SE39 Week 10 – Glean This!

Paul does a mighty fine job of concocting true or false questions which are reliably absurd, such that you can never safely reason “that is just too ridiculous to be true”. Week ten was no exception as we discovered that, yes, news of the Wright brothers’ successful attempts at heavier than air flight did appear in the noted journal Gleanings in Bee Culture. How on earth did this occur? Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Amos Ives Root (1839-1923).

Amos Root, bee gleaner
Amos Root, bee gleaner

Root hailed from Ohio, and in his twenties he took up bee keeping. He apparently got really into it, and like any serious hobbyist he wanted to read a magazine devoted to his past time. However, no such magazine existed so he took matters into his own hands and started up Gleanings In Bee Culture. Cool: it still exists! Heinously uncool: they have shortened the name to simply Bee Culture. What a waste of an awesome name.

Root was something of a futurist, it seems. He drove a 1903 Oldsmobile Runabout (which would cost about $18,000 in today’s cash):


And you just know the ladies of the day were all over this make-out machine…

The original pimpmobile
The original pimpmobile

At around this time Wilbur and Orville Wright were extensively experimenting with powered flight, and competing with several other inventors to become the first to not only prove it possible, but commercialize a working design. The Wrights started by designing gliders, tested in their own homemade wind tunnel, and then introduced motors. Here’s Wilbur after landing one of their gliders:


After scrupulous research they set up a base at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, because of the useful prevailing winds and sand suitable for crashing onto, and it was here that they made their famous first flight in 1903. Except that it wasn’t actually famous at the time. The Wrights had a strangely antagonistic relationship with the press of the day, and their early attempts (which were, in fact, successes) were greeted with scepticism and scorn by reporters and other inventors. Determined, the Wrights headed back to Ohio and set up a testing ground there where they would refine their methods. It seems crazy to us today, but they let reporters view their experimental flights on the condition that no photographs be taken, so as to keep their secrets from their rivals. As a result, no great media firestorm ensued, and some outlets even treated them like cranks.

The French turned out to be Wright Bros Enemy Numero Une, and the Paris edition of the New York Herald published a piece titled “Flyers or Liars,” just one of many attacks on the credibility and integrity of Wilbur and Orville. It’s not hard to understand why they would have, under such conditions, developed a healthy distrust of the mainstream press. And then Amos Root motored up. He wasn’t really a journalist, but rather a kindred spirit interested in technology and experimentation, as well as a friend of the Wrights, and so they allowed him to observe and publish an account of their work. Root sent his account off to Scientific American and received no reply. On inquiring we was informed that the account seemed too tall a tale to be believed, so they simply didn’t bother to either publish or investigate. This is one of those moments in history where the modern mind finds it difficult to empathize with our forebears. I mean… just go check it out in person! It’s not like their claims would have been difficult to disprove. It is easy to forget, though, that past eras have been so much richer in the realm of charlatans, and that it was doubtless easier to get away with being a charlatan in days gone by.

Undaunted, Root used the one media he definitely had access to: Gleanings. And thus in 1905 his account took the beekeeping world by storm. You can read more extensively about it here including excerpts. Root also started a candle company which still exists today.

Bonus info

In 1908 Wilbur travelled to France to give a live demonstration to a stunned populace.

Wright plane in Paris in 1908
Wright plane in Paris in 1908

I was heartened to learn that the various media doubters printed glowing apologies after seeing manned, mechanical flight with their own eyes. It truly must have been something for people of the day to witness a guy climb into a bizarre wooden death trap powered by a lawn mower engine and actually, really take off and putter around the sky. Today we complain about the quality of food and legroom on airliners.

Here’s a fun video describing a Wright flight.

And a final piece of trivia – the Wright’s were the first to fly and also the first to cause an air crash fatality. Orville crashed in 1908 with army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge his passenger. Selfridge suffered a skull fracture and died hours after the crash. US Army pilots would later wear football-like leather helmets as a result.

Thomas Selfridge
Thomas Selfridge

Don’t feel like dying in the sky, but you do want to add some excitement to your life? Come on out and play the weekly pub trivia game. It’s fun and free, and full of stuff like this.

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