“The Belief that Flight is Possible to Man”: A Historic Letter for the Classroom
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. —Wilbur Wright’s letter to Octave Chanute, dated May 13, 1900
A noteworthy letter
These visionary words were written three years before the Wright Brothers completed their first controlled flight. This letter, destined to mark a pivotal point in the history of invention, was addressed to civil engineer and aeronautical pioneer, Octave Chanute. It articulated Wilbur’s major issue with human flight as a matter of “skill rather than machinery” and set out his plan for solving this problem. Chanute recognized its sincerity and wrote back saying he was, “quite in sympathy.” He went on to offer the Wright brothers valuable advice in their endeavor. Thus began a correspondence that would continue for many years and provide a chronicle to this major advancement in science and engineering.
Informational text with applications across disciplines
A close reading of the letter offers students practice with a complex informational text. As a primary source with multi-disciplinary applications, it aligns with the Common Core grades 11–CRR Anchor Standard for Reading CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
Careful analysis of this letter can be a vehicle to build contextual knowledge in three subject disciplines: English language arts, history/social studies, and STEM.
Three approaches for the Common Core
A scientific and technical approach to this letter offers students the opportunity to gain knowledge from a document that makes use of scientific principles to convey information and illustrate concepts. Have them describe Wilbur’s plan and procedure for designing a flight apparatus including what elements he may have left out. Then analyze why he outlined it in such detail and what he hoped to accomplish in this experiment. Students can form a hypothesis about what happened before this letter and what might happen next. Refer to additional resources on the Wright brothers’ experiments for a larger understanding of the letter’s significance in the history of science and technology. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.6 Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
For a historical approach, the Wright letter can be used as a means to analyze and evaluate primary and secondary source documents by having students tap into the topic The Wright Brothers in Chronicling America. Read and analyze historical newspaper reports about the brothers published in the early years of the twentieth century to consider how these later accounts enhance and expand upon information presented in the primary source letter document. From the newspaper accounts, students can determine if there are any echoes of concerns raised by Wilbur in the 1900 letter. They can identify the effects of Wilbur’s original vision and discuss what they learned about the brother-inventors’ thinking and work while reflecting upon the reported implications of this invention for the early 20th-century reading public. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
In English language arts, students are asked to analyze informational texts and evaluate the structure an author uses in making an argument. One literary approach would be to ask students to determine the intent behind Wilbur’s correspondence and to consider what it infers directly and indirectly about his character. EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project collection’s webpage from the Library of Congress: The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, “The Belief That Flight is Possible to Man” provides additional background for this activity. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Another application for ELA classes would be to use the letter to gain contextual background of the 20th-century modernist movement. EDSITEment’s Lesson 1: Understanding the Context of Modernist Poetry, Activity 2 has students reflect on various events and inventions at the turn of the century that radically transformed society and led to a “modernist” worldview. Chief among the forces that prompted such wide-scale change was the quickened pace in transportation wrought by the Wright Brother’s invention of human flight. This lesson encourages students to imagine life before and after this key moment in history and to consider how this technological breakthrough affected individuals in their local and larger worlds.
Today, historians realize that we would have very little hard information about the development of human flight without the correspondence between the Wrights and Chanute. Wilbur’s “belief that flight is possible” letter is a window back in time for students to grasp the scientific and historic importance of a seminal moment in technological discovery.