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The American Experience (image map with 9 selections)

The Wright Stuff (image map with x selections)

Know Your Wrights

Q. What were Wilbur's ambitions in the beginning?

Photo of John Gillikan JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio) I think in the beginning Wilbur was looking for immortality. I don't think he had a great deal of confidence in what he was capable of. Their, for some reason the Wright brothers' personal lives have been closed to us for a long time. I think partly that was Orville's plan that he decided that the personal things should stay personal. But we know that Wilbur was not a happy man for a long time. At the age of 30 if you ask him he probably would have said he was a failure. And I think he pretty much considered his life to be, to be over. He was basically a hanger on, I think. Orville had great enthusiasm and interests and Wilbur always seemed to, well, Orville pushed the newspaper and Wilbur helped. Orville had a bicycle business and even though they were partners it was Orville that was the spark. Wilbur was sort of drifting through life...

(Real Audio) Neither brother could have flown alone. It was a combination of two minds. These men had spent their life together. They were best friends. I think of the Wright brothers as being married. I truly do. You read their diaries you get that impression. They were two minds that came together at that point and fused. That's what happened. And it was that, it was that brilliance at that point that caused that great leap of imagination that humanity is capable of.

Q. What did the people of the outer banks make of the Wright brothers?

JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio)The local people were interested in the Wright brothers but I think some of them were afraid. It didn't fit the mood. Here are two men flying kites in the middle of the day when they should be working. Now the men I think were fascinated by what was going on there. Some thought they were idiots of course and that's always going to be the case but the men were fascinated and some would drift by occasionally. The children were enthralled to see these two men flying kites just like they were children, but I think the women were skeptical.

Q. Take us through the morning of December 17th. What was the weather like? What happened? Who was there?

JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio) As the sun went down December 16th a black line appeared across the horizon to the North. The outer banks has a dreadful reputation for hurricanes and that's incorrect. Hurricanes come. Hurricanes go. They're over very quickly. A bad storm on the outer banks is a Northeaster. And the brothers were getting ready to taste their first big one. It came right down out of the Arctic Circle, hit that night: the temperature dropped, the wind rose. He said the whole building started to shake, heavy rain. But they opened the door to the shack at 8 o'clock in the morning and looked out across the open field and this is what they saw. It rained hard here last night. There are huge puddles standing. Each puddle is covered with ice. The wind is blowing straight off the ocean about 30 miles an hour, wind chill, 4 degrees. They cooked breakfast and they straightened up and they waited for the wind to break. And Wilbur was staring out of the doorway and he stood up and he walked to the door and he said, we have waited long enough. Today will be the day.

We're going to fly. This time no hill. This time they placed their launching system on a level field beside their building, playing the cradle, cradle on the rail, hook a wire to hold it back, spin propeller. Now it's Orville's turn. The local men said Wilbur approached them and I'm not really sure whether he did this with Orville's knowledge or not and he said that Orville was going to be afraid and that he didn't want him to look scared. He wanted cheering and shouting and happiness. One of the local men said when the brothers shook hands it looked like two men that were never going to see each other again. Orville took his place at the controls and Wilbur held the wing tip. They had taken John Daniels aside beforehand and they said, we need a picture of this.

To our knowledge John Daniels had never used a camera in his life. But, why not? They just told him, they set the camera up and they said when the machine flies in front of you, squeeze the ball. 10:35 A.M., they dropped the wire. There was sand blowing, high wind, the machine began to crawl forward. Finally after about 45 feet it lifted into the air, 120 feet, twelve seconds later, it touched the earth. Humanity had flown.

Q. Why was the Wright family unique?

JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio) The Wright family created the environment that allowed the two young men to have the freedom to go off in a strange direction. Without the family's support to do something as insane as trying to fly, I think would have been impossible. There's a story they tell about the bishop. He had an extensive library on a great many subjects. Being a bishop one would expect he at least would be rather conservative in his views on religion. He had books in his library by popular atheists and agnostics of the period. The young boys got into the library and they were reading this and someone made a comment that perhaps you shouldn't allow this. And it was the bishop's idea that you needed all the information before you could make an accurate decision. They grew up in a loving and caring family.

