Thursday, January 30, 2014

Didn't the Wright Brothers Always Tell the Truth? Part 2

"What we need is not the will to believe but the will to find out." - Bertrand Russell
                    "Only a fool of a scientist would dismiss the evidence and reports
                     in front of him and substitute his own beliefs in their place."
                                                 - Paul Kurtz

The cover of Boys' Life magazine Sept., 1914

 Historians and the public, who want to believe the Wrights were first to fly, have many excuses for  inconsistencies in witness's descriptions of` what happened at Kill Devil Hills, N.C.,  Dec.14-17, 1903--and indeed, later.  For examples: "Witnesses couldn't remember," or, "Their statements were made years after the facts."

This, of course, implies that the only statements we can rely on, according to these historians, are the statements of the Wrights, themselves. But what if the Wrights contradict themselves? Then even the historians have a dilemma.
Fast forward to the year 1914. It's important to note that Wilbur has died in 1912 of typhoid. Orville has gone into debt to buy back the stock of the Wright company. He plans to sell to another group of investors in Dayton. The  disgruntled stockholders of the original company are glad to sell, because they have found that Orville is unable, or refuses, to attend to business, and the Wright Company has been run into the ground. This despite the fact that in January, 1914, the company has paid for and won the final judgement against Glenn Curtiss in his last appeal against the Wright lawsuits.  Now Orville needs to collect money from all of his patent infringers. Which, apparently, according to the judges, includes every single aviator who dares to fly and make any money in the business.

But Orville wants out of the aviation business. What does he want? One clue is in an interview Orville gives to Boys' Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.  Among other glaring inconsistencies with the Wright brothers' previous narrations of their first "flights" is Orville's new story. He tells the Boy Scouts that he was the one who made the last and longest claimed flight on December 17. Orville has the byline. So we have to assume from his past history that Orville either "approves" of the story, or somehow doesn't know about the many discrepancies in it. This is difficult to believe and he has ample opportunity to correct it. To easily read the full story, please click the link to Boys' Life.

Boys' Life Magazine, 1914, which includes Orville's story of the "first flight"

In a previous entry, we established that the Wrights official statement about the claimed flights December 17, 1903, was as follows

1. Orville-- estimated 120 feet (100 feet beyond the track)--12 seconds

2. Wilbur--estimated 175 feet--13 seconds

3. Orville--estimated 200 feet--15 seconds

4. Wilbur --measured 852 feet--59 seconds

According to their joint story, Wilbur won a coin toss and made the first attempt on December 14, but he failed to fly and broke some parts of the plane. Then after repairs, it was Orville's turn to go first on the 17th. So, second that day was Wilbur's turn, third was Orville's, and the fourth and last was Wilbur's. It's important to note that when he was alive, it was Wilbur who was given credit for the only flight that is considered long enough by some, including Tom Crouch, to be considered "sustained," the flight of  852 feet. But then, of course, to be a flight, it would have had to be made from level ground like the Wrights said, not from a hill, assisted by gravity--as witnesses Daniels and Etheridge stated.       

Boys' Life Magazine, page 2
Boy's Life Magazine, page 3

Boys' Life, page 4, where Orville claims the longest flight of 1903 from his own brother

The circled section on the last page, page 4, of the Boys' Life article (above) by Orville Wright is transcribed below. Note, as stated, that Orville gives himself credit for the last and longest flight (57-59 seconds) that has been credited to Wilbur before. But Wilbur has died and can't correct his brother.
"The usual visitors did not come to watch us that day. Nobody imagined we would attempt a flight in such weather, for it was not only blowing hard, but it was also very cold. But just that fact coupled with the knowledge that winter and its gales would be on top of us almost any time now made us decide not to postpone the attempt any longer.

My brother climbed into the machine. The motor was started.  With a short dash down the runway the machine lifted into the air and was flying. It was only a flight of twelve seconds, and it was an uncertain wavy, creeping sort of a flight at best, but it was a real flight at last and not a glide.

Then it was my turn. I had learned a little from watching my brother, but I found the machine pointing upward and downward in jerky undulations. This erratic course was due in part to my utter lack of experience in controlling a flying machine and in part to a new system of controls we had adopted, whereby a slight touch accomplished what a hard jerk or tug made necessary in the past. Naturally, I overdid everything but I flew for about the same time my brother had.

