It is clear from the title of his book, Wright Brothers, Wrong Story: How Wilbur Wright Solved the Problem of Manned Flight, that William Hazelgrove wanted to provoke a reaction by claiming to correct the “myth” that the Wright Brothers were equal partners in their quest to fly. Indeed, he worked hard to dispel one of the most cherished of all American narratives—the story of two Midwestern brothers who worked together with perseverance, tenacity and genius to invent the airplane. I wonder if he worked a little too hard to highlight something that anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the Wrights’ work already knew.
The myth began, Hazelgrove said, with Wilbur and Orville’s father—Bishop Milton Wright—who told a reporter his younger sons were “as inseparable as twins” and insisted that “they are equal in their inventions, neither claiming any superiority over the other.” Indeed, the bishop longed to see his entire family united against the corrupting, stultifying influence of the world.
Moreover, Tom Crouch, in his book, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, said “adherence to agreed conditions was essential to good relations within the family” and “the strength of the lifelong bond between Milton, Wilbur, Orville, and [their sister] Katharine suggests an unspoken…agreement to remain together as a mutually supporting family unit.”
But when Hazelgrove said that Wilbur alone was the “real intellectual force” and “silent genius” of the two, driven by an ambition to replicate the ability he observed in the birds overhead, he seemed to think he was revealing something new and shocking to the world. Moreover, he said, Orville was no more than a skilled mechanic, content to continue printing business materials or building bicycles in Ohio who would never have done otherwise if not for Wilbur’s desire to fly. Hazelgrove said Wilbur “had a vision that wedded him to solving the problem of manned flight. His brother would come along for the ride.”
James Tobin had indicated a similar comparison of the brothers when he wrote, “It is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of their store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from beginning to end.” As for their interest in flying, Crouch concurred with Hazelgrove that, when Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian in 1899, “there is no indication that Orville was also interested in flight.”
Hazelgrove placed such significance on the letters between Wilbur Wright and Octave Chanute—even calling them a “smoking gun”—that he insisted on the uniqueness of Wilbur’s desire to fly. He said Orville’s authorized biographer Fred C. Kelly did not have access to these letters when he wrote his account with Orville’s approval in the 1940s and claimed that Orville was quite willing to undermine the account the letters provided.
The “brothers as equals” version of the story was preferable to the truth for many, Hazelgrove said, because it “appeals to our national team approach. America is a team. We will solve our problems together.” But Hazelgrove contended that it was a sinister revisionist effort on Orville’s part that established that view.
According to Crouch, the brothers chose together to portray themselves as equals. “Any impression of Wilbur’s dominance vanished abruptly after the fall of 1900,” he said. “From that time forward, the brothers made a concerted effort to present a corporate personality to the world.”
Hazelgrove’s unnecessary diminution of Orville went much further than calling Wilbur the leader of the two. Their father’s viewpoint was legitimized, he said, when Orville outlived Wilbur by more than three decades and used the time to rewrite history in his own favor, establishing the story of equals as the accepted narrative.
According to Hazelgrove, Orville used Kelly to cast himself in an undeservedly favorable light. Indeed, they took great pains together, he said, to “obliterate Wilbur’s use of the singular ‘I’ for the plural ‘we’ in his early letters. We invented the airplane. We called the Smithsonian for information. We cracked the code of aeronautics. We wrote Octave Chanute. We are equal in the eyes of the world. This is the beginning and the core of the Wright myth.”
In making the case for Wilbur’s preeminence, it clearly exasperated Hazelgrove that in John T. Daniel’s iconic photograph of the first heavier-than-air, powered flight in 1903 Orville is at the controls and Wilbur stands watching. He strained to describe the brothers’ roles in their crowning moment as “fitting”: “Wilbur could observe his plane leaving Earth under its own power; and, in that moment, he has the satisfaction that his vision, his theories, his calculations, his year of work produced a machine that could lift a man and fly like the birds he studied so intensely.”
“The Wright brothers were similar in many respects,” Hazelgrove conceded before insisting, “but it is the difference between the pilot and the mechanic, the visionary and the assistant, the poet and the scribe, that sets them apart. And that is all the difference in the world.”
Wilbur himself had a different perspective and didn’t think at all that his intellect was the basis of their success or that Orville was simply “along for the ride.” Wilbur objected to the suggestion that “sheer genius might be the only explanation” for their accomplishments, saying, “Do you not insist too strongly on the single point of mental ability? To me, it seems that a thousand other factors, each rather insignificant in itself, in the aggregate influence the event ten times more than mere mental ability or inventiveness….If the wheels of time could be turned back…it is not at all probable that we would do again what we have done.”
Most observers understand that Wilbur and Orville Wright made different contributions to what was a remarkable partnership, despite the family’s efforts to present them to history as equals. And to view their work as a partnership is to understand rightly the unique genius of their accomplishments.