The story of the Wright Flyer watch
Giles English on the genesis of Bremont's Wright Flyer watch
Words by Ryan Thompson
The spirit of innovation is sparked in youth and never fully extinguished thereafter. Giles and Nick English inherited their curiosity about the mechanical from their father. Similarly, the Wright brothers’ interest in aeronautics also stemmed from their father, who, in 1878, handed them a toy helicopter, made from cork, bamboo and paper and propelled by a simple rubber band. Years later, Orville Wright was to credit this toy with inspiring the brothers’ unrelenting interest in flight.
It wasn’t until the 1890s, having built a successful bicycle-manufacturing business, that the Wright brothers could devote their time to the pursuit of manned flight - something they achieved at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in front of a small, private gathering on 17 December 1903. The first world-changing flight of the day lasted for 12 seconds and covered 37m. The fourth and final attempt measured 260m and was in the air for 59 seconds. Soon after it landed, a strong gust of wind flipped the Flyer, causing significant damage. As it turns out, this unfortunate incident had its upside, as Giles explains:
‘There are many similarities between our two families. [Like Giles’s and his father and brother,] Orville was involved in a tragic crash. In 1908, at Fort Myer in Virginia, he was demonstrating the aircraft to military personnel when a propeller fell off and he lost the steering. He suffered multiple fractures, but his passenger, a Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, didn’t survive. Orville was certainly of the crazy genius ilk, while his brother, Wilbur, was just a genius. Neither Nick nor I are crazy - at least not certifiably - but our father was very much a genius when it came to engineering. He also had that innate curiosity about how things work, something the Wright brothers clearly had in abundance. Take the propellers they built for the Wright Flyer, for example. Engineers have been able to improve efficiency by only eight per cent since then. Eight per cent! And, remember, no one had even seen propellers at the turn of the 20th century, as they were the first to pioneer the twisted aerofoil shape.
‘After the first Flyer was damaged on the final flight, that December in 1903, it was crated up and stored in a basement in the brothers’ hometown of Dayton, Ohio. When the Great Miami River burst its banks in 1913, the basement flooded, leaving the aircraft sitting in mud and water for about 11 days. Three years later, Orville repaired and restored it for a series of static displays, leaving only the outer wing panels covered in the original unbleached Pride of the West muslin, hand-stitched in place by Wilbur himself.
‘In 1925, they were going to send the Flyer to the Smithsonian Institute, but had a huge falling-out with the museum, because Samuel Pierpont Langley, who had been funded by the Smithsonian, claimed that his ‘Aerodrome’ was the first manned flight. So they donated the aircraft to the Science Museum in London instead, where it remained for nearly 25 years. Before sending it, however, they removed the original 1903 muslin. When Orville passed away in 1948, his family discovered he had kept large portions of the lower-left wing in a locked drawer in his desk. Over time, small parts of that fabric have been donated to aeronautical friends and institutions. Neil Armstrong even had a piece sewn into his spacesuit pocket.
‘The Wright family home was recently turned into a museum and they needed to raise funds. They got in touch with us and said, “We love what you did with HMS Victory. If we gave you some of this material, could you create something?” They didn’t have much left, so they offered us a 35cm-square piece of the Wright Flyer muslin. We cut it up and integrated those pieces into a beautiful watch that houses our first proprietary movement. It’s the only time that anyone will ever be able to buy a piece of the original Wright Flyer. To have something of such historical importance on your wrist is amazing. It will also help to perpetuate the memory and legacy of two brothers who immeasurably changed the world.’