Showing the World

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any good and useful inventions die before they get off the ground. It is a sad fact that most inventors, while they have the vision and intelligence to create something new, don't often have what it takes to promote it. And despite the old saw, the world will not beat a path to your door just because you've built a better mousetrap. Consequently, many inventions never find their way to the people for whom they were intended. Their bright promise fades as the inventors become frustrated, then discouraged, then give up and move on.

Fortunately for the millions of people who travel by air or make their living in the aerospace industry, this wasn't the case with the airplane. After spending seven years in difficult and dangerous work to perfect their invention, the Wright brothers were willing to spend three more to get it to market. But they found that the marketing, in many ways, was more difficult and required more fortitude than the actual inventing.

Engineering is a straightforward process that yields unambiguous results — the airplane either flies or it doesn't. Promotion is just the opposite. It is a convoluted process, dependent on guesswork. The results are rarely clear cut; success depends as much on persistence and serendipity as it does intelligence and strategy. The Wrights found this out almost as soon as they perfected a practical airplane. They wrote their congressman and made their invention known to the most likely customer — the U.S. Army. When the Army replied that it was not interested, not only was the response disappointing, it also seemed to make no sense. If the Army had no interest in a flying machine, why had they poured thousands of dollars into Langley's Aerodrome project?

The Wrights shrugged off the response and headed for Europe, where they figured a government somewhere would want a flying machine. Once again, they were wrong. The politics was worse in Europe that it was in the States, and all the deals they tried to make collapsed. But their persistence eventually won out. A chance meeting with an American soldier in France started a chain reaction that finally woke the U.S. Army to the fact that their native sons were trying to sell a priceless technology with military applications to foreign powers. They issued an order for an airplane just as a group of private financiers came together in France to license the Wright patents. Persistence had paid off handsomely — the Wrights suddenly had not one but two interested customers.

Now all that remained was to show the world that they could do what they said they could do.


  • 1905 to Spring 1906 — The Wrights offer their airplane to the U.S. Army and are told the Army is not interested — twice. They try to sell it overseas, but have no luck there. The only encouragement they have is that the government finally grants them a patent.
  • Summer and Fall 1906 — While the Wrights are having no luck selling their aircraft, the French begin to make short hops. Santos-Dumont manages to fly his 14 bis 726 feet — almost as far as the Wrights flew in 1903.
  • Winter 1906 to Fall 1907 — The U.S. Army and the French finally express some interest in the Wright airplane. The Wrights go to France, but find themselves hopelessly entangled in politics. Returning home, they find the news more encouraging — the Army finally wants to talk turkey.
  • Fall 1907 to Spring 1908Alexander Graham Bell organizes the Aerial Experiment Association to build airplanes. One of its members is motorcycle manufacturer Glenn Curtiss. Their first airplane flies 318 feet; the second, 1017 feet.
  • Fall 1907 to Winter 1908 — Henri Farman develops an airplane capable of flying 1/2 mile. He flies the first circle in France, making wide, flat, uncoordinated turns and wins the Grand Prix de Aviation.
  • Winter and Spring 1908 — The Wrights arrive at an agreement with both the U.S. Army and the French. They adapt their 1905 Flyer to carry two people and make the first passenger flights (carrying mechanic Charlie Furnas). Wilbur leaves for France, while Orville stays behind to build an airplane for the Army.
  • Summer 1908 — The Aerial Experiment Association builds their third airplane and the first designed by Glenn Curtiss — the June Bug. It wins the Scientific American Trophy for the first "official" flight in America of 1 kilometer.
  • Summer 1908Wilbur discovers the airplane shipped to him in France is badly damaged and he spends most of the summer rebuilding it. Meanwhile, he is chided in the press as a bluffer. But on August 8, he makes his first public flight in Europe, astounding the French audience.
  • Fall 1908 — Orville finishes the Military Flyer and begins to put it through its paces for the U.S. Army at Fort Meyer, Virginia. Things go well at first, but while carry passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a propeller breaks and the Flyer crashes. Orville suffers a broken leg and Lt. Selfridge is killed.
  • Fall and Winter 1908 — Wilbur is at first paralyzed at the news of Orville's accident, then shakes it off an begins to fly further and higher than ever before, setting record after record in France. On the last day of the year, he makes a flight of over 2 hours to capture the Coupe de Michelin trophy.
  • Winter and Spring 1909 — Still convalescing from his accident, Orville joins Wilbur in France, escorted by their sister Katharine. Wilbur transfers operations to Pau in southern France where the weather is better, then makes a series of flights in Italy. The Wright are the toast of Europe. In late April, they reluctantly leave and sail for America.
  • Spring and Summer 1909 — The Wrights arrive home to find they have become celebrities in America as well as Europe. They are treated to an endless series of awards and honors, including a city-wide homecoming celebration in Dayton, Ohio. They spend what little spare time they can find building a new Military Flyer.
  • Summer 1909 — The Wrights take their new airplane back to Fort Myer, Virginia and complete the trials that had been interrupted almost a year earlier. The U.S. Army purchases its first military aircraft for $30,000.
  • Summer 1909 — The Wrights' sale of the first military flying machine is overshadowed by news from France. Louis Bleriot, flying a small monoplane of his own design, has crossed the English Channel. Although it is a relatively short flight, Bleriot has conquered an important physical and national boundary. Suddenly, people begin to realize the importance of this new invention.
  • Summer 1909 — Glenn Curtiss joins with Augustus Herring to create an airplane manufacturing company, and sells his first aircraft — the Golden Flyer — to the Aeronautical Society of Long Island, New York. The Wrights file a suit against Curtiss and other airplane manufacturers who are infringing on their patent.
  • Summer 1909 — Glenn Curtiss is the only American entry at the Reims Air Meet in France — the first international gathering of aviators and airplanes. He captures the Gordon Bennett Trophy for the fastest airplane and is an instant hero on both sides of the Atlantic. His fame raises his reputation as an aircraft builder to an even par with the Wrights.
  • Fall 1909 — Both Curtiss and the Wrights are invited to fly for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York, New York. Unable to fly his underpowered aircraft in the heavy winds, Curtiss defaults. Wilbur Wright shows him up, flying around the Statue of Liberty then up the Hudson River to Grant's Tomb and back. Over a million Americans see him fly.

Note: You may also want to consult the Wright Timeline.

The patent drawings for the Wright's 1906 patent, the grandfather patent of the airplane.

Alberto Santos-Dumont flies the 14 Bis before a crowd in Paris, France on 23 October 1906.

Henri Farman flies a complete 1-kilometer circle on 13 January 1908, at Issy-les-Moulineaux outside Paris.

An old "tobacco card" showing Glenn Curtiss flying the June Bug on 4 July 1908 near Hammondsport, New York.

Just after the crash of the Wright Military Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia on 17 September 1908.

Wilbur Wright about to take his sister Katharine aloft at Le Mans, France in 1909.

An illustration of Bleriot landing at Dover, England after crossing the English Channel on 19 July 1909.

Wilbur Wright flying around the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on 29 September 1909.

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The Wright Story/Showing the World

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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