Story of Wright brothers' work continues to enthrall Tise
'Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk' focuses on 1908
Larry Tise with a copy of his newest work focusing on the Wright brothers.
(Oct. 13, 2009)
In his newest work on the Wright Brothers, Larry Tise pieces together the puzzle of the brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, their perpetual secrecy, and the moment when the world discovered their amazing flying skills in May 1908.
“Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) focuses on the brothers’ covert tests in May 1908 as they played a game of cat-and-mouse with international press reporters and nosy Outer Banks locals and raced the clock to produce flying technology that could be used by the governments of Europe and the United States.
“So many of the letters written by the Wright brothers while in Kitty Hawk have not been published,” said Tise, who is the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at ECU.
Tise grew up in North Carolina and was always interested in the Wright brothers. During the centennial of their famous 1903 flight, he started working seriously on the Wright brothers’ North Carolina story.
“We know the story of the first flight on Dec. 17, 1903, but what happened after that day hasn’t been told. This is the story of what happened after that first flight. Most people are not aware that the Wright Brothers came back to Kitty Hawk for further test flights,” said Tise, who teaches history in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences.
Between 1903 and when their work was shown to the world in 1908, the Wright Brothers worked privately and secretly on their flying machine. Meanwhile, would-be French aeronauts were working publicly and were being well documented in the process.
“Everyone assumed that the French group was way ahead (in the technology race),” Tise said. The Wright Brothers knew that eventually they would have to fly publicly and headed back from Dayton, Ohio to North Carolina to prepare, he said.
In 1908, they hoped and believed that they could continue work in secret on the Outer Banks. However, as soon as they got back to Kitty Hawk, word quickly spread through the community. “Conquering the Sky” focuses on the seven-day period in 1908 when the Wright brothers went from relative anonymity to worldwide recognition as virtual cult celebrities of flight.
“Word had gotten out–totally fictional–that they were flying out over the ocean. Newspapers around the world published that as fact,” said Tise. “The New York Herald and the London Daily Mail, two of the leading newspapers on technological innovations of the day sent reporters to the Outer Banks. They were interested in the advancement of new weapons.”
“Even after reporters were on site, they still couldn’t get the story right,” said Tise with a laugh. “And that has to do with the nature of the Outer Banks. Reporters stayed in Manteo, and the Wright Brothers were in Kill Devil Hills. The Wright Brothers would not fly if the reporters were there.”
“Reporters would leave Kill Devil Hills around noon thinking the brothers weren’t flying that day,” heading back across the sound via boat to Manteo, Tise said. “Then the Wright Brothers would bring their airplane out for testing.”
“It was a colossal comedy of errors between the reporters, the Wright Brothers and the life-saving crews. The crew members would tell the reporters wild tales of how far the Wright Brothers had flown out over the ocean – up to two miles from shore. And the reporters would wire it in as a story,” he said.
Tise pointed out it’s important to remember that the famous image of the Wright Brothers flight on Dec. 17, 1903 wasn’t published until Sept. 1, 1908. The brothers kept that image–along with others taken in 1904 and 1905 documenting their work–filed away in their shop in Dayton, Ohio. So, even though the Wright Brothers had carefully documented all of their flights at both Kitty Hawk and Dayton in prior years, the reporters did not accept their claims and they chased the story tirelessly.
“During a period of seven days in May 1908, the Wright brothers’ flying machine and their flights came to be observed vicariously and thus publicly by the world’s press,” Tise wrote in the book’s preface.
Even though “Conquering the Sky” focuses on the historical details of the Wright brothers work and travels, it is written in a conversational tone for general readers with an interest in this part of American history, Tise said. It’s not written as a history textbook, instead it focuses principally on Wilbur Wright’s point of view.
Each chapter of the book opens with a historical photograph, such as the Lifesavers at the Kitty Hawk Life Saving Station, who served the brothers as construction assistants and ground crews, and the first published photo of the secret flights on May 14, 1908 taken by world-renowned photojournalist James Hare, who had been sent to Kitty Hawk by “Collier’s Weekly” to capture the first photograph of a Wright brother’s airplane in flight. That photograph was the “first public proof that the brothers had indeed solved the problem of flight,” Tise wrote.
“Most historians treat the Wright Brothers as great American heroes,” Tise said. “I see them partly as tragic figures. Once they had the invention, they wanted to be like Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell and become rich off their invention and work.
“They got the patent on their flying machine, and then they didn’t work to further flight. They worked to protect the patent. They became obsessed with making money and protecting the patent,” he said.
Tise is not finished with his study of the Wright Brothers. He is now editing the North Carolina-related papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, which have been at the Library of Congress since 1949. Tise plans to distill the 4,000 pages of material he has transcribed to produce a complete edition on the Wright brothers’ experience and heritage in North Carolina.
The interest in the Wright Brothers continues. Tise has already made a variety of television and radio appearances regarding the book. Articles and reviews have already appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, the Dayton Daily News, and the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. He is also scheduled to speak on the book at the National Archives in Washington and at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
During October through December, Tise is also scheduled for book signings at the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History in Washington. During those same months, he will often be signing copies of the book at a Raleigh-Durham International Airport bookstore as well.
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Jeannine Manning Hutson, ECU News Services, firstname.lastname@example.org