link on the left side of their website. You can also see over a dozen ethnic presentations from people with firsthand knowledge under Culture & Country (right hand side), and outdoor presentations (Hobby & Fun), including posts on bicycling, skiing and camping.

Other interesting articles on the USA Melting Pot website have been written by Bilal Rathur on his hajj to Saudi Arabia (Part 6) and by Carl Petersen. Thanks to both of them for their contributions.