Q. What's the relationship between bicycles and flying?

JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio) The bicycle, not just the materials and the technology but the ability to ride a bicycle, aided the Wright Brothers in the control of the airplane. A great many people trying to fly -- if they didn't believe flight would be by steering, by shifting body weight -- they thought inherent stability was the answer. The machine will fly itself and we'll simply ride along as a passenger. The brothers realized that the air was such a complicated place with so many variables that they could never design a machine sophisticated enough to fly by itself. It would need to depend on the skill of the operator. The bicycle is an inherently unstable device. When a bicycle is still and riderless it won't stand, that's why there's a kick stand. The bicycle is totally dependent on the skill of the operator for its control. They designed an airplane the same way. We're going to fly the airplane, it's not going to fly us.

Q. What fascinates you about the Wright Brother's story?

JOHN GILLIKIN: (Real Audio) The thing that has always moved me about this story is that it's not about flying. The story of the Wright Brothers has absolutely nothing to do with flying. The story of the Wright Brothers is about dreaming. I think now so many people feel lost and confused -- not just young people -- everyone. The world is moving very quickly and things seem almost to be impossible. We have to believe in miracles, we really do. We have to believe in dreams. If we don't, we have no reason to live. The story of the Wright brothers gives us one thing, miracles can happen. If man can fly we are capable of anything. You know what? Man can fly.

Photo of Joseph Corn JOSEPH CORN: (Real Audio) At the turn of the century, the bicycle really was a very high tech device. First of all it was made out of a steel rather then iron. It had very close tolerances, the parts had to fit closely together and turn the hub, for example. If you used roller bearings, which was a very new technology to reduce friction they were mass produced, so there was all kinds of production technology that was new. Thus, to be a mere bicycle mechanic was to be on top of a very cutting edge technology.

Q. At the turn of the century, what was the public attitude towards the possibility of flight?

JOSEPH CORN: (Real Audio) I think the American attitude towards the possibility of flight at the turn of the century was very ambivalent, very interesting. On the one hand, Americans were so pro-technology and it was an inventive age. All kinds of new patents, new machines, new devices from galoshes to mass produced nails and bicycles were coming down the pike. And so there was a widespread expectation that well, automobiles are here, electric trolleys are here, airplanes must be next. On the other hand, flight was such a formidable challenge. So many people had tried for so long and failed.

Q. What was the public attitude about flight when the Wright Brothers entered the scene?

(Real Audio) When the Wright Brothers began seriously to try to build a flying machine to solve the problem of aerial navigation as it was sometimes called, there was widespread interest in the problem. There was considerable experimentation going on. A lot of backyard inventors. And that term can be seen as sort of negative. But many American mechanical inventions came from backyard or barnyard inventors. So there's nothing, no disrespect intended there. But what all of these inventors didn't understand was the physics of flying, which the Wrights despite there being bicycle mechanics really had a sense of some of the scientific challenges that had to be first solved before you could then move to designing and building an airplane.

Q. When the Wrights finally flew in 1903 why didn't their press release cause a sensation?

JOSEPH CORN: (Real Audio) One of the big puzzles is why the press release that the Wrights put out after leaving the ground for the first time in human history in a powered plane in December of 1903, why were people so lackadaisical? Why did so few newspapers pick it up? I think that the press had been burned many times before by claims of successful flights by inventors of one sort or another. and someone would go out and investigate, and the inventor had a plan or perhaps a machine in a model form, but no results. And so I think the Wrights were a victim of that. A second factor is that many people were confused. Not just lay people, by the terminology. Airship was commonly used as a term in those years to refer both to a lighter than air, gas lifted, aircraft. And to a heavier than air, true airplane or glider. And the Wright press release was picked up by a few papers and this was all jumbled. It was called an airship, the machine, and the true significance, the unusualness of what they had done was just not known.

(Real Audio) In thinking about the response to the airplane in the early 20th century it may be helpful to remember what Ben Franklin said in response to the first balloon flight which he personally witnessed in Paris in the 1780s. And overhearing some skeptic say, "Well, what good is this," as the balloon ascended into the sky, Franklin is reported to have said, "Well, what use is a newborn baby?" And like any infant technology, anything new, what it's good for remains to be discovered, and remains to be invented.

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