Wright Again

Wright Again

Studying Bird Flight - 1896

The History: Reading about Lilienthal's death from a glider accident in 1896, the Wrights interest in flight rose as they looked for information on the subject. They found a book by French physician Professor Etienne J. Marey, on animal mechanisms which included information on bird flight. They discovered little else on the subject.


With Lilienthal's death, the Wright's interest in flight was renewed -- they wanted to learn more information. They started their investigation by using available resources: encyclopedias and books. They had a library at home but also used the local public library in Dayton, Ohio. Their home library included Marey's book, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion. The book was marginally useful to the Wrights, since Marey focused on the physiology of bird flight.

Many years later in 1923, when asked whether the Wrights had used material from the Dayton Public Library for their early studies in aeronautics and aerodynamics, Orville recalled that before 1900 he did not recall finding any books on those subjects. Additionally, Orville wrote, "Aeronautics at that time was a discredited subject and consequently the libraries did not ordinarily carry books on that subject."

What steps do you take when you need to learn about a subject or start a project? Do you first outline an action plan ( a set of smaller tasks you'll accomplish in a certain order to complete a larger project) or do you just dive in and start working on the project? Do you initially feel confused and do not know how to start your project or do you begin by looking up information on the subject? Does the task seem too big and unmanageable or do you divide the workload into small parts you can handle?

The Wrights were meticulous (careful and detailed) investigators and planners. Their first thoughts were to read information other knowledgeable individuals had written about flight. They also sought out information on animal flight, since this was a working model of true flight.

Have you ever heard of the terms "reinventing the wheel" or "starting from scratch"? Both terms refer to starting a task from the very beginning. "Reinventing the wheel" means to start from the beginning even though others have demonstrated the results. For example, if you construct a wagon, you do not need to invent wheels. Someone else invented wheels a long time ago -- wheels already exist. You know wheels will help move your wagon along. You can use wheels in your construction because wheels already exist.

Sometimes starting from the very beginning is a good idea. Even though other people may have certain knowledge, you may want to prove something to yourself or gain a skill. For example, even though you can buy a kite, you might want to build your own for fun as well as to gain skills in building and flying a kite. Yet you might not want to "reinvent the wheel" and try to develop a kite without looking at existing kite designs or without understanding how to fly a kite.

The first thing the Wrights did was to seek out what was known about flight through books and encyclopedias. Reading about flight could provide them an understanding of the science of flight as well as information on the current developments in human flight (like Lilienthal's experiments). For their own experiments they could build on the knowledge of others instead of "reinventing the wheel" or "starting from scratch".

Yet in 1896, the Wrights did not pursue the subject further. If they had perhaps they would have learned that two men, Samuel Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and Octave Chanute. a French-born civil engineer from Chicago, were both conducting aeronautical experiments in the United States.


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