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Great Lives series is about to get some air with Wright brothers historian
BY KURT RABIN
The speakers at the University of Mary Washington’s Great Lives lecture series have been drawing record crowds this year, according to program associate director Charles J. Shields. With the series flying high in its ninth season, two appropriate subjects for study are those aeronautic geniuses the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville.
James Tobin, author of “To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight” and Pulitzer Prize-nominated former Detroit News reporter, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, at UMW’s Dodd Auditorium.
Now a journalism professor at Miami University of Ohio, Tobin published his book on the Wright brothers in 2003 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of their history-making flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
When we caught up with the historian–author by phone recently, he was happy to discuss the men who conducted the first successful tests of a heavier-than-air, engine-powered machine, even as he said his attention is now fully trained on the relationship of a former U.S. president with a disability. (His next book will concern Franklin D. Roosevelt and polio.)
Tobin said the thing he most loved finding out about the brothers was the way they found themselves in the flying business “in the sheer spirit of play, of hobbyists. There are no more difficult problems than those in aeronautics. I loved the pure intellectual curiosity.”
Tobin said the biggest misconception about the Wrights is that they didn’t invent the airplane. “There are claimants for the precursors, people looking for a fresh angle,” he said.
But the Wrights did invent the airplane, he said. “They were the first to conceive of the problem properly.”
By altering the angles of wing tips and twisting wing structures, the brothers found an elegant and efficient way to remain aloft.
Tobin said that the Wrights’ “whole idea of control, the essential problem of balancing” represented a conceptual leap forward from the hot-air balloon.
The best thing about researching “Conquer,” said its author, was the sheer fun he had being at Kitty Hawk with Wright brothers expert Nick Engler, who builds replicas of their aircraft. Being at the sand dunes with nobody around made things as close to a re-enactment as one is likely to experience, Tobin said, and produced “a sense of admiration for the machine itself.”
The Wrights, lifelong bachelors, lived at home with their devoutly religious, widowed father in Dayton Ohio, where they ran a bicycle shop. They had a sibling bond that was unusual and strong. They would finish each other’s sentences.
However, it is Wilbur, with his superior imagination and extraordinary powers of concentration, who Tobin says was the driving force behind the brothers’ accomplishments. But Tobin is quick to credit Orville, whom he calls a good scientist.
The brothers’ efforts would culminate on Dec. 17, 1903, in the first fully sustained, powered flight that spanned one-sixth of a mile in just under a minute. While Norfolk’s Virginian–Pilot was the first newspaper to publicize their achievement, most publications turned a blind eye.
Frank Tunison, editor of the Wrights’ hometown Dayton Journal, couldn’t have cared less. “Fifty-seven seconds,” he said. “If it were 57 minutes, it might be worth mentioning.”
Tobin said he had a lot of fun learning about the reporters at the time, many of whom were missing the story of their lives right before their eyes.
“Any smart reporter knows, you’re doing your best,” said the former reporter, “but there’s stuff you’re missing.”
What: Great Lives lecture on the Wright brothers with author James Tobin
Where: UMW, Dodd Auditorium
When: Thursday, April 12, 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Free. Books will be for sale at the event.
Info: 540/654-1065; umw.edu/greatlives
Kurt Rabin: 540/374-5000