U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
National Plan For the Centennial of Flight Commemoration


Section 3 - Historical and Cultural Perspective

Commemorating a Century of Wings

In the fall of 1999, USA Today and the Newseum, an Arlington, Va., museum devoted to the history of news gathering, announced the results of a year long poll in which 36,000 newspaper readers and a substantial number of journalists were asked to select the 100 most important news stories of the 20th century. The atomic bombing of Japan led the public list, followed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the landing on the moon and the invention of the airplane.

The journalists chose precisely the same top four stories, although they rated the moon landing above the attack on Pearl Harbor. The results of the poll did not surprise the professional historians who were consulted by the newspaper. Professor Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans agreed that Hiroshima was the "correct choice" for the top story, while Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. countered that the moon walk is what people will remember in 500 years. Almost no one seems to have noted the fact that the top three stories could not have occurred without the invention of the airplane.

Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948), printers and bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, took their first serious step toward the invention of the airplane in 1899. They were superb, self-trained engineers who developed an extraordinarily successful research strategy that enabled them to overcome one set of challenging problems after another, the full extent of which previous experimenters had not even suspected.

The Wright brothers moved toward the development of a practical flying machine through an evolutionary chain of seven experimental aircraft: one kite (1899), three gliders (1900, 1901, 1902) and three powered airplanes (1903, 1904, 1905). Each of these aircraft was a distillation of the lessons learned and the experience gained from its predecessors. It was not all smooth sailing; frustration and disappointment were as much a part of the process as the euphoria of discovery. In the fall of 1901, puzzled by the failure of their earliest gliders to match calculated performance, the brothers built their own wind tunnel and designed a pair of brilliantly conceived balances that produced the precise bits of data required to achieve the final success.

The brothers made the first four sustained, powered flights under the control of the pilot near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the morning of December 17, 1903. Over the next two years they continued their work in a pasture near Dayton, Ohio. By the fall of 1905, they had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot. The air age had begun. Unwilling to unveil their technology without the protection of a patent and a contract for the sale of airplanes, the Wright brothers did not make public flights until 1908, at which point they emerged as the first great international heroes of the century.

The invention of the airplane was a fundamental turning point in history. It redefined the way in which the U.S. fought its wars, revolutionized travel and commerce, fueled the process of technological change, and helped to shape a world in which the very survival of a nation would depend on its scientific and technical prowess.

Beyond all of that, flight remains one of the most stunning and magnificent human achievements. For millennia, the notion of taking to the sky was regarded as the very definition of the impossible. "If God had intended for human beings to fly," it was said, "he would have given us wings." Instead, we built wings for ourselves, and forever expanded our vision of the possible. The centennial of that event is surely worth commemorating.


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