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The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry.

The Wright Company: From Invention to Industry. By Edward J. Roach. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 218. $22.95.)

This well-documented history of the Wright brothers' aviation business surveys how a promising pioneer operation ended up floundering. In so doing, the author contributes both to the historiography of the Wright brothers and to a better understanding of socioeconomic factors affecting early aeronautics as a whole.

A defining theme of the book's eight chapters involves the conservatism of the Wrights, which became exacerbated following Wilbur's death from typhoid fever in 1912. Like many aviation pioneers, neither brother had graduated high school, and both were self-taught in their approach to business (they managed a bicycle and a print shop). Though the experience served them well in the early stages of their experimentation process, it did not do so when dealing at the national and international levels or in convincing the public of the airplane's value. In hindsight, the company clearly misjudged the importance of marketing its aircraft, disbanding after 1911 its exhibition department that sent pilots to air meets. Instead, advertisements in newspapers offered machines for sale, and Edward J. Roach's chapter on the subject shows clearly the haphazard nature of selling a means of locomotion that was new, untrusted, and subject to the vagaries of new market entrants.

That the Wright business survived longer than expected happened thanks to the patents the company had fought to protect. As Roach explains, the paradox of this legal success caused an innovation failure at the Wright Company while encouraging alternative experimentation among its competitors, notably Glenn Curtiss. Comforted by the courts' decisions, Orville's despotic approach led to a rejection of technological improvements, keeping the pusher engine formula when other designers had already switched to the puller engine. Such Wrightian autocracy also increased tensions with college-trained businessmen who had joined the company board. Orville was clearly unsuited to deal with day-to-day business operations-he had relied on his brother to take care of these matters--and his micromanagement slowed operations to such a degree that by late 1915 the company had been sold.

Roach's study digs deeper than technological and business history. By casting his narrative in an urban historical context and painting the sociocultural elements that affected the business, the author contributes to a clearer understanding of how seemingly unrelated elements affected the development of the Wright aircraft business. Details that may have been familiar to aviation enthusiasts through like publications are given their due relevance but so are such factors as the limited gender distribution within the factory. This reflection of the conservative regional strands contrasted markedly with attitudes in other parts of the state. Finally, rather than criticize unilaterally the difficult relationship between the Wrights and other American aviation pioneers, Roach offers a more nuanced evaluation that shows how, when facing the unknown though exciting realm of human flight, all actors tended to exhibit peculiar behaviors. A similar pattern appears in many other inventions, and Roach's book is a valuable reminder of this.

Guillaume de Syon

Albright College

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Author:de Syon, Guillaume
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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