Wright Brothers – Wright Contemporaries

Articles relating to friends of the Wright Brothers.

Ralph Johnstone, 24, a member of the Wright Brothers’ Exhibition Team and holder of the World’s Altitude Record of 9,714 feet, was the first professional American pilot killed in a crash. The location was Overland Park, Denver, Colorado on November 17, 1910.

Fifteen thousand spectators at first his cheered his sudden descent, believing it was a part of his act, only to be horrified when he plunged into the ground and was crushed under his machine.

Johnstone of Kansas City was a former a trick cyclist who since the age of 15, had performed acts such as flipping in midair after riding his cycle up a springboard. He joined the exhibition team May 1910 and became one of the team’s most daring pilots.

His most thrilling stunt was called the “spiral glide.” The spectators got their thrill’ but on this occasion it cost Johnstone his life.

Johnstone was visiting his uncle in Dayton just prior to his departure for Denver. His uncle, W. M. Federman, made a prescient remark, “I’ll receive a telegram one of these days to come after your remains.”

“Not mine,” said Johnstone, shaking his relative’s hand and smiling. “When I make a flight, I have my plans well laid. Before I leave the ground I know exactly what I am going to do. Don’t worry about me being injured.”

What happened on the fateful day was described in the Dayton Daily News on Nov. 18, 1910.

Johnstone took off and after a few circuits of the course to gain height, headed toward the foothills. Still ascending, he swept back in a big circle and as he reached the north end of the enclosure he started his spiral glide.

He was then at an altitude of about 800 feet. With his wings tilted at an angle of almost 90 degrees, he swooped down in a narrow circle, the aeroplane seeming to turn almost in its own length.

As he started the second circle the middle strut, which braces the left side of the lower wing, gave way and the wing tips of both upper and lower wings folded up as though they had been hinged.

For a second Johnstone attempted to right the plane by warping the other wing tip. Then horrified spectators saw the plane swerve like a wounded bird and plunge straight toward earth.

Johnstone was thrown from his seat as the nose of the plane swung downward. He caught on one of the wire stays between planes and grasped one of the wooden braces of the upper wing with both hands. Then working with hands and feet, he fought by main strength to warp the planes so that their surfaces might catch the air and check his descent. For a second it seemed that he might succeed, for the helmet he wore blew off and fell much more rapidly than the plane.

The hope was momentary, however, for about 300 feet from the ground the machine turned completely over and the spectators fled wildly as the broken plane, with the aviator still fighting grimly in its mesh of wires and stays, plunged among them with a crash.

Scarcely had Johnstone hit the ground before morbid men and women swarmed over the wreckage, fighting with each other for souvenirs. One of the broken wooden stays had gone almost through Johnstone’s body. Before doctors or police could reach the scene one man had torn this splinter from the body and run away, carrying his trophy with the aviator’s blood dropping from its ends.

The crowd tore away the canvas from over the body, and even fought for the gloves that had protected Johnstone’s hands from the cold.

The machine fell on the opposite side of the field from the grandstand and there was but a few hundred near the spot, but physicians and police were rushed across as soon as possible. Physicians declare that death must have been instantaneous as Johnstone’s back, neck, and both legs were broken, the bones of his thigh being forced through the flesh and the leather garments he wore.

Arch Hoxsey, a fellow Wright team member, was in the air at an altitude of 2500 feet when the accident occurred. As he swung down the other end of the course he saw that Johnstone had fallen and guided his machine directly over the body of his friend. He descended as soon as he could bring his plane to the ground and rushed to the wreckage, where he and Walter Brookins, the Wright team leader, helped lift the mangled form to an automobile which brought it to the city.

Many spectators were watching Hoxsey’s flight and did not see Johnstone’s machine collapse, but a woman’s shriek, “My God. He’s gone,” drew every eye in time to see him dashed to death upon the ground. The band in the grandstand blaring away under contract never ceased to play, and Johnstone’s body was taken out of the enclosure with the strains of a ragtime melody for a funeral march. (End of Dayton Daily New article)

Orville and Wilbur had been concerned by the ever more dangerous stunts the team was performing and made repeated warning to their pilots. When Orville first saw the “Spiral Dip” performed, he exclaimed, “Cut It Out!”

The brothers had calculated the exact pressure the machines would sustain and they told the boys (pilots) never to tilt their machines more than 45 degrees.

Wilbur said of Johnstone that the trouble with him is that he will never be content with equaling the achievements of a rival. “He must always excel. There is no way of holding him in. Orders mean nothing to him.”

In September Wilbur tried to reign him in with a terse letter. He wrote the following letter to Hoxsey and Johnstone:

“I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights there (Detroit). If each of you can make a plain flight of ten to fifteen minutes each day keeping always within the inner fence wall away from the grandstand and never more than three hundred feet high; it will be just what we want. Under no circumstances make more than one flight each day apiece. Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not as a credit.”

