Author Q&A: James Tobin

  • April 24, 2012

James Tobin, author of The Wright Brothers: To Conquer the Air is a specialist in literary journalism and narrative history at Miami University of Ohio.

Wind, sand, and a dream of flight brought Wilbur and Orville Wright to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina where, after four years of experimentation, they achieved the first successful tests of a heavier than air, engine-powered machine in 1903. The Wright brothers, high school dropouts who were self-taught mechanical and aeronautic engineers, typified the legendary ethic of American know-how. James Tobin, author of The Wright Brothers: To Conquer the Air (Free Press, $28.95) is a specialist in literary journalism and narrative history at Miami University of Ohio.


Q: You’re a professor of journalism, and your first book, Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II (Free Press, 1997), won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. But what drew you to the Wright Brothers’ story?

It was an idea my editor had — that was Bruce Nichols, then at the Free Press, now at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But the minute he mentioned it, I loved it. As a kid I’d been fascinated by flight, especially gliders, and I’d spent a lot of time at Greenfield Village, the historical park near Detroit that Henry Ford built; it’s where the Wrights’ bicycle shop and home are preserved. I loved the same Wright brothers story that everyone did — the brothers working together in their bike shop, the trips to Kitty Hawk. But looking at the story as a writer, I realized that a lot of the context had been left out of the traditional tale, especially the fact that the Wrights were competing against other experimenters. And I learned that that broader story and those other people were really interesting, and the story hadn’t been told very well. That was the opening.

Q: It’s astonishing that so many inventors and proto-aviators were working feverishly, and getting similar results, at the same time that the Wright Brothers were perfecting their flying machines. In terms of the history of technology, what were the reasons for all these advances in flight happening practically simultaneously?

I wouldn’t call them similar results — nobody but the Wrights came very close to succeeding — but it’s true they were all trying. That’s a mysterious business, and it’s happened often in the history of technology — with the telephone and the Internet, to mention only a couple. One theory is simply that various minds evaluate the same situation and perceive the same need or opportunity. And often in these situations, certain technological prerequisites have emerged that make something possible that wasn’t possible earlier. The German engineer Otto Lilienthal had shown the possibility of creating a good wing surface for a glider (even though he died using his.) And the development of relatively light engines suggested the possibility of a powered aircraft that wouldn’t be borne down by the weight of its power supply. So in the 1890s, a number of people who dreamed the human flight dream (as people had forever) thought: Hey, maybe it’s possible.

Q: There was a great deal of expensive research and development involved in the Wright Brothers exploring manned flight, including annual trips to Kitty Hawk; building launchers; and repairing machines that crashed. It’s a little hard to believe that the proceeds from a bicycle repair shop paid for all that. Did they have any backers?

They had no backers and turned down offers of financial help. In fact, their work wasn’t very expensive. A lot of the materials were on hand in their shop. The lift balances in their wind tunnel—arguably one of the most influential experimental devices in the history of technology—were made partly out of bicycle spokes. The rest, mostly wood and fabric, didn’t cost a lot. The bike business was seasonal, so they had spare time to work in the winter. At Kitty Hawk they lived in a shack (a neat one, though; they were tidy fellows.)

Q: It was a little painful to read about how the brothers were quite willing to option their flying machine and its patents to the highest bidder, from any government. Does this only confirm that they were men of science with no allegiance except to progress; or were the brothers just apolitical by nature?

The Wrights tried like hell to sell the invention to the U.S. government, but because of Samuel Langley’s spectacular failure (backed by government funding), the War Department was leery of any new flying machines. What they wanted was to be able to give up the bicycle business and work on experimentation full time. They wanted a living, not a fortune. I don’t think they regarded the British or German or French governments as any more or less venal than the U.S. government, and they were pretty sure that once one nation got airplanes, the rest would get them, too. Orville said late in life the airplane was like fire: It all depends on what you do with it.

Q: It was surprising how quickly and ably Alexander Bell became involved in the race to conquer the air. Could you summarize his contributions to making human flight possible?

The biggest thing Bell did was to lend his reputation to the effort; people figured if he was trying to invent a flying machine, it must not be crazy, which is what almost everyone had always assumed. In practical terms, he built and flew giant kites in pursuit of a safe aircraft that would hover above the ground. But a kite is one thing, an aircraft quite another. He never came close to the latter. He also helped Glenn Curtiss build working airplanes, but Curtiss had essentially ripped off the Wrights’ innovations.

After the Wrights had flown many miles, and the flights had finally been publicized, a reporter asked Bell: “Dr. Bell, what is the principal difference between the Wrights’ flying machine and the flying machines designed by experimenters such as yourself?” Bell, an honest man, said: “It flies.”

Q: The brothers, as did some of their competitors, carried on privately, relying on their own ingenuity and finances to pioneer developments in flight. What advantages do you see in backyard tinkers like the Wrights experimenting with a new field, versus government-funded researchers?

I’m no expert in how technologies are created, but I’m struck by the fact that all of us want backyard tinkerers to succeed. We love the Wrights’ story because we love the idea that an individual’s insight and hard work can transform the world.

Q: Steven Jobs, as a result of Walter Isaacson’s biography is being compared with Edison and other Yankee self-starters, although Jobs was not an inventor. Do you see any similarities between the Wright Brothers and Steven Jobs?

It seems to me the main similarity is the ability simply to look at familiar problems in a new way.

Q: Turning to the personal side of Orville and Wilbur Wright, their family was deeply involved in a conservative religion: the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. In fact, Milton Wright, the father, was a bishop. And yet, the brothers are so taciturn, so pragmatic, they seem to have no spiritual side at all. Not even being the first men to experience sustained flight moves them to any kind of rapture. Why?

The question of religion is a mystery I never solved. They loved and revered their father; Wilbur helped him a great deal with his political battles in the church. But you’re right; neither brother seemed to show a shred of interest in matters of faith. The sources are just silent on this. It’s frustrating. I do think they felt a kind of rapture and thrill about flight, and especially about the work of experimentation. After their brilliant tests with their home-made wind tunnel, Orville wrote a friend: “Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!!” For a scientist, that’s love.

Q: The brothers’ were noticeably unromantic in their personal lives, too. Would you tell us more about why they carried on as contented bachelors?

That’s another tough one. Again, the sources are essentially silent, especially about Wilbur. Orville lived on for a long time with their sister, Katherine, and was deeply hurt when she later married an old friend. It looks odd to our eyes, but bachelorhood was more common then than it is now. The fact is we just don’t know much about their emotional lives.

Q: Can you conceive of the Wright Brothers’ story being the cornerstone of a course on entrepreneurship? Is so, what lessons could be taught from their experiences?

It’s really more a story of science than of business. Wilbur started the whole thing as a hobby—a question he pursued pretty much just for fun, with a little hope that he might be able to “add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.” What the story says to me is that what matters most is to follow the thing that calls to you and get absorbed in the problem. If you’re a Wilbur Wright, something really spectacular may come of it. There aren’t many Wilbur Wrights. But a culture that nourishes intellect and gives it room to flourish will create its share of spectacular things.

Interviewer Charles J. Shields is associate director of the Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series at the University of Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. James Tobin will present a lecture about the Wright Brothers, based on his book, The Wright Brothers: To Conquer the Air (Free Press, $28.95) on April 12th at 7:30 in Dodd Auditorium on campus.

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