On the morning of December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns piloting and monitoring their flying machine in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Orville piloted the first flight that lasted just 12 seconds and 120 feet. On the fourth and final flight of the day, Wilbur traveled 852 feet, remaining airborne for 59 seconds. That morning, the brothers became the first people to demonstrate sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of the pilot.
They built their 1903 glider in sections in the back room of their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. That afternoon, the Wright brothers walked the four miles to Kitty Hawk and sent a telegram to their father, Bishop Milton Wright, back home in Dayton:
Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas.
Telegram, Orville Wright to Bishop Milton Wright, announcing the first successful powered flight, December 17, 1903. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years
Through their own research and experimentation, and by studying the attempts of other would-be pilots, the Wright brothers knew that heavier-than-air flight was possible. They corresponded frequently with engineer Octave Chanute, a friend and supporter of their work. On May 13, 1900, Wilbur wrote a letter to Chanute expressing his ambition to fly:
For some years, I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.
Letter, Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, concerning the Wright brothers’ aviation experiments, May 13, 1900. Octave Chanute Papers. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years
The U.S. Army saw potential in the new technology and signed a contract with the Wright brothers in 1908. Their new Military Flyer was successfully tested in 1909. The Library of Congress is rich in resources on flight.
See The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress for a look at digital images that document the lives of the Wright brothers including correspondence, scrapbooks, drawings, and their own collection of glass-plate photographic negatives.
The Octave Chanute Papers reside in the Library of Congress. View the finding aid for more information on this collection in the Manuscript Division.
Read Alexander Graham Bell’s June 26, 1906, letter to Mabel Hubbard Bell on “the flying machine of the Wright Brothers of Dayton Ohio.”
- Search on aviation in the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years to read related documents.
- American Memory collections have numerous images of airplanes–ranging from early planes to World War II aircraft. Search, for example:
- Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991
- Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955
- Photographs from the Chicago Daily News External
- America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 holds many views of Dayton that were taken during the years that the Wright brothers resided there.
- Learn more about one of Orville Wright’s high school friends, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
- Read Americans’ stories of flying by searching on airplane in the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 – 1940. See, for example, the 1939 interview “An Air-Minded Family” in which Mrs. Edwards describes her family’s obsession with planes sparked by her husband’s passion for flying.
- Search on airplane or flight in the pictorial collections for a wealth of images.