But Hoxsey and Johnston, dubbed the “Stardust Twins” by the press for their spectacular altitude duels, knew that the crowd didn’t come to see sedate circles. Their competitive spirit drove them to show off for the crowd.

Johnstone couldn’t even follow his own advice in Denver. The day before his deadly crash, he declared that he would not attempt any tricks the next day because he felt it was too dangerous in the high altitude.

Johnstone’s widow, whom he had met and married in Paris, received the news of his death from Wilbur who was in New York at the time where Mrs. Johnstone lived with their two children. Orville was on his way to Europe on an ocean liner.

Mrs. Johnstone telegraphed to Denver to hold the body there until her arrival, but Wilbur persuaded her to have it sent to Kansas City, where his parents lived. She remarked, “I never was worried about Ralph. He was so brave and careful. It seemed nothing could happen to him. I did not take into consideration a mishap to his machine.”

Wilbur sent a telegram to Walter Brookins stating that he was leaving in company with Mrs. Johnstone for Kansas City and instructed Brookins to have the body sent to the city at once. He also requested Brookins to call off the meet, providing the Denver officials consented.

They didn’t and the show went on.

It wouldn’t have surprised Johnstone that the show continued the next day. In an interview published in the New York Times eleven days before his fatal crash he was frank with his comments:

“I fly to survive. If I were not obliged there, I would not do it. I am fatalistic. I believe that the hour of each one is fixed in advance, but for those which are attracted by the plays of the sky, it comes early. The only means of cheating it is to give up. But if it is written that you must continue, you cannot release. I say it to you, people who come to see us, want emotions. And if we fall, do you believe that they think of us and cry over our fate at all..”

Mrs. Johnstone showed she had some of the same daring as her late husband. In September 1911 she decided to take pilot lessons to master the machine that killed her husband. At the time there were only two licensed female pilots in America — Mathilde Moisant and Harriet Quimby.

Hoxsey was the next Wright flyer to die. He was performing in Los Angeles and crashed on December 31 in a manner similar to Johnstones’. Six of the Wright’s team would die in crashes before 1912 was half over. Eleven months after Hoxsey’s death the Wights had had enough even though they were making good profits on the exhibition circuit. They dissolved the team in November 1912.

The Wright Company paid monthly annuities to the widows of the team members.

Some critics claimed that the Wright planes were flawed. But the Dayton built machines were the sturdiest in the air. The problem was that the planes were less stable and therefore gave the pilots absolute control. The planes would do exactly what the pilots asked them to do.

By October 14, 1911 there had been 100 fatal airplane crashes worldwide.

It didn’t help that none of the planes had seat belts at the time. In fact Brookins believes that Johnstone and Hoxsey fell out of their seats while still alive. Wilbur concurred with his observation.

Major General Benjamin Foulois, a high school dropout who enlisted to serve in the Spanish-American War, worked his way up the ranks of the Army to a Major General becoming Chief, U.S. Army Air Corps. As a young Lt. He played a critical role in the history of the Wright Brothers.

The Wright Brothers had been awarded an Army Air Corps contract to build an airplane that met a number of critical requirements. The specification required an airplane capable of carrying two men at a speed of 40 mph while staying in the air for at least one hour. If successfully met, the Wrights’ would be awarded $25,000 plus $2,500 for each mph above 40. (They could also lose $2,500 for each mph below 40 mph.)

Lt. Foulois was the lowest ranking member of the five-man army aeronautical board that would monitor the Wright’s performance in accordance with the specification requirements. Foulois was fascinated with airplanes and had written a research paper while attending Ft. Leavenworth that concluded that airplanes would soon outperform balloons and dirigibles for wartime use.

While the Wrights were assembling their machine at Ft. Myer in preparation for their upcoming flights, Foulois was constantly peppering Wilbur with questions about flying. Wilbur was always courteous in answering his questions but was becoming increasingly exasperated.

One day Foulois asked Wilbur about a book he was reading on flying. Wilbur had enough of questions and answered, “There are no books worth reading on the subject of flying. You get your hands on that machine over there if you really want to learn about it.”

Foulois was delighted to help, put on work clothes and went to work.

On July 27, Orville fulfilled the specification requirement of a two-man flight for one hour, breaking the world’s record set by Wilbur in France. His passenger was Lt. Frank Lahm who had reported to the now deceased Lt. Thomas Selfridge who was killed the previous year in a flight with Orville.

The second specification requirement was for a ten-mile, two-man speed test. The board allowed Orville to select a member of the board to fly with him as an official observer. Orville chose Foulois. Orville liked him for his avid interest in aviation.

