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Their Own Words
his name has faded from the history books, Charles R. Flint did more to
shape the modern world than many of his better-remembered
contemporaries. He was a brilliant and energetic New York dealmaker who
practically invented the trust, merging small companies into larger,
healthier, and more profitable conglomerates such as the
Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company – later IBM. He also
assisted promising new ventures such as chewing gum and the airplane.
The following was excerpted from his memoirs, Memories of an Active
Life. It is a rambling recollection of his dealings with Wilbur and
Orville Wright, among others.
The aeroplane was the creation of Wilbur
and Orville Wright who, in 1905, were the first to climb into the skies
in a "heavier than air" machine. The Europeans had talked about what
they were doing, and world-wide publications announced what they
expected to do. In 1908 a banquet was given in Paris to celebrate the
success of the Wrights who by that time had excited considerable
jealousy. A speaker, following Wilbur Wright, known as the man of
silence, who had regretted that he was not an after-dinner orator,
remarked that "among the feathered tribe the best talker and the worst
flyer is the parrot."
In the case of claims for discoveries or
inventions, serious questions generally arise as to rights of priority.
For this reason the courts usually refuse to grant injunctions until
patents are adjudicated valid, but in this case the Wrights were flying
while the rest of the would-be "heavier than air" machine navigators
were trying to get off the ground; so the court naturally made an
exception and granted the Wrights an injunction before adjudication.
The Wrights were men of high principles
and they were public spirited. When a partner of P. T. Barnum and I
elaborated a plan to make a profit of several hundred thousand dollars
by charging admission to see the Wright's wonder of the air and age,
they refused the profit and the public were admitted free.
England was the first to seek
information about the Wright aeroplane, and as early as 1904 Colonel
Capper, head of the Royal Aircraft Factory, visited Dayton; but the
Wrights were patriotic, and before they would sell the aeroplane to any
other nation they wrote to Washington offering to turn it over to our
government. The reply which they received was a "snippy" one, and quite
in line with the policy which caused Hotchkiss to go to Paris to exploit
his machine gun. and which resulted in our failure to adopt, adapt.
exploit, and control the American submarine inventions of Bushnell,
Holland, and Lake. It is a lamentable fact that most of our soldiers
killed in Europe during the World War were killed by American
I first took an intense interest in the
Wright aeroplane when our Mr. Ulysses D. Eddy visited them on
Thanksgiving Day, 1906, at their home in Dayton.
After the United States Government
failed to take advantage of the Wright discovery, they asked me to offer
their aeroplane to England.
In a speech made in London, Cobb once
said "Blood is thicker than water," but owing to a patronizing speech
made by the speaker who preceded him, he added. "Thank God for the 3,000
miles of water" and abandoned the speech he had prepared.
The Wrights, however, without any
reservations whatsoever, gave England the opportunity to be the first to
establish a navy of the air. 1 opened negotiations with Lord Haldane,
the Minister of War, through Lady Jane Taylor, as I was satisfied that
he would give her an immediate audience. I cabled to her offering for
$500,000 ten aeroplanes that would each fly fifty miles. Haldane replied
that a fifty-mile flight was too .short, so I offered him twenty
aeroplanes that would each fly 200 miles for $1,000,000. In reply
Haldane told Lady Jane, "That's Yankee tall talk!" I then offered to
exhibit the Wright aeroplane to Ambassador Bryce, at a club of which I
was a member, about an hour's ride from Washington. I also offered to
pay the costs of demonstration in England and to make a deposit in any
bank in London His Lordship might name to be forfeited in case we did
not make good. His Lordship then suggested to Lady Jane that we send
over plans and specifications. For over two years the British government
had been trying to get information about the Wright aeroplane; and I
sent in cipher an appropriate negative characterized more by force than
by elegance. Soon after I received the following letter from my Scotch
friend Lady Jane:
"You will be amused that I have been
interviewed by order of the Post Office officially to find out whose
code I am using, what the meaning of certain words is, and in fact to
give the show away. The official sent left me much discomforted by the
impracticability of my replies and fully persuaded of the truth of the
Scotch saying, 'Ye can sit on a rose, ye can sit on a shamrock, but ye
canna sit on a thistle!' "
The Germans were quicker than any others
to recognize the great possibilities of the Wright aeroplane. It was
exhibited by Orville Wright in a park at Berlin where there were
thousands of people to witness the flight. When the aeroplane was taken
across the field there walked in line behind it the Chief of Staff
General Count Moltke, Orville and Miss Wright, Mrs. Flint, and myself.
