December 17, 1903

By James Fallows

On a brighter note, I wanted to use this anniversary as an occasion to celebrate one of the most remarkable photographs ever taken. It is this one, made 109 years ago today. It shows Orville Wright aboard his plane, and his brother Wilbur running alongside, at the instant their Wright Flyer lifted off above the sand at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina on the first successful flight of a self-powered heavier-than-air craft.


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Contrary to how it might look at first, the plane is headed away from us, and toward the right. Orville Wright is lying down at the controls, with his head toward the right of the photo and his feet to the left, near the craft's tail. The supporting rail on which the Flyer made its initial run, and from which it has just lifted off, stretches back downward and to the left.

The photo was taken by John T. Daniels, of the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station. As a visual composition, I think it has a Whistler-style stark beauty with its palette of whites, blacks, and grays. But perhaps I feel that way because of the historical significance of the instant that John T. Daniels managed to capture. I can't just now think of another photograph that, in real time, was taken at just the moment when technological and social history so dramatically changed. We don't have a photo of Watson and Crick at the moment they deduced the structure of DNA, a photo of Thomas Edison at the moment he created a working light bulb, a photo of Columbus when he caught sight of the West Indies, or James Watt when his first steam engine ran, a photo of ... choose your comparison. The shots of the first steps on the Moon and other space-age ventures are different, in that they involved years-long well publicized buildups.

Nine years ago, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Flyer's first successful flight, I was down amid the throngs at Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk watching an attempted re-enactment. The replica Flyer was carefully true to the original Wright model. But the winds weren't right, or the sand was too wet, or something else was off, because a century later the plane didn't get off the ground. More credit to the Wrights for what they did -- and almost as much to to John T. Daniels for a genuinely astonishing and historic photo.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/12/december-17-1903/266376/