Liars & Flyers

The Wright brothers made their first public flight on this day in 1908, a spin by Wilbur around a racecourse in Le Mans, France. It had been almost five years since the Wrights’ first, history-setting flight; over that period, as they tried to secure patents and protect their ideas from rival aviators, they had flown little, and not at all through 1906-7. This had frustrated an expectant world and raised doubts among many journalists, some in America questioning the Wrights’ “alleged experiments” and some in France, home of the chief competition, wondering if they were bluffeurs and “more liars than fliers.”

Although the August 8 flight was less than two minutes long, it was full of unprecedented banks and turns, and an unqualified triumph. The French offered their admiration and apologies; the Dayton, Ohio, paper crowned their hometown heroes “Conquerors of Air”; and a captivated world prepared for a makeover:

Attitudes towards aviation on both sides of the Atlantic moved directly from disbelief and astonishment to visions of an aeronautical paradise just around the corner, with aeroplanes replacing automobiles and “aerial buses” to convey commuters. There was a sudden sense of epochs shifting. In postcards, posters and advertisements, commercial artists seized upon the beauty of the new monoplanes.… Clearly, a new and practical form of transportation had been born. Yet it was not a sense of the usefulness of flight that sprang to the minds of witnesses who saw that first, shocking figure 8, but rather an appreciation of its “incomparable beauty….. Nothing can give an idea of the emotion experienced, and the impression felt, at this last flight, a flight of masterly assurance and incomparable elegance.

The above is excerpted from James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Tobin goes on to document the fall to earth of the Wrights’ hope that they might stick to experimental flying, avoiding “vexatious lawsuits” over their patents and “the mountebank business” of marketing. Wilbur died in 1912, aged forty-five, but Orville lived to see the airplane in action in two world wars — the conquering now from, rather than of, air. “I once thought the aeroplane would end wars,” Orville reflected after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I now wonder whether the aeroplane and the atomic bomb can do it.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at