Another Failed ‘Government Investment’

By: Lee Habeeb and Mike Leven

Appeared in National Review on April 9, 2013


That’s the thing about genius: It springs from the unlikeliest places.

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.

It was the early 20th century. America was in a race with the powers of the world to invent the first airplane. Much was at stake. Our leaders feared that the Germans, the British, and, if you can suspend your disbelief, the French might beat us to the punch, giving the winning country a huge advantage militarily and economically.

Who better to win the race for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.

It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century – and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.

Langley did have some success with unmanned flight, using a catapult-like system to propel his machines into the air. On the basis of that limited success, the Department of War gave him $50,000 for two experiments, and he extracted a decent sum from the Smithsonian, too. That was real money back then. Today, bureaucrats wouldn’t stop to pick up $50,000 if it were lying on the street.

What did the citizens of the United States get for that “investment,” the kind we are making today in green energy? It was the Great Aerodrome, and on October 7, 1903, the aircraft developed by Langley’s team of experts was launched from a catapult on a houseboat in the Potomac River.

The crowds lined up, as did the press. As the aircraft accelerated and reached full speed, it was hurtled along a catapult toward a launch. A few scant seconds of sudden acceleration were followed by a sudden and shocking plunge into river. “It fell like a ton of mortar,” a reporter wrote.

The plane that couldn’t fly and the man flying it were somehow salvaged, and preparations were made for another flight. The project needed some tweaks, the experts told the world. On December 8, Langley and his team of brainiacs tried it again. This time, the airplane got caught up in the launching mechanism and dropped into the river.

Langley’s machine should have been called the Not So Great Aerodrome; it never got airborne. The media had a field day. “The Boston Herald suggested that Professor Langley ought to give up airplanes and try submarines,” Burt Folsom notes in a lecture in Hillsdale College’s series of online courses, “American Heritage.” The Brooklyn Eagle led its story with this quote from a now-forgotten congressman: “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”

The War Department, in its final report on the Langley project, concluded: “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.” Isn’t that just the kind of arrogance you’d expect from government bureaucrats? If their best minds can’t do it with our money, no one can.

On December 17, 1903, only nine days after Langley’s second failed experiment, two Ohio men did what the War Department, Langley, the Smithsonian, and all of that government investment could not. With $2,000 of their own money and little fanfare, the Wright brothers launched the first powered heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. From dunes four miles south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wrights’ Flyer flew for 59 seconds, traveled 852 feet, and ushered in the era of modern aviation.

How did the Wright brothers succeed where Langley had failed?

Langley and his band of experts were working on the wrong problem and thought more money would solve it. James Tobin in his book To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) explained that they saw flight as a problem of power; the Wrights, as a problem of balance. That difference in perspective led to the development of two machines along very different paths: Langley’s, straight into the water and oblivion; the Wright brothers’, straight to the sky, and into history.

From the beginning of their work in aeronautics, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control. Their breakthrough was their conception of what is now called three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and maintain its balance. This method became a standard in the industry and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft.

How did they see what others couldn’t? By chance or fate, the Wright brothers had mechanical skills perfectly suited to their success in aviation, and insight that came from their years of experience in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They understood that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. These were advantages that the government lacked, as did some of their fiercest competitors in the private sector, including Alexander Graham Bell.

That’s the thing about genius: It springs from the unlikeliest places.

The Wright brothers were also freed from the subsidy-induced waste that hinders many government-funded projects. Indeed, the limits on their financial resources actually helped them. They were compelled to spend wisely what little they had. As Milton Friedman once observed, few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.

Since the Wright brothers couldn’t absorb the costs of repeated flight tests, they developed a wind tunnel to test aerodynamic designs. This saved them not only money but time. From those simulations they amassed data that they used to hone their aircraft designs. It proved easier to fix a problem on paper than to do what Langley did: rebuild planes that had no chance of flying.

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.