Today, one pioneer of flight dies while another
lives. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
As the summer of 1896 ended,
Orville Wright caught typhoid fever. He hovered at
death's door for six weeks while his older brother
Wilbur nursed him back to health. Sixteen years
later Wilbur caught typhoid, and it killed him. In
between, of course, the brothers invented the
Before Orville's illness, newspaper articles about
the German pioneer of flight, Otto Lilienthal, had
deeply impressed the brothers. Lilienthal built and
flew gliders until he died in a crash -- the same
year Orville almost died. Later, Orville claimed
that Wilbur read about Lilienthal's death while he
was ill and withheld the terrible news until he
Actually, Lilienthal died a month before Orville
got sick. The story was probably distorted by time.
What it really tells us is that Lilienthal's death
and Orville's recovery -- these two powerful events
-- were linked in the Wright brothers' minds.
Lilienthal built gliders for six years. Other
people had made gliders before he had, but no one
had made repeated successful flights. He started
out by imitating birds with flapping wings. Then he
dropped that idea and went to a kind of fixed wing
hang-glider. He made many different kinds --
monoplanes, biplanes, different shapes.
In six years time Lilienthal made 2000 flights. And
he was starting to think about powered flight. But
then, one Sunday afternoon, a crosswind caught him
50 feet in the air. The glider sideslipped,
crashed, and broke Lilienthal's back. According to
legend, he murmered, "Sacrifices must be made,"
before he died. The trouble is, that's something
he'd said before. It's more than likely that
Victorian sentiment tied the remark to his death.
In 1900 Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the next
great glider pioneer, Octave Chanute, asking for
advice. In the oddest way, his language evoked both
Lilienthal's death and Orville's illness, four
years earlier. He said:
I have been afflicted with the belief that
flight is possible ... My disease has increased in
severity and I feel that it soon cost me ...
increased money ... if not my life.
Well, it was disease -- not his belief
in flight -- that eventually killed Wilbur. But the
most elusive quest in the world is the search for the
origin of an idea. As for the Wright's flight, we're
led back to summer's end in 1896 -- to a time when
Lilienthal died and Orville lived -- to a time when
two brothers became certain of what they were
destined to do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds