The Wright Flyer’s Roundabout Route to the Smithsonian

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

When you enter the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., the first thing that strikes your eye is the Wright Flyer hanging from the ceiling of the great hall. Many people don’t realize that there is a tumultuous story behind how it got there.

In 1928, Orville Wright sent the Flyer, the most important artifact of man’s successful attempt to fly, to the Science Museum in London, England. Neither Dayton, the hometown of the Wright Brothers, nor Orville (Wilbur died in 1912 at the age of 45), ever saw it again. The same could almost have been said about America. By the narrowest of circumstances, the Flyer returned to America in 1948.

Rivalry with the Smithsonian

The story begins as a simple rivalry between the Smithsonian Institution and the Wright Brothers, and their claims of who was the first to fly. The rivalry was to take on an ugly nature that included dishonesty and deception on the part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian at the time was primarily a research facility rather than a museum and Dr. Langley was America’s most respected scientist.

Langley, like the Wrights, dreamed of flying. His big opportunity came in 1898 when the U.S. War Department awarded him $50,000 (an additional $20,000 came from other funds) to develop an experimental flying machine. It was the largest appropriation ever granted by the War Department.

In 1898, the U.S. was at war with Spain and the War department was interested in a man-carrying flying machine. The project had the support of President McKinley, and the assistant secretary of war, Theodore Roosevelt.

Langley not only had the money, but the resources, of the Smithsonian in his favor. Working on the project were seven machinists, three carpenters and an engineer by the name of Charles Manly.

Langley Experiments

Langley was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1834 and graduated from Boston High School in 1851. He decided not to attend college; instead he joined an architectural firm in order to get a “practical education” in engineering and architecture.

Later he became interested in and self educated in astronomy. That resulted in a series of progressively important jobs in astronomy.

In 1887, he accepted an offer to become the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Two years prior to his appointment he became interested in the possibility of manned flight after attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where the topic was discussed.

Soon after arriving at the Smithsonian, he pursued his interest further by establishing an aerodynamics laboratory. There, over a period of ten years, he experimented with nearly a hundred different model airplane configurations. He named these models “aerodromes” from the Greek words meaning, “air runner.”

On May 6, 1896, one of his unmanned, steam-powered, heavier-than-air aerodromes flew under its own power for more than a half mile on a wide portion of the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia.

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and friend of Langley photographed this significant event. It was Langley’s greatest contribution to aviation.

On November 28, a larger model flew for two minutes for three-fourths of a mile. The scientific community now recognized Langley as the most prestigious aeronautical researcher and designer in the world.

The year 1896 was significant for another reason. It was the year that the famous Gustave Lilienthal died in a glider accident in Germany. Lilienthal’s death rekindled the Wrights’ interest in the riddle of man’s ability to fly.

The Great Aerodrome

Langley theorized that he could accomplish the terms of the War Department contract by scaling-up to full size his successful aerodromes. He called the new machine the “Great Aerodrome.”

Langley hired Charles Manly, a new mechanical engineering graduate from Cornell University as his assistant. By 1901 Manly had designed the first radial gasoline engine in aeronautical history for the Great Aerodrome. It was a remarkable engine that produced 52.4 horsepower yet weighted only 124 pounds.

In June 1901, a quarter-scale, unmanned version of the Great Aerodrome successfully flew several straight-line flights. Langley still had not figured out how to steer, balance or land the machine although he did make a futile attempt by adding a Penaud tail that Manly (assigned as pilot) could operate by a wheel.

Time and money was in scarce supply so Langley decided to leave that task for later. For the present they would concentrate on achieving a successful straight-line flight of a few miles. Manly didn’t reveal how he felt about the sure prospect of a crash landing.

By 1903 both the Wright Brothers and Langley were rapidly closing in on their attempts to fly their manned airplanes.

The Great Aerodrome would be the first to make the attempt with Manly as the pilot. Langley designed the Great Aerodrome to be catapulted from the roof of a houseboat in the Potomac River.

The Dayton Daily News carried the following story:

“The house boat containing the flying machine is anchored off Quantico on the Potomac River about a half mile below Washington. Buoys have been placed in the river about two miles from the Virginia shore and a little north of Liverpool Point to mark the course that the aerial vessel shall take in its flight. That there is any doubt that the mapped out course can be followed is not for a moment admitted by the inventor, who is confident that the steering gear and shiftable propeller which he has designed will answer all requirements.”

It was not to be. Twice, once on October 7 and once on December 8, the machine plunged into the Potomac River at launching. Charles Manly had to swim for his life both times and emerged drenched but unhurt. The last attempt was made barely nine days before the Wrights’ successful first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

After the failed attempts, the Washington Post pronounced the flying ability of the Aerodrome to be like “a handful of mortar.” In fact the machine was aerodynamically and structurally unsound.

The Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned, “If it is to cost $73,000 to construct a mud duck that will fly 50 feet, how much is it going to cost to construct a real flying machine?”

Note: In today’s dollars, the cost was about $1.5 million.

Representative Robinson of Indiana sarcastically commented: “Langley is a professor, wandering in his dreams, who is building castles in the air.”

The War Department, after an official investigation, concluded: “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 be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.”

Nine days later on December 17, the Wrights made the first successful powered flight with an airplane.

The War Department was oblivious to this memorial event. The embarrassment associated with Langley’s failure would blind the War Department from seeing the success of the Wright Brothers until 1908.

It was now clear that Langley was not destined to be the first human to fly. He did ask for additional money from the War Department, but was refused. Humiliated by the ridicule and his money exhausted, he never again pursued his aeronautical studies. He died of a second stroke three years later on November 22, 1905 at the age of seventy-one.

Alexander Graham Bell was one of the pallbearers. In his tribute to Langley, Bell said his flying machine never had an opportunity of being fairly tried. “Ridicule, I repeat, shortened his life.”

Manly left the Smithsonian in March 1905 to take a job as a consulting engineer in New York. Manly still believed “that the work could be brought to a successful completion…”

In the fall of 1905, Manly visited the Wrights at Huffman Prairie. He was shown around, but the Wrights did not fly their machine for him. The brothers did not find out until later that their visitor had been Manly.

Shortly before Langley died, The Aero Club of America published a resolution honoring Langley’s contributions to the cause of flight. One of the authors of the resolution was Charles Manly.

You might think that was the end of any argument of who was the first to fly – Langley or the Wrights. But it was just the beginning.

The Wrights’ Patent

What happened next was the result of the Wrights’ patent. The United States granted patent No. 821,393 for a flying machine designed by Wilbur and Orville Wright on May 23, 1906. Aviation pioneer Glen Curtis challenged the patent because he was making machines in violation of it. On January 13, 1914, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the patent was airtight.

The patent was powerful because it was not about any particular aircraft configuration. Rather, it was on the Wrights’ system for controlling an airplane in flight. No aircraft could get airborne without paying a royalty of about 20% on the sale of an aircraft, or alternately, making some other arrangement with the Wrights.

The Wrights’ system remains to this day the only efficient way to operate a winged vehicle.

Some important people were not happy with this situation. Henry Ford, for instance, believed that the Wrights’ patent would stifle new development.

Actually, the brothers original plan was to sell the airplane and rights to their patent for a one-time price of 250,000.The Wrights would then devote themselves to research. Unfortunately, the U.S. and European countries weren’t interested. Some like the U.S. didn’t believe that the Wrights had an airplane that could fly. All were turned off by the Wrights’ ‘buy before fly policy” in which there would be no demonstration flights unless there was a signed contract in hand.

Curtiss Develops a Nefarious Plan

Bell, Curtiss and others hatched a plan to undermine the Wright patent. Curtiss in particular was desperate because a few months earlier a judge had issued the final resolution against him in the Wright patent suit. Bell and Curtiss believed that if it could be shown that the Langley Aerodrome could have flown, but failed because of a faulty launching mechanism, the Wrights’ patent would be placed in doubt.

Bell contended that the Great Aerodrome itself “was a perfectly good flying machine. There was nothing the matter with it. It stuck in the launching ways.”

This launched a nefarious plan in cooperation with the Smithsonian to rebuild and attempt to fly the Great Aerodrome.

Curtiss was born in 1878. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and educated himself to become an aeronautical engineer and industrialist. As a young man he raced motorcycles, earning the reputation of a “hell-rider.” He became involved in aeronautics when he was requested to furnish one of his motorcycle engines for a dirigible. This subsequently lead to supplying engines to flying machines. In 1907, he even offered to supply one free to the Wright Brothers, who declined the offer.

In 1909, he designed and built his first air machine under contract with the Aeronautical Society of New York. The society named it the Golden Flyer, an obvious play on words of the Wright Flyer.

The design incorporated ailerons to perform the function of the Wrights’ wing warping. Curtiss hoped that the use of ailerons would get around the Wrights’ patent. He was wrong.

On March 30, 1914, Curtiss called a meeting of several influential people. Attending were Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor and friend of Langley, and Charles B. Walcott, the new secretary of the Smithsonian. They met in Bell’s home in Washington.

Secretary Walcott was the successor to Langley who died in 1906. Walcott was an active supporter of the failed Langley’s Aerodrome project and was anxious to redeem both Langley’s and the Smithsonian’s reputation. Bell was a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.

The group agreed to give Curtiss $2,000 of Smithsonian funds to reconstruct and test the original Langley Aerodrome. The objective was to prove that it could fly. Most importantly, Curtis had the sponsorship of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution for the task.

Restoring the Aerodrome

The Smithsonian gave Glen Curtiss the existing pieces of the Aerodrome from which to reconstruct the 1903 aircraft. Curtiss, however, did more than reconstruct the original airplane. He redesigned many features including wings. The wings had a different camber, leading edge, and aspect ratio (ratio of span to cord). Curtiss also redesigned the wing spars, the carburetor for the engine and added hydroplane floats.

The Smithsonian assigned Dr. Albert Zahm as its official representative at Hammondsport