- The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry by Edward J. Roach
By Edward J. Roach. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv+218. $69.95/$22.95.
Edward J. Roach’s stated purpose in writing The Wright Company is to “begin a conversation” (p. xii) about the company founded by Wilbur and Orville Wright to manufacture and market their invention. Roach argues that the brothers were better as inventors than industrialists, but that they nevertheless realized their “dream of turning aviation from an oddity into a practical enterprise” (p. 3). The Wright Company is a history of their effort to build, promote, and sell airplanes in an industry they helped to create. The company secured the brothers’ position at the forefront of controlled powered flight as well as the American aviation industry. (But the distinction of being the first airplane manufacturer in the United States belongs to the Herring-Curtiss Company.)
Both the airplane and the company began in Dayton, Ohio. Until now the Wright Company has not been the subject of a comprehensive study. Perhaps this was because the records are incomplete and inconveniently spread among various institutions. More likely, no one saw the need until the surviving Wright Company buildings, in west Dayton, were being considered for nomination as a National Historic Landmark. Roach situates his work appropriately as “a piece of the larger literature concerning the Wrights in the years after their North Carolina flights” (p. xii), rather than within the historiography of Wright scholarship.
To fill gaps in the extant corporate documents, Roach accesses a wide range of related primary and secondary source materials to understand the establishment, management, and operation of the company. The book is organized thematically; each of the nine chapters is devoted to a facet of the firm’s progress, or lack thereof. Throughout the volume, Roach weaves into the text the Wrights’ views and activities, their family relationships, and news of the day. Overarching themes in the narrative are the stories of Dayton and the patent. The Wright name and the patent (transferred by the brothers to the company) were significant assets of the firm. Although Dayton had a dynamic manufacturing economy, the aviation sector remained very small, not withstanding it being the Wrights’ hometown and the location of the company’s factory.
Two years after their pioneering flight at Kill Devil Hills, Wilbur and [End Page 765] Orville were satisfied their design was ready for production and set out to capitalize on their invention. Although Dayton was home to well-established enterprises such as National Cash Register Company, it was not a financial center. The brothers were compelled to enter the world of venture capitalists to find those willing to stake their money on the Wright name and the promise of their air machine. Clinton R. Peterkin facilitated the search for these “‘men of consequence’ with ‘names that carry weight’” (pp. 18–19) the Wrights were seeking—notables such as Robert J. Collier and Cornelius Vanderbilt III—in New York City. The Wright Company incorporated on 22 May 1906. It was inconveniently structured, with manufacturing in Ohio, to satisfy the brothers’ wish to remain in Dayton, and administration situated in New York, near the major stockholders. This cumbersome arrangement, along with the brothers’ personalities and their focus on the Curtiss patent lawsuit, inhibited the innovation and adaptation of their aircraft. Legal costs drained money away from research and marketing.
Although the Wrights had some business experience from printing and from making bicycles, the limited number of airplanes they sold suggests they were more adept in the shop than the front office. Two new buildings housed the batch system of production employed in making the thirteen different models and 120 planes manufactured between 1910 and 1916. Following Wilbur’s death in 1912, Orville assumed primary responsibility for overseeing company affairs. He bought out investors disillusioned with the company’s outlook and sold the firm in 1915.
In reading The Wright Company one appreciates the brothers’ strengths and weaknesses in their desire to manufacture and sell airplanes and to demonstrate aviation as a practical enterprise. There is more in the...