Diary Entry of December 17, 1903

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Editor: Cynthia Rose
Date: 2004
From: American Decades Primary Sources(Vol. 1: 1900-1909. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Diary entry
Length: 1,379 words
Content Level: (Intermediate)

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Diary Entry of December
17, 1903


By: Orville Wright

Date: December 17, 1903

Source: Wright, Orville. Diary entry of December 17, 1903. In McFarland, Marvin W., ed. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Vol. 1: 1899–1905. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953, 394–396.

About the Author: Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) was born on a farm in Indiana. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his brother Orville was born in 1871. The two ran a print shop from 1889 to 1892 and began manufacturing bicycles in 1895. In 1899 they started tinkering with gliders, adding a gasoline engine in 1903 to achieve the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur died in 1912 and Orville in 1948.


Until the early twentieth century, flight was possible only with gliders, hot-air balloons, and dirigibles. Although Smithsonian Institution director Samuel P. Langley, an advocate of the steam engine, remarked in 1891 that "Mechanical flight is possible with engines we now possess," the steam engine and electric motor were too heavy for the horsepower they generated. Starting in 1887 Langley tinkered with model airplanes as heavy as thirty pounds, and in 1896 he actually flew a model with a twelve-foot wingspan, a one-horsepower steam engine, and twin propellers three thousand feet along the Potomac River. That year, too, American engineer Octave Chanute began experimenting with gliders, designing one with two pairs of wings, a prototype of the biplane. In 1903 Langley built a full-size airplane, the Aerodrome, and hired Charles M. Manly to pilot it. That fall Manly twice tried to fly it but failed both times.


Nine days after Manly's second failure Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was the gasoline-powered engine, rather than Langley's steam engine, that made their flight possible. Their success launched the twentieth century as the age of aviation and stimulated a frenzy of interest in the airplane. In 1907, Alexander Graham Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association to promote the design of larger and safer planes. Bell regarded the Wrights' planes as hazardous because they required great speed to get aloft.

This interest in aviation paid dividends the next decade, as European and American armies used the airplane for reconnaissance and in combat during World War Page 597  |  Top of Article
Wright brothers first flight. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. December 17, 1903. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Wright brothers' first flight. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. December 17, 1903. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
I (1914–1918). The military use of airplanes prompted governments to pour money into their construction, yielding a surplus for civilian use after the war. During the 1920s Americans began to glimpse the potential of the airplane, using it to dust crops and deliver mail. Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927 proved that the airplane could travel vast distances with a speed that had before been impossible. The advent of the jet engine after World War II (1939–1945) ushered in the modern era of aviation. Manufacturers could now build jet planes large enough to carry hundreds of passengers. Flight had become a reality for all Americans, not the privileged few.

Primary Source: Diary entry of December 17, 1903 [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt Orville Wright describes the Wright brothers' historic flight on December 17, 1903. That day they made four flights, each of which they recorded in methodical language. Nowhere in this excerpt does one glimpse the excitement and sense of historic importance that the Wright brothers must have felt.

When we got up a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the station. Before we were quite ready, John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, A. D. Etheridge, W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore of Nags Head arrived. After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked. After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial. The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer Page 598  |  Top of Article over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong. With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o'clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will's, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet. At just 12 o'clock Will started on the fourth and last trip. The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course. It proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground. The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame suffered none at all. The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds. The engine turns was 1071, but this included several seconds while on the starting ways and probably about a half second after landing. The jar of landing had set the watch on machine back so that we have no exact record for the 1071 turns. Will took a picture of my third flight just before the gust struck the machine.

Further Resources


Augelucci, Enzo. Airplane: From the Dawn of Flight to the Present Day. New York: Greenwich House, 1971.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America, 1900–1983: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Boyne, Walter J. The Smithsonian Book of Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1987.

Freudenthal, Elsbeth E. Flight into History: The Wright Brothers and the Air Age. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Moolman, Valerie. The Road to Kitty Hawk. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Scott, Phil. The Pioneers of Flight: A Documentary History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.


Horgan, James. "Aeronautics at the World's Fair of 1904." Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, April 1968, 215–246.

Walcott, C. D. "Biographical Memoir of Samuel P. Langley, 1834–1906." National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, April 1912, 247.


Gates, Bill. "The Wright Brothers." The 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Time. Available online at http://www.time.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/wright.html ; website home page: http://www.time.com (accessed January 5, 2003).

Wright, Orville. "How We Made the First Flight." Aviation Enthusiast Corner. Available online at http://www.aero-web.org/history/wright/first.htm ; website home page: http://www.aero-web.org (accessed January 5, 2003).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Diary Entry of December 17, 1903." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 1: 1900-1909, Gale, 2004, pp. 596-598. Gale In Context: U.S. History, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3490200178%2FUHIC%3Fu%3Dazpcld%26sid%3DUHIC%26xid%3D03da1c89. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490200178