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Aired February 12, 1996

The Wright Stuff

Film Description

On August 8, 1908, at a racetrack outside Paris, Wilbur Wright executed what was, for him, a routine flight: a smooth take-off banking into a couple of tight circles, ending in a perfect landing. The flight took less than two minutes, but it left spectators awestruck. While the combined talents of Wilbur and Orville Wright had produced the first plane capable of controlled flight , their distrust of others had almost cost them the credit for their invention. Now, having proved to the public that they had mastered the sky, the reserved brothers from the small town of Dayton, Ohio, became world celebrities.

Theirs is a quintessential American story of two midwestern boys who believed they could break the barrier of the air, succeeding where others with government grants and engineering educations had failed. Their remarkable breakthroughs in design and engineering shaped the course of the twentieth century.

The Wright brothers seemed like the most ordinary men in the world, but they were brilliant, self-taught inventors who made a formidable team: Orville was the born engineer, Wilbur the visionary.


Written, Produced & Directed by

Narrated by

Executive Producer

Senior Producer

Series Host




Associate Producer


Additional Photography

Assistant Camera


Production Assistants

Still Animation

Film to Tape Transfer

Post Production

Sound Design and Mix

Titles and Animation

Narration Recording

Edit Lister

The Wright brothers' replica built by Rick and Sue Young, and flown in Kitty Hawk by Jacqueline Young and David Young.

Historical Advisers

Historical Recreations Consultant

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Archival Footage:
Archive Films
A.R.I.Q. Footage
Marianne Huden
Image Bank
John E. Allen, Inc.
National Archives
National Air and Space Museum,
Smithsonian Institution

Photographs courtesy of:
Marianne Hudec
National Air and Space Museum,
Smithsonian Institution
Wright State University
Dayton Public Library
Library of Congress
Montgomery County Historical Society, Dayton, Ohio
North Carolina State Archives
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming
Musée de L'Air
Western Society of Engineers
Jim Davie
Culver Pictures
Archive Photos
Brown Brothers

Special Thanks to:
Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina
Kitty Hawk Kites, Inc.
National Ice Hockey Hall of Fame
Corolla Outback Adventures
Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village
The Wheelmen's Association
Sterling Webster
David Beier and Elizabeth Wright
Peter Cook
Maaike Hoving
Rory Coleman
Paul Stern
Dave Annecchiavico
David Sculley
Phillip McIntire
Doug Haver
Wright State University

Additional Funding:
Ohio Humanities Council


Post-production Supervisor

Post-production Assistants

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Series Designers

Title Animation

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Series Theme

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Unit Manager

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Coordinating Producer

Series Editor

Senior Producer

Executive Producer

A Nancy Porter Productions film for THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

A production of WGBH Boston, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is made possible by major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers. Corporate funding is provided by Scott's Miracle-Gro Products, Inc. and American Express.

(c) 1996 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reserved


DAVID McCULLOUGH, Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

To take off into the sky, to soar through the air like a bird, bank and turn and see all the world below-- to fly, to fly--it was the oldest of dreams, and it had baffled the most inventive of minds, from Leonard da Vinci to Thomas Edison. And then one day it happened. Early in the new twentieth century at a remote spot on the outer coast of North Carolina, two young unknown Americans-- brothers from Dayton, Ohio-- succeeded as no human beings ever had. First one, then the other took off and landed in a flying machine-- wings, propeller, gasoline engine, all of their own design. It was astounding, and though the world was slow to accept what they'd done as anything more than a stunt, the world was not to be the same again. If ever there was a turning point in history, it was this, and they are the story tonight, the Wright Brothers.

At home in Dayton, Wilbur and Orville Wright ran a bicycle shop. Both bachelors, they lived with their minister father in a plain frame house no different from any other on most any street anywhere in middle America. They themselves, with their business suits and derby hats, looked like the perfect pair of small town entrepreneurs-- nothing out of the ordinary-- all of which greatly endeared them to the public. Wasn't it wonderful what good old down-to-earth Yankee ingenuity could accomplish? Imagine, a couple of hometown bicycle mechanics.

In fact, Wilbur and Orville Wright, while self-taught, were exceedingly serious aeronautical engineers-- painstaking, resourceful, highly creative, truly brilliant and brave, which makes their story all the more interesting.

NARRATOR: Until his death in 1948, Orville Wright vacationed every summer on his island in Georgian Bay, Canada.

WILKINSON WRIGHT, Grand-nephew: And there's Uncle Orv driving the boat. He drove everything fast. Oh, now that's the famous hat. Mosquitoes got in and bit his bald head, so he put pieces of mosquito netting in those holes. I'm the one in the middle, and I must have been ten years old then. Uncle Orv was a born engineer. He loved mechanical things. He loved a problem.

NARRATOR: Orville outlived his older brother Wilbur by more than thirty years. If Orville was the born engineer, Wilbur was the visionary.

IVONETTE WRIGHT-MILLER, Niece: They weren't at all alike. Wilbur was a thoughtful man, and he would hardly say anything -- he'd be thinking.

NARRATOR: Wilbur's need to make his mark led these down-to-earth brothers to the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk to tackle the problem of flight. Together, they created a deceptively simple glider, and transformed it into one of the most spectacular achievements of the twentieth century.

TOM CROUCH, National Air and Space Museum: You have all of these well-educated, well-supported people trying to invent the airplane, and none of them invent the airplane. Wilbur and Orville Wright invent the airplane-- these two fellows who seem like the most ordinary people in the world, and yet who have these extraordinary talents bottled up inside them that are going to be played out during the course of this story.

NARRATOR: But while their combined talents made it possible for the Wright brothers to produce the airplane, their mistrust of others almost cost them the credit for it. The rest is history.

September 5, 1900.

Dear Father,

We are in an uproar getting Brother Will off. The trip will do him good. I never did hear of such an out-of-the-way-place as Kitty Hawk.


Early that fall, Wilbur Wright set out for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Packed in a crate were the makings of a glider he hoped would unlock the mystery of flight, a rather unlikely ambition for a bicycle maker from Dayton, Ohio.


It is my belief that flight is possible, and while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it.

ROBERT WOHL, Historian: Wilbur Wright, to me, as he had emerged from the textbooks' accounts, was always a boring figure, yet as I read his letters, I began to realize that we're dealing here with a man who was extraordinarily complex, very funny at times, extremely private and, above all-- what fascinates me-- unpredictable.

NARRATOR: At the time of Wilbur's first trip to Kitty Hawk, he was thirty-three years old. He and his brother Orville were still living at home in the house known as Seven Hawthorne Street.

TOM CROUCH: The early twentieth century was an age of very close families, you know, that notion of the fortress family, and giving dad a place to come home to for protection after the battles of the day, but the Wright family really went some distance beyond that.

NARRATOR: Milton Wright was a righteous and controversial bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Though he was on the road for months at a time, he was always a strong presence at home.


I want you and the boys to be real good while I'm away. Make business first, pleasure afterward, and that guarded.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: He didn't see anything but black and white. He was_ and he was confident that he could tell the difference between the two. There was nothing gray to the bishop.

NARRATOR: Susan Wright was the perfect wife for Milton. College-educated, and the devoted mother of five, she was mechanically gifted, and handled all the repairs around the house. Wilbur, the middle child, was born in 1867. His head was so big that it was years before Susan could find a hat that would fit him. He was a quiet child, but extremely self-confident. Once, when a teacher scolded him for making a mistake on a math problem, he went up after class and proved to her that he was right. Orville, four years younger than Wilbur, was the outgoing, happy one.


The other day I took a machine can, filled it with water. Then I put it on the stove, and I waited a little while, and the water came squirting out of the top about a foot.

TOM CROUCH: Well, we've all seen them-- a kid who's just like an explosion. You know, he's always doing something, he's always into something, again fiddling around with science experiments in his mother's kitchen.

NARRATOR: Milton and Susan were unusually progressive parents and even encouraged their children to play hooky from school occasionally so they could pursue their interests independently-- hardly the norm in Dayton, Ohio in the late nineteenth century. A fast-growing industrial center, Dayton was the very definition of an average American town, and in spite of his upbringing, Wilbur, at age eighteen, had fairly average aspirations. He hoped to attend Yale and become a minister. Then an incident radically shifted the direction of his life.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: He and a group of friends were playing ''shinney,'' which is sort of a street version of hockey, and Wilbur got hit in the mouth with a_ with a hockey stick, and knocked all of his front teeth out, and he was a_ he was a long time really recovering from that accident.

JOHN GILLIKIN, National Park Service: He goes from being a healthy young man-- handsome, fine future all stretched out in front of him-- to what was basically an invalid, ashamed of the way he looked, no path. This is a time when he's in his room, knowing that the life he planned for himself is never going to happen.

NARRATOR: Though he recovered physically, Wilbur was suffering from a serious depression. At the same time, his mother was very ill and required constant care.

IVONETTE WRIGHT-MILLER: He was so kind to her. during the later part of her illness_ she had tuberculosis, and he carried her upstairs to bed every night, and did everything for her.

