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No. 162:
Wright and Lilienthal

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 airplane.

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 recovered.

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 work.

(Theme music)

This episode has been revised and expanded as Episode 1659.


Lilienthal flying one of his gliders



The Second Wright glider aloft in 1901

(Images from The The Men Who Learned to Fly, 1908)