 He tried it again the minute the men had carried it back to the runway, and added perhaps three or four seconds to the records we had just made. Then after a few secondary adjustments, I took my seat for the second time. By now I had learned something about the controls, and about how a machine acted during a sustained flight, and I managed to keep in the air for fifty-seven seconds.
I couldn't turn, of course--the hills wouldn't permit that--but I had no great difficult in handling it. When I came down I was eager to have another turn...."

 Now  compare this account with the account in Orville's diary as follows:

  " Thursday, Dec. 17 - When we got up a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put out signal for the men at the station. Before we were quite ready John T. Daniels, W.S. Dough, A. D. Esteridge, W.C. Brinkley of Manteo and Johnny Moore of Nag's Head arrived. After running the engine and propellors a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when stated so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not know exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked. After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial. The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong. With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o'clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will's, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it raised 12 to 14 feet. At just 12 o'clock Will started on the fourth and last trip. The machine started off with its ups and downs as as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course it proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground. The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame scuffed none at all. The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds."
Pages of Orville Wright's diary in which he details another version of the December 17, 1903 flights

Again, given that Orville Wright was a watchdog when it came to getting publications "right," it's a fair bet that he was aware of the multiple contradictions in the "Boys' Life" magazine to earlier statements both brothers made.   But can we prove Orville knew about the "errors"? See the next post

. To be continued.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Didn't the Wright Brothers Aways Tell the Truth? Part 1

  "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever 
that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the 
majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish 
than sensible."  -Bertrand Russell

      "All great truths begin as blasphemies." - George Bernard Shaw 

A good many historians today base their version of early aviation history on the statements of the Wright Brothers. But a critical thinker has to establish that we can depend on the Wrights' honesty and consistency, especially since we have already established that their descriptions of the first claimed flights are not consistent with those of two of their five witnesses. The Wrights say they took off from level ground on December 17, 1903. Witnesses Daniels and Etheridge state that they placed the plane on the side of the hill for the claimed flights that day. What do later publications, documents and letters tell us about truth in the Wrights' statements?

In a New York Times article dated 1951 (below), telegraph operator Alpheus Drinkwater stated that the Wrights didn't really fly; they only "glided" off Kill Devil Hill on December 17. Note that his statement backs up Daniels and Etheridge--that the "flights" were initiated from the hill. Drinkwater wasn't named by the Wrights as a direct witness of the first flights, as the article indicates. Still, his statement adds to doubts, since he was operating a telegraph in the area and news in a sparsely populated area gets around quickly.

Because Drinkwater's statement was made after Orville Wright died in 1948, Orville wasn't here to"correct" it. And ferreting out and correcting what he claimed were "errors" was a chore Orville  indulged in for 45 years. (Not inventing as he claimed he wanted to do.) You might say monitoring aviation news was one of his life's missions. Or you could say manipulating history in his favor was really Orville Wright's mission.

 From the beginning, the Wrights were acutely aware of  published accounts about themselves and their claimed achievements. Their scrapbooks are one testimony to that fact. And if they didn't like the writing, they weren't afraid to be very aggressive in getting the "story right" by contacting  writers, editors, and/or publishers.

The first published accounts of the December 17, 1903,  events at Kitty Hawk (actually Kill Devil Hills) were in newspapers the next day on the 18th. The telegram the brothers sent to their father, the Bishop after their claimed flights stated "Inform press," so we can be assured that the Wrights wanted the press to know they claimed they had flown. Many of the news articles were based, for the most part, on the telegram, so this backs up that the Wright family did get what the brothers told them to the papers.

But one account was mostly a fantastic story concocted by newsmen, including H. P. Moore, of the Virginia Pilot news (see link for article), who had gotten wind of the claimed flights December 17.  How they got their tip is subject to speculation, but there are some documents that can later help to clear it up. Short on facts and long on imagination, the newsmen wanted to scoop the story and made up what they didn't know. This story was picked up by other papers.

