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Sailing the Ozone Ocean Blue: The Wright Brothers Tour the Solar System

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This post was written by Lesley Anderson, 2021-2022 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

In the twenty-first century, we often take it for granted that we can jump on a plane and fly almost anywhere in the world. Just over 100 years ago, this concept would have been laughed at.

This cartoon from the Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers represents some interesting expectations for manned flight in 1909. Students in an introductory physical science class or earth science class may engage with the cartoon to better understand the historical roots of aviation.

Cartoon from 1909 of the Wright brothers in their biplane with the planet making comments about their flight.
They Sail the Ozone Ocean Blue from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 June 1909

Introduce the image to students one piece at a time. First, show them just the plane. Ask them what they notice, what they think is happening in the drawing, and what they wonder about it.  Then, ask them to make predictions about who they believe the two men are who are flying. Focus students on the banner trailing from the plane if they need support in identifying the men.

Once students have identified that this is an early biplane flown by the Wright Brothers, share a zoomed in image of each celestial object and ask students to identify what they believe the facial expressions of each indicates. When students have written down their ideas, ask them to share their thoughts with a partner and think about what the illustrator might be trying to indicate about manned flight. Then share the full cartoon with students and direct them to engage with the text associated with each planet. How do these thought bubbles change their thinking about what the author is implying?

After students see the entire cartoon, ask them to write down their lingering questions. Encourage students to focus on the text in the cartoon and develop questions that will inspire discussion. Students may ask:

  • What is the “ozone ocean blue”?
  • Why are the Wright Brothers considered “Monarchs of the Air”?
  • Why is the author likening flying to sailing?

Additionally, students may be interested in where this piece of history was contributed within the Library. Encourage students to think about why the Wright Brothers chose to include this particular cartoon in their scrapbook when there were many cartoons published about them in newspapers at that time. Ask students to think about their own experience with scrapbooking and make inferences about the importance of this cartoon to the Wright Brothers.

Another potential strategy to introduce this primary source involves removing the text boxes from each planet so students can make their own predictions about what each of the planets would say based on their facial expressions. Students might even be inspired to create their own comics about historical scientific events.


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