Why you should care
Because necessity is often the mother of invention, and sometimes it can be outright cruel.
The invention of flight and modern aviation depends upon a lot of things, from the rigorous study of aeronautics to the development of balloons and gliders to the invention of the internal combustion engine. Not to mention a ton of trial and error. But nearly 20 years before the Wright Brothers made history with the first successful flight on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, something happened that would change the course of their lives (and ours) forever. In many ways, the story of aviation begins with an unfortunate incident during a game of hockey between teenagers on a frozen pond in Dayton, Ohio, in 1886.
Raised in Dayton, Wilbur and Orville Wright were the sons of the local bishop. Wilbur, the eldest, was a bright and studious young man who excelled as both a student and multisport athlete. He was headed to Yale, with an incredibly bright future, when his life took a detour during his senior year in high school. One winter afternoon while playing hockey with friends on a pond beside the Dayton Soldiers’ Home, Wilbur was hit in the face with a hockey stick, a blow that broke his jaw and knocked out most of his upper front teeth.
From such great evil comes great good.
William Hazelgrove, Wright Brothers, Wrong Story
The stick belonged to a working-class boy named Oliver Crook Haugh, the neighborhood bully. While we’ll never know whether the blow was intentional or accidental, we do know that Haugh was a psychopath who was likely addicted to the cocaine drops, available over the counter in the late 19th century, he took for his severe toothaches. Years after striking Wilbur Wright, Haugh would become a serial murderer, one who was electrocuted in 1906 for killing at least 16 people, including his own family. So it goes.
Haugh’s blow sent Wilbur’s life spiraling in a new direction. He would have his jaw set and get fitted for false teeth. For months, he suffered excruciating pain in his face as well as heart palpitations and indigestion. But the physiological ordeal was brief compared to the psychological one: Wilbur suffered bouts of severe depression for years. He remained at home, recovering and helping take care of his mother, who was dying of tuberculosis. All talk of Yale stopped. The once bright-eyed 18-year-old headed for college and to take on the world became a recluse and an invalid.
It would take almost eight years for Wilbur to recover from the injuries he sustained. During this time, he took advantage of his housebound existence to devour every book he could get his hands on, the beginning of a remarkable self-education that would fuel the rest of his life and career. “From such great evil comes great good,” says William Hazelgrove, author of Wright Brothers, Wrong Story: How Wilbur Wright Solved the Problem of Manned Flight. “[Wilbur] went into the dark night of the soul where he emerged with a fascination that soon became a quest to solve the rubicon of human flight.”
Wilbur’s traumatic accident would end up giving him the space to pursue a singular obsession, and it was Wilbur, far more than his younger brother Orville, a capable engineer but not a visionary, whom we have to thank for an aeronautical revolution. Despite the tale of the brother inventors that we tell schoolchildren, it was Wilbur alone, an incredibly intuitive scientist, who diligently studied birds, who played around with complex aeronautical data, who worked out the wing design that would allow humans to transcend gravity. It was Wilbur Wright who truly invented manned flight. “There was no burning fire in Orville to create a flying machine capable of lofting a human being into the sky,” says Hazelgrove. “This was Wilbur’s quest and his vision. Every innovation was tied to Wilbur Wright.”
Wilbur’s health would later define his life and legacy once again. It was his untimely death, from typhoid fever at 45, that would leave Orville, who lived another 36 years, to define their accomplishments and to overplay his own personal role. The myth of the Wright Brothers’ collaborative genius would spread, according to Hazelgrove, not unlike that of the Beatles, whose collective tale became more than the sum of the band’s parts. Ultimately, the story of “the two brothers who were inseparable and perfect 50 percent partners [became] more palatable than the lone genius hacking it out in Kitty Hawk alone.”