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No. 1659:
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 came down with typhoid fever. Historian Fred Howard tells how his older brother Wilbur sat at his side and nursed him, for six weeks, while he hovered between life and death. Sixteen years later, Wilbur himself caught typhoid, and it killed him. In between, of course, the two brothers created the first functional airplane.

Before Orville fell ill, newspaper articles about German pio-neer of flight Otto Lilienthal had deeply impressed both brothers. Lilienthal built and flew gliders until he died in a crash the same year Orville almost died.

Later, Orville claimed that Wilbur had read about Lilienthal's death while he was ill and had withheld the terrible news until he recovered. Since Lilienthal actually died a month before Orville fell ill, time may have distorted their story.

But it's clear that Lilienthal's death and Orville's recovery were linked in the Wright brothers' minds. Lilienthal had built gliders for six years. Other people had made gliders before he did, but no one had made repeated successful flights. He started by imitating birds with flapping wings. Then he dropped that idea and went to a kind of fixed-wing hang-glider. Lilienthal made them in many different forms: monoplanes, biplanes, airframes of every conceivable shape.

In six years' time, Lilienthal had made two thousand flights, and he was starting to think about powered flight. But then, one Sunday afternoon, a crosswind caught him fifty feet in the air. His glider side slipped, crashed, and broke Lilienthal's back. According to legend, he murmured "Sacrifices must be made," before he died. The trouble is, he'd said that before. It was a typical Victorian sentiment, and it was almost certainly Victorian sentiment that 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. Wilbur wrote:

I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible ... My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me ... increased money ... if not my life.

Well it was disease, not his belief in flight, that eventually killed Wilbur. But nothing in the world is more elusive than the origin of an idea. The Wrights combined invention with years of remarkably thorough study and laboratory work. Their powered flight in 1903 certainly comes to rest upon that labor.

But it also comes back to summer's end in 1896 -- to a time when Lilienthal died and Orville lived -- to that moment when two brothers suddenly knew what it was 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)

Howard, F., Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. (See especially, Chapter 1.)

This is a revised version of old Episode 162.

Lilienthal flying one of his gliders

Lilienthal flying one of his gliders

The Second Wright glider aloft in 1901

 The Second Wright glider aloft in 1901
Images from The The Men Who Learned to Fly, 1908