NARRATOR: Wilbur spent three years caring for his dying mother, finding his only escape in his parents' extensive library. Eventually, his older brother inquired, ''What does Will do? Is he still cook and chambermaid?'' It was Orville who came to Wilbur's rescue. After high school, he started a printing business, publishing The West Side News. When Orville convinced Wilbur to join him, he succeeded in getting his older brother out of the house and out of his depression.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: One of the ways that Orville differed most from_ from Wilbur was that Orville was always very optimistic. He was always willing to press ahead.

IVONETTE WRIGHT-MILLER: Orville was the most easily approached of the two_ fun-loving. He was a dude as far as clothes are concerned. He just had everything just perfect.

NARRATOR: Wilbur and Orville's younger sister Katharine had graduated from Oberlin College, and was now running the household. Though Wilbur, Orville and Katharine had an active social life, none of them seemed interested in marriage. They preferred and enjoyed each other's company. In fact, Wilbur and Orville, different in so many ways, were beginning to forge one of the most successful creative alliances in history.

In 1892, the bicycle was a national craze. It was called ''the greatest invention of the nineteenth century.'' Orville liked to race, and fancied himself a ''scorcher.'' Wilbur preferred long, slow rides in the country. Bored with the printing business, Wilbur, now twenty-five, and Orville, twenty-one, decided to open up a bicycle shop. Soon they were hand crafting their own, honing their innate engineering skills on this cutting-edge technology. But by the time he turned thirty, Wilbur was restless. In a letter, he confessed, ''The boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. None of us has as yet made particular use of the talent in which he excels other men.''

Then one morning, Wilbur sat down at the desk in the front parlor of Seven Hawthorne Street, and composed a letter to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

I believe that simple flight at least is possible to man. I am an enthusiast but not a crank. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then, if possible, add my bit.

Like other Americans at the time, Wilbur had been following accounts of an aviation experimenters around the world.

JOSEPH CORN, Historian: 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, yes, automobiles are here, electric trolleys are here. Airplanes must be next.''

NARRATOR: One of the most prominent names in aviation at the time was the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Langley. Using government funds, he had been experimenting with large unmanned model airplanes powered by steam and gasoline engines. In Germany, engineer Otto Lillienthal made over two thousand glides from a huge earth mound outside Berlin. One day in 1896, his hang glider stalled, falling fifty feet to the ground. He was killed in the crash. On his gravestone are his words, ''Sacrifices Must Be Made.''

Wilbur and Orville read about Langley, Lillienthal and others in the material they received from the Smithsonian.

TOM CROUCH: As the Wright brothers looked at the problem, they thought they could divide it into three pieces. There was_ you had to be able to build wings that would lift your weight off the ground and the weight of the machine, you had to have a power plant that would propel it through the air, and you had to have a way to control the machine once it was in the air.

NARRATOR: Control was the most difficult piece of the puzzle. Lillienthal had tried to maneuver his glider by shifting his body weight, but died doing it. Others had designed machines with an upward-angled wing, believing that was the key to control. Because the brothers were bicycle makers, they looked at the problem differently.

JOSEPH CORN: Knowing how to ride a bicycle requires very good balance-- you become one with the machine-- and the Wrights realized that one of the secrets, one of the things that had to be solved to fly was to maintain balance and control in the air.

NARRATOR: Wilbur began watching birds in flight, noticing how they banked and turned. He had an idea that the secret of their control lay in the way they twisted their wing tips. One day at the bike shop, Wilbur began twisting an inner tube box. It gave him an idea about how to achieve the control he wanted.

Wilbur and Orville built a box kite and braced the wings with wires in such a way that they could be twisted in opposite directions to make the kite bank and turn. They called the principle ''wing warping,'' and it was a revolutionary breakthrough. In an empty field in Dayton, Wilbur tested his new design.

PETER JAKAB, National Air and Space Museum: There were some_ a group of schoolboys on the field where he was testing it, and they were kind of amazed that he could sort of dart down with the kite and then bring it back up again and_ and control it so well. And it seemed promising_ a promising system, so the Wrights decided to go ahead and build a full-size piloted version of this kite in 1900.

NARRATOR: Eager for feedback, Wilbur wrote to the man considered an international authority on aviation, Octave Chanute, and described in detail his ground-breaking ideas.

Dear Sir,

For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe they regain their lateral balance...

ROBERT WOHL: Wilbur Wright was nobody, and Chanute was a highly-respected figure, not just in the aeronautical community in the United States but in Europe as well. He knew everyone who was engaged in aeronautical experimentation.

NARRATOR: As Wilbur had hoped, Chanute promptly wrote back.

