The Unseen Path

The Wrights had a competitor in the race for flight whose name was Samuel Langley, a famous inventor who leveraged his reputation and a great concept presentation to win a massive military contract. His background was in building cars so of course he saw flight as an engineering challenge centered on engine power. He applied this thinking, and a wealth of resources (including his own personal funds and the seemingly endless amount the military was willing to spend), toward building planes that he repeatedly crashed.

The Wrights had no such funding. But they had a passion for aviation dating back to the moment they first saw a toy helicopter. They were self-taught tradesmen drawing from diverse but deep expertise building printing presses, bicycles, and motors. They didn’t see flight as a challenge of power, but one of balance. Because they couldn’t afford to build and crash plane after plane, they instead focused on wing design. They built the world’s first wind tunnel, which allowed them to iterate through hundreds of wing designs in less than a year.

In 1903, the Wrights flew a manned craft that could lift off, climb easily over a hillside, and then land gracefully at the point of origin. Sam Langley was still launching crude torpedoes into dirt piles.