A Tale of ‘Government Investment’
As amateurs, the Wright brothers beat the taxpayer-funded brain trust in the race to flight.

The Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, December 17, 1903


Lee Habeeb

Another (often overlooked) reason that using their own money gave the Wright brothers a competitive advantage: control. Indeed, they turned down investors, appreciating that when grantors give money, they usually attach conditions. All too often the course of development is altered to cater to the grantor’s expectations, even if they are dead wrong or just plain silly. Who dares bite the hand that feeds him? Many of the experiments the Wright brothers carried out might never have been green-lighted by a corporate or government bureaucracy.

Repeatedly, hobbyists and tinkerers beat big government and big companies when it comes to innovation. Small beats big, and people with less money and scantier resources come up with products and inventions that change industries — and the world. It was a young Bill Gates who challenged IBM’s lucrative mainframe business; the same holds true of the creators of Apple, Google, and Facebook.

As with so many great innovations in our own time, powered flight in America was propelled by amateurs. The Wright brothers found themselves in the flying business, writes Tobin, “in the sheer spirit of play, of hobbyists.”

Yet another advantage that they enjoyed was that they were interested in making a profit. To the inventor of the first manned flight would come riches, while the bicycle business, which had been a good one for them, was undergoing a consolidation. Profit margins were shrinking. The brothers eyed manned flight as a future source of profit.

Langley, on the other hand, was attempting to advance the public good. While men who, like Langley, make their living in academia and from government funding often mock the profit motive, it’s the world’s best-known mechanism for unleashing people’s capabilities for productivity, which lead to innovations and products that contribute to the public good.

Though the Wrights beat Langley and the Smithsonian, the race didn’t end there. Powerful interests vied for the patent to this revolutionary invention and, more important, for the credit for it. With Smithsonian approval, a well-known aviation expert modified Langley’s Aerodrome and in 1914 made some short flights designed to bypass the Wright brothers’ patent application and to vindicate the Smithsonian and its fearless leader, Samuel Langley.

That’s right. The Smithsonian’s brain trust couldn’t beat the bicycle-shop owners fair and square, so they used their power to steal the credit. And then they used their bully pulpit to rewrite history. In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.

Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in . . . London.

But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.

As for Samuel Langley, he died in obscurity a broken and disappointed man. Friends often noted that he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he’d had more time — and more government funding.

Some things never change.

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.