The Wright Brothers Were Curious

Thirty-one years after their famous first flight, Orville Wright reflected on what made the Wright brothers different. A journalist told him in an interview that he and his brother embodied the American dream. They were two humble boys with “no money, no influence, and no other special advantages” who had risen to the heights of fame and fortune. “But it isn’t true,” Orville replied, “to say we had no special advantages. We did have unusual advantages in childhood, without which I doubt we could have accomplished much… The greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity. If my father had not been the kind who encouraged his children to pursue intellectual interests without any thought of profit, our early curiosity about flying would have been nipped too early to bear fruit.”

The Wrights’ father, Milton, was a Protestant bishop with a zeal for books and inquiry of all sorts. His wife Susan was a mechanical whiz who studied math, science and literature in college, and who often built toys for the Wright children. The bookshelves in their home were filled with novels, poetry, ancient history, scientific treatises and encyclopedias. They encouraged their children to read widely and to take responsibility for their own education. When the Wright brothers were asked about their early interest in flight, they always said they got interested in it “for fun,” and that they wanted to use their profits to fund future scientific explorations.

There is a deep paradox here in that flying is very useful, but they made advances because they were interested in flying for the sake of their own curiosity. This curiosity, they say, was encouraged by their particular religious upbringing.

I think this is an important grounding for how interest and support for the basic sciences can be nurtured, maintained, and justified. Curiosity is a virtue, an intrinsic good in and of itself, and curiosity is an important drive for basic science research. It can drive researchers themselves, but also the public that has to decide if basic science is worth funding with tax dollars. We should hope to be more curious too, because that is some of the best of what it means to be human.