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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Wright Brothers' Legacy

On the afternoon of December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright walked four miles to Kitty Hawk to send the following telegram to their father in Dayton: "Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 [sic] seconds inform press home Christmas." After returning to Dayton, the brothers issued their own press statement: "We should have postponed our trials to a more favorable season, but…we were determined…to know whether the machine possessed sufficient capacity of control to make flight safe in boisterous winds, as well as in calm air. When these points had been definitely established, we at once packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last."¹ Due to a combination of wildly inaccurate accounts and lack of understanding by most newspaper publishers, however, the true significance of December 17, 1903, escaped all but a few people.

During the winter and spring of 1904, the Wright brothers began constructing an improved version of their airplane. Although they had made the world's first controlled powered flight they would need to make several changes before their machine could be considered a practical airplane. They continued their experiments close to home so they could remain near their bicycle shop and lengthen their flying season. Huffman Prairie, an 84-acre pasture about eight miles from their home, became their new testing ground. On October 5, 1905, after many months of frustrating trials, they flew the third version of their airplane almost 25 miles in 39 minutes. Wilbur and Orville Wright had at last invented the world's first practical flying machine.

Next came the challenge of keeping others from copying their airplane design while at the same time trying to secure contracts for its sale. They tried to interest the U.S. Government and some European governments in buying the rights to their airplane, but had little luck. In order to protect the details of their invention before it was patented or sold, they did not fly for more than two years. Finally, a French company signed a contract to build and sell Wright airplanes in early 1908. The U.S. Army Signal Corps also expressed interest in the Wright Flyer, but only if it could meet specific requirements. Both contracts were contingent on successful demonstrations. Wilbur dazzled crowds in France, and Orville likewise made several stunning flights at Fort Myer, Virginia. After enduring several years of public skepticism, the Wright brothers finally achieved widespread recognition of their accomplishments.

Now treated as heroes, Wilbur and Orville Wright continued to set new records in distance and duration in front of amazed crowds. By this time they had closed the bike shop to devote all of their time to aviation. In 1909 they formed the Wright Company to build and sell airplanes as well as train pilots. Unfortunately, they also spent much of their time fighting legal battles over infringements to the patent they finally had received in 1906. Then, in 1912, the unique partnership that had led to the invention of the airplane--a feat mankind dreamed about for thousands of years--ended abruptly when Wilbur died of typhoid fever at age 45.

In the 1920s, an effort began to properly acknowledge Wilbur and Orville Wright's accomplishments in aviation. A group of North Carolinians organized the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association to recognize and help protect the site of the Wright brothers' experiments on the Outer Banks. National figures joined local efforts to create a monument honoring the Wrights, and on March 2, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge established the Kill Devil Hill Monument National Memorial.

In the intervening 25 years, remnants of the brothers' camp buildings had all but disappeared, and the Big Kill Devil Hill sand dune had shifted several hundred feet due to high winds. Two decades of shifting sands also made it difficult to locate the exact spot where the 1903 Flyer took off. Three of the four surviving witnesses to the first flight gathered at the Kill Devil Hills area and, using Orville Wright's written accounts, located the approximate site of the liftoff. On December 17, 1928, Orville Wright watched as representatives from the National Aeronautics Association placed a six-foot granite marker at the site.

Before a monument could be constructed atop Big Kill Devil Hill, it would have to be stabilized with shrubs and plantings to prevent further shifting. The government and local citizens undertook the effort, and by 1930 Big Kill Devil Hill was covered in grass and shrubs. The New York architectural firm of Rodgers and Poor won the design competition for the monument. Their design called for a 60-foot masonry shaft resting on a star-shaped platform. Stylized sculpted wings on each side would symbolize flight and motion. Work began in December 1931 and was completed, with the help of many local citizens, by the end of the following year. In 1933 administration of the site passed from the War Department to the National Park Service. Renamed Wright Brothers National Memorial in 1953, the park today includes the monument on Big Kill Devil Hill, the granite marker at the liftoff spot, four smaller granite markers designating the landing spot of each of the four flights, and reconstructed 1903 camp buildings. A visitor center and Centennial pavilion house reproductions of the 1902 glider and 1903 Flyer, as well as other exhibits.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why didn't the Wright brothers' accomplishment on December 17, 1903, receive the publicity it deserved?

2. Why did the Wrights build another plane after the 1903 Flyer? Why did they decide to conduct future tests in Dayton? Where did these tests take place?

3. When did they invent the first practical airplane?

4. Why did the Wrights stop flying for more than two years? Why and when did they finally resume flying? What was the result?

5. When did efforts begin to commemorate the brothers' work? What challenges had to be overcome?

6. How is the site commemorated today?

Reading 3 was compiled from William R. Chapman and Jill K. Hanson, Wright Brothers National Memorial Historic Resource Study (Atlanta, GA: Southeast Field Area, National Park Service, 1997); Harry Combs, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979); Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989); Tom D. Crouch, First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane (Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service Division of Publications); Russell Freedman, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (New York: Holiday House, 1991); Susan Hitchcock, Wright Brothers National Memorial Cultural Landscape Report (Atlanta, GA: Southeast Field Area, National Park Service, 2002).

¹ As quoted in Russell Freedman, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (New York: Holiday House, 1991), 81.

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