What turned the Wright brothers into pioneers of flight? Their library

From the aeroplane to TV, amateurs and outsiders played a vital role in turning scientific discoveries into something practical, says the author of Eureka: How Invention Happens

My exploration of the history of five of the most significant inventions of the twentieth century – television, the bar code, the personal computer, the mobile phone and the aeroplane – revealed a surprising but indisputable fact. In all of them, amateurs and outsiders had played a vital role in turning scientific discoveries into something practical.

What I defined as the “eureka moment” when something worked for the first time was more often than not achieved in a makeshift workshop. This was the case with the aeroplane which first got off the ground in December 1903. It was a triumph for brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright and their helpers in the small settlement of Kitty Hawk on the windswept coast of North Carolina. Wildly inaccurate accounts of the first flights soon gave way to disbelief and the brothers worked to improve their Flyer in relative obscurity, their airfield a cow pasture not far from their home in Dayton, Ohio which they were given for free on condition they did not injure the cattle that grazed there. In this extract from Eureka: How Invention Happens, a stranger arrives to witness and describe the thrill of watching the Flyer taking to the air.

The brothers had spent 1904 improving the performance of their flying machines at Huffman Prairie within easy reach of Dayton but the advances they made did not attract much attention either from local people or from the newspapers. In fact nothing of their success was reported until the arrival at the Wrights’ home in Dayton one day of a remarkable man driving an Oldsmobile Runabout who asked if he might witness one of the flights he had read about.

This was Amos Ives Root, who had driven across Ohio from his home in Medina, partly for the novelty of motoring at a time when most vehicles were still horse-drawn, and partly to explore the countryside. Root was himself a great innovator, taking an early interest not only in the natural world when he worked in the family's market garden, but in electricity and anything mechanical. He learned to make jewellery and built a factory to manufacture it. But his greater claim to fame grew from his hobby as a beekeeper. He invented a system for taking honey from hives without damaging them and sold the equipment around the world. He also published a magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, in which he wrote about all kinds of subjects. The first reports of the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk flights had attracted his attention. Now he had come to see for himself what they were up to.

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As they had improved their flying machine, Wilbur and Orville had become more secretive about its design and when Root introduced himself they were no longer inviting journalists to report on their efforts at Huffman Prairie. However, they clearly recognised in Root a kindred spirit and invited him to watch them fly. On September 20th, 1904 Root was astonished to witness Wilbur’s first successful circular flight. He made extensive notes of his impressions and asked if he could publish a piece in his magazine. The brothers asked him to hold back publication for a while so they could replicate that epic flight. Root’s account eventually appeared in the January 1st, 1905 edition of Gleanings in Bee Culture under the heading “What Hath God Wrought?”, the same biblical quotation that was chosen for Samuel Morse’s first official American telegraph message sent in 1844 to inaugurate the Washington to Baltimore line.

Root’s writing style was eccentric as he struggled to capture the sheer wonder and excitement of Wilbur’s flight at Huffman Prairie. How to describe it to people who still believed that what he had seen was impossible?

“When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels we will say, but with white wings instead … imagine this white locomotive coming right towards you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw.”

An evangelical Christian, Root believed invention was God-given and that the human race had a duty to discover new things. For him, watching Wilbur turn a full circle in the air was a deeply religious experience:

“God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat, instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank the electric cars, the automobiles, and all other methods of travel, and one which may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy. Am I claiming a good deal? Well, I will tell my story, and you shall be the judge.”

Root offered the readers of Gleanings of Bee Culture a reasonably sophisticated account of how the flying machine took to the air, the shape of the wings providing lift in the same way as the gliding bird moves with just the slightest adjustment of its wings.

But when he offered the piece to Scientific American they turned it down. Was Root’s prose too flowery and too evangelical in attributing the successful flights to God’s providence? Or did the editors simply disbelieve his story? It seems that in 1905 the world was not ready to accept that powered, manned, heavier-than-air flight was possible. The fact that the Wright brothers had no academic qualifications and were allegedly mere bicycle mechanics and manufacturers did not help their credibility. Yet nobody in America – and no one else in the world – was more knowledgeable about the history of attempts to fly than Wilbur and Orville. As Root noted: “When I first became acquainted with them, and expressed a wish to read up all there was on the subject, they showed me a library that astonished me; and I soon found they were thoroughly versed, not only in regard to our present knowledge, but everything that had been done in the past.”

Gavin Weightman’s Eureka: How Invention Happens is published by Yale University Press