Today, one pioneer of flight dies while another lives.
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
As the summer of 1896 ended,
Orville Wright came down with typhoid fever. Historian
Fred Howard tells how his older brother Wilbur sat at his
side and nursed him, for six weeks, while he hovered
between life and death. Sixteen years later, Wilbur
himself caught typhoid, and it killed him. In
between, of course, the two brothers created the first
Before Orville fell ill, newspaper articles about German
pio-neer of flight Otto Lilienthal had deeply impressed
both brothers. Lilienthal built and flew gliders until he
died in a crash the same year Orville almost died.
Later, Orville claimed that Wilbur had read about
Lilienthal's death while he was ill and had withheld the
terrible news until he recovered. Since Lilienthal
actually died a month before Orville fell ill,
time may have distorted their story.
But it's clear that Lilienthal's death and Orville's
recovery were linked in the Wright brothers' minds.
Lilienthal had built gliders for six years. Other people
had made gliders before he did, but no one had made
repeated successful flights. He started by imitating
birds with flapping wings. Then he dropped that idea and
went to a kind of fixed-wing hang-glider. Lilienthal made
them in many different forms: monoplanes, biplanes,
airframes of every conceivable shape.
In six years' time, Lilienthal had made two thousand
flights, and he was starting to think about powered
flight. But then, one Sunday afternoon, a crosswind
caught him fifty feet in the air. His glider side
slipped, crashed, and broke Lilienthal's back. According
to legend, he murmured "Sacrifices must be made," before
he died. The trouble is, he'd said that before. It was a
typical Victorian sentiment, and it was almost certainly
Victorian sentiment that tied the remark to his death.
In 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the next great
glider pioneer, Octave Chanute, asking for advice. In the
oddest way, his language evoked both Lilienthal's death
and Orville's illness four years earlier. Wilbur wrote:
I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is
possible ... My disease has increased in severity and I
feel that it will soon cost me ... increased money ... if
not my life.
Well it was disease, not his belief in flight, that
eventually killed Wilbur. But nothing in the world is
more elusive than the origin of an idea. The Wrights
combined invention with years of remarkably thorough
study and laboratory work. Their powered flight in 1903
certainly comes to rest upon that labor.
But it also comes back to summer's end in 1896 -- to a
time when Lilienthal died and Orville lived -- to that
moment when two brothers suddenly knew what it was they
were destined to do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.