"The Belief that Flight is Possible to Man"

O. Chanute.
[between 1900 and 1910].
George Grantham Bain Collection.
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress.
LC-USZ62-106858

On May 13, 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote one of the most remarkable letters in the history of science. In his letter to Octave Chanute, a wealthy businessman and successful engineer, Wilbur seems not at all hindered by the fact that an essentially unknown person from Ohio is addressing an aeronautical authority with a worldwide reputation. Nothing about Wilbur's letter is ordinary or predictable and that fact alone must have held Chanute's attention. In fact, it does not even begin as most letters do, with some form of polite introduction. Instead, Wilbur jumps in with both feet with his very first sentence:

"For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man."

If this sentence did not seize the older man's attention, the second one surely did: "My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life." With only two sentences, Wilbur proves himself a direct, intelligent, and capable writer. He immediately proceeds to focus on what he sees as the core of the flight problem-"skill rather than machinery"-and states that men must first learn the secrets of control before they try to apply power to flight.

[Wilbur Wright,
head-and-shoulders portrait,
facing right]
.
[1909].
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress.
LC-USZ62-108041

In five handwritten pages, Wilbur combines a direct, practical approach with a literary and almost philosophical style. He correctly conceptualizes the problem and then explains how he will solve it. Wilbur takes pains to convince Chanute that he is not a crank and has done his research, yet is not above asking for help. The letter shows Wilbur's steady, characteristic balance-exuding assurance that is offset by humility and noble intent. He is confident enough to criticize the great aviation pioneer Lilienthal, but, on the other hand, insists that he is not in pursuit of financial profit, and, in fact, that the problem of flight might be too great for any one person to solve. Overall, the letter shows Wilbur as he was: a systematic, organized, methodical, and goal-oriented person ready to take on a great challenge. Finally, although a solicitation for Chanute's help and advice, the letter is, in fact, a kind of manifesto or declaration of intent. Although directed to a single person, it is Wilbur's open profession of his quest and his public commitment to it.

Four days after receiving this extraordinary letter, Chanute wrote Wilbur his own encouraging and serious letter. In his May 17, reply, Chanute said he was, "quite in sympathy with your proposal to experiment," and proceeded to offer specific advice and even locations where Wilbur might begin gliding. The fact that he offered to meet Wilbur in Chicago and that he was willing to continue the correspondence shows how seriously he regarded the younger man's ideas. These two May 1900 letters initiated ten years of correspondence between the Wrights-approximately several hundred letters-that ceased only with Chanute's death in May 1910.

All the Wrights' letters to Chanute are held in the Octave Chanute Papers at the Library of Congress. It is therefore both appropriate and necessary that these materials are included in this project. Although the Wrights' relationship with Chanute eventually cooled to the point where they no longer shared any close personal and professional feelings, they always acknowledged their debt to Chanute and respected his position. Most of what we know about the Wrights' invention and development of the airplane is found in the Chanute Papers, and it seems both remarkable and fortunate that both sides of that crucial dialog are in the collections of the Library of Congress. Since the Wrights kept few copies of what they wrote to their friend, the Library is indebted to Chanute, who retained every scrap of paper that the Wrights sent him. Today, historians and scholars realize that they would have very little hard information about the invention of the airplane without the letters between the Wrights and Chanute.