Have you heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

I was recently on a plane waiting its turn in a long line to take flight. Looking out of the plane window, one could see one plane after another barrel down the runway at great speed as it took off to its varied destination. It reminded me of how different it was back in the early 20th century; when the race was on to conquer the skies.

In this pursuit, one man, Samuel Pierpont Langley, had what we assume to be the ideal recipe for success. A well respected astronomer and physicist working at the Smithsonian who had held a seat at Harvard, seemingly had it all- money (a governmental grant of $50,000 equivalent to over $1 million today), a stellar team (had hired the best engineers and scientists money could find), and excellent market conditions. The New York Times followed him around everywhere tracking his moves, and it seemed that the entire world was rooting for him.

Why is it that most of us have never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

A few hundred miles away in Dayton Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle shop owners, were pouring all of their blood and sweat into creating a flying machine. They had no money, and neither of them had a college education.

Since 1899, Wilbur and Orville Wright had been scientifically experimenting with the concepts of flight as they labored in relative obscurity. Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright brothers were masters of the air with over a thousand glides to their credit. They would build a prototype in their shop at Dayton, Ohio, and then dismantle them to carry the parts to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They choose this  coastal location, 680 miles from their home in Dayton as they felt that the place had the ideal conditions for testing their gliders- towering sand dunes and consistent winds to assist flight launching.

December, 1903

The Wright brothers are camped at Kill Devil Hills, now ready to fly for weeks. Their prototype they call the Flyer has been plagued with technical challenges due to broken propeller shafts during engine tests. Replacing them has already required two trips back to Dayton. They are finally ready to test the Flyer on December 14th, 1903. The power engine is mounted on the new 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer with double tails and elevators. The engine drove two pusher propellers with chains, one crossed to make the props rotate in opposite directions to counteract a twisting tendency in flight.

The brothers toss a coin to decide who will fly first. Wilbur wins the coin toss.

Wilbur takes off but oversteer’s the plane with the elevator after leaving the launching rail. The flyer, climbs too steeply, stalls, and dives into the sand. Any future flight would have to wait on repairs. Wilbur write back to their family in Dayton referring to the trial as having “only partial success”, stating “the power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully.”

The repairs are done and on December 17, 1903 they are ready to test their plane.

The winds are strong that morning – gusting between 20 and 30 miles per hour. The wind chill over the ocean is about 4 degrees Fahrenheit- cold for someone flying unprotected. The calculate that the strong headwind would slow their groundspeed to a crawl of about 6 to 7 mph.

However, they decide to try anyway as both the brothers want to be home for Christmas. Due to the windy condition on this cold winter day, there were only five people who have come to watch the brothers get ready to fly: Adam Etheridge, John T. Daniels and Will Dough, all of the U.S. government coastal lifesaving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny Moore, a teenage boy who lived in the area. Orville’s has already pre-positioned a camera to capture the possible flight with John T. Daniels behind the camera.

10:30 a.m.

With a white sheet, the brothers signaled the lifesaving volunteers that they were ready to try again. Now it was Orville’s turn.

The aircraft is tacked on to their homemade track apparatus the brothers call their “Grand Junction Railroad”. Remembering Wilbur’s experience, Orville positions himself and tests the controls: the stick that moved the horizontal elevator which controls climb and descent, the cradle that he has to swing with his hips to warp the wings and swing the vertical tails, which in combination turns the machine. The controls lever controls the gas flow and airspeed recorder. As he climbs to take position, Orville knows it would take all his finesse to handle the new and heavier aircraft.

John Daniels, recalls those tense moments: “they (the brothers) shook hands, and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.”

10:35 a.m.

Orville releases the restraining wire. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadies the wings. Orville takes off in flight with Wilbur running beside the aircraft.

John Daniels from the lifesaving station snaps the shutter on a preset camera, capturing the historic image of the airborne aircraft with Wilbur running alongside. Again, the flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. But he keeps it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail.

They have done it… the Wright brothers have taken the first powered flight by mankind. The course of human history was to change forever.

The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight to 175 and 200 feet at an altitude of about 10 feet above the ground.  Wilbur’s second flight – the fourth and last of the day – was an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.

The following is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day: ‘Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.’

