The Wright Brothers were not short-sighted, and their honor must be defended. In particular, Wilbur Wright. He was no dummy.
While doing research on the infamous brothers, I came across a quote that’s very common on the internet. The quote is this:
“No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris … [because] no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping.”
The implication here is that in the early 1900’s Wilbur’s thoughts were that airplanes will never go faster or engines will never get better. How silly, you may say! He’s supposed to be a visionary and flight pioneer!
In fact, that quote is comparable to (and nearly as dumb as) the popular quote from Bill Gates about computer memory that: “640K is all the memory anybody would ever need on a computer.” – Bill Gates.
But there’s a problem: the quote has been changed and is incorrect. And oddly enough when taken in context, he was completely right for the time.
Not an Airplane
There are variations of the quote that change around the type of machine mentioned. In some places ‘flying machine’ is replaced by ‘aircraft’, and in other places ‘airplane’ (or ‘aeroplane’ to make it sound more likely for the period) are used. But these substitutes are not right.
The Wilbur quote comes from an interview he gave with the Cairo, Illinois Bulletin, on March 25, 1909. In the interview, Wilbur was not referring to an airplane at all, but rather an ‘airship’, also known as a ‘heavier-than-air’ ship, or more commonly, a blimp (or dirigible), or Zeppelin (pre-Led). In fact the statement is probably in support of the newer airplane.
Here’s the full excerpt in context:
No airship will ever fly from New York to Paris. That seems to me to be impossible. What limits the flight is the motor. No known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping, and you can’t be sure of finding the proper winds for soaring. The airship will always be a special messenger, never a load-carrier. But the history of civilization has usually shown that every new invention has brought in its train new needs it can satisfy, and so what the airship will eventually be used for is probably what we can least predict at the present.
–Wilbur in the Cairo, Illinois Bulletin, March 25, 1909
Link to the source from the Smithsonian here.
Again the keyword: ‘airship‘. With airships, the motors had to run nearly100% of the time when not tethered (given the wind conditions), lest the craft drift off course. And to make any forward headway if the wind was not in one’s favor, the engines must have been used constantly during transit. The statement above is apt in regards to the technology at the time.
All airship motors then were early gas or diesel engines (with the exception of one instance of an electric motor). They were very prone to breaking and wear from even a low number of run hours. Not to mention the fact that the quantity of fuel that would have been necessary for transatlantic travel was probably prohibitive. In the interview, the quoted ‘four days’ is the time such a craft would likely have taken to make the crossing, if it had been feasible.
Not The Only One
Back to Bill Gates, he’s mis-quoted too. The supposed gaff above by Wilbur Wright, led me to look into the Gates quote as well before making the comparison here. And sure enough, according to a Wired de-bunkery piece on the subject, Gates claims never to have said it. Now, one presumes that of course he would claim not to have said it in hindsight, but Wired found no legitimate direct source that correctly attributes that quote to him. And Gates himself, in response to the question about the quote, said the following which is probably true: “No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.”
Fair enough Bill. Integrity is now fully restored.