Today, we gradually learn about the Wright
Brothers' flight. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
An article in the 1904
Puck magazine poked fun at attempts to build
flying machines. It said that inventors would get
airplanes into the sky just as soon as the law of
gravity was repealed. The problem was, that article
came out the year after the Wright Brothers had
That becomes even more puzzling when historian
Roger Bilstein writes about our utter confidence in
the inevitability of airplanes at the turn of the
century. Dirigibles had been around since 1852.
Thousands of human-carrying balloons had flown
since the eighteenth century. Lilienthal's and
Chanute's successful glider experiments were well
known. It could only be a matter of time.
One of the strongest public voices for the
inevitability of the airplane was Samuel Pierpoint
Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Working with government funding, Langley had flown
a successful steam-powered model airplane in 1896.
Then, in the fall of 1903, only months before the
Wrights' successes at Kitty Hawk, Langley made two attempts to
launch his huge airplane, the Aerodrome,
from a large houseboat on the Potomac River.
The press and photographers covered both tries.
Each time, the Aerodrome crashed into the
river on takeoff. The reaction was, of course,
ridicule. The Washington Post called
Smithsonian staff "stuffers of birds and rabbits."
The Boston Herald said Langley's efforts
would better be directed toward developing
That Puck article, it turns out, had focused
on Langley without ever having heard of the Wright
Brothers' repeated flights in the isolated sand
dunes of the Atlantic coast. Not until 1905 was an
eyewitness account of their flight finally
published in, of all places, a magazine entitled
Advances in Bee Culture.
I asked my father, born ten years before the
Wrights flew, what he'd thought when he'd first
heard about them. His answer was a surprise. As a
schoolboy, he'd been aware only of vague rumors.
Somehow, the word didn't get out. All the while,
poor old Langley served as a lightning rod for
ridicule. Small wonder that he died only three
years after Kitty Hawk.
When Santos Dumont made the
first European flight in 1906, the Wright Brothers
were routinely making flights over Huffman Prairie
near Dayton. The next American to fly was Glenn
Curtiss, in 1908. But, by then, the military had
wind of the Wrights' achievement, and the U.S. War
Department concluded a $25,000 deal with the
Wrights. The Army received its first airplane in
Only then did airplanes go public. Only then did
flying machines become a mania. And we're left with
a startling time lag. Perhaps flight had been
anticipated too long. Perhaps the idea that it'd
actually come to pass was too bizarre. In any case,
it is remarkable that anything so long-awaited
actually existed for five years before we really
knew it was there.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds