First Flight, First Fabric—Aviation's Most Precious Relic

author: Deborah G. Douglas, MIT Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: May 3, 2013,   recorded: December 2003,   views: 80
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Description

On the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, Deborah Douglas manages to tease several story strands out of a one-inch-square piece of fabric. The object at the center of her lecture is a sacred aviation relic, part of the wing covering used in the famous 1903 Wright Brothers flyer. Douglas turns back the clock to 1916—when the Institute was celebrating its new campus in Cambridge. This “Pageant of Progress” featured the 1903 Flyer, and dozens of alumni attended, including some who went on to illustrious careers in aviation. After Orville Wright died, he bequeathed fabric from the Flyer to Lester Gardner (B.S., MIT 1898), founder of what was to become Aviation Week & Space Technology. Gardiner mounted pieces of the fabric on certificates, and, according to Douglas, created a shrine for them in his library.

By mid-century, airplanes dominated the imagination of the American public, symbolizing modernity and progress. Speed was emerging as a central cultural value. Douglas details all that we owe “to the huge communities of people that work together to keep a small number of vehicles in the air.”

This lecture is part of the MIT Museum's Object Lessons, a monthly series of gallery talks.

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