Saturday, January 7, 2012

Opinion: Look, up in the sky — it’s a bird …

Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 11-20-11
Everyone wants a piece of Wilbur and Orville Wright, even Cedar Rapids.
You might recall a squabble a few years back over automobile license plates. North Carolina’s otherwise innocuous 1983 plates carried the slogan, “First in Flight.”
State sloganeers believed they could make that claim because, after all, Kitty Hawk, where the brothers made their world-famous initial public flight in 1903, could be found on any decent map by any reasonably bright six-year-old.
License-plate slogan writers in Ohio, however, were not pleased. The Wrights lived in Dayton, Ohio, when they did their planning and experimenting — heck, Orville was even born there.
So the Ohio license-plate people shot back with their own tagline that declared the Buckeye state as the “Birthplace of Aviation.”
The U.S. House of Representatives in 2003 came down on the side of Ohio by officially decreeing it, not North Carolina, was “the birthplace of aviation.”
The vote was 378 to 3. I’ll bet you can guess from where those three lonely votes came.
Yet the rivalry continues.
As a youngster struggling to remain awake during Ohio history classes, I remember bits of the story of the Wright family (though I admit to occasionally confusing some of the stuff about Wilbur and Orville with that of William Procter and James Gamble of Cincinnati, who dated twins or something).
So imagine my surprise when, within my first 10 minutes in Cedar Rapids this past January, I saw that the main drag along the Eastern Iowa Airport is called Wright Brothers Boulevard.
Did the teachers back in Ohio lie to us innocent children about the Wrights? Was the whole Ohio-North Carolina kerfuffle merely a convoluted smokescreen to steal the thunder from the rightful home of flight — Iowa?
Maybe Procter & Gamble really started in Kentucky …?
So I did some research. And it seems there might be enough credit to spread around to all claimants.
It is true Wilbur (born in Indiana in 1867) and Orville (see above, 1871) ran a printing shop in Dayton, where they published a newspaper. It’s all detailed in Larry E. Tise’s “Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
It’s in Dayton where they fixed bicycles. In Dayton, the brothers also tried to fly.
They’d heard tales of adventurers elsewhere around the world who were having degrees of success staying aloft with balloons and gliders, writes Russell Freedman in “The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane” (Holiday House, 1991).
In the workroom of the bicycle shop, they built a biplane glider with a five-foot wingspan, designed to be flown as a kite. The kite’s controls could be worked from the ground by means of cords running from the wingtips to sticks held upright in either hand ….
Their test, on a Dayton field where they’d played as children, went well. Or, well enough for Wilbur and Orville to contemplate their real master plan — a glider big enough to carry a man.
But what they really needed for their work, Freedman explains, was “a suitable testing ground, a place with strong steady winds and plenty of open space.”
Then they got word of Kitty Hawk, along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. And it from here we can begin our Ohio-North Carolina-Iowa tug of war over Wright Brothers claimage.
Iowa’s stake? For one thing, yes, just like Grant Wood, William Shirer, that actor in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and Ashton Kutcher, the Wrights indeed did reside in Cedar Rapids for a spell.
The patriarch of the family, Milton Wright, was a minister in the United Brethren Church, and he moved his family often as he followed his calling, hopscotching across the Midwest.
While in Cedar Rapids, they lived on what is now Third Street SE, according to the Eastern Iowa Airport’s website.
And it is here the story of the toy helicopter — the alleged inspiration for all that came later — is rooted.
One day in 1878, their father brought home the tiny contraption for his sons, when Wilbur was about 11 and Orville 7. It was made of cork and bamboo and powered by a single rubber band.
The brothers played with the toy until it broke, Freedman writes. (Note: The airport’s website suggests this occurred in Cedar Rapids; Freedman is vague as to location.)
Wilbur and Orville built several copies of the toy. But a larger version wouldn’t stay up, Freedman notes.
“The reason for this was not understood by us at the time, so we finally abandoned the experiments,” Orville recalled later.
The good news is the brothers never forgot the thrill of watching that small helicopter soar about their home in Cedar Rapids.
“Iowa: First in Inspiration”? I like it.

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