PETER JAKAB: He did recognize that Wilbur and Orville were clearly well ahead of everyone else when he got that first letter in 1900. Chanute had supported a lot of other experimenters, and was familiar with virtually anybody of significance in the field, and quickly recognized that these two fellows were_ were something special.

NARRATOR: The road to building a practical airplane started in a place so desolate that Orville said trying to find Wilbur was like searching for a lost Arctic explorer. The brothers chose Kitty Hawk on the advice of the U.S. Weather Bureau, because of its steady winds for gliding and sandy slopes for landing.

JOHN GILLIKIN: Kitty Hawk in 1900 was the edge of the earth, it truly was. It was_ it was isolated and barren, and the people had a very hard and rugged life. They made their living either from the sea or they made it from commercial hunting, and both of those were very dangerous occupations. So it was a_ it was a hard place for the people, and they were fascinated with_ with the Wright brothers.

NARRATOR: Wilbur had been staying in the home of the local postmaster. Now, armed with the tent and provisions Orville had brought from Dayton, the brothers set up camp in the middle of a sand dune and began testing their glider. It had two revolutionary control features-- the wing-warping mechanism to raise or lower the rear edge of the wing, and a forward elevator to pitch the nose up or down. Wilbur and Orville hoped to spend many hours in the air, but the glider could barely lift a man off the ground. For most of that fall, the brothers flew it as a kite, and were relieved that their control mechanisms seemed to work. The following year, 1901, Wilbur and Orville designed a new glider with much bigger wings, which, according to their calculations, would solve the lift problem, but that was the year when everything went wrong. It began with the weather-- torrential rains followed by a plague of mosquitoes.

JOHN GILLIKIN: When the wind stopped, the mosquitoes came out, and the mosquitoes in there are voracious. They're_ they're huge and they're many, and they would come, and he said they would darken the sky, they were literally that thick.

NARRATOR: Katharine,

There was no escape. The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything were covered with them. They chewed us right through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling all over my body like hen's eggs.


The glider's larger wings did generate more lift than before, enough to carry Wilbur on short hops down the dunes, but still nowhere near what they had predicted, and now that they were gliding more, they discovered a major flaw in the control system.

JOHN GILLIKIN: He attempted to make a turn. When that happened, he started slipping sideways. When he started moving sideways, he may have panicked-- I know I would have in a similar situation-- but he overcompensated, and rather than increasing his control, he lost complete control of the glider. He slammed into the earth, just straight down, the same way Otto Lillienthal had been killed, straight into the earth. He lost his grip, slid forward, and hit his forehead against the back of a strut and split his forehead open.

NARRATOR: At this point, Wilbur admitted believing that men would not fly for fifty more years, and the brothers went back to Dayton early. Katharine was delighted to see them, but remarked in a letter to her father, ''The boys walked in unexpectedly on Thursday. They haven't had much to say about flying.'' Soon after their return, Wilbur was invited by Octave Chanute to address the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago. Preparing the speech was just the shot in the arm the brothers needed. It gave them a chance to review their work. Wilbur told Chanute what he and Orville had long suspected-- that Otto Lillienthal's data that they had been using to design wings was flawed.

TOM CROUCH: Even Chanute, perhaps, thought, at the time, that it was perhaps a bit bold for two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio to question the lift tables that had been produced by the great Lillienthal and published by the great Chanute, not to put too fine a point on it. The brothers certainly didn't feel that way.

NARRATOR: Back in the bike shop, Orville built a wind tunnel to test wing shapes to see which one produced the greatest lift.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: Lift is_ in order for a plane to fly, you have to get more pressure on the bottom of the wing than you get on the top of the wing-- that's what holds it up in the air-- and so, obviously, this gets into the question of_ it's very important as to how your wing is shaped and at what angle you present it to the air, and so on. And these are the things, then, they were_ that they were learning from their wind tunnel experiments.

JOHN GILLIKIN: And, you see, it was Orville's idea, and this is_ was a_ what a great leap of imagination this is, that a wing doesn't have to be full-size to find out whether it works. We don't have to jump off a hill and risk our lives. A tiny metal wing, in proportion, will act like a one-hundred-foot wing. It doesn't matter.

NARRATOR: Inside the wind tunnel, the brothers placed ingenious test instruments which measured the performance of the different wing shapes. Wilbur and Orville methodically recorded the results, and produced reliable aerodynamic data.

TOM CROUCH: The Wright brothers are literally models of sort of the engineering method. Things have to mesh as you move forward. There's a lot of feedback. You never leave anything unsolved behind you. They weren't college graduate engineers, but at the same time, they were two of the best engineers working in the world at the time.

NARRATOR: Along with their ongoing work in the bicycle shop, the brothers feverishly began designing a new glider.


The Flying Machine is in process now. Will spins the sewing machine around by the hour while Orv squats around, marking the places to sew. There is no place in the house to live, but I'll be lonesome enough by this time next week.


In August 1902, the Wright brothers made their third trip to Kitty Hawk. Wilbur wrote, ''We fitted up our living arrangements much more comfortably than last year. Our kitchen is immensely improved, and then we have made beds on the second floor and now sleep aloft. The main thing, though, is our new machine.'' Their wind-tunnel experiments had finally paid off, but the puzzle was not yet completely solved. Every so often, the glider would still slip sideways during a turn and spin out of control. The fixed tail rudder they had added to their new machine didn't help. It was time for the Wright brothers' unique approach to problem-solving.

JOHN GILLIKIN: They argued, they fought. One brother would take one point, and one brother would take the other, and then sometimes they would switch sides, and they'd scream and shout just as hard in the other direction. Can you imagine walking by, and these men are unusual, anyway-- they're small, they're_ they're ''Yankees,'' to use the local term-- and to walk by and hear these two men dressed in coats and ties inside this shack, screaming at each other about things that make absolutely no sense to anyone, at least not to the local people.

TOM CROUCH: Well, they could argue right to the bitter end, being sure that the other person wasn't terminally angry with them or something of that sort. It enabled them to really toss ideas back and forth, and really function as an intellectual team.

NARRATOR: Together the brothers solved the final piece of the puzzle. They hinged the tail rudder and linked it to the wing-warping mechanism. Now, for the first time in history, man could glide through the air with control.

JOHN GILLIKIN: It's a beautiful picture. Orville took it from the top of the West Hill, looking toward Kill Devil Hill. Will launched, he flew straight away to gain altitude and speed away from the hill, and he turned. And he said he knew at that instant, ''We have done it.''

NARRATOR: The brothers made nearly one thousand glides that year, twice flying over six hundred feet. The challenge now would be to turn their glider into an airplane.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: And so they needed two things. They needed power, and they needed a method of propulsion, so that meant an engine and propellers.

JOHN GILLIKIN: If I could be anywhere in the world at any time, I wouldn't be on the field at Kitty Hawk. I'd be in the bicycle shop in the summer of 1903. The place was a madhouse. They were building and selling bikes at the peak of the season, the door is swinging all day long. They're building the airplane inside-- there are pieces of it everywhere in the bicycle shop. All this is going on. In_ in the midst of that insanity, they're building an engine.

NARRATOR: Knowing little about engine design, Wilbur and Orville turn to Charlie Taylor, a machinist who worked in their shop.

JOHN GILLIKIN: And he had one of the brothers sketch on the crankshaft with a pencil, and then he cut the crankshaft out with a drill press, a chisel and a hammer, so it's a very, very crude device, but he said it balanced perfectly.

NARRATOR: The Wright brothers made another astonishing breakthrough. They realized that a propeller worked like a rotating wing, generating thrust to move the aircraft forward.

PETER JAKAB: One of the core aspects of their ability was a great facility to literally visualize-- literally see in their mind's eye-- a mechanical device, move components of it around or transfer mechanical devices from one technology to the airplane and make them work.

NARRATOR: While Wilbur and Orville worked on the final stages of their airplane, Octave Chanute embarked on a speaking tour of his native France. At this point, their friend published enough information about their glider in a French journal to inspire the rebirth of French aviation.

TOM CROUCH: The balloon had been invented in France, and the French, I think, had always generally assumed that they would invent the airplane. Suddenly, they were forced to realize that there were these two guys on the other side of the Atlantic-- bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, for heaven's sakes-- who had moved well beyond anybody else in the world.

NARRATOR: The race to fly the first airplane looked as though it might be won by Samuel Langley. He had been given fifty thousand dollars by the Army to build a full-scale powered machine capable of carrying a passenger. Early in December 1903, he was ready.

PETER JAKAB: But the airplane was completely devoid of any kind of structural integrity. The aerodynamics were_ were poor. It had absolutely no means of control. The only thing really good about it was the engine.

NARRATOR: Langley's Aerodrome was launched at sixty miles per hour from the roof of a houseboat, and collapsed immediately into the Potomac River with its so-called ''pilot'' aboard. It fell, according to one observer, ''like a handful of mortar.'' Wilbur wrote to Chanute from Kitty Hawk_ ''I see that Langley has had his fling and failed. It seems to be our turn now, and I wonder what our luck will be.'' On December 17th, the Wright brothers were ready with their new machine, now outfitted with a lightweight engine and two propellers. The day dawned cold and clear. Wilbur and Orville rose early and dressed in their customary business suits.