After the Berlin flight, the newspapers
stated that the Emperor had extended his hand to Orville Wright and
congratulated him on his achievement. It was said that the Emperor's
words were: "Mr. Wright, you have revolutionized modern warfare."
I question whether this statement would
have been made by the Emperor under conditions where it could have been
taken seriously. Such a remark might have been made to disarm suspicion
regarding Germany's big aeroplane preparations. In fact the Germans were
generally very diplomatic in regard to war preparations. They gave out
sufficient information to maintain their prestige in affairs of war in
order that German officers might be the military instructors of the
world—even the Colombian soldiers at Bogota were taught the goose-step
march; and in order to maintain their huge munition plants they
encouraged orders from foreign nations. I was impressed by their
prestige when Major H. R. Lemly, acting with my firm, went to China and
other countries to sell woven military equipment. The fact that the
United States had used it exclusively for five years had little
influence; but when it was stated that the German government was
considering its adoption, government officials became intensely
Not long after the exhibition of the
Wright aeroplane, the Emperor invited to a dinner twenty prominent men,
the majority of whom were interested in the German dirigible enterprise,
and told them that something ought to be done in Germany to develop the
aeroplane. After coffee His Majesty retired, saying the German
equivalent of "It's up to you." The imperial guests went down into their
pockets, including Isador Loewe who contributed $40,000, and Rathenau
who contributed a smaller sum. In 1908 we sold the Wright invention to a
German company, and in 1909 the Emperor visited the Wright aeroplane
factory in Berlin and inspected the machines.
Some years earlier, the Krupps had
opened negotiations with us for the Lake submarine inventions. As an
evidence of German prestige in affairs of war, Florio of Naples, hearing
of our negotiations, paid our agent $40,000 in order to secure for Italy
a six-month's option on what we were selling to the Krupps. But after
the Germans had thoroughly satisfied their thirst for knowledge
regarding Lake's inventions, by a careful examination of our plans and
specifications, they omitted the formality of signing on the dotted
line. Florio, inferring from this that the inventions were of no value,
bid good-bye to his $40,000.
We offered the Wright aeroplane to every
minister of war in the world, and wondered why our offers were
unanimously treated with indifference. The explanation was simply that
the Germans did not openly favor extensive use of the aeroplane for
Their apparent indifference to aerial
weapons represented only one phase of a well calculated plan. The
Germans were perfectly willing to furnish the world with ordinary
munitions; but they regarded such munitions as of secondary importance
in comparison with their super-war armaments, super-aeroplanes,
super-submarines, super-cannon—the cannon which destroyed the Liege
forts—the cannon that fired on Paris at a distance of seventy miles.
They realized that world preparedness was inevitable, but they were
confident that the preparedness of other nations must prove inferior to
theirs. While they amiably forged thunderbolts for foreign purchasers,
they secretly did some super-forging on their own account.
When I visited Essen, four years before
the World War, I was cordially received. I was shown hospitals and the
comfortable homes of their laborers. I was given a seat at the head of a
bountiful board where I tasted many kinds of their vintage wines, and
was escorted by one of Krupp's directors to Dusseldorf; but this truly
Teutonic hospitality hung like a thick curtain between me and the war
preparations that I would have liked to see. At the Koerting factory in
Hanover I observed that the most advanced submarine and torpedo boat
engines were hoarded up so they could not be examined.
