That two bicycle salesmen from Dayton, Ohio, were the first people to fly is as astonishing today as it was over a century ago, when the Wright brothers soared above slack-jawed crowds at public exhibitions in the United States and France. For a brief period, the world was united in wonder. The Wrights’ accomplishment is worth revisiting because it challenges the 21st-century conviction that aspiring young engineers should focus narrowly on STEM disciplines in college, and that courses in the arts and humanities are not as important as those in math and science. If the Wright brothers were alive today, they might warn us that pedagogical dogmas like these prevent us from cultivating engineers of the extraordinary type that they were.

Neither Wilbur nor Orville Wright majored in a STEM discipline. In fact, neither brother went to college and neither had any formal technical training. The Wright Flyer cost the brothers less than $1,000 (about $28,000 in today’s dollars) to construct, which they earned through profits from their bicycle business. The first prototype of the Wright Flyer flew 852 feet, and with modifications it eventually flew in excess of 40 miles. Not bad for two working class dreamers from Dayton with no engineering education, no internet access and no university laboratories or libraries.

At the same time that the Wrights were designing and testing their successful flying machine, Samuel Langley, a university professor and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was also designing his. Langley spent $70,000 (about $2 million today) on his “aerodrome,” which was mostly funded by a grant from the U.S. War Department. On its maiden flight, Langley’s aerodrome plunged into the Potomac River while attempting take off.

The Wright brothers’ success at solving an engineering problem that captivated the human imagination for millennia was not a fluke. Flight is far too complex an undertaking merely to chance upon. To see what made the Wright Brothers successful and what we can learn from them today, we must consider what made them different. What qualities of character, curiosity and temperament did the Wrights possess that enabled them to conquer the air when specialists couldn’t? And what kind of problem was the problem of flight such that unique minds like theirs were required to solve it?

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.

In his late 20s Wilbur Wright began reading books on the anatomy of birds and animal locomotion. These investigations would eventually lead the Wrights to develop their innovative three-axis control system, which mimicked the torsional movement of bird wings. Wilbur soon wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution to request pamphlets published by Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute on aerodynamics. “I am an enthusiast, but not a crank,” he said, “in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”

Shortly after the brothers began conducting their experiments in North Carolina, they discovered that the tables of air pressure data provided by Smithsonian scientists were “unreliable” and riddled with errors. They promptly set about building their own wind tunnel to acquire accurate measurements. “We did that work just for the fun we got out of learning new truths,” Orville said in retrospect. They also built their own motor with the aid of their chief bicycle shop assistant when no engine manufacturers responded to their inquiries about building one small enough to fit the flyer. They often argued about the technical specifications of their craft late into the night. After one particularly heated argument about the proper construction of the propellers, they found themselves in the ridiculous situation of each having been converted to the other’s original position in the argument, with no more agreement than when the discussion began. They argued because they sought truth, not because one brother desired to win a victory over the other.

The Wrights’ insatiable curiosity and love of truth enabled them to bring to bear on the multifaceted problem of flight the full range of their capacities as human beings in ways that others could not. They began to see that it was, as Wilbur put it, “the complexity of the flying problem that makes it so difficult.” It was a problem that “could not be solved by stumbling upon a secret, but by the patient accumulation of information upon a hundred different points some of which an investigator would naturally think it unnecessary to go into deeply.”

Orville and Wilbur experienced a crucial breakthrough when they began to understand that the solution to the problem of human flight was equal parts science and art. Mechanical skill and mathematical acumen were certainly necessary to build the machine, but much of the challenge lay in the actual art of flying. The pilot’s art would require reading wind conditions, maintaining speed and equilibrium, and using the aircraft’s controls to make subtle adjustments so that it traced graceful lines during flight and landing.

The Wright brothers felt a kinship to artists because they understood themselves as artists. The art of flying was a complicated dance between man, machine and air that required thousands of hours of practice to perfect. It is no wonder that when Wilbur traveled to France to exhibit the Wright Flyer, he visited the Louvre 16 times and recorded his impression of the works of more than 30 painters in letters home to his sister. 

Aviation pioneer Octave Chanute predicted in a speech in 1890 that “no one man” was likely to possess the imagination, mechanical acuity, mathematical capability and fundraising skill necessary to solve the problem of flight. “It is probably because the working out of a complete invention requires so great a variety of talent,” Chanute said, “that progress has been so slow.” Chanute was right in one sense and wrong in another. It took more than one person to solve the problem of human flight. Two were required. The Wright brothers’ insatiable curiosity helped them cultivate an intellectual range and courage that made them as comfortable with mechanics and mathematics as they were with art, biology and literature. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright were liberally educated men. If today’s schools of engineering want to give their students the extra push they need to truly take flight, they would do well to broaden their notoriously strict curricular requirements and encourage students to cultivate the same love of learning the Wright brothers had.