JOHN GILLIKIN: The wind's blowing straight off the ocean, about thirty miles an hour, wind chill four degrees. They cook breakfast and they straighten up, and they're waiting for the wind to break.

TOM CROUCH: Well, they hung out the signal flag on the side of the shed so that_ that the members of the U.S. Lifesaving Service crew would know to come up the beach and give them a hand, because, you know, maneuvering the airplane out of the shed takes some assistance.

JOHN GILLIKIN: 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.'' They'd been taking pictures of everything.

TOM CROUCH: And they were ready to go, and Orville flipped the gadget on the bottom of the leading edge of the wing that released the machine.

JOHN GILLIKIN: The machine began to crawl forward. Finally, after about forty-five feet, it lifted into the air. A hundred and twenty feet, twelve seconds later, it touched the earth. Humanity had flown. When they approached John Daniels about the picture_ he got so excited when he saw the machine lift into the air that he forgot to do anything. He didn't think he'd squeezed the bulb.

TOM CROUCH: This is it. This is the moment, and you can see Wilbur. He's caught in mid-stride. You can see Orville on the machine. It's just all_ all right there. it's that moment frozen forever.

NARRATOR: The brothers made three more flights that day, the longest covering eight hundred and fifty-two feet.


Success. Four flights Thursday morning. Longest fifty-seven seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas.


IVONETTE WRIGHT MILLER: The telegram was sent to my grandfather. He came down the stairs, and he said, ''The boys have flown.'' Well, I could hardly believe it. I could hardly believe it.

NARRATOR: Wilbur and Orville hurried home for Christmas.

IVONETTE WRIGHT MILLER: I was in the second grade, and I was thinking of Christmas. Wilbur took care of the turkey. He loved to make the_ the dressing-- he made a thing of it-- and he would say, ''Ah, 'tis a fine bird.''

NARRATOR: No longer dependent on wind and sand, the brothers moved their operation to Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture outside of Dayton. For an airplane to be practical, they knew it had to go farther than eight hundred and fifty-two feet. Soon after their return, the Wright brothers invited more than a hundred reporters out for a demonstration.

TOM CROUCH: The weather was really bad-- it was raining. Again, the wind was really light. They ran back and forth along track without getting off the ground-- they finally did kind of bounce into the air-- and the reporters saw this and kind of shook their heads and said, ''Ah-ha,'' and they all turned around and walked away, convinced that Wilbur and Orville Wright weren't in fact flying.

NARRATOR: Left alone, the brothers built two more planes in over the next two years, making major improvements. Using a catapult to launch their flyer in the light winds over Huffman Prairie, they were flying figure eights by the summer of 1905, and making flights as long as thirty minutes. Eventually, a few local reporters began to take notice. Wilbur wrote Chanute.

Intelligence of what we are doing is gradually spreading through the neighborhood, and we are fearful that we will soon have to discontinue experiments. In fact, it is a question what we will do with our baby now that we have it.

JOSEPH CORN: Imagine yourself as the Wrights in 1905. You've got this incredible, miraculous, uncanny invention, but what do you do with it, how do you sell it? It can't be sold as a transportation tool, a way to commute, because it requires a special launching apparatus to leave the ground. It can't carry more than one other person, and that person can't weigh too much. So it's very constrained by its potential.

NARRATOR: The logical step for the Wright brothers was to go to the U.S. War Department, which had backed Langley's experiments, but they didn't have their patent yet and were afraid that if they flew publicly, someone would steal their invention. So Wilbur and Orville decided to stop flying and try to market their machine without actually showing it to anyone. Being good Americans, the brothers began with a letter to their congressman.

The Honorable Mr. Nevin:

We have a flying machine of a type fit for practical use. It not only flies through the air at high speed, but it also lands without being wrecked.

TOM CROUCH: What they said to people, essentially, was, ''Look, you don't have to pay a single red cent. Once the contract is signed, you'll establish certain specifications that you want our machine to meet. We'll go out and conduct a demonstration. We'll prove to you we can do all the things you insist on, and only when all of that's done will you have to pay us for our invention.

NARRATOR: When the Wrights' proposal was rejected with a form letter from the War Department, they were dumbfounded.

PETER JAKAB: They took the world in a very literal sort of way, and they said_ they felt that if they had said that they had solved the problem and they had an aircraft that could do what they said it could, that people should believe them.

NARRATOR: Insulted by their own government's response, the brothers turned to Europe.

