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Celebrate National Aviation Month with the Wright Brothers and Primary Sources

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This post was written by Amara L. Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress

November is hailed as National Aviation History Month to celebrate America’s contributions to – and future endeavors in – aviation. From early experiments with hot air balloons to the first sustained flight to NASA’s Space Launch System, aviation has grown over the past century. To celebrate the month, let’s explore two pioneers of flight: The Wright Brothers.

Program from The Wright Brothers Home Celebration, 17 and 18 June 1909

Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, worked together to solve the complex problem of controlled, powered flight. The brothers’ design concepts and lessons learned from previous flight tests proved a success on December 17, 1903. Their simple Flying Machine traveled 852 feet in distance with Wilbur piloting the flight for 49 seconds. Outstanding! The Wright Brothers’ Papers are preserved and made available online at the Library of Congress.

The Home Celebration Program documents a hometown celebration of the Wright brothers’ accomplishments. Use the primary source tool and selected questions from the Teachers’ Guide: Analyzing Books & Other Printed Texts to help students observe details and reflect on the text’s purpose. Invite students to share their observations and questions they have about the document.

After the flight, the brothers sent a telegram to their father. Telegrams were messages composed and sent to friends and family over electrical wires like a present-day text message or email. Distribute or display the telegram and allow students time to read and formulate questions concerning the document. Orville sent the telegram to inform his family of the successful flights achieved on that day. What technologies are used today to communicate with families? How has communication changed since 1903? In what ways has it stayed the same?

With the success of the Flying Machine, the Wright brothers submitted a patent to the Department of the Interior, United States Patent Office, but the patent request was denied.

Wright Brothers Flying Machine Patent, page 13, May 22, 1906

Wright Brothers Flying Machine Patent, page 3, May 22, 1906

Use the questions to help facilitate group discussions.

  • Why did the Wright Brothers petition the United States Patent Office?
  • According to the  Patent Office’s response, what documents were missing from the patent application?

Extension Activities

  • Research to discover if the Wright Brothers registered any other inventions;
  • Create aircrafts, fly them and measure the distance;
  • Encourage students write a telegram to the Wright Brothers informing them how their invention transformed flight;
  • Write a patent for a student-made invention;
  • Research other aviators.

The Wright Brothers have a fascinating story filled with success, failure and perseverance. Check out The Inventive Wright Brothers Primary Source Set for more primary sources related to their story.

How you are celebrating National Aviation Month? Let us know in the comments.


  1. These are fantastic items to display and thus make available. I’ve spent a good deal of time in both Ohio and North Carolina, where the tussle continues over who is really “first in flight.” Thank you for sharing these works during Aviation Month!

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