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Staff Favorites: Flight is Possible

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We are often asked which Library of Congress primary source is our favorite. We could never choose just one, but this week Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress, highlights an especially intriguing or engaging primary source from the Library’s online collections.

Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, 5/13/1900
Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, 5/13/1900

My “favorite” primary source . . . well, one of them, anyway.

On May 13, 1900, using stationery of the Wright Cycle Company, Wilbur Wright handwrote a letter to fellow aviation pioneer Octave Chanute of Chicago, Illinois. I love this 5 page letter!

It contains some of the very best human emotions–passion, optimism, tenacity, curiosity, and recognition that together we can solve big problems.

Wright began by explaining, “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. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.”

Later in the letter, he emphatically stated his belief that manned flight was attainable. “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill,” he explained. He further declared that flight pioneers needed to share insights and successes, “The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret.” And he argued that sharing would cause them no financial harm, since he believed it was unlikely that the inventor of the first flying machine would make a profit. Lastly, Wright described his planned training regimen and requested Chanute’s advice on geographical locations with strong wind velocities and other attributes needed in a test site.

This letter is one of several hundred exchanged between Chanute and the Wright brothers, touching on every phase and stage of aeronautical development between 1900 and 1910. Since the Wrights generally kept no copies of their outgoing letters, researchers are indebted to Chanute, who saved virtually everything he received from the brothers who were credited with successfully making the first controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903. Check out the Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress for more!

We featured this letter in a “Right to the Source” article, published in the December 2014 issue of The Science Teacher journal of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).


  1. I enjoyed reading this letter–it inspired me to explore the history and read more of letters between Wright and Chanute. As a teacher, I hope to find primary sources to use in my classroom that will encourage students to do the same– to peak their interest in a topic and inspire them to look beyond their textbooks. Thanks for sharing!

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