Since December 17, 1903, the dates of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers have been celebrated as lone geniuses who succeeded when all others had failed. They have been interpreted to represent the very best American civilization has to offer the world and have been celebrated as members of an elite, and very tiny, group of pathbreaking thinkers produced throughout human history.
This is one of the enduring images in popular conception of how great advances in science and technology take place. From the mad scientists of fiction—Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Dr. Emmett Brown of Back to the Future, and Fred MacMurray’s The Absent-Minded Professor come to mind—to the reality of Philo T. Farnsworth working patiently to build a practical television and Steve Jobs realizing that computers were destined to become personal appliances connected one to another in networks, Americans glory in little guys doing great things in their garages or basements.
There have been enough instances of this in U.S. history to feed this folklore and allow it to persist. The “Renaissance man,” who with broad background can build a technological system from the ground up, permeates this ideal. It is a uniquely compelling vision for a nation of overachievers such as the United States, and it does exist in unique personalities and situations. Individualism and versatility characterize this concept of engineering.
Its quintessential expression in American history came in the work of Thomas A. Edison, whose many accomplishments in technology have been recognized as seminal to modern life. These same virtuoso expressions of engineering mastery have also been recognized in the work of U.S. rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, who spent most of his career as a lone researcher designing and testing rockets on a piece of isolated land near Roswell, New Mexico.
This tale of the lone inventor, working in solitude, coming up with a hugely significant invention with neither assistance nor hindrance from others is perhaps legitimate when thinking of the Wright brothers and the process of invention that led to the airplane. At the same time, the “Renaissance man” has never been very common in the history of science and technology. But the kinds of lone wolves that make up the folklore, reinforced by the reality of a few bona fide geniuses, are rare indeed. This has especially been the case in twentieth-century aerospace engineering.
In part because of a widespread faith in the ingenuity of American genius, of which the Wright brothers have always been touted as a primary example, the United States has never developed and implemented a coherent, long-term industrial policy, a sub-unit of which relates to the aerospace industrial community. Politicians and the public usually fail to understand that this belief in the capability of American inventors is fiction. Even in the case of the Wrights, inventors of the airplane, the lead in technology did not last. As early as a decade after the first flight, Europe, supported amply by government laboratories, had retaken from the Americans the lead in the technology of flight. As Smithsonian Institution secretary Charles D. Walcott wrote to Congress in 1915:
As soon as Americans demonstrated the feasibility of flight by heavier-than-air machines, France took the matter up promptly, and utilized all the available agencies, including the army, navy, and similar establishments, both public and private. Large sums were devoted to the research work by wealthy individuals, and rapid advance was made in the art.
Germany quickly followed, and a fund of one million seven hundred thousand dollars was raised by subscription, and experimentation directed by a group of technically trained and experienced men.
Walcott added that England and Russia followed suit, leading the way into the air age. He noted that when World War I began in 1914, about fourteen hundred military aircraft existed, of which only twenty-three belonged to the United States.
The United States supported nothing of a comparable nature, and American flying quickly lost ground to European investment. This was particularly galling to many aviation advocates in the United States, the home of the Wright brothers. The European success was documented not only in a growing record of achievement but also underscored by a lack of organized effort in the United States.
Indeed, as late as 1914, the United States stood fourteenth in total funds allocated by nations to military aviation, far behind even Bulgaria and Greece. Confident of American exceptionalism in all areas, the nation’s leaders waited for creative geniuses after the manner of the Wrights to rise to new challenges and propel aeronautical capabilities forward. Their complacence rested in some measure not only because of the longstanding debate over the role of the federal government in the economy and a concern about all things military but also on a common misperception. Americans have a fundamental belief, sometimes known as American exceptionalism, that there is something different and better about American life stemming from the origins of the United States and its subsequent evolution and separating it from the experience of other nations.
This belief in American exceptionalism is important in the story of the Wrights, for it informs how the nation—especially its leadership—viewed their contributions and the expectations held for repeated innovation without any effort on the part of the nation. Unfortunately, most people failed to grasp, in part because of the very success that the Wrights enjoyed, that great leaps forward in technological capability have almost always required significant long-term investment in research and development—research and development that does not have explicit short-term return to the “bottom line” and may not yield even long-term economic return.
The irony of the Wrights’ genius is that they helped make Americans complacent about the further development of the airplane, a complacency that only subsided when other nations took leadership. World War I forced the United States to scrap this approach and invest in military aeronautics, and the threat of World War II did the same with spectacular success. The Cold War sparked a similar investment, one that helped ensure the success of the United States in that forty-year struggle.
At the end of the Cold War, however, and the belief that the United States stood alone as the world’s only superpower, there was a rapid erosion in the level of federal support research and development investment that the federal government made in the technology of flight. It was no longer viewed as necessary for national defense, and the belief in the inherent capability of Americans to meet any normal challenge carried the policy debate. After all, the United States was exceptional!
That, coupled with the belief of many public officials that aerospace technology was mature and that private industry should be able to sustain aerospace advances without significant government investment, led to additional complacency. After all, like the Wright brothers, the power of innovation rested with the lone inventor.
It is a poor legacy to saddle a pioneering set of amateur engineers with, regardless of how much genius they demonstrated in solving the problems of controlled powered flight more than a century ago.