Orville chose Foulois because he had experience in map reading and, as a bonus he didn’t weigh much (126 pounds). His skill would be critically needed because the terrain in those days was rugged between Ft. Myer and Alexandria, containing three ravines and a forest. There would be no good place for an emergency landing.

Foulois laid out the course to require a 10-mile round-trip to Alexandria, Virginia and back. The turning point in Alexandria was called Shooter’s Hill where the George Washington Masonic Memorial is now located. At the time, the cornerstone had just been laid.

Foulois arranged for a sausage-shaped tethered balloon to fly above Shooters Hill to mark the turnaround point.

One has to marvel at Orville’s and Foulois’s fearlessness. Since 1902, Orville had endured five serious crashes. The previous year’s crash was nearly fatal to Orville and Army board member Lt. Selfridge was killed. But, there was no hint of any hesitancy on the part of either one.

Foulois showed up for the flight on July 30 fully prepared with two stop watches around his neck, a aneroid barometer strapped to one thigh and a box compass to the other. He stuck a map inside his belt.

They took off at 6:46 p.m. from the parade ground at Fort Myer with President William Howard Taft and a crowd of 7,000 spectators cheering them on. The Flyer climbed to 50 feet and circled the parade ground twice before heading off to Alexandria.

Orville told Foulois that if they ran into trouble he would land in a field or the thickest clump of trees he could find. Foulois said later he nodded and gulped because he knew there wasn’t any flat land available on the route.

When the Flyer flew out of sight, the crowd fell silent with apprehension. They were aware of the rugged course. Wilbur estimated what the time of travel would be, but when the Flyer didn’t appear at the appointed time, he grew concerned and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his checks. His estimated time was too optimistic.

A spectator shouted, “he’s down!” Katharine gave him a sharp reprimand. “How do you know he’s down?” Then there were cries of “there it comes,” as the Flyer reappeared over the treetops to the south.

Orville nosed the plane down to pick up speed as it roared with a flourish over the finish line at 7:08 p.m. to the cheers of the crowd and the honking of horns. He went on to circle Arlington Cemetery, then turned off the motor and glided in for a landing. Pandemonium reigned as the two men were almost mobbed by the crowd.

On the return trip Orville flew at an altitude of 400 feet setting a new world altitude record.

President Taft congratulated Orville on the spot. Lt. Foulois said it was the only time he ever saw Wilbur smile.

The next day they learned that the Flyer’s average speed was calculated to be 42.58-mph. That meant they earned a $5,000 bonus to add to their earned 40-mph price of $25,000. On August 2, 1909 the Signal Corps accepted the Wright Flyer for military use. It was the first airplane purchased and placed in service by any government.

This model, sometimes known as Signal Corps No. 1, was Wright Model A. It was restored by the Wrights and now resides in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It was the only one of its type constructed by the Wrights.

The army contract also required the training of two military pilots. Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Foulois were selected to be the first to receive the training.

Before training could begin they needed to find a new location to fly. The commanding officer at Fort Myer requested they move because they interfered with his summer training program.

Frank Lahm found a new field they could use in Maryland near what is now the University of Maryland. The field, College Park Airport, is sill in use.

At the last minute, Foulois was given orders to attend the International Conference of Aeronautics at Nancy, France and an aeronautical exhibition in Frankfort, Germany. Foulois was being punished for being too negative on the future of the dirigible.

Lt. Humphreys was selected to take the place of Foulois.

When Foulois returned, he first flew with Wilbur on October 23. Three days later Humphreys and Lahm made their first solo flight, becoming the first military pilots in American history.

On November 5, Lahm and Humphreys crashed their airplane while flying together. They were not hurt but there were no parts locally available to make repairs. Besides, the weather was turning cold with hazardous crosswinds.

The army decided to move operations from College Park to a warmer climate at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Lahm and Humphreys were given orders to return to their former non-flying assignments.

Foulois argued hard to be the one to take the plane to Texas. A senior officer who disapproved of Foulois and his campaign on behalf of the airplane, approved of Foulois going to Texas, saying, “Let him have it. He’ll break his neck, and that’ll be the end of this nonsense.”

Foulois and nine mechanics were ordered to take the repaired Wright machine No. 1 to Fort Sam Houston.

Foulois had time for only three flying lessons from Wilbur and that was not sufficient to be able to solo. When Foulois mentioned this to his superiors, he was told to “take plenty of spare parts and teach yourself to fly”

His orders to Texas were amended to divert their travel to Chicago to attend an electrical trade exhibition to show off their airplane.

The machine was hung from the ceiling of the exhibition hall. An electric motor was rigged to the propellers so they could spin as if in flight. The opening night a popular singer appeared on a small balcony which just happened to be directly in the airflow from the propellers spinning at 400 rpm. Foulois reported that “when she opened up her tonsils with the hit song of the day, “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” the blast from the props blew most of the song down her throat and her dress up around her necklace.”

Foulois arrived in Texas in February 1910 and commenced to erect a small hanger and begin teaching himself to fly by trial and error. He received help from Orville and Wilbur who answered his questions and provided instructions through correspondence. On March 2, he made his first solo, reporting that “I made my first solo, landing, takeoff and crash.”

He only was allotted $150 for maintenance of the airplane, but the repairs from his first four months of flying exceeded his appropriation so he had to spend $300 of his own money for the repairs.

Foulois liked to say that he was the first correspondence-school pilot.

Wilbur was disturbed by the many accidents Foulois was having. He sent Frank Coffyn, a member of the Wright Exhibition Team, down to Texas to find out what the problem was.

Coffyn soon diagnosed the problem as “ground shyness.” This was the term used to describe a pilot that “landed” about sixty feet above the earth, where he often stalled his airplane and fell to the earth. It is one of the mental hazards of flying and by no means rare.

In 1914, Foulois became the first commander of a tactical air unit, the “1st Aero Squadron.” This was the army’s first air force. Their first military action was to provide support to General’s Pershing’s incursion into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

Foulois would later become the first Chief of the U.S. Army Air Service, The Chief of the Materiel Division at Wright Field in Dayton and Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1931 to 1935 and rise to the rank of a major general.

During his tour at Wright Field in 1929-1930, he lived on a house built by my great-great grandfather (Henry Hebble). The house is now known as the Foulois House and is used as the base commander’s residence.

During this period at Wright Field, Orville Wright most likely visited him. There is no record of this but there is a record that Orville visited Major Henry “Hap” Arnold who lived in a house a short distance away during the same time frame. Incidentally, the house that Arnold lived in as known as the Arnold house. It is the oldest building on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and was also built by Henry Hebble.

Hebble also built a number of covered bridges in the vicinity of Wright Field. Only two still exit. One is near Antioch College (on the left), and the other is near Wilberforce College (on the right).

One other anecdote about Foulois: It involved Babe Ruth in a publicity stunt in 1925 and was covered by the press, radio and motion pictures. The idea was to have Babe Ruth catch a baseball dropped by an airplane.

Foulois said, “I had a pilot, Captain Harold McClelland, go up with three baseballs and bomb the “Babe” with them from 250 feet. The first two balls knocked him flat, but he held onto the third one and gave it to me as a souvenir.”

Foulois was a forceful and outspoken advocate for a strong and separate air force. In the process he alienated his military superiors and some members of Congress. As a result he was forced into retirement in 1935. Shortly before retirement he proudly admitted to General Douglas MacArthur, a friend and baseball teammate years ago at Fort Leavenworth, that he had been using unorthodox language against the War Department General Staff since 1908.

On Christmas day just before retirement he flew for the last time:

“I had a strange feeling as I looked down at a flattened place in the dunes from the beach. There was the skeleton of an old shack there and I suddenly knew where I was. I began to circle. Below me was Kill Devil Hill, really only a mound of sand about 100 feet above the water level. Like a pilgrim going to Mecca, I had been drawn inexorably to that small deserted spot where aviation had been thirty-two years before. This is where it all began, I said out loud to myself. This is where it all began.”

Reference: “From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts” by Benjamin D. Foulois

Griffith Brewer, a British patent attorney, was a true friend of the Wright brothers and the staunchest supporter of Orville in his long fight with the Smithsonian Institution over their deceitful claim that Langley’s “Great Aerodrome” was the first machine capable of flight.

Brewer met Wilbur in 1908 when Wilbur was conducting flying exhibitions in Le Mans, France, near Paris. Brewer had heard of the Wrights in 1906 but was skeptical of their claims of flying. Although Brewer was involved in balloon racing, he didn’t believe that a flying machine was possible.

Here is Brewer’s vivid description of his first meeting with Wilbur:

“I arrived at Le Mans after a heavy night journey and walked down beside the field to the shed on the right side of the road. There, opposite the shed, out in the middle of the field, was the first machine, or rather the machine of 1908, with Wilbur Wright tuning it up.

“There was quite a crowd buzzing around at his work and as you know, a crowd of that kind is very disconcerting, so I had some compunction in adding to the crowd, and instead of going out to the crowd along side the machine I sat down by the shed and smoked my pipe.

“A mechanic came from the machine over to the shed to fetch a spanner, so I gave him my card to give to Wilbur Wright, and when he returned I saw Wilbur Wright look at it and he nodded across to me and then went on with his work.

“Time went on and there was no flight. Ultimately the machine was wheeled back to the shed. The crowd dispersed, they all went back to Le Mans, and I began to think I was forgotten. Sitting with my back to the shed (the machine had gone inside and Wilbur had gone inside) I wondered whether I should sit out there indefinitely. Then out came Wilbur Wright and said: ‘Now, Mr. Brewer, let’s go and have some dinner!’ We went across to Madame Pollet’s Inn and had a very nice simple dinner. We talked of all things American and I did not bother him with aviation. That was probably his first rest from the subject of flying since he left his home in Ohio many weeks before.

“We continued our talk on topics of mutual interest long into the evening, both keenly interested in America life and habits, and when we strolled back to the shed where Wilbur turned in for the night I said goodbye and felt I had known him for a long time.”

That was the beginning of a close friendship that lasted some 40 years. Brewer first visited the Wrights in their home in Dayton in 1910 and regularly visited them some 30 times afterwards over the next four years. He attended the dedication ceremony of the Wright’s relocated home and bicycle shop at Ford’s Greenfield village in 1936.

The Wrights found him a delightful visitor. His wit was subtle, the kind of humor the Wrights enjoyed.

While at Le Mans, Wilbur surprised Brewer with a short airplane ride, making him the first Englishman to experience the thrill of flight. He asked Wilbur to teach him to fly at a later time.

In June 1914, Brewer returned to Dayton for a three months visit to take flying instructions at Huffman Prairie and begin writing on a book on the history of aviation. On the way, he stopped at the Smithsonian Institution and was surprised to learn that Langley’s Great Aerodrome, that had twice failed to fly before the success of the Wrights, had been reassembled and was in Hammondsport, NY for new flight trials under the direction of Glenn Curtiss.

The Smithsonian and other Langley supporters were belittling the Wrights’ success by claiming that Langley would have succeeded if it were not for the failures of the catapult mechanism located on the top of a houseboat. If Curtis were successful in flying the reassembled machine, it would prove that the Aerodrome was capable of flying before the Wrights. The reputation of Langley, the director of the Smithsonian and designer of the Aerodrome would be salvaged.

The rebuilt Aerodrome did lift off Lake Keuka, New York on May 28, 1914 in a straight-line flight of 150 feet. After additional tests, it was restored to its 1903 configuration and returned to the Smithsonian for display as the first machine capable of flight.

Orville was outraged over the Smithsonian activity and asked Brewer to visit Hammondsport and find out what he could. Brewer could logically ask for a tour of the site as a representative of the British aeronautical community. Brewer, a shy person, said he felt like a detective going into hostile country.

Lorin also went to Hammondsport a year later but he was caught taking photographs and was forced to give them up to the Curtiss people. He was able to observe and confirm to Orville the many design changes made to the Aerodrome.

Brewer came away from his visit with photographs that proved that the Aerodrome had been significantly modified from its original configuration in 1903. Subsequently, he wrote a letter to the New York Times that was published June 22, 1914 that enumerated some of the changes.

World War I then intervened. The war ended the visitations from the Wrights for seven years.

The unbelievable aspect of this sorry episode is that the Smithsonian continued to assert that no significant design changes had been made to the machine.

On October 20 1921, the war now over, Brewer went back on the offense in support of the Wrights. He gave a lecture to Royal Society of the Arts that exposed what was actually taking place, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the 1914 tests had not demonstrated that the 1903 Aerodrome was capable of flight. The paper he presented was titled, “The Langley Machine and the Hammondsport Trials.” (Orville had supplied Brewer with a list of the serious alterations made to the Aerodrome). The paper caused a great furore among the aeronautical community in Great Britain and the United States, many of who had accepted the claims of the Smithsonian at face value.

But the Smithsonian was not backing down from its claim. Some were still supporting it. The Literary Digest referred to Langley as the “Discoverer of the Air.” The French Journal-L’Aerophile congratulated Walcott, the director of the Smithsonian Institution on “doing posthumous justice” to a great pioneer.

Orville began to worry that if something was not done soon, the Smithsonian version of events would make it into the history books.

In November 1923, Brewer had an idea for a new approach. He wrote a letter to Orville that would initiate a sequence of events that would ultimately expose the Smithsonian’s treachery and restore the 1903 Flyer to its honored position of being the first airplane to fly.

In his letter, Brewer suggested that the Science Museum at South Kensington would be glad to have an opportunity of taking care of and exhibiting the first machine to fly.

Orville responded, “If I were to receive a proposition from the officers of the Kensington Museum offering to provide our 1903 machine a permanent home in the Museum, I would accept the offer, with the understanding, however, that I would have the right to withdraw it at any time after five years, if some suitable place for its exhibition in America should present itself.”

In April 1925, Orville decided that he would send the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum. The Dayton Journal was the first to publicly announce the decision in a headline, “London Museum may get first Wright aeroplane.”

A number of people asked him to reconsider. He responded to their pleas by saying, “I believe that 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.”

Orville, Mabel Beck, and Jim Jacobs reassembled the Flyer in Orville’s laboratory in Dayton to guarantee that it would appear in its original form. They performed some restoration work on the woodwork and completely recovered the plane’s fabric. They placed the machine in crates along with assembly instructions. The crates were loaded on the ship, Minnewasku, and it sailed to England on February 11, 1928.

