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First Flight, First Fabric

12/17/2003 12:00 PM N52/Museum
Deborah G. Douglas, Curator, Science and Technology Collections, MIT Museum

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.

About the Speaker(s): Deborah G. Douglas oversees the MIT Museum's extensive science and technology collections. Prior to joining the museum's staff in 1999, she worked as an independent scholar specializing in the history of technology and science. From 1994 through 1999, she served as the Visiting Historian for the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and as adjunct assistant professor of History at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Her subjects include the history of technology, gender and technology, and U.S. history. Dr. Douglas is the author of American Women and Flight since 1940. Douglas received her AB in history from Wellesley College and holds AM and Ph.D. degrees in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Her exhibit, Hub of the Air Universe: A Century of Flight in Massachusetts, opened at the MIT Museum in November 2003.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

Tape #: T18093

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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