The Bishops Boys

I’ve just finished reading “The Bishops Boys” – a biography of the Wright Brothers, and the invention of the airplane. I bought this book while visiting the Smithsonian in Washington 25 years ago, and have read it a few times. I visited Dayton in 2012 and saw a few places mentioned in the book, such as Huffman Prairie and their bicycle shop.

It’s quite a good read, I especially enjoyed the story of how they “engineered” the aeroplane. For example systematic wind tunnel tests of various wing surfaces, appreciation of the need for control in the roll axis, and calculations of the thrust required for a powered craft. At the time everyone else was using guesswork.

The picture painted of nineteenth century suburban life was also interesting, quite similar to our own. One big difference was the number of people (indeed many of the Wright family) dying from infectious disease at relatively young ages. In the developed world we have made huge advances in public sanitation, antibiotics, and vaccinations.

However I am critical of the Wrights “patent wars”. They spent many years trying to sell their technology and fighting patent infringement, which slowed down development of the art, particular in pre WW1 USA. The stress and fatigue of the legal battles contributed to the early death of Wilbur Wright. The Wrights themselves were slow to employ the useful technology of others (rear elevator, wheels, intuitive cockpit controls), as they considered them infringers. They weren’t motivated by money, more by principle, and had been brought up with a family history of courtroom drama.

I feel the “open source” approach is much better – share the IP, combine your contribution with that of others, and nudge the entire world forward. A useful lesson.

5 thoughts on “The Bishops Boys”

  1. Smeaton’s coefficient caused the brothers to design poor wings because it was wrong. In the end, they designed an equation that removed both the smeaton coefficient, and the velocity, and were left with a home-made gauge that gave repeatable results no matter what the wind tunnel velocity.

    This was quite amazing, but then they missed the obvious enhancement of ailerons. So their engineering had hard limits. They did not go outside of them to explore. Left on their own, ailerons would have been figured out in a few years. If “it” wasn’t on a bicycle, they probably didn’t know of “its” existence.

    If they had befriended Curtis, Orville could have built his mansion years earlier, and his brother would have been drinking fresh water.

    The disowning of his sister after her marriage late in life, shows what a control freak Orville was. I think the plane crash, and his sister having to assist him, made him totally dependent on her, and he trusted no one else to hold his bed pan.

    The mansion, like the one for Lizzy Borden, offered none of the happiness they thought would come from it.

    Wilbur spent a year in France, mostly living in a garage with the airplane. When his sister arrived a year later, she took her Latin skills and learned French. Within a couple of months she was giving speeches in French, and became the darling of the press.

    When it came time to award the brothers with the Legion of Honor, the French made sure their sister was included. She didn’t know a lick of engineering, but she sure knew how to glamorize the invention.

    1. Wow Etienne you’ve done some reading too!

      The bio I read suggests their patent did cover the use of ailerons, it’s just they chose “wing warping” for their initial implementation, just as they chose a forward elevator. Invention is an iterative process, hard to get all boxes ticked on the first try.

      Re the estrangement or Orville with his sister, it’s hard for me to be too critical. Through various relationships I have seen inside several different families, and have had my own fair share of strange behavior!

      Like you and I, the Wrights were human. They were also capable of working out how to fly.

  2. Yes, an amazing story that I still find interesting. David McCullough’s new book “The Wright Brothers” is also a quick read.

    Glenn Curtiss, being a racing type, probably found the wing warping too sluggish. With big ailerons he could snap that baby around. I mean, he was riding motorcycles at over 100 MPH!

    Course the faster ailerons probably led to more accidents than wing warping.

    1. I was about to mention that book. I have it here as an audio book, and it was quite an inspiring piece.

      The Wright brothers set about doing all the research into aviation as they found out the previous pioneers had done little more than make educated guesses.

      They had come up with a glider one year, based on their own intuition, and had some great success. The following year, they tried the suggested geometry given by one of the experts in the field, and found things were way off. When they returned the geometry to what they had used the previous year, things improved: it was this that triggered them to undergo this research.

      The quote from that book that most sticks in my mind is this one:

      One [way] is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders.

      I think David is turning out to be an excellent rider of this “horse” (digital communications). The Wright brothers might be the fathers of powered aviation, David is the father of open-source digital voice communications.

  3. Thanks Stuart :-) There is something to be said for “having a go” – in my case on air use of FreeDV which I have been doing a bit of lately.

    I also like the Open Source idea of “release early and often”. Get those algorithms out into the world and see where it takes you from there.

    Failure is an option.

    Another phrase I like is “anyone who write a software library should be sentenced to use it”.

    – David

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