Orville Wright (1871-1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) requested a patent application for a "flying machine" nine months before their successful flight in December 1903, which Orville Wright recorded in his diary. As part of the Wright Brothers' systematic practice of photographing every prototype and test of their various flying machines, they had persuaded an attendant from a nearby lifesaving station to snap Orville Wright in full flight. The craft soared to an altitude of 10 feet, traveled 120 feet, and landed 12 seconds after takeoff. After making two longer flights that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright sent this telegram to their father, instructing him to "inform press."Earlier in 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote to French aviation pioneer Octave Chanute (1832-1910) and expressed the belief that "flight is possible to man...[and] I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life". More on the Wright Brothers' invention of the airplane.The story of the invention of the airplane is a Puritan fairy tale. It is the story of how two honest, straightforward, hard-working Americans accomplished something fantastic and magical -- creating a craft of stick and fabric that mounted the air like the chariots of the gods, opening the skies to all humankind. Their success came so suddenly and from such an unexpected quarter that their contemporaries could not believe the Wrights had done what they claimed. After all, if prominent scientists and engineers the world over had been confounded in their efforts to invent the airplane, how could two common men from rustic America have succeeded?

Like many fairy tales, the story also has a dark and unhappy ending.

Around the turn of the century, dozens of people were working to invent the airplane. The period of active experimentation begins in 1891, when noted German engineer Otto Lilienthal began experimenting with hang gliders. Lilienthal took seriously the ideas advocated by Sir George Cayley almost...