Ohio History Journal

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Miracle at Kittyhawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Edited

by Fred C. Kelly. (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1951. ix+482p.,

frontispiece, illustrations, and index. $6.00.)

The publisher of this volume of letters has chosen to call Wilbur and

Orville Wright "two of the greatest and most fabulous figures of modern

times." Those who have been closest to the lives and the work of these men

will probably approve that characterization, for history can identify few

notable persons who might so easily have been drawn from the pages of


The executors of Orville Wright's estate have deposited some thirty

thousand of the Wrights' letters in the Manuscript Division of the Library

of Congress, where they will be closed to general use until 1960. Of these,

about one-third are believed to have been written by the brothers them-

selves. From the entire collection, Mr. Kelly has selected approximately six

hundred letters "to provide a record approaching the equivalent of auto-

biography." The letters are arranged chronologically. The editor's notes are

interpolated to supply biographical and explanatory data and, occasionally,

as editorial commentaries upon information contained in the letters.

Here, chiefly in the words of Wilbur and Orville Wright, is a revealing

account of the thinking and the labor which attended one of the most re-

markable achievements in history. In 1895 the brothers were reading about

the gliding experiments conducted by Otto Lilienthal in Germany. Four

years later, Wilbur asked the Smithsonian Institution for copies of pub-

lications on flying, explaining that he was "about to begin a systematic

study of the subject in preparation for practical work." His simple announce-

ment was prophetic. No two words better describe the Wrights' approach

to the flying problem than do "systematic" and "practical," for the

brothers moved in simple, logical progression from one aerodynamic prob-

lem to another until December 17, 1903, when Orville made the first

"free, controlled, and sustained flight" in a power-driven, heavier-than-air


The momentous importance of their first successful flights has tended

to make the Wrights' activities in later years seem anticlimactic. It is

fortunate, therefore, that three-fourths of the letters in this collection cover

the period after 1903; for the later correspondence establishes the significance

of the Wrights' patent litigation, of the negotiations with their own and