The Flyer would not return to America until 20 years later.

On March 23, 1928, the British public was able to see the Flyer. Some 10 million people saw the Flyer while it was on display.

Orville’s decision to send the Flyer to London was a smart political decision because he knew that as long as the Flyer remained in England it would be a constant reminder to Americans of the incorrect story. This gave him a powerful bargaining chip to use with the Smithsonian.

In 1937 he wrote in his will that the flyer would stay in England until he and only he requested its return. And he wouldn’t request its return unless the Smithsonian acknowledged that the Wright plane was the first to fly.

During WW II the museum packed and stored the Flyer in the basement of the museum and later, when bombing intensified, moved it to a quarry in the West Country, some 100 feet below ground.

Several attempts were made to solve the controversy including appointing a committee headed by Charles Lindbergh to talk to Orville, but Orville was sticking to his demands.

Orville knew eventually that the political pressure would build. A congressional hearing was in the works. Also the current director of the Smithsonian had not been involved in the controversy so was not encumbered with the past. The time was ripe to reopen negotiations.

Through the efforts of Brewer and Fred Kelly, the Wrights biographer, the Smithsonian controversy was finally resolved. In compliance with one of the principle conditions of resolution, the Smithsonian admitted to their deception by publishing an article in one of their official technical magazines that enumerated the many changes that they had made in the Aerodrome tested in Hammondsport.

Orville was pleased that his demands had been satisfied. On December 8, 1943, he wrote to Colonel Mackintosh, director of the Science Museum asking for return of the Flyer when it could be transported safely.

He wrote, “I appreciate the great trouble the plane has been to the Museum under war conditions, and I am grateful for the unusual care the Museum has taken for the plane’s safety.”

Orville wanted historical accuracy. He continued his letter:

It has been suggested that I permit the plane to be retained and again be exhibited in the Museum for six months after the war is over while a copy is being made. I think this will be agreeable to me. But before the construction of a copy is started, I would suggest that another set of drawings made by the Museum in 1928 be sent to me for correction …. I have complete and accurate drawings of the engine and shall be glad to furnish them if you decide to make a replica …. I shall do whatever I can in helping you to get an accurate copy of the plane and motor.”

Tragically, Orville died January 30, 1948 before the priceless national treasure arrived in America later in the year. A month later Griffith Brewer also died.

Brewer was devoted to ensuring that the Wrights received the recognition that they deserved. He lectured many times on their behalf and never gave up.

The Wrights in turn had a great feeling of gratitude for all their faithful friend had done on their behalf.

Reference: Wright Reminiscences, compiled by Ivonette Wright Miller

An Old-Time Christmas

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

By Paul Lawrence Dunbar

A renowned African-American poet, Paul Dunbar rose from a poor childhood in Dayton, Ohio to international acclaim as a writer and as an effective voice for equality and justice for African-Americans. He was a friend of the Wright brothers and a Central High School classmate of Orville.

The following story of his appeared in the Sunday, December 25, 1898 issue of the Philadelphia Press.


When the holidays cane around the thoughts of ‘Liza Ann Lewis always turned to the good times she used to have at home when, following the precedent of ante-bellum days, Christmas lasted all the week and good cheer held sway. She remembered with regret the gifts that were given, the songs that were sung to the tinkling of the banjo and the dances with which they beguiled the night hours. And the eating! Could she forget it? The great turkey, with the fat literally bursting from him; the yellow yam melting into deliciousness in the mouth; or in some more fortunate season, even the juicy possum grinning in brown and greasy death from the great platter.

In the ten years she had lived in New York, she had known no such feast day. Food was strangely dear in the Metropolis, and then there was always the weekly rental of the poor room to be paid. But she had kept the memory of the old times green in her heart, and ever turned to it with the fondness of one for something irretrievably lost.

That is how Jimmy came to know about it. Jimmy was thirteen and small for his age, and he could not remember any such times as his mother told him about. Although he said with great pride to his partner and rival, Blinky Scott, “Chee, Blink, you ought to hear my ol’ lady talk about de times dey have down w’ere we came from at Christmas; N’Yoick ain’t in it wid dem, you kin jist bet.” And Blinky, who was a New Yorker clear through with a New Yorker’s contempt for anything outside of the city, had promptly replied with a downward spreading of his right hand, “Aw fu’git it!”

Jimmy felt a little crestfallen for a minute, but he lifted himself in his own estimation by threatening to “do” Blinky and the crowd rolled by.

‘Lisa Ann knew that Jimmy couldn’t ever understand what she meant by an old-time Christmas unless she could show him one by some faint approach to its merrymaking, and it had been the dream of her life to do this. But every year she had failed, until now she was a little ahead.

Her plan was too good to keep, and when Jimmy went out that Christmas eve morning to sell his papers, she had disclosed it to him and bade him hurry home as soon as he was done, for they were to have a real old time Christmas.

Jimmy exhibited as much pleasure as he deemed consistent with his dignity and promised to be back early to add his earnings to the fund for celebration.

When he was gone, “Liza Ann counted over her savings lovingly and dreamed of what she would buy her boy, and what she would have for dinner on the next day. Then a voice, a colored man’s voice, she knew, floated up to her. Someone in the alley below her window was singing “The Old Folks at Home.”

“All up an’ down the whole creation,

Sadly I roam,

Still longing for the old plantation,

An’ for the old folks at home.”

She leaned out of the window and listened and when the song had ceased and she drew her head in again, there were tears in her eyes — the tears of memory and longing. But she crushed them away, and laughed tremulously to herself as she said, “What a reg’lar ol’ fool I’m a-gittin to be.’ Then she went out into the cold snow-covered streets for she had work to do that day that would add a mite to her little Christmas store.

Down in the street, Jimmy was calling out the morning papers and racing with Blinky Scott for prospective customers; these were only transients of course, for each had his regular buyers whose preferences were scrupulously respected by both in agreement with a strange silent compact.

The trolley cars went clanging to and fro, the streets were full of shoppers with bundles and bunches of holly, and all the sights and sounds were pregnant with the message of the joyous time. People were full of the holiday spirit. The papers were going fast, and the little colored boy’s pockets were filling with the desired coins. It would have been all right with Jimmy if the policeman hadn’t come up on him just as he was about to toss the “bones,” and when Blinky Scott had him “faded” to the amount of 5 hard-earned pennies.

Well, they were trying to suppress youthful gambling in New York, and the officer had to do his duty. The others scuttled away, but Jimmy was so absorbed in the game that he didn’t see the “cop” until he was right on him, so he was “pinched.” He blubbered a little and wiped his grimy face with his grimier sleeve until it was one long, brown smear. You know this was Jimmy’s first time.

The big blue-coat looked a little bit ashamed as he marched him down the street, followed at a distance by a few hooting boys. Some of the holiday shoppers turned to look at them as they passed and murmured, “Poor little chap; I wonder what he’s been up to how.”

“It seems strange that ‘cooper’ didn’t call for help. A few of his brother officers grinned at him as he passed, and he blushed, and the dignity of the law must be upheld and the crime of gambling among the newsboys was a growing evil.

Yes, the dignity of the law must be upheld, and through Jimmy was only a small boy, it would be well to make an example of him. So his name and age were put down on the blotter, and over against them the offense with which he was charged. Then he was locked up to await trial the next morning.

“It’s shameful,” the bearded sergeant said, ” how the kids are carryin’ on these days. People are feelin’ pretty generous, an’ they’ll toss ‘em a nickel er a dime fur paper an’ tell ‘em to keep the change fur Christmas, an’ foist thing you know the little beggars are shootin craps er pitchin’ pennies. We’ve got to make an example of some of ‘em.”

“Liza Ann Lewis was tearing through her work that day to get home and do her Christmas shopping, and she was singing as she worked some such old song as she used to sing in the good old days back home. She reached her room late and tired, but happy. Visions of a “wakening up” time for her and Jimmy were in her mind. But Jimmy wasn’t there.

I wunner whah that little scamp is,” she said, smiling; “I tol’ him to hu’y home, but I reckon he’s stayin’ out latah wid de evenin’ papahs so’s to bring home mo’ money.”

Hour after hour passed and he did not come; then she grew alarmed. At 2 o’clock in the morning she could stand it no longer and she went and awakened Blinky Scott, much to that young gentleman’s disgust, who couldn’t see why any woman need make such a fuss about a kid. He told her laconically that “Chimmie was pinched fur t’rowin’ de bones.”

She heard with a sinking heart and went home to her own room to walk the floor all night and sob.

In the morning, with all her Christmas savings tied up in a handkerchief, she hurried down to Jefferson Market courtroom. There was a full blotter that morning and the Judge was rushing through with it. He wanted to get home to his Christmas dinner. But he paused long enough when he got to Jimmy’s case to deliver a brief but stern lecture upon the evil of a child gambling in New York. He said that as it was Christmas Day he would like to release the prisoner with a reprimand, but that he thought that this had been done too often and that it was high time to make an example of one of the offenders.

Well, it was fine or imprisonment.

‘Lisa Ann struggled up through the crowd of spectators and her Christmas treasure added to what Jimmy had, paid his fine and they went out of the court room together.

When they were in their room again she put the boy to bed, for there was no fire and no coal to make one. Then wrapped herself in a shabby shawl and sat huddled up over the empty stove.

Down in the alley she heard the voice of the day singing: —

“Oh darkies, how my heart grows weary,

Far from the old folks at home.”

And she burst into tears.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

In 1917, Orville Wright became involved in the establishment of a private school that adopted the then new philosophy of Progressive Education.

It came about when a group of Dayton’s technical and engineering elite, unhappy with the current public schools, decided to establish a new kind of school. It would be a school devoted to the philosophy that education is not primarily to impart information, but to impart to the child qualities, character and accomplishments that the child will need as an adult.

The supporters were an elite group that were members of the Dayton Engineers’ Club. Charles Kettering, the inventor of the “self-starter” for automobiles, and Edward Deeds, the president of the NCR, founded the club in 1914. Orville Wright was one of the original members and second vice-president of the club. Another member was Arthur Morgan, who was in charge of the Miami Conservancy District, Dayton’s world renowned flood control project.

One night, the invited speaker at the Engineers’ Club was Herman Schneider, dean of the engineering school at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Schneider had introduced a new concept of cooperative education at UC in which students alternated off-campus work assignments with on-campus schoolwork.

The talk caught the attention of Morgan who, while not an educator, was an utopian who held notions that the schoolhouse received too much attention and favored practical experience as a way to properly mold children.

The talk spurred Morgan to action. He convinced the club of the merits of organizing a private school for boys and girls implementing his ideas of providing a new school where students might be educated along broader lines than education received in ordinary school routine.

A nine-member board was appointed that included Morgan, Kettering, Deeds, and Orville Wright. Orville’s sister Katharine was a teacher there for a short time. They named the school, Moraine Park, and Kettering donated an 11,250 square foot greenhouse on his estate that was renovated to serve as the school building.

A nation-wide search resulted in a Colorado educator, Frank Slutz, being selected as headmaster. The school opened in 1917 as the Moraine Park School with 33 students.

The school provided grades K-12 for both boys and girls and among the first 60 students were Kettering’s son Eugene, Morgan’s two sons, and Orville’s nephew Horace.

The campus included a bank, a print shop, a museum and a dark room.

There were no grades given. Instead, the parents received a report of strengths and weaknesses in “congregating, language, acquiring possessions, cosmologizing, creating or bringing things to pass, manconserving, pairing, playing or relaxing oneself.”

Learning was organized around doing, underscoring the school’s assumption that education is not primarily to impart information. There were no required classrooms.

Raising chickens, for example, were used as a math lesson requiring students to determine how much feed would produce how many eggs at what price.

Students ran the school print shop, bank and performed the janitorial and secretarial tasks and kept the lunchroom books.

The school prospered and received much attention. Educators came from all over the country to observe what was taking place. Parents became interested and sent their children there, even from neighboring cities and towns. Students and parents enjoyed the school and enrollment rose to 200.

New buildings were added as enrollment increased. Community government was inaugurated. Students were being educated academically, socially and vocationally.

Morgan in the meantime had been elected the first president of the Progressive Education Association in 1920. John Dewey, one of the founding fathers of progressive education, was one of his vice presidents.

Dewey believed that the primary purpose of progressive education was to make public schools an instrument of social reform. He and his intellectual associates believed that schools had the power to reconstruct society into their vision of utopia.

The concepts of progressive education are commonly found today in the nation’s public schools. Its philosophy disparages memorization of factual knowledge, drill and practice and subject matter learning. Its dominance of the past several decades helps explain why so may public schools are failing so many of our children.

Morgan ignored or didn’t understand the program at the University of Cincinnati (UC) that originally motivated him to apply what he heard from Dean Schneider that night at the Engineers Club.

The UC program balances the work experience with core academics. In order to achieve this balance, the program requires five years to graduate. The first year is all academic work as is the last half of the fifth year. The intervening years consists of year around rotation of seven weeks in the classroom and ten weeks in a relevant work assignment.

I can vouch for the academic rigor of the program from personal experience, as I am an UC engineering graduate (1954).

When the first students of Moraine Park arrived at college, the bubble burst. The students quickly discovered that they were unprepared for college because they had not mastered the academic fundamentals.

Kettering’s son was one of those who struggled in college. Kettering, the schools primary benefactor, became disenchanted with the results of Moraine Park School and withdrew his support.

He wrote the headmaster, “I fear we are neglecting the fundamentals which you will never be able to get the boys to learn after they get past a certain age.”

I don’t know what Orville thought of the school, but he was a close friend of Kettering, so I am certain that Orville discussed the issue with Kettering and agreed with the letter. As engineers, they most likely viewed the issue as an experiment that failed.

Parents and friends of the school rallied and said, “Moraine Park School shall go on!” It was a vain hope. Without the leadership and financial support of its founders the school closed.

References: Grand Eccentrics, Mark Bernstein, 1996. School Days, Virginia and Bruce Ronald, 1991.