On January 5, the Wright brothers responded to the Virginia Pilot article by releasing to the news a fresh account. This personal version of the events of Dec.17 was given to the Associated Press to distribute. Their statement detailed more than previous accounts and made the events more believable.

As time went on, they would essentially need to stick to this account. Moreover, it would need to mesh with the account they had sent to their father in the telegram. "Four flights... all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone..."

From a written statement by the Wright brothers to the Associated Press, January 5, 1904
 "It had not been our intention to make any detailed public statement concerning the private trials of our power “Flyer” on the 17th of December last; but since the contents of a private telegram, announcing to our folks at home the success of our trials, was dishonestly communicated to the newspapermen at the Norfolk office, and led to the imposition upon the public, by persons who never saw the “Flyer” or its flights, of a fictitious story incorrect in almost every detail; and since this story together with several pretended interviews or statements, which were fakes pure and simple, have been very widely disseminated, we feel impelled to make some correction.  The real facts were as follows:
On the morning of December 17th, between the hours of 10:30 o’clock and noon, four flights were made, two by Orville Wright, two by Wilbur Wright.  The starts were all made from a point on the level sand about two hundred feet west of our camp, which is located a quarter of a mile north of the Kill Devil sand hill, in Dare County, North Carolina.  The wind at the time of the flights had a velocity of 27 miles an hour at ten o’clock, and 24 miles an hour at noon, as recorded by the anemometer at the Kitty Hawk Weather Bureau Station.  The anemometer is thirty feet from the ground.  Our own measurements, made with a hand anemometer at a height of four feet from the ground, showed a velocity of about 22 miles when the first flight was made, and 20 ½ miles at the time of the last one.  The flights were directly against the wind.  Each time the machine started from the level ground by its own power alone with no assistance from gravity, or any other source whatever.  After a run of about 40 feet along a monorail track, which held the machine eight inches from the ground, it rose from the track and under the direction of the operator climbed upward on an inclined course till a height of eight or ten feet from the ground was reached, after which the course was kept as near horizontal as the wind gusts and the limited skill of the operator would permit.  Into the teeth of a December gale the “Flyer” made its way forward with a speed of ten miles an hour over the ground and thirty to thirty-five miles an hour through the air.  It had previously been decided that for reasons of personal safety these first trials should be made as close to the ground as possible.  The height chosen was scarcely sufficient for maneuvering in so gusty a wind and with no previous acquaintance with the conduct of the machine and its controlling mechanisms.
Consequently the first flight was short.  The succeeding flights rapidly increased in length and at the fourth trial a flight of fifty-nine seconds was made, in which time the machine flew a little more than a half mile through the air, and a distance of 852 feet over the ground.  The landing was due to a slight error of judgment on the part of the aviator.  After passing over a little hummock of sand, in attempting to bring the machine down to the desired height, the operator turned the rudder too far; and the machine turned downward more quickly than had been expected.  The reverse movement of the rudder was a fraction of a second too late to prevent the machine from touching the ground and thus ending the flight.  The whole occurrence occupied little, if any, more than one second of time."

We also have Orville's diary account of the day's events coming up, neatly written in his journal. At what period of time he made that entry in his journal, who knows? But these accounts give us a base line to establish the Wrights' veracity. They have to be accepted as their official statement.

Keep in mind that no matter how many times they said it or published it, including the account in the telegram, the news account of Jan 5 released to the AP,  the entry in Orville's journal, and letters written to various people, it is the Wright brothers' account. There were no reporters there, only the five witnesses. All of the newspaper accounts were based on what the Wrights told them, or as in some cases, wildly fabricated. The Wrights' account is essentially the same account you will read in blogs, history books, Wright biographies, and the like. But common sense tells us that repeating a tale over and over again, asserted by brothers who had a lot to gain, simply doesn't make it the truth.

We need to examine whether the Wrights were consistent with their first accounts, as time went on.

Moreover, among the questions that also come up are: (a) whether the Wrights themselves really believed the four claimed flights were actually flights; (b) whether in fact, four flights were actually attempted that day, as other accounts contradict that claim; and

(c) whether the Wrights in truth packed up all the broken pieces of the original Wright flyer after it was wrecked, took them home, and stored them, later to be rebuilt and put on display. Some witness accounts even question that claim.

                                                             To be continued...