Lilienthal? and the Mysterious Book

Wilbur & Orville Wright stand at the forefront of the earliest aviation pioneers-two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who stunned the world by inventing powered flight. Their first successful powered flights on December 17, 1903, marked the culmination of several years of their own experiments with large kites and gliders and topped off years of effort by other men to unlock the secrets of flight.

The sons of a bishop, the Wrights showed a knack for mechanical genius from boyhood, always interested in fascinating new machines and toys, like the small wooden "helicopter" stick toy they received from their father, Milton. By their early 20s, they were already veterans of the printing business and in 1892 opened a bicycle sales and repair shop, creating and selling their high quality Wright machines.

|| |---| | | | Otto Lilienthal's glider flights piqued the Wright brothers' interest.| Flight was not the first subject that attracted the Wrights' attention. By the 1890s, Orville had found another hobby-the automobile. But Wilbur was not impressed. He felt the "horseless carriage" would never catch on. What caught his eye, in September of 1894, was a McClure's Magazine article titled "The Flying Man," which included pictures of a flying object similar to the "helicopter" stick Wilbur's father had given him years before. This was no toy, however, because there was a man hanging beneath its wings … and he was flying!

The man's name was Otto Lilienthal, a German who had been experimenting with gliders for 20 years. That night, Wilbur showed the article to Orville, who was likewise impressed. Over the next few years, their interest in flight soared, as they followed the exploits of Lilienthal and other pioneers such as Octave Chanute and Samuel Pierpont Langley. In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, declaring the brothers' interest in human flight and asking for copies of articles that the Smithsonian had published on the subject "and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language."

Years later, however, Orville recalled that what really aroused the Wrights' interest in aviation was "the reading of a book on ornithology." Both Wilbur and Orville would mention this book in their diaries more than once, but never by name, and its identity remains a mystery. Some scholars feel it was not a "book" at all, but rather a pamphlet of translated excerpts of L'Empire de l'Air by Louis-Pierre Mouillard, a panegyric on bird flight that appeared in the Smithsonian Annual Report in 1892. Wilbur would later call the book "one of the most remarkable pieces of aeronautical literature ever published." The truth is, however, L 'Empire was never completely translated into English … and Wilbur could not read French.

This "Kitty Hawk Moment" is brought to you by the EAA, whose Countdown to Kitty Hawk program, presented by Ford Motor Company, includes an exact flying reproduction of the Wright Flyer. It is the centerpiece of the EAA's national tour during 2003, which will conclude with a five-day celebration at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Flyer will fly again at exactly 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 2003, commemorating 100 years of powered flight.


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