Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 11. Segment 1
The Birdmen

For thousands and thousands of years, men and women watched the birds and dreamed that they, too, could lift themselves into the air. Some tried. Back in ancient days, the mythical character Icarus took bird feathers and a frame and made something like a hang glider. But when he soared into the air, the sun melted the wax that held the feathers, and Icarus fell into the sea . Real people built gliders, or hot-air balloons that floated on the wind. Yet no one could figure out how to build a craft that would follow the commands of a human pilot. People tried and failed again and again. And then on December 17, 1903, two brothers did it. They were from Dayton, Ohio, and they owned a bicycle shop. Neither had graduated from high school. Their names were Wilbur and Orville Wright See It Now - The Wright Brothers. Wilbur, the older one, later recalled why the two brothers were so close. Hear It Now - Wilbur Wright "From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together, worked together, and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussions between us."

It was not luck that made the Wright brothers the first people in all of history to build and fly an airplane that lifted off the ground with its own power. It was hard work and determination. Before they built that plane they studied all that was known about flying. They made a wind tunnel and tested two hundred differently shaped wings. Then they drew plans and built carefully. When they flew, it was from Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Wilbur later explained why they selected that spot. He said, Hear It Now - Wilbur Wright "I chose Kitty Hawk because there are neither hills nor trees, so that it offers a safe place for practice. Also the wind there is stronger than any place nearer home and is almost constant See It Now - Kitty Hawk."

In 1903, Kitty Hawk was mostly empty beach See It Now - Kitty Hawk Beach, with a few fishermen, a lifeboat station where men stood by to aid shipwrecks, and legions of crabs and mosquitoes. On that windy December day, Orville won the toss of a coin. He got to fly first, lying on his stomach on the wing. Wilbur ran beside him; the plane lifted a few feet above the sand and stayed in the air for seventeen seconds. John Daniels of the Kill Devil lifesaving-station snapped a picture of Orville and the flyer as they left the ground See It Now - The Wright Brothers' First Flight. Orville sent a telegram home to his father: Hear It Now - Wilbur Wright "success—four flights thursday morning all against 21-mile wind—started from level with engine power alone—average speed through air 31 miles—longest 57 seconds—inform press—home Christmas See It Now - Orville Wright's Telegram Check The Source - The Wright Brother's Breakthrough."

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk ran a front-page story, but hardly any other newspaper even noticed. Why were these two men willing to risk their lives? What did they want? They wanted to do something no one had ever done before. They wanted to experience the freedom of striving after a great goal. And this is part of what America is all about. We are a country based on freedom for all. We have not always lived up to that promise, but we have kept on trying.

Five years after the Wright Brothers' first flight in Kitty Hawk the world was finally ready to pay attention Check The Source - The Wright Brothers Keep on Testing. Orville lifted his plane into the air and swung around an army field in Virginia one and a half times before he landed See It Now - People Watching Wright Brothers' Flight. The crowd of watchers rushed forward "screaming as loudly as they could," one paper wrote, "overwhelmed by the miracle that had taken place before their eyes." Now everybody believed it—people could fly ! Anything might be possible after this, they thought—perhaps even an end to war. Orville Wright himself believed this. He said, Hear It Now - Orville Wright "When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention that would make further wars practically impossible. Governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and no country would enter into war with another when it knew it would have to simply wear out the enemy."

The Wrights were, well, wrong. In 1914, just six years after that flight around the Virginia airfield, an archduke was assassinated in Bosnia Check The Source - Eyewitness to an Assassination : The Conspirator Check The Source - Eyewitness to an Assassination : The Bodyguard, which started a war that changed the whole world and affected American life for the rest of the century. It was called the Great War. (Later it became the First World War.) An English politician and writer, Lord Grey, realized how bad it was going to be. He said, Hear It Now - Lord Grey "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

learn more at:
© 2002 Picture History and Educational
Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Thirteen/WNET PBS