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Editor's Note, September/October 2003

The Infinite Highway of Air

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

The images are scratchy, a bit pallid to the eye. . . . A fragile-looking biplane comes straight at the camera and a dark, blurred figure runs alongside. The scene is late morning on a scraggy piece of the North Carolina coast--historians later placed it at 10:35 a.m.--and the moment would signal the emergence of the aerial age.

The man running is Wilbur Wright; the unseen man in the plane, his younger brother Orville. They took turns that day, with Wilbur piloting the last flight and completing the longest run: 59 seconds and 852 feet, a bit less than the length of a football field. The brothers sent a matter-of-fact telegram home to Ohio: “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind . . .” and concluded, “home Christmas.”

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of their achievement, an event that some in France, Belgium, and Germany doubted even took place. Were the Wright Brothers bluffeurs? In his book Taking Flight, historian Richard P. Hallion quotes an editorial from the Paris edition of the New York Herald: “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.” French aviation pioneer Victor Tatin was eventually more accepting, acknowledging that the Wrights had seized the glory of being first: “a glory forever lost to France.”

The Wrights’ feat came during a surge of technology around the world. The turn of the century brought the heyday of railroads and the advent of the motorcar.

“People experienced more change in that era than at any other time maybe in human history--certainly a faster pace of change even than now,” contends history professor Michael O’Malley. People’s basic sense of home and order was altered, he says. “Before, your community was what you could reach in a day’s walk or maybe, a ride on a horse.”

In this issue of Humanities, we visit three NEH projects that together sketch the portrait of an era. “Picturing Modern America” is teaching middle school and high school students how to look at photographs and other archival materials on a website and gather clues the way historians do. At the Hagley Museum in Delaware, Raymond Loewy’s sleek, streamlined designs for locomotives, buses, and ocean liners reveal the new shape of the twentieth century--with speed, efficiency, and novelty at a premium. And in another project, “The Automobile in American Life and Society,” the University of Michigan at Dearborn is working with the Henry Ford Museum to study technology from a humanities perspective. Henry Ford himself was in both the automobile and the airplane business for a time, as an airmail contractor and a developer of small passenger planes. After one of his pilots crashed in his “air flivver,” Ford decided to stick to the Model T.

Ford, the Wright Brothers, and other aviation pioneers came from diverse backgrounds: motorcycle racers, bicycle mechanics, designers of buses, cowboys, kite makers, headlight manufacturers--daredevils, some of them, and dreamers all. Some would die in pursuit of the goal, but others would persevere.

“The desire to fly,” Wilbur Wright wrote years later, “is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”