ROBERT WOHL: In Europe the international situation was extremely tense-- Germany and France were on the verge of war-- and they had every reason to believe that the French or the Germans or possibly the English would be interested in buying their invention.

NARRATOR: Wilbur and Orville were asking for two hundred thousand dollars for their airplane. European government officials were reluctant to pay so much for a machine they couldn't see, especially when their own aviators were finally getting off the ground. In 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont, debonair aristocrat and celebrated balloonist, made the first powered flight in Europe before a crowd of Parisians.

JOSEPH CORN: When the plane left the ground, people just gasped. It was ''a moment of miracle,'' as one journalist put it. On the other hand, the Dumont plane was nothing like the Wright brothers plane. It could fly in a straight line and had very minimal control. It was a very hazardous machine.

NARRATOR: Though it was an uncontrolled hop of only two hundred feet, Santos-Dumont was proclaimed the father of aviation. Still refusing to show their airplane, Wilbur and Orville were about to lose all credit for their achievement. Chanute urged them to reconsider their sales strategy, but the brothers would not budge, even after they got their patent in 1906. Doubts about the Wright brothers' credibility turned to scorn. One French newspaper put it, ''It is difficult to fly. It is easy for the Wrights to say, 'We have flown.' They are either flyers or liars.''

In 1907, Wilbur traveled to Europe to try to move the negotiations along. For a young man from Dayton, Ohio, Paris was a revelation.


It is a curious custom here to have little tables at which crowds of people sit and sip wine and eat light lunches in the open air.


This afternoon I spent a couple of hours in the Louvre. I liked Leonardo da Vinci's ''John the Baptist'' much better than his ''Mona Lisa.'' Seems incredible that the Louvre was erected merely for a king's pleasure.

The Wrights had hired an international sales agency, and its representative, Hart Berg, showed Wilbur around Paris and came to have a lot of respect for him.


When I first came over, Berg thought that he was the businessman and I was merely a sort of exhibit. Now he realizes that I see into situations deeper than they do, that my judgment is more often sound.

Orville joined Wilbur in Paris several weeks later. As usual, their father, the bishop, was keeping a close watch.


Be men of the highest types personally, mentally, morally and spiritually. Be clean, temperate, sober minded, and great souled.


All the wine I have tasted since leaving home would not fill a single wineglass. I am sure that Orville and myself will do nothing which will disgrace the training we received from you and Mother.

Despite their efforts, negotiations with the French government floundered, and the brothers returned home empty-handed. Meanwhile, French aviators continued to make news. In January 1908, a young pilot named Henri Farman flew a kilometer in a closed circle. He had only marginal control and basically skidded through his turns, but he was turning. Now the French were more convinced than ever-- they had conquered the air.

JOSEPH CORN: It must have been really frustrating for the Wrights. They had invented a real flying machine. They had solved all the thorny technical problems. They had done serious empirical and scientific research, built their machine, flown it, and yet the headlines were just filled with praise for these Europeans.

NARRATOR: Finally, after three years of negotiations, the Wrights' claims reached President Theodore Roosevelt. Early in 1908, a deal was made with the U.S. Army Signal Corps for twenty-five thousand dollars. Another deal with a French syndicate soon followed. Having built a second flyer, the brothers set out to prove that their machines could fly. Wilbur left for France, while Orville prepared for demonstrations in Washington.

TOM CROUCH: It was the first time in a long time that they'd been separated on an important occasion, and they did feel the strain. And the strains were real. I mean, Wilbur was under a lot of pressure.


You can scarcely imagine what a strain it is on one to have no one to understand what you say, and no one capable of doing the grade of work we've always insisted upon. It compels me to do almost everything myself, and keeps me worried.

ROBERT WOHL: Wilbur Wright was not a man who would allow himself to be rushed. He had painstakingly assembled the flyer. He took it to a small racetrack outside of the French town of Le Mans. A crowd had assembled on August 8, 1908. They waited and they waited and they waited in their starchy clothes. And finally, Wilbur Wright appeared, dressed appropriately in a business suit and a strange hat, green hat. He sat down in the flyer, whistling a tune that nobody could identify between his_ his teeth and his tightly-pursed lips. And he suddenly said, ''Gentlemen, I am going to fly.'' A weight was dropped, and the Wright flyer left the ground. At that moment, the sixty-some-odd spectators rose to their feet in a spontaneous acclamation.

NARRATOR: Wilbur's version of the day's events was slightly more understated. ''I thought it would be good to do a little something,'' he wrote to Orville.