In France we formed a company for the
exploitation of the Wright inventions. Wilbur Wright sailed for France
in May, 1908, and his first flight was made at Le Mains on August 8th,
of the same year. The French did not make much progress in their
experimenting with heavier than air machines until after the Wright
flights at Le Mains, when they built aeroplanes based on Wright
inventions, which they called "Wright machines." Contrary to general
opinion, theirs was not an independent parallel development.
Rear Admiral Bronson. Mrs. Flint and I
witnessed the Orville Wright-Self ridge flight at Fort Myer, and saw the
aeroplane fall. I rushed to the plane with Mr. Charles-White of
Baltimore who was noted for his powers of observation.
''Lieutenant Self ridge." he said, "will
probably die— he does not move his fingers—but Orville does, and will
Selfridge died that evening, the first
man to be killed in a power airship.
Mrs. Flint then and there made me
promise never to go up in an aeroplane, and I have been as faithful as
Irvin Cobb was when leaving the German army for tide water. The colonel
made him give his word of honor not to leave the squad. Cobb knew enough
German to understand the colonel's order to the captain: "If that man
Cobb starts to leave the squad, shoot him at once!"
Cobb told me later; "I never kept my
word of honor so easily."
In declining requests to go up, I often
referred to a precedent established by the King of Spain. When we
invited His Majesty to ascend at Pau, he replied, "I have promised the
Queen not to go."
The Wrights invited me to be their guest
when Lord Northcliffe visited Dayton to present Orville Wright with the
Albert Medal. After lunch at the Wright home, where I sat at Orville's
left, we adjourned to an auditorium where there were two thousand
people. Governor Cox made a speech the style of which was somewhat
redolent of the stump. After which Lord Northcliffe stepped forward and
in a low but impressive voice said, "Let us rise and stand in
contemplation of the memory of Wilbur Wright." He then and there won the
heartfelt esteem of that audience and talked to them in a conversational
way that recalled the manner of American Commonwealth
Bryce Northcliffe requested me to ask in
his presence whether the Wrights were being taken care of by the
business men of Dayton who were morally indebted to them as the founders
of their aeroplane prosperity, as he desired that a financial
understanding in the Wrights' favor should be made clear in his
When on the train homeward bound, I
invited Lord Northcliffe to dine at the Dower House, formerly occupied
by the Lords Baltimore, to meet Justice McReynolds of the United Slates
Supreme Court, Patrick Francis Murphy, Irvin S. Cobb, Major A. E. W.
Mason, Robert H. Davis, and Captain, now Rear Admiral, Sir Guy Gaunt.
Northcliffe's adaptability was shown by his reply: "I must leave
immediately for London, but give me a rain check."
Whether that was American slang or
whether he had in mind a "wet party" I know not; but the Dower House was
just beyond the prohibition boundary of the District of Columbia.
I had and have most pleasant relations
with the Wrights. Mrs. Flint and I were of some service when Orville was
injured in the fatal flight with Selfridge; but the Wrights and I did
not always agree. Our discussions were always frank and both parties
evinced a desire to arrive at wise conclusions, but the Wright brothers
retained the power to decide on business policies. I told them that my
experience had satisfied me that patents in themselves as a rule could
not be relied upon; that there was not one patent in ten thousand which
proved to be a basic or master patent; that success in the exploitation
of inventions depended principally on preempting and extending the
commercial field; that patent litigation was expensive, in the end
generally unsatisfactory, and that it was not popular, as aggressive
patent litigation interfered with the natural evolution of the art.
The Wrights were not lucky accidental
discoverers: they were patient, intelligent, industrious investigators.
At the outset they made use of existing scientific data but after their
Kitty Hawk and Dayton experiments they decided that they would have to
rely on their own investigations. They did not attempt to keep their
work secret and sent their tables to Chanute, desiring to assist other
investigators. But if our government had had the wisdom to secure the
Wright aeroplane, Wright secrets would then have become state secrets.
The Wrights realized substantial sums
from their inventions, but these were insignificant when compared with
their scientific and practical accomplishment.
Charles Ranlett. Flint.