Paul Wright Jr.
State University of New York at Albany
his distinguished older brothers, Sewall Wright and Quincy
Wright, "Ted" was a doer, not a thinker, an
athlete, engineer and administrator who turned away from
the academic life of his family to live in the world of
business and government until he went to Cornell University
as Vice President for Research in 1948. Yet he always
admired the idealism of his ancestors, particularly two
great-grandfathers, the noted abolitionists, Elizur Wright
(1804-85) and Beriah Green (1795-1874). So there was a
continual tension between the requirements of designing
war planes and dealing with politicians versus the Socialist
and pacifist ideals he received from his father, Professor
Philip Green Wright (1860-1934). His family belonged to
the Universalist church in Galesburg, Illinois; his mother's
family, the Sewalls, descendants of Judge Samuel Sewall
of Massachusetts (1654-1729), were Unitarians from Boston
who had migrated to St. Paul, Minnesota, about 1855.
After graduating from Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois
where his father had taught (1892-1912) and fostered the
budding plebian poet, Carl Sandburg, Ted went on to take
another B.S. in architectural engineering from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology as his family were all living
in Cambridge by then. His aunt, Bessie Wright of Medford,
a teacher of Physical Education at Radcliffe College,
paid his tuition. He especially admired the work of Ralph
Adams Cram at M.I.T.
In 1917 after the United States entered the First World
War, Ted enrolled in the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying program
at M.I.T. He was given two months of instruction in aeronautical
engineering by, among others, the brilliant young Edward
P. Warner. Afterwards, he was assigned as a naval aircraft
inspector to the Glen Curtiss plant at Garden City on
Long Island. There in 1919 he was chief inspector for
the Curtiss NC-4 flying boats which achieved the first
crossing of the Atlantic by air. He apparently reconciled
participation in the war despite his father's pacifism
by believing that it was "the war to end wars".
In December, 1918, he had married his college sweetheart,
Margaret McCarl of Quincy, Illinois, whose father, Judge
Lyman McCarl (1858-1920), a self-made lawyer, was a member
of the Unitarian church. They had two sons, Douglas Lyman
Wright (1920-1991), a civil engineer, and the author of
1921, advised that there were few career prospects in
the peacetime navy, Lt. Wright resigned his commission
to join the Curtiss Aeroplane Company as an executive
engineer. Soon he rose to chief engineer of the airplane
division, manager of the merged Curtiss-Wright Corporation's
plant in Buffalo, N.Y. (1931-35) and vice president for
engineering at the New York City office (1935-41). The
stock market crash of 1929 profoundly shook his confidence
in capitalism, and he voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist
candidate in 1932. He agonized over having to deal with
a bitter union strike in Buffalo in 1934, thinking back
to his father's prophetic poem, "The Cry of the Underlings."
In these dark days, he took to reading philosophy: Marcus
Aurelius and Epictetus. Although he later became a Democrat,
even in this he found himself alone among his business
and engineering associates. In the privacy of his home,
he would rant against "the Wall Street bankers"
on the Board of Curtiss-Wright who chose to focus on the
short term profits of producing military aircraft for
the government over his own proposals for commercial planes.
One of the airplanes whose design he supervised, the Tanager,
in 1930 won the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft prize and the
prestigious Wright Brothers medal of the Society of Automotive
Engineers. This foreshadowed his emphasis on air and car
safety research at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory
in Buffalo in 1948-66.
But in the meantime, another war threatened in Europe.
On company trips to Britain, France, and Germany in 1936-1937,
he was shocked to find how rapidly Nazi Germany had rearmed
and surpassed French and British preparations for war.
From being a disillusioned isolationist of the 1920s who
quarreled with his brother Quincy over the issue of America's
joining the League of Nations, he quickly became an interventionist
and anglophile, which expressed itself in membership in
the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Once again,
the pipedream of a "war to end wars" overcame
his pacific inclinations.
it was that in June 1940, in the wake of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt's call for production of 50,000 military
aircraft, Wright joined the National Defense Advisory
Committee, an organization formed to coordinate the "defense"
effort. The next year, he resigned from Curtiss-Wright
to become assistant chief of the aircraft section in the
Office of Production Management, and moved to Washington.