ROBERT WOHL: There was not one person who was present at that flight on the 8th of August of 1908 who did not realize that the Wright brothers had done everything that they said they had done, and that they were now far beyond the French. And, in fact, one of them said at that time and was quoted in the papers widely, ''We are beaten.''

NARRATOR: Overnight, Wilbur became a sensation in France.


I am in receipt of bouquets, baskets of fruit, flowers almost without number. The furor has been so great I cannot even take a bath without having a hundred or two people peeking at me.

The 'Vilbur Reet' cap appeared in stores throughout Paris. One year after he was awed by the Louvre, it was reported that his frying pan would be put on display there.

ROBERT WOHL: The French felt it necessary to somehow ''jazz up'' Wilbur's character_ for example, when they place him with a cigarette in his mouth next to a garish-looking woman, this a man who was seldom seen in the company of women other than his sister and who never smoked in his life.

NARRATOR: Wilbur wasn't the only brother caught in the limelight.


I haven't done a lick of work since I've been here. I have to give my time to answering the ten thousand fool questions people ask about the machine.


In the next few weeks, at a Washington, D.C. Army base called Fort Myer, Orville broke record after record, flying higher and longer than Wilbur had flown, culminating in a spectacular flight of seventy minutes.

To meet the terms of their Army contract, Orville had to demonstrate that their plane could carry a passenger. One day he took off with a young Signal Corps officer, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. They were making a circuit of the field when Orville heard two loud thumps. He cut the motor and tried to land, but the plane went into a nosedive. Selfridge murmured, ''Oh, oh,'' almost inaudibly.

The flyer crashed straight into the ground, pinning Orville and Selfridge beneath the wreckage. Orville was hospitalized with several broken ribs and a serious back injury. Selfridge's skull had been fractured, and he died that evening, the first person ever to be killed in a powered airplane.


I cannot help thinking over and over again if I had been there, it would not have happened. The death of poor Selfridge was a greater shock to me than Orville's injuries, severe as they were.

It took four months for Orville to recover. When he was well enough, he sailed with Katharine across the Atlantic to join Wilbur in France. They traveled south to the town of Pau, where Wilbur flew before a steady procession of notables who came from all over Europe. ''Princes and millionaires are as thick as fleas,'' he said.

TOM CROUCH: People were struck, I think, by several things at once. They were struck by the extent to which Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Katharine as well, were unpretentious, straight-forward, honest, down-to-earth Americans, as it were. At the same time, I think they were struck by their sophistication, too.

NARRATOR: Katharine seemed to enjoy all the attention, but her brothers couldn't wait to get home. Wilbur wrote:


Almost every evening a crowd of two or three thousand people comes out to see if I will make a flight. I sometimes get so angry at the continual annoyance of having the crowd about, but I cannot help feeling sorry for them when I do not go out. If I can get through this season, I am done with demonstrations forever.

In Berlin, they flew before the Kaiser. In Rome, the Wright brothers were greeted as heroes by the royal family. Their father kept track of their activities from Dayton.

Enjoy fame ere its decadence, for I have realized the emptiness of its trumpet blasts.

But it was out of the bishop's hands. Milton Wright's two youngest sons were among the first great celebrities of the twentieth century.

On one of his last flights in Rome, Wilbur brought along a photographer who shot the first motion pictures from an airplane. Four months after this flight, a Frenchman flew across the English Channel in a plane with control features based on the Wrights' wing-warping design. The age of flight had arrived, and newcomers on both sides of the Atlantic began taking to the air.

Back in Dayton, the brothers established the Wright Company in 1909 to manufacture airplanes. Orville managed the business. Wilbur was consumed with protecting their patents, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, taking infringers to court. In 1912, on a trip to Boston, Wilbur became ill with typhoid. He returned to Hawthorne Street and died three weeks later. He was forty-five years old. The bishop wrote a tribute to his son.

An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.

After Wilbur's death, Orville lost interest in the Wright Company, and in 1915 sold it along with their patents for one million dollars. He retired to Hawthorne Hill, the Dayton mansion he and Wilbur had started to build. He lived with Milton and Katharine until his father died and his sister married at the age of fifty-two. As the elder statesman of aviation, Orville would find it necessary to spend much of his time insuring that he and his brother received the credit they deserved.

WILKINSON WRIGHT: They saw something they wanted to do, and they just did it. And if they didn't know the answer, they found other means to get the answer. The spirit of_ of not being afraid, of just going ahead and doing whatever had to be done is something that I_ I admire tremendously.

NARRATOR: One morning in January 1948, when he was seventy-six years old, Orville had a heart attack while fixing a doorbell at Hawthorne Hill. He died three days later, with his family around him.