Hand-carrying Flyer 1 back to the launching point, with the wind continuing to blow, the men put the plane down so they could rest. A sudden wind gust picked up one wing and, with Daniels caught in the bracing wires as he tries to protect the plane, it rolls again and again. Daniels escapes without injury, but Flyer 1 looks like a heap of kindling wood and torn cloth. Severely damaged, the airplane would never fly again. The brothers ship it home, and years later Orville restores it. He donates it to the Smithsonian Institute where its final restring place is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The brothers sent a telegram about the flights to their father, requesting that he “inform press.” However, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be important. Meanwhile, against the brothers’ wishes, a telegraph operator leaks their message to a Virginia newspaper, which concocts a highly inaccurate news article. It gets reprinted the next day in several newspapers elsewhere, including Dayton. The Wrights issued their own factual statement to the press in January. Nevertheless, the flights did not create public excitement—if people even knew about them—and the news soon fades.

The Wright brothers go on to improve upon their prototype, get into patent fights.It would finally be the first major public demonstration at Le Mans, France on August 8, 1908 where the finally got the acceptance they deserved. 


On hearing about the Wright brother’s flight, one would think that Samuel Pierpont Langley would be ecstatic and he would congratulate the Wright brothers on their achievement and collaborate to improve upon the design. Instead of joining forces with the brothers, he threw in the towel. Samuel Pierpont Langley wanted to be first at the discovery. He wanted the fame. He wanted the glory and more riches. When he saw that he didn’t achieve these, he just quit.

It would be completely amiss not to mention their sister Katharine in this saga. Katharine Wright, born three years to the day after Orville, was essentially the only female figure in Orville and Wilbur’s adult lives.  Their mother died when they were teenagers, leaving Katharine as the woman of the house.

Neither brother was interested in marriage. Wilbur famously told reporters that he didn’t have time for both a wife and an airplane. Katharine was their confidant. Orville constantly exchanged letters and telegrams with Katharine whenever he left to spend time at Kitty Hawk. Both Wilbur and Orville were both painfully shy. Katharine was just the opposite of her brothers in this respect — she had opinions and never hesitated to express them. Yet when it came to her brothers, Katharine would sacrifice everything including her career and job. Because of her dedication to the two inventors, she found herself traveling in Europe and studying French, something both Orville and Wilbur refused to do, so that she could communicate with kings, princes and bankers on behalf of her brothers. The three of them waltzed on the highest levels of European aristocracy, meeting King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, Edward VIII of England and Alfonso XIII of Spain. Orville was heartbroken when Katharine married at the age of 52, he was inconsolable. He refused to attend the wedding and didn’t speak to her for two years. It wasn’t until she became fatally ill with pneumonia that he finally visited, right before her death in spring 1929.

Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948, till the age of 77 years. In his lifetime Orville witnessed many milestones in aviation — the creation of jet propulsion and the first rocket — but he also saw the destruction caused by bombers in World War II. “We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the Earth. But we were wrong. We underestimated man’s capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end,” Orville said in an article with the St. Louis Post Dispatch on November 7, 1943.

As our plane lines up on the runway and starts barreling down to take me home, I reflect upon this pioneering story of grit and passion by these two brothers. Despite having barely enough money, and no formal education, the Wright brothers only had one thing—passion and perseverance- a quality which Angela Duckworth calls grit. . Grit is perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years in the face of failure and adversity. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It is among the most important predictors of success.”

They truly believed that flight would change the world.  They passionately pursued this objective and despite their lack of press, a team formed around them helping them pursue their cause.  Together they failed over and over and over again. They didn’t care that they had little funds and they didn’t care that they would crash an average of five times before heading back home for supper. They enjoyed every second of it and the thrill was even better. Passion kept them going until they finally took flight.

Talent x effort = skill

Skilll x effort = Achievement

Effort is twice as important as talent in achievement.


There is hope for all that want to grow this positive, non-cognitive trait call grit by  (a) developing a fascination in what you do, (b) strive for daily improvement, (c) remind yourself of the greater purpose of why one is doing something, and (d) adopt a growth mindset.

“The doubters said,

“Man can not fly,”
The doers said,
“Maybe, but we’ll try,”
And finally soared
In the morning glow
While non-believers
Watched from below.”   

Bruce Lee

First flight marker and the visitor center

The Wright Brothers Monument at night after restoration

If you ever go to the Outer banks of North Carolina, do remember to visit the memorial on Kill Devil Hill which commemorates for posterity the event that unfolded on the cold and blustery winter morning. A day which changed mankind forever.


Wikepedia on Wright Brothers

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth