Loaded to the gunwales and painted bright white, the ships steamed away, stretching out into a three-mile column. Not everyone understood exactly why Roosevelt sent those battleships around the world. Even now, it's difficult to give a simple answer. At the time, some Americans worried that the voyage was extravagant, rash and likely to provoke a war, most likely with Japan. Indeed, Roosevelt harbored real concerns that Japan, newly emboldened by a recent naval victory over Russia and angered by the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants in America, might pose a threat to the Philippines and other U.S. interests. "I had been doing my best to be polite to the Japanese and had finally become uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence," he would write a few years later of his decision to send out the fleet. "[I]t was time for a showdown."
But Roosevelt also filled those 16 ships with friendly greetings and U.S. dollars. Among his instructions to commanders were firm words on preserving decorum among the ships' 13,000 sailors. Throughout 1908, as the battleships steamed port to port, from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, they were greeted with adulation and American flags. When the fleet finally reached Japan in October of 1908, tens of thousands of schoolchildren greeted it by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Tensions between the two countries evaporated, and the voyage, once belittled by many as a dangerous stunt, was now applauded as a stunning success. Seldom has a president combined so deftly a message of power with offerings of peace.
To Americans, who were treated to endless stories about the 14-month voyage in newspapers and magazines, the Great White Fleet was a show of strength. The U.S. Navy was now on a par with Germany's navy and second only to Great Britain's. And America, with its capacity to produce more steel than Britain and Germany combined, could build ships faster than any country on earth.
The sky was full of miracles. In New York City, stupendous new buildings pointed upward to where the future seemed to beckon. The Singer Building, headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was completed in the spring of 1908. At 612 feet, the "Singerhorn" (as wits soon began to call it, after the Matterhorn) was the highest inhabited building in the world. A few months later, the steel frame of the Metropolitan Life Building leapt over the Singer to 700 feet.
Illustrators imagined a future city of golden towers connected by slender suspension bridges and great masonry arches. Moses King, in a 1908 illustration, imagined dirigibles and other flying craft floating over vaulting towers and bridges in New York City, bound for destinations such as the Panama Canal and the North Pole. A caption referred to "possibilities of aerial and interterrestrial construction, when the wonders of 1908...will be far outdone."
No aerial wonder topped the Wright brothers' feats that year. Absent from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since their first brief flights there in 1903—and not having flown a lick since 1905—they returned to nearby Kill Devil Hills in April to dig out their old shed and dust off their piloting skills. The Wrights' ability to fly had advanced beyond their first thrilling seconds in the air—but their competitors had also advanced, and the Wrights felt the pressure. A coterie of bright and ambitious young men had joined Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). On March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, had flown above an icy lake for a distance of almost 320 feet. Four months later, on the Fourth of July, Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew an AEA craft nearly a mile over Hammondsport.
For the previous three years, as the Wrights had dallied with possible buyers of their aircraft, critics and competitors increasingly construed their reticence to fly as evidence of failure or, worse, of fraud. Now, in the spring of 1908, they had two offers of purchase—from the U.S. Army and a private French syndicate. Both offers depended on public demonstrations of the aircraft. After a few weeks of practice in Kitty Hawk, Wilbur sailed to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer. Orville undertook his own flight trial at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. The time had come to put up or shut up.
It was 6:30 on the evening of August 8 when Wilbur climbed into the seat of his Wright Flyer at a horse track near Le Mans. He wore his usual gray suit, starched white collar and green cap, turned backward so it would not blow off in flight. The evening was calm, and so, outwardly, was he. This would be the first public demonstration of a Wright plane. Much, possibly everything, was riding on it. The last time he had flown—a private practice flight at Kitty Hawk in May—he had crashed and destroyed the plane. If he did so now, the French trials would be over before they had begun, and the name Veelbur Reet, as they pronounced it in Le Mans, would be the punch-line of a French joke.
Spectators watched from the grandstand as the twin propellers behind Wilbur started to spin. All at once, the plane shot forward on its track. Four seconds later, it was airborne, rising quickly to 30 feet, higher than most of the French aviators had flown but low enough to give the audience a view of Wilbur as he made a slight adjustment to the control levers. The plane instantly responded, one wing dipping, the other lifting, and banked to the left in a tight, smooth half circle. Coming out of the turn, the plane made a straight run down the length of the track, about 875 yards, then banked and turned into another half circle. Wilbur Wright looped the field once more, then brought the plane down almost exactly where he had taken off less than two minutes earlier.
The flight had been brief, but those 100 or so seconds were arguably the most important Wilbur had spent in the air since 1903. Spectators ran across the field to shake his hand, including the same French aviators who had only recently dismissed him as a charlatan. LŽon Delagrange was beside himself. "Magnificent! Magnificent!" he cried out. "We're beaten! We don't exist!" Overnight, Wilbur was transformed from le bluffeur, as the French press had tagged him, to the "Bird Man," the most celebrated American in France since Benjamin Franklin. "You never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place," he wrote to Orville. "The French have simply become wild."