By EVAN HICKS
Wilbur and Orville Wright were the subjects of the latest Great Lives lecture on April 12. James Tobin, a Pulitzer Prize nominated writer, spoke on the pioneers of modern aviation.
Tobin’s central premise was that while Orville and Wilbur Wright were both brilliant men and it took both of them to bring the idea of a fixed-wing aircraft to fruition, that it was primarily Wilbur, the older of the two, who was really “the world-class figure.”
Wilbur was the middle child in a family of five children and expected to attend Yale until a mysterious injury in a winter hockey game left him much less motivated. Afterwards, Orville, the second youngest child, became the star of the family, opening his own bicycle store and inviting Wilbur to work with him.
At one point, the Wright brothers seemed so destined for anonymity that Wilbur’s sister-in-law remarked, “The boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push.”
Wilbur’s only response was to write her a contrite and apologetic letter in which he stated that, “Not one of us has as yet made use of the talents in which he excels other men.”
Soon after that, Wilbur became fascinated with recent experiments with fixed wing gliders and in 1900, after doing extensive research into weather patterns across the country, he visited Kitty Hawk, NC, the ideal site for practice flights. The site had constant winds to propel Wilbur’s experimental aircraft and a stretch of sand dunes for take-offs and safe landings.
Not long afterwards, Orville joined him and they used the proceeds from their bicycle business to finance their experiments.
After initial failures in 1901, in 1902 the brothers were having massively successful glides and on Dec. 17, 1903, they achieved sustained flight with a heavier than air vehicle. Wilbur wrote home to his family that “The Age of the Flying Machine has come at last.”
While Tobin’s lecture was well done, several technical issues marred his talk.
The most prominent problem was the series of thuds coming from the speakers, the periodic booms startled the audience and made it difficult to hear or focus on Tobin. Eventually, it became clear that Tobin’s breathing was being picked up by his microphone, but proper microphone placement should have never been an issue.
Overall, the lecture was a success and the audience clearly enjoyed the event, but the Great Lives staff will need to make sure that the technical problems do not repeat themselves at the remaining lectures in this semester’s series.