After Pearl Harbor he served as chairman of the Joint
Aircraft Committee, an Anglo-American body which scheduled
delivery of all aircraft, director of the Aircraft Resources
Control Office and member of the War Production Board.
In all these positions, he played a key role in expanding
aircraft production, especially in developing essential
statistical tools that provided accurate information on
industrial capacity and measured worker efficiency.
In September 1944, as aircraft production approached 100,000
planes a year, Wright accepted a presidential appointment
as administrator of the Civil Aeronautics Administration
(CAA), where he worked under William A.M. Burden, the
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Air. In this office,
he hoped to contribute to the anticipated huge increase
in commercial aviation after the war. Internally, he carried
out a decentralization of the organization and fostered
private flying. During this period, he obtained again
a pilot's license, which had lapsed since the First World
War, by passing the CAA's own stringent tests and thereafter
flew himself on business trips.
Another mark of his idealism was his advocacy of an international
air police force in the course of giving the 1945 Wilbur
Wright Memorial Lecture, "Aviation's Place in Civilization"
in London. This came shortly after participating in the
Strategic Bombing Survey which gave him a closeup view
of the destruction of aerial bombing in Germany. In the
same year he was Technical Secretary of the International
Civil Aviation conference at Chicago which led to the
formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization
for the regulation and promotion of worldwide air transport.
In this his work fit closely with that of his brother,
Quincy Wright, in shaping the United Nations organizations.
In 1945 he also was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim medal
for aeronautics, of which he was very proud.
by the propects of a Republican victory in 1948 and weary
of having to give in to congressional interference in
the assignment of federal aid to airports over the dictates
of engineering rationality, Wright resigned in April of
that year. While his old associates had made fortunes
out of the war, Wright had had to sell off his aviation
stock and subsist on a civil service salary. However,
rejecting attractive offers from industry, he accepted
instead the position of vice-president for research of
Cornell University and president of the Cornell Aeronautical
Laboratory in Buffalo, New York. Thus he returned to the
academic milieu in which he had been brought up. In 1950
he persuaded Harry F. Guggenheim to collaborate with Cornell
in establishing a facility to promote aviation safety
. The Laboratory also experimented with automobile safety
the spring of 1951, Wright became Acting President of
Cornell and indeed was offered the presidency, but turned
it down because he didn't want to spend his time raising
money from the rich, one of the chief duties of college
presidents. Perhaps he was also influenced by his experience
of a noted Cornell nuclear physicist who spoke at a peace
rally in New York City which had been partly sponsored
by Communists. In the Cold War atmosphere of the time,
some of the trustees demanded the professor's dismissal,
but Wright was able to placate them with an agreement
that the faculty member would not thereafter speak off
campus outside his specialty with the Cornell designation.
and Ted Wright on their 50th wedding anniversary in
retired from Cornell in 1960 and from the Aeronautical
Laboratory presidency in 1966, but he continued to be
active in aviation and community affairs, especially in
environmental and conservation problems. He continued,
for instance, to be a member of the National Advisory
Committee on Aeronautics and was active in the Cornell
Plantations in his retirement years. His collected technical
papers were published in three volumes by the Laboratory
and he wrote a final paper on the dangers of world overpopulation.
Attracted by the sermons of Rev. Ralph Helverson, Ted
and his wife had become active members of the Unitarian
Church of Ithaca after they moved there. This was his
first formal affiliation with a church since childhood.
A year before Wright's death on August 21, 1970, Cornell
went through a major crisis with the seizure of Willard
Straight Hall by armed Black militant students. Although
he was not involved in this as an administrator, he was
saddened by a pamphlet by radical anti-war students which
criticized the Aeronautical Laboratory for taking military
contracts on helicopters, missiles, weapon systems, and
other defense projects. These seemed to exemplify the
"military-industrial complex" against which
President Eisenhower had warned and troubled Wright's
conscience during his last year.