Primary Source Starter: The Wright Brothers’ Crumpled Glider

This is a guest post from Johnathan Abreu of the Library of Congress.

What is the price of success? Inventors often stake their reputations and personal fortunes on their creations, but Orville and Wilbur Wright risked physical harm as well.

Crumpled glider wrecked by the wind on Hill of the Wreck

We tend to think of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as the birthplace of manned flight, but it was also a graveyard for various aircraft test models developed by the Wright brothers. This photograph, taken October 10, 1900, near Kitty Hawk, shows the mangled wreckage of an early glider, torn apart by strong winds on the appropriately named “Hill of the Wreck.”

The crumpled glider in the photo  illustrates the risk and danger of early aviation. Fellow aeronaut Otto Lilienthal had fallen to his death in 1896 during a trial flight of his own glider, and the Wright Glider employed wing designs based on Lilienthal’s previous work on aerodynamic lift. The 1900 and 1901 experiments in Kitty Hawk were not successful, but they demonstrated that the Wright brothers had made significant headway in wing design. While the model shown was tested unmanned under controlled conditions, Wilbur personally made a number of successful manned test flights using another glider.

Kitty Hawk # 30, 1901

Wilbur and Orville had tested these concepts rigorously, finally achieving manned, powered, and controlled flight for the first time in human history on December 17, 1903. An excited Orville sent a telegram to his father from Kitty Hawk asking him to inform the press, ending his telegram “home Christmas.” Perhaps their earlier failures paved the way to success and added sparkle to their holiday celebrations at home.

Students may:

  • Study the photograph Crumpled Glider and write a description of what they see. What do they think happened a minute before the picture was taken? What do they think happened on minute after the picture was taken?
  • Compare the Crumpled Glider photograph with Kitty Hawk #30, 1901 and First Flight. Ask them to arrange the pictures chronologically. What differences do they see over time?
  • Speculate on why Wilbur and Orville Wright persisted with their experiments even when faced with Otto Lilienthal’s death, the failure of their first attempts at flight, and continuing financial difficulties. Students may explore the Wright brothers’ papers to learn more about their perseverance. One example of their perseverance can be found in Wilbur Wright’s letter to his father sent September 23, 1900.

Related resources from the Library of Congress:

Printable PDF versions of the primary sources identified in this post, as well as additional historical background and teaching ideas, are available in the primary source set The Inventive Wright Brothers.

Select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus students’ observations and thinking.

Students may record their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

What can students learn about perseverance and scientific processes by studying these photographs of the Wright brothers’ test flights?

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