Sunday, September 15, 2019

“The First Successful Trip of an Airship”

A. I. Root (1839–1923)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

The Wright Flyer II flying close to the ground, with Wilbur Wright piloting. This flight, covering a distance of 784 feet in 22 3/4 seconds, occurred on August 13, 1904, a month before A. I. Root visited Huffman Prairie. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
When he was in eighth grade in 1886, Orville Wright—the son of a minister in Dayton, Ohio—cofounded a printing firm with his friend Ed Sines. Orville’s brother, Wilbur, eventually joined the business, which survived for more than a decade and published, among other projects, a local weekly called West Side News. In 1890 Paul Laurence Dunbar, Orville’s high school classmate and a close friend, suggested starting a newspaper for the city’s African American residents. The Wrights and Sines agreed to print it, but the Dayton Tattler didn’t find enough readers to cover the costs and it folded after a few issues. In a bit of odd historical coincidence, however, the first edition of the Tattler included the prominent headline “Airship Soon to Fly” over an article about a dirigible test flight.

The two most famous members of Dayton Central High’s Class of ’90 didn’t actually graduate in 1890. Orville Wright dropped out of school his senior year, after the death of his mother, and Dunbar received his diploma in 1891 because he had to retake a math class. “I was the only Negro in the class [of 27 students] and apparently popular,” Dunbar recalled. “My chums encouraged me. My teachers encouraged me.” His first biographer learned that Paul helped Orville with his writing assignments and Orville returned the favor with math lessons.

Paul, Orville, and Wilbur shared an obsession with books that amply supplemented their high school learning. Paul loved poetry, particularly the works of Keats and Shelley. Historian David McCullough notes that Orville’s favorite was Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, while Wilbur preferred histories—when he wasn’t reading books on science and engineering. “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute (the author of Progress in Flying Machines) after he first began his investigations in aviation history.

Fast forward to the winter of 1903–04, when Dunbar and the Wrights returned from their travels and reunited in Dayton. On December 17, the still-unknown Wright brothers had successfully (and secretively) flown their first gas-powered, heavier-than-air vehicle near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In Dayton they planned to create a second, more robust version of the Wright Flyer, and a local banker agreed to let them use his pasture, a marshy area known as Huffman Prairie. Although rumors and reports about the Wrights’ activities had begun reaching the press, no eyewitness accounts had been published; indeed, many of the early articles were wildly inaccurate, while other reporters were understandably skeptical. In May the brothers allowed members of the local press to attend a test flight, but rain, followed by a lack of the headwind needed to help launch the plane, kept it grounded. Four days later, after most of the reporters had lost interest, the brothers finally got off the ground—twelve feet up for about ten yards before crashing. Somehow word reached The New York Times, which reported that “Great secrecy was maintained about the test, and but few witnessed it,” under the headline “Fall Wrecks Airship.”

The first eyewitness account of a successful flight, then, was not in a newspaper or a science magazine, but instead in an apicultural publication called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Its editor, Amos Root, had been hearing the rumors for months and happened to be at Huffman Prairie on September 20, 1904, when he watched the Wrights’ first time landing the plane at the point where they took off. Root’s readable, astonished, buoyant account about the invention is presented as our Story of the Week selection, in which he credits the success in large part to the wide range of the brothers’ reading and education.

While Orville and Wilbur Wright were on the verge of acquiring fame and fortune, Dunbar was already an international literary celebrity: the popular author of several hundred poems, one hundred short stories, five novels, and the lyrics for the groundbreaking hit musical comedy In Dahomey. At the height of his fame, however, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Doctors recommended whiskey and a stay in the Colorado mountains to help him recover from his illness, but the “cure” led to drunkenness and depression, exacerbated by the disintegration of his marriage. His peripatetic schedule—moving from Colorado to Washington to New York to Chicago, with interruptions for cross-country travels for readings and lectures—weakened him further. After returning permanently to Dayton, he bought his mother a beautiful new home (now a museum) and moved in with her. He continued to write at a frenzied pace, but his health did not improve. In February 1906 Wilbur Wright conveyed sad news in a note to Chanute, “Paul Laurence Dunbar was buried today. The funeral was at Eaker Street M.E. (Colored) Church. He was Orville's classmate in High School.” He was only thirty-three years old.

Note: Darius Green was the star of a popular children’s poem, John T. Trowbridge's “Darius Green and His Flying Machine” (1867), about a young boy who attempted to fly by constructing wings and leaping from a window.

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Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you—a story that, in some respects, out-rivals the Arabian Nights fables—a story, too, with a moral that I think many of the younger ones need, and perhaps some of the older ones too if they will heed it. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.