The Feud Between The Wright Brothers & The Smithsonian
The long feud came to an end on the morning of December 17, 1948. Eight hundred and fifty people attended the ceremony in the North Hall of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. They sat in chairs facing a temporary speaker’s platform—and the great tattered flag that Francis Scott Key had seen still flying over Fort McHenry in the dawn’s early light of September 14, 1814. The Star-Spangled Banner was but one of the American icons in this building. George Washington’s uniform, Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk, Benjamin Franklin’s stove, gowns worn by every First Lady—precious reminders of two hundred years’ of American life were stuffed into every corner of the National Museum.
Visitors entered this cluttered treasure house through the North Hall, which housed the most popular single object in the museum, the Spirit of St. Louis . The silver Ryan monoplane had held the place of honor, suspended high above the central entrance doors, since its arrival at the Smithsonian in 1928. A month before the ceremony, workmen had carefully moved the Spirit toward the rear of the hall to make room for a new centerpiece. Charles Lindbergh had not complained. When the curator, Paul Garber, informed him of the impending move, Lindbergh remarked that he was honored to know that his machine would be sharing the hall with the world’s first airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer.
The ceremony began promptly at 10:00 A.M. , for timing was a matter of some importance. Precisely forty-five years before, just after ten o’clock on the morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer had rolled down a sixty-foot takeoff rail laid out on the sand flats some four miles south of the fishing village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and had climbed into the air.
Alexander Wetmore, the secretary of the Smithsonian, opened the proceedings with a short welcoming speech, then introduced the Honorable Frederic Vinson, Chief Justice of the United States and chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution. Vinson, in turn, welcomed the guests and called Maj. Gen. Luther D. Miller, chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army, to the podium to offer the invocation. Col. Robert Landry, President Truman’s Air Force aide, read a message from the President, after which Sir Oliver Franks, British ambassador to the United States, offered a few remarks.
With the preliminaries out of the way, Milton Wright, a nephew of the Wright brothers, came forward to present the world’s first airplane to the National Museum. Vice-President Alben W. Barkley accepted the machine on behalf of the people of the United States with a speech that one of those present would always remember as “poor, and poorly read.” The United States Air Force band brought the ceremony to an appropriate conclusion with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Wright Flyer had come home.
The long journey of the world’s first airplane to the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian had begun with the catastrophic crash of another machine into the icy waters of the Potomac on December 8, 1903. Officially it had been known as the Great Aerodrome, or Aerodrome A, although journalists preferred to call it the “Mud Duck,” or the “Buzzard.” It was the brainchild of Samuel Pierpont Langley, a self-trained astronomer who had become secretary of the Smithsonian—and the nation’s unofficial chief scientist—in 1887.
Langley had become interested in flight after attending a lecture on the subject offered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1886. Thus inspired, he undertook a series of engineering tests, the results of which convinced him that mechanical flight might, in fact, be possible.
When Langley published his data and conclusions, in 1891, some colleagues questioned the care with which he had conducted the experiments. Langley believed that a practical demonstration of the validity of his conclusions was required to redeem his reputation. Between 1887 and 1891 he had built more than one hundred rubber-band-powered flying models sporting various wing, tail, and propeller combinations. None had met his expectations.
Langley then turned to larger models, with wingspans of up to fourteen feet, powered by light but powerful steam engines. With Smithsonian funds he mounted a five-year effort that culminated in the successful flights of two of these unmanned models for distances of up to forty-two hundred feet. These flights, in May and November 1896, not only silenced the skeptics but turned the secretary into something of a popular hero. The age of flight seemed suddenly close at hand, and Langley was the most likely candidate to inaugurate it.
In 1898, with the help of his influential friend Charles Doolittle Walcott, of the U.S. Geological Survey, Langley obtained fifty thousand dollars from the War Department for the development of a full-scale, man-carrying flying machine. Completed in 1903, his giant craft sported tandem wings spreading fifty feet from tip to tip. With a 52-horsepower radial engine spinning the twin propellers at 575 rpm, it looked and sounded like a gigantic dragonfly.
But there were problems. The control system was so primitive that Charles Matthews Manly, Langley’s chief aeronautical assistant and volunteer “pilot,” would be little more than a helpless passenger. The takeoff and landing arrangements were, if possible, even more frightening. Like the models that had preceded it, the Aerodrome was designed to be launched into the air by a catapult mounted on the roof of a houseboat anchored in the Potomac. The untried structure would encounter maximum stress at the very moment of takeoff. If all went well, the machine would simply settle into the river at the end of its flight. Under ideal conditions, the pilot, housed in a fabric-sided cockpit on the underside of the craft, would finish his great adventure sunk up to his eyebrows in the muddy water, with the airplane resting on top of him. If something went awry—if, say, the airplane strayed over land—well, it was better not to think of that.
Manly made the exciting trip down the launch rail for the first time on October 7, 1903. There was no flight. The craft fell straight into the water—in the words of one reporter, “like a handful of mortar.” Manly was retrieved uninjured and agreed with Langley that the failure was the result of a defect in the launch mechanism.
Two months later, on December 8, Manly climbed back into the cockpit of the repaired craft for a second try. This time the failure was catastrophic. The rear wings began to fold up even before the machine reached the end of the rail. Seconds later the Great Aerodrome, Samuel Pierpont Langley’s pride and joy, was a tangle of wood, wire, fabric, and bent tubing floating in the river.
Once again Manly was fished out of the Potomac, soaked to the skin and shivering in the cold. Wrapped in blankets and fortified with a gulp of whiskey, this genteel son of a university professor startled the distinguished scientists on the houseboat by delivering what one member of the party described as a “most voluble series of blasphemies.”
Langley was reviled on the floor of Congress and in the nation’s newspapers. For the last three years of his life, the failure of the 1903 Aerodrome was to hang over his head like a cloud. The disaster cast a pall over those who had hoped for a quick solution to the problems of heavier-than-air flight as well. In his final report on the Langley project, Maj. N. W. Macomb, a U.S. Army observer, commented, “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would still be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.”
Nine days after the Langley crash, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four flights over an isolated stretch of North Carolina beach. The distances they covered in the air ranged from 120 to 852 feet. For the first time, a heavier-than-air flying machine had left the ground under its own power, moved forward through the air a distance sufficient to demonstrate that it was capable of sustained flight, and landed safely, all under the control of the pilot.
The Wrights were fully aware that they had not achieved their final goal at Kitty Hawk. The flights of December 17 had been only one more step, although a rather large one, on the road to the development of a practical flying machine. They knew that their best flight of the day would not sound terribly exciting to a world that had waited millennia for flight. The attitude of the Dayton Journal ’s Frank Tunison was typical. When informed of the events at Kitty Hawk, he had remarked, “Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item.”
The brothers returned home to Dayton, where they located a suitable pasture, Huffman Prairie, eight miles east of town. Here they would fly two new powered machines in relative secrecy during 1904 and 1905. By the end of the 1905 flying season, the practical airplane was a reality.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s work stood in marked contrast to that of Samuel Langley. Between 1899 and 1905, working far from the glare of publicity that surrounded the Smithsonian project, they had moved steadily through an evolutionary sequence of seven machines: one kite (1899), three manned gliders (1900, 1901, 1902), and three powered aircraft (1903, 1904, 1905). Each successive machine was a distillation of the lessons learned and the experience gained with its predecessors. The aircraft were the result of a careful process of design, which incorporated not only flight-test experience but the results of ground-based research conducted with a wind tunnel they had constructed themselves in the fall of 1901. The process itself, quite as much as the final product, marked Wilber and Orville Wright as engineers of genius.
The Wright brothers spent 1906 through 1908 on the ground, unwilling to risk exposing their machine until their ideas had received patent protection and they had negotiated contracts for the sale of their technology. With their first public flights in Europe and America in the summer and fall of 1908, they emerged as the first genuinely heroic figures of the twentieth century.
But trouble lay ahead. The Wrights had been granted a patent so broad that it was virtually impossible to build a successful airplane without infringing on it. The brothers were more than willing to let any honest experimenter use their patent free of charge, but they put those who sought to make a profit in a different category. They let it be known that any aviator who sold tickets to a flying exhibition, or who built airplanes for sale, would have to pay a royalty to the patent holders—or face a suit for infringement.
In January 1910 the Wrights obtained an injunction against their principal American rival, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a one-time motorcycle racer and manufacturer turned flying-machine builder. The resulting case was fought out in the courts over the next four years. The leaders of the budding American aviation community were forced to take sides; the contest was bitterly fought, and feelings ran high on both sides.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid in the spring of 1912. His brother, convinced that the strain of the patent suit had been a major factor in weakening Wilbur, resolved to push on to a final resolution of the dispute. That came on January 13, 1914, when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a final decision in favor of the Wright Company.
That decision set the stage for the Wright-Smithsonian dispute. Samuel Langley had died in 1906. The new secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles D. Walcott, had played an influential role in funding the 1903 Aerodrome and was eager to redeem the reputation of his old friend. He ordered a Langley memorial tablet to be set into the wall of the Smithsonian Castle, established the Langley Medal to be awarded for contributions to aeronautics, and created the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, which he hoped would grow into a great national facility for the conduct of aeronautical research. May 6, the day on which Langley had flown the first of his successful steam-powered unmanned models, became an unofficial holiday, Langley Day, at the institution.
On January 21, 1914, Lincoln Beachey, the best-known American stunt pilot of the day, wired the Smithsonian with a request to rebuild and test the 1903 Langley Aerodrome. Beachey had a clear interest in the recent court decision. He had learned to fly at the Curtiss school, had been the star aerial performer on the Curtiss exhibition team, and was a Curtiss stockholder. The Smithsonian administrator Richard Rathbun may have had this in mind when he passed the telegram on to Walcott with a recommendation: “I do not think you will want to grant Mr. Beachey’s request.”
Alexander Graham Bell, a Smithsonian regent, and a friend of both Langley and Walcott, agreed. Bell suggested that the Langley machine was too valuable an artifact to be tampered with or risked in flight, although he did suggest that an exact replica might be constructed. Walcott did refuse Beachey, but a seed had been planted. It was obvious now that the ultimate step in redeeming Langley’s reputation would be to fly the Aerodrome, proving that, had conditions been only slightly different, the honors that had been heaped on the shoulders of Wilbur and Orville Wright might well have gone to Samuel Pierpont Langley.
When invited to bring one of his float planes to Washington to participate in the 1914 Langley Day celebration, Glenn Curtiss remarked that he “would like to put the Langley aeroplane itself in the air.” This time Walcott jumped at the chance. Without informing Bell or any of the other regents, he authorized Albert F. Zahm, who had been a key witness for Curtiss in the patent trial and was now the man in charge of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, to turn over all the surviving parts of the old machine to Curtiss. In addition, Walcott provided Curtiss with two thousand dollars to underwrite the expenses of rebuilding and testing the machine.
“The main objects of these renewed trials,” Zahm remarked, “were first to show whether the original Langley machine was capable of sustained free flight with a pilot, and secondly, to determine more fully the advantages of the tandem wing type of aeroplane.” There obviously are better ways to test the flying qualities of tandem-wing airplanes than to rebuild the shattered remnants of an eleven-year-old machine that never flew. It was clear that the only real purpose of the tests was to demonstrate that the Langley machine had been “capable” of flight in 1903. Both Curtiss and the Smithsonian stood to benefit from proof that the old machine was airworthy. Curtiss could return to court, arguing that the pioneer status granted the Wright patent was unwarranted. Walcott would have demonstrated that his old friend Langley had not really failed at all.
Curtiss and Zahm announced that they would return the craft to its condition at the time of the 1903 tests. If that was their goal, they failed to achieve it. The wings constructed for the machine in the Curtiss plant differed from the originals in chord (the straight-line distance from the leading edge to the trailing edge); camber (distance from the peak of the arch of the wing to the imaginary chord line); and aspect ratio (the ratio of span to chord). The trussing system that linked the wings to the fuselage was much different as well. The king posts had been relocated, and the wires were trussed to different spars at different points. This was particularly important, for most authorities believed, then and now, that the failure of the wing structure, not a catapult defect, had been responsible for the 1903 disaster.
And then there were the other changes. Curtiss fitted the craft with his own yoke-and-wheel control system. After the first trial the original rudder under the midpoint of the craft would be tied off and the large cruciform tail altered to serve as a rudder as well as an elevator. Finally, Curtiss rejected the old catapult launch system. He mounted the machine on floats. This change can be excused in the name of simple self-preservation. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone at the time, however, that Curtiss had come up with a way to land the machine safely, something impossible with the original craft.
On the morning of May 28, 1914, the rebuilt Aerodrome, with Curtiss himself at the controls, sped across the surface of Keuka Lake, near the site of the Curtiss factory at Hammondsport, New York, and lifted into the air for a flight of 150 feet. After a few additional hops of similar length, the craft was taken back into the shop. The 1903 Langley engine was replaced with a modern Curtiss power plant, and additional changes were made to the structure. Thus altered, further flights were made with the craft that autumn.
Walcott and Zahm were overjoyed. In an account of the tests published in the 1914 Smithsonian Annual Report, Zahm claimed that the Aerodrome “has demonstrated that with its original structure and power, it is capable of flying with a pilot and several hundred pounds of useful load. It is the first aeroplane in the history of the world of which this can truthfully be said.” Rather than providing a list of alterations, Zahm reported that the old Aerodrome had been flown “without modification.” “With a thrust of 450 pounds,” he concluded, “the Langley aeroplane, without floats, restored to its original condition and provided with stronger bearings, should be able to carry a man and sufficient supplies for a voyage lasting practically the whole day.”
This was only the beginning. The 1915 Annual Report repeated the claim: “The tests thus far made have shown that former Secretary Langley had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man.” Similar statements would appear in various Smithsonian publications in years to come.
Then there was the label. When the Aerodrome was shipped back from Hammondsport, Walcott ordered that it be returned to its original 1903 condition. It was then exhibited in the Arts and Industries Building with a label explaining that it was the “first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”
Orville Wright was justifiably outraged. At the outset of their careers, he and his brother had written to the Smithsonian for advice on useful readings in the field of aeronautics. Later on, they were always careful to mention that the involvement of the world-renowned Samuel Langley in aeronautics had given them their initial confidence that the problem of flight could be solved. At the same time, they owed no technical debt to Langley, nor had they ever believed that his machine could fly.
The Wright brothers’ relationship with the Smithsonian had begun to sour soon after Langley’s death. Walcott, at Bell’s suggestion, had given the Wrights the first Langley Medal. But in preparing the text of their remarks for publication, the secretary made use of a section of an earlier Wright letter that, in the words of one writer, “helped to create a false impression … that the Wrights had acknowledged indebtedness to Langley’s scientific work.”
The brothers had also become suspicious when, in 1910, Secretary Walcott had all but refused their offer to donate the 1903 Wright airplane to the Smithsonian. Walcott had written in March 1910 requesting “one of your machines, or a model thereof, for exhibition purposes.” The Wrights agreed to have a model of any of their craft constructed for the museum. “Or,” they wrote, “we can reconstruct the 1903 machine with which the first flights were made at Kitty Hawk. Most of the parts are still in existence.” The brothers were stunned when the secretary replied that the Smithsonian would prefer the 1909 military flyer. In addition Walcott requested a series of models of Wright aircraft and several full-scale engines to display in conjunction with specimens from the Langley collection, “making the exhibit illustrate two very important steps in the history of the aeronautical art.” The Smithsonian planned to exhibit the 16-horsepower Wright engine of 1903 next to the 52-horsepower Langley engine; a 1909 Wright aircraft with parts of the 1903 Langley machine; and scale models of manned Wright aircraft with the unmanned Langley steam models of 1896. Small wonder that suspicions were aroused.
Now the Smithsonian had sponsored the reconstruction and testing of the Langley machine by a man with whom the Wrights were locked in a bitter patent fight. Orville asked his brother Lorin to visit Hammondsport during the tests to see for himself what was going on. Curtiss workmen seized his camera and confiscated the film.
Fortunately, many of the changes that had been made in the Aerodrome were visible in the photographs released by the Smithsonian. Some additional detective work by Orville’s English friend Griffith Brewer, who offered a lecture on the episode to the Royal Society of the Arts in 1921, resulted in a complete catalog of the changes made to the 1903 Aerodrome during the first and second episodes of rebuilding at Hammondsport. The evidence seemed overwhelming to most unbiased readers. The 1914 tests had not demonstrated that the 1903 Langley Aerodrome was “capable” of flight.
Orville Wright remained aloof from the controversy until 1921. “A denial of these [Smithsonian] statements by me might have been looked upon by the public as a jealous attack upon the work of a man who was dead,” he later remarked. “It was not until 1921 that I became convinced that the officials of the Smithsonian, at least Dr. Walcott, were fully acquainted with the character of the tests at Hammondsport. I had thought up to that time that they might have been ignorant of the fundamental changes which had been incorporated in the machine … and that when these changes were pointed out to them they would hasten to correct their erroneous reports. They did not do this, but have continued to repeat their earlier statements.”
Leaders of the world aviation community had been impressed by the revelations of Brewer’s 1921 report. The English aeronautical engineer Leonard Bairstow spoke for many when he remarked the following year that “the Hammondsport trials were not part of the work of Langley, and in the opinion of many of us were ill-advised.”
Orville began to feel like David battling Goliath. His letters to officials of the Smithsonian, including Chief Justice William Howard Taft, had little effect. Nor could he interest the press in an argument over events that had occurred twenty years before.
Then, in the spring of 1925, he played his trump card, announcing that the 1903 Wright airplane would be sent to the Science Museum of London. The decision created a furor. In response to those who asked that he reconsider, Orville replied: “I believe my course in sending our Kitty Hawk machine to a foreign museum is the only way of correcting the history of the flying-machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution.
“In its campaign to discredit others in the flying art, the Smithsonian has issued scores of these false and misleading statements. They can be proved to be false and misleading from documents. But the people of today do not take the trouble to examine this evidence.
“With this machine in any American museum the national pride would be satisfied; nothing further would be done and the Smithsonian would continue its propaganda. In a foreign museum this machine will be a constant reminder of the reasons of its being there, and after the people and petty jealousies of this day are gone, the historians of the future may examine impartially the evidence and make history accord with it.
“Your regret that this old machine must leave our country can hardly be so great as my own.”
It was a stroke of political genius. Most Americans had not even been aware that the 1903 Wright airplane was still in existence. The machine had been badly damaged in an accident on the ground following the final flight of December 17, 1903. Shipped back to Dayton in pieces, it had remained in crates and boxes for the next thirteen years, including a few days when it was completely submerged during the Dayton flood of 1913. The machine was reassembled and exhibited for the first time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916. It was subsequently shown at various aviation events in Dayton and was carefully restored to its 1903 condition in the early twenties. Now the announcement that this priceless national treasure was being sent abroad galvanized public attention.
Secretary Walcott, finding himself on the defensive for the first time, attempted to buttress his position. Recognizing that he could no longer base his claim that the Langley Aerodrome had been “capable” of flight solely on the Hammondsport tests, he invited Joseph Ames and David Watson Taylor, both recognized aviation authorities and distinguished members of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), to look into the case and offer a judgment as to the airworthiness of the old machine.
Ames and Taylor apparently were not provided with a complete list of the changes made to the Aerodrome in 1914. While the two men admitted that the 1914 machine had been much stronger than the 1903 craft, they concluded that “structurally the original Langley machine was capable of level and controlled flight.” They argued that, while the Wrights “were the first to navigate the air,” Langley, “after years of effort, following a different road, was in sight of the same goal.” Orville Wright disagreed, as did most of the rest of the American aeronautical community and the qualified engineers who have examined the craft since that time. But Secretary Walcott, resting his case on the report, refused to budge.
Charles D. Walcott died in 1927. His successor, Charles Greeley Abbot, reduced the label on the Aerodrome to read, “Langley Aerodrome—The Original Langley Flying Machine of 1903, Restored.” Moreover, in 1928, the year the Wright plane was shipped to London, the Smithsonian Board of Regents passed a resolution declaring that “to the Wrights belongs the credit of making the first successful flight with a power-propelled heavier-than-air machine carrying a man.” The resolution was meaningless. No one, not even Secretary Walcott, had questioned the Wrights’ priority in having made the first flight. The controversy was over which plane had been the first capable of flight.
Secretary Abbot and Orville Wright met and corresponded, seeking a solution that would satisfy Orville without unduly embarrassing the Smithsonian. Speaking in Washington on December 17, 1933, Abbot suggested the creation of a committee to mediate the differences between Wright and the Smithsonian and proposed that Charles Lindbergh head the group. Orville accepted and spelled out his understanding of the arrangement.
He suggested that the work of the committee be limited to a study of the specific problem, that is, the Smithsonian claim that the 1914 Hammondsport tests had demonstrated the capability of the 1903 Aerodrome for flight. If the committee judged that the Langley machine was so capable, Orville would bring the 1903 Wright airplane home. If Wright was vindicated, however, he would expect the Smithsonian to “rectify the offenses committed by it in the past in its own publications by printing full corrections in these same publications. These corrections shall be unequivocal, and shall be given a prominence and circulation equal to that given to the former statements of which they are a correction, so that in the future the matters involved can not be misunderstood.”
Lindbergh, who wanted to help in any way he could, met with Abbot and Wright independently in January 1934. He told both men that he believed the first step should be to establish the basic facts in the case. He asked Orville Wright to begin the process by preparing a statement of the important differences between the 1903 Aerodrome and the machine flown at Hammondsport in 1914.
Lindbergh met with Abbot again in late January. In a letter describing that meeting to Orville Wright, Abbot said that Lindbergh feared he would not be able to devote enough time to the study of the questions involved. Abbot therefore suggested that the Secretaries of War, Navy, and Commerce each be asked to name an individual to serve on a committee that would weigh the evidence. He proposed that this committee be asked to address five specific questions:
- 1. In what ways was the 1914 machine similar to the 1903 Aerodrome?
- 2. In what ways were they different?
- 3. What bearing do the 1914 tests have on a determination of the capacity of the 1903 machine to fly?
- 4. What bearing do the flights of Langley’s models in 1896 and 1903 have on the determination of the capacity of the full-scale 1903 Aerodrome to fly?
- 5. What other facts, if any, would assist in determining the capacity of the 1903 Aerodrome to fly?
Orville was unwilling to accept such a committee. Each of the secretaries, he noted, already had some official connection with the Smithsonian. He left unspoken the obvious fact that, as a courtesy and in the interest of fair play, he should have had an opportunity to participate in the selection process. Moreover, he believed that Abbot’s proposed charge to the group was much too broad. Orville was really interested in only two things: a published list of the differences between the 1903 Aerodrome and the 1914 Hammondsport machine, and an admission by the Smithsonian that the craft had in fact been heavily modified.
Wright proceeded as if the committee idea had never been raised. He sent Lindbergh a list based on Griffith Brewer’s 1921 paper, with specific dimensions of the 1903 Langley Aerodrome on one side of the page and those of the 1914 machine on the other. It was his feeling that with such an arrangement in hand, any reader could see the difference between the two craft at a glance.
Lindbergh passed the list on to Abbot, who, finding no substantial errors, returned it to Orville with a proposal that it be published as part of a long article that would include:
- 1. An account of Langley’s work up to 1903.
- 2. A history of the Aerodrome from 1903 to 1914.
- 3. Republication of Zahm’s original article of 1914.
- 4. Orville’s comparison of the 1903 and 1914 machines.
- 5. Zahm’s notes on Orville’s list of changes.
- 6. The facts relating to the subsequent exhibition of the 1903 machine since 1914.
Once again, Orville was outraged. Abbot was suggesting that the simple comparison of the 1903 and 1914 machines be buried in a mass of extraneous material, including the offending article that had launched the controversy in the first place. He wrote to Abbot on March 15,1935, outlining in clear and precise terms the sort of article that might lead to the return of the 1903 Wright Flyer: “Instead of a paper such as you have proposed may I offer the following suggestion: That the Smithsonian publish a paper presenting a list of specifications in parallel columns of those features of the Langley machine of 1903 and the Hammondsport machine of 1914, in which there were differences, with an introduction stating that the Smithsonian now finds that it was misled by the Zahm report of 1914; that through the Zahm paper the institution was led to believe that the aeroplane tested at Hammondsport was ‘as nearly as possible in its original condition'; that as a result of this misinformation the Smithsonian had published erroneous statements from time to time alleging that the original Langley machine, without modification, or with only such modifications as were necessary for the addition of floats, had been successfully flown at Hammondsport in 1914; that it ask its readers to disregard all of its former statements and expressions of opinion regarding the flights at Hammondsport in 1914, because these were based on misinformation as the list to follow will show. The list and specifications are to be agreed upon by the Smithsonian, Colonel Lindbergh and myself.”
This would be Orville Wright’s final word on the subject. He would not require the Smithsonian to admit that the 1903 Aerodrome was incapable of flight. He would be satisfied with a simple admission that the Smithsonian statements relating to the 1914 tests were untrue. Secretary Abbot did not respond to the proposal.
Lindbergh, both fascinated and puzzled by the controversy, offered a thoughtful assessment of the situation in a 1939 diary entry. “The fault,” he believed, “lies primarily with the Smithsonian people. But Orville Wright is not an easy man to deal with in the matter. I don’t blame him much, though, when I think of the way he was treated for a period of years. He has encountered the narrow-mindedness of science and the dishonesty of commerce.”
The tide of public opinion was clearly flowing in Orville Wright’s favor. During the next eight years Abbot would be bombarded with hundreds of petitions, most of them the result of a drive sponsored by the aviation magazine Contact , asking that the Smithsonian take the steps required to obtain the return of the 1903 Wright airplane. Bills were introduced in Congress calling for an investigation and the creation of a committee to resolve the dispute. A new organization, Men With Wings, was established to support the return of the 1903 airplane from England. Private citizens and aviation leaders offered to mediate a solution.
Liberty, Collier’s , and other national magazines took up the cry with articles entitled “Bring Home the Wright Plane,” “The Road to Justice,” and “Bring Back Our Winged Exile.” With the exception of the acerbic English editor C. G. Grey, the aviation trade press was almost exclusively pro-Wright.
It was an extraordinarily difficult time for Abbot. By the mid-thirties the feud had threatened to irreparably damage the institution’s reputation. Orville was widely portrayed as an oppressed citizen beset by a powerful government bureaucracy blind to justice. Occasionally Abbot’s patience wore a bit thin. In 1930 the Macmillan Company had sent the Smithsonian an advance copy of John Goldstrum’s Narrative History of Aviation , which contained an account of the controversy to date, favorable to Orville Wright. The secretary, against the best legal advice, had threatened suit for defamation of Secretary Walcott’s character.
By 1937, both Orville Wright and C. G. Abbot had, in truth, given up any hope of reaching an agreement. In response to a letter from the President of the National Cash Register Corporation asking that he make one more attempt to negotiate a solution, Abbot remarked, “I regret that the Institution’s experience on this subject during the past ten years, when it has made many efforts to compose these differences, has been so unpleasant and discouraging that without trustworthy assurances of success, the Institution would now hesitate to move at all … lest it should only arouse renewed misrepresentation.”
Orville Wright was just as discouraged. In preparing his will, in 1937, he included a stipulation that the 1903 airplane should remain in London after his death, unless the will was amended by a subsequent letter from him indicating a change of heart.
Then, early in 1942, Fred C. Kelly stepped forward. Kelly, a writer who was working on an authorized biography of the brothers, had begun to fear that his book might never be completed. Orville seemed convinced that Kelly was not getting the story on paper with the clarity and precision he required. Kelly, eager to put the inventor in his debt, quietly wrote to Abbot, suggesting that he would be willing to assist in preparing a statement that would satisfy Orville Wright.
Kelly knew precisely what would work—the publication of the differences between the 1903 Aerodrome and the 1914 machine flown at Hammondsport, plus a disavowal of the 1914 Zahm report. With great difficulty and considerable finesse, he moved Abbot toward just such a publication. It finally appeared in a paper published by the Smithsonian on October 24, 1942, preceded by a note: “This paper has been submitted to Dr. Orville Wright, and under date of October 8, 1942, he states that the paper as now prepared will be acceptable to him if given adequate publication.”
Was the long feud over? Charles Abbot was not at all sure. Orville Wright did not respond to the long-awaited publication. He died on January 30, 1948, without having informed the Smithsonian of the ultimate fate of the 1903 Wright airplane.
At the time of the inventor’s death, Secretary Abbot had recently retired. His successor, Alexander Wetmore, when informed of the stipulation regarding the airplane in the 1937 will, remarked to Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold: “So far as I know, no such letter calling the machine back to the States was ever issued.” Believing that the plane would stay in England, Wetmore planned to have a full-scale replica constructed for the museum.
As the executors of the Wright estate were to discover, however, Orville had, in fact, decided that the publication of Abbot’s 1942 article was satisfactory. On December 8, 1943, he had written to inform the director of the London museum that he would be asking for the return of the machine once the war was over and the craft could be safely transported. This letter, which had not been made public by either Orville Wright or the museum, fulfilled the condition of the 1937 will for the return of the aircraft.
Further evidence of intent was found in a stipulation contained in an unsigned will on which Orville Wright and his lawyer had been at work at the time of his death: “I give and bequeath to the U.S. National Museum of Washington, D.C., for exhibition in the National Capital only, the Wright aeroplane (now in the Science Museum, London, England) which flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the 17th of December, 1903.”
Museum officials now opened discussions with the executors of the Wright estate, and with the English government, to arrange the return as expeditiously as possible. Problems still remained to be solved. The executors and the lawyer for the estate insisted on steps to ensure that the Wright heirs would not be liable for an enormous inheritance tax on the priceless relic.
The final arrangement, approved by the Internal Revenue Service, called for the executors to sue the heirs for possession of the machine. This was required to ensure that no heir would be able to claim that he or she had been cheated out of money that might have been made from the plane. The executors stated in open court that since the aircraft was beyond price, it would be sold to the United States National Museum for the sum of one dollar, thus freeing the estate of any potential tax obligation. The people of the United States were the ultimate beneficiaries.
The contract for the sale of the world’s first airplane to the museum would include other provisions as well, safeguards against a reopening of the feud. The airplane, for example, was never to be exhibited outside the Washington area. A specified label, approved by a committee of Orville Wright’s old friends, was always to appear with the machine. Finally, if the Smithsonian ever again recognized any other aircraft as having been capable of powered, sustained, and controlled flight with a man on board before December 17, 1903, the executors of the estate would have the right to take possession of the machine once again. The Smithsonian signed.
Many of the invited guests who filed out of the historic North Hall of the Arts and Industries Building after the ceremony on December 17, 1948, planned to attend a special black-tie dinner that evening. The occasion would be the award of the prestigious Collier Trophy to Capt. Charles Yeager, John Stack, Lawrence Bell, and other members of the NACA/Air Force/industry team that had conducted the first supersonic-flight research program. A few of the guests, it is to be hoped, paused to read the label on the world’s first airplane, hanging at long last where it had always belonged. It may have led them to wonder at the progress wrought in the forty-four short years that separated Kitty Hawk from the sound barrier. The label reads:The original Wright brothers aeroplane The world’s first Power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man Made free, controlled, and sustained flight Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright Flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903 By original scientific research the Wright brothers Discovered the principles of human flight As inventors, builders, and flyers They further developed the aeroplane, taught man to Fly, and opened the era of aviation