The only thing he ever made fly was government money

May 22, 2017

On this day in 1906, the Wright Brothers were granted a patent for their “flying machine.” In honor of the anniversary, we reprint this – one of our most popular, most-read pieces.  

(Original publish date: April 17, 2013)

The process of productive capital allocation is a critical ingredient of innovation and job growth.   Entrepreneurs spending their own (and their partners’) money will create more jobs, more innovation, and a more vibrant economy than politicians picking winners and losers based on cronyism, campaign contributions, and constituent pork.

When government strays out from funding basic research into either applied research or the means of production, the results range from poor to scandalous.  Ideas are infinite, and in the absence of competent execution, they are worth nothing.  Even if the idea has merit, the true expertise is crowded out.  There are better ways policymakers can help encourage innovation.

The invention of the airplane provides an excellent example.  While we’re all aware it was the Wright Brothers, many interesting details about funding the innovation don’t make it into school textbooks.  In A Tale of ‘Government Investment’  Lee Habeeb & Mike Leven recount the race between the bicycle shop owner/operators and the government-backed head of the Smithsonian.

Who better to win the race [to powered flight] for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. [The War Department gave Langley $50,000, an enormous sum at the time, which The Smithsonian augmented with taxpayer funds of its own.]  You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.  It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century — and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.

For that Solyndra-type investment the country got the “Great Aerodrome,” which “fell like a ton of mortar’ into the Potomac River – twice.  Representative Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska remarked, “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”

Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome  and launching apparatus.

Nine days after that second failed test flight, a “sturdy, well-designed craft, costing about $1000, struggled into the air in Kitty Hawk.”

How did two Ohio brothers accomplish what the combined efforts of the War Department, The Smithsonian, and other people’s money could not?  The authors cite James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) to provide a few answers:

  • Langley saw the problem as one of power:  how to go from zero to 60 in 70 feet, the stress of which was too great for the materials used.  The Wright Brothers, inspired by the practical skills and insights gained from tinkering in their bike shop, understood the problem was one of balance (on a bike, balance+practice = control).  They invented the three-axis control (pitch, yaw, roll) still standard on fixed-wing aircraft today.  Their entrepreneurial technical expertise was an advantage neither the government nor other private competitors (Alexander Graham Bell) could match.
  • Since they couldn’t afford repeated test flights the Wright Brothers were forced to develop a wind tunnel to test their aerodynamics.  This saved money and time, since they weren’t bogged down repairing the wrecks of a flawed design.
  • No government money also meant no government strings.  They were freer to experiment and innovate without worrying about non-essential requests and hidden agendas.  They also managed to do more with less since they couldn’t afford subsidy-induced waste.

Habeeb & Levin also offer this fascinating, if not unexpected, coda:

Though the Wrights beat Langley and the Smithsonian, the race didn’t end there. Powerful interests vied for the patent to this revolutionary invention and, more important, for the credit for it. With Smithsonian approval, a well-known aviation expert modified Langley’s Aerodrome and in 1914 made some short flights designed to bypass the Wright brothers’ patent application and to vindicate the Smithsonian and its fearless leader, Samuel Langley.

That’s right. The Smithsonian’s brain trust couldn’t beat the bicycle-shop owners fair and square, so they used their power to steal the credit. And then they used their bully pulpit to rewrite history. In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.

Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in . . . London.

But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.

As for Samuel Langley, he died in obscurity a broken and disappointed man. Friends often noted that he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he’d had more time — and more government funding.

Some things never change.

The Wright brothers’ airplane business never took off (groan) due to a combination of poor business decisions and sloppy patent work.  Wilbur sadly died young (in 1912 at age 45, of illness that some suspect was contracted due to exhaustion from the patent battles) and Orville sold the company in 1915.  So the industry grew under the leadership of other companies and other men.  (Although the Curtiss-Wright Corporation remains in business today producing high-tech components for the aerospace industry.)   One can’t help but wonder what the original inventors might have done had they been the beneficiary of a strong partnership with a VC fund…

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