The Murder of Wilbur Wright

How many of our greatest minds have we lost?

From The Dream Machine (p50) on John Atanasoff:

He was determined to build a computing machine… But with all his teaching responsibilities, he’d had very little time to focus on the problem. Finally, however, on a bitterly cold winter night in late 1937, he just couldn’t take it anymore; he had to get away to concentrate. So he jumped into his car in Ames, Iowa, and drove east through the subzero temperature at more than eighty miles per hour. Almost three hours later, after he crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, he stopped at a roadhouse to warm up. And there, somewhere between his first and second bourbons, he conceived four crucial ideas to make him computer work."

Incredible! Atanasoff was busy, but finally got down to doing the thing he really loved, the world recognized his genius, and he was given all the resources he needed to complete his work.

At least, that’s what would have happened in any reasonable society. Instead, we’re told:

Atanasoff didn’t develop his invention any further, as it happened. Soon after the United States entered the war, in December 1941, he went to the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he supervised the counting testing of mines. He never returned to computing.

Who knows what else he could have given us? Instead, his entire lifetime produces one brief period of real scientific producitivity, bookended by teaching responsibilities and war.

Once you start looking, these stories are everwhere. Here’s The Daemon, the Gnu and the Penguin on the invention of Unix:

In August 1969, Ken Thompson’s wife Bonnie took their year-old son on a trip to California to show off to their families. As a temporary bachelor, Ken had time to work. “I allocated a week each to the operating system, the shell, the editor and the assembler [he told me]… and during the month she was gone, it was totally rewritten in a form that looked like an operating system”

Maybe this is a greatly exaggerated myth, but how terrifying would it be if that was true? Is it possible that Thompson was burdened by responsibilities his entire life, and then in a brief moment of freedom did some of the most important work anyone has ever done?

And then from Wikipedia, on Wilbur Wright:

…Wilbur never flew again. He gradually became occupied with business matters for the Wright Company and dealing with different lawsuits. Upon dealing with the patent lawsuits, which had put great strain on both brothers, Wilbur had written in a letter to a French friend, “When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

But why on earth not? Why couldn’t Wilbur Wright, now admired as one of history’s greatest inventors, find time to continue his most important work? The story continues:

Wilbur spent the next year before his death traveling, where he spent a full six months in Europe attending to various business and legal matters… He was also constantly back and forth between New York, Washington and Dayton. All of the stresses were taking a toll on Wilbur physically. Orville would remark that he would “come home white”.

Then finally:

After returning to Dayton in early May 1912, worn down in mind and body, he fell ill again and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He lingered on, his symptoms relapsing and remitting for many days. Wilbur died, at age 45, at the Wright family home on May 30.

These were some of the most brilliant minds we had, and they were each nearly unable to fulfil even a tiny fraction of their potential. We should ask how much more each of them could have accomplished, but also how much we’ve lost from would-be inventors unable to find even a month of genuine free time with which to pursue their dreams. And of course, how many have been effectively barred from research by poverty or discrimination.

What hits me hardest is not the material loss, but the squandering of human spirit. As Bret Victor once explained:

We recognize that a dog has to be allowed the full free expression of its entire range of capabilities. Sticking him in a cage or constraining his range of experience, you’re not letting him do all the things that dogs can do. And this is exactly what we’ve done to ourselves.

And so the stories above strike me not even as tragedies, but as something more inhumane.

My greatest fear is that intelligent life will arrive on earth. It won’t be an invasion, or colonization, or anything horrible. They’ll just sit us down, and ask about the lives of our heroes.

We’ll proudly tell them about this guy Wilbur Wright. How he and his brother invented a machine to fly in the sky as gods. We’ll tell them about our culture of research and innovation, and how Wilbur, self-taught engineer from Ohio, changed the entire world.

And then we’ll have to explain how gruesomely we murdered him.

Not with sticks and stones, but with a barrage of patent lawsuits. We will have to tell the aliens how we used this great system of socially legitimate torture to slowly wear him down over the years.

We will tell them how in the end, poor brilliant Wilbur became old and tired and incapable of producing anything beautiful ever again.

I do not think they will forgive us. I am not sure we should forgive ourselves.

See Also
Alexey – Reviving Patronage and Revolutionary Industrial Research
Gwern – On Stress

Yes, I understand that Wilbur also sued people. I’m not claiming that he was a good person. My point is that in a humane world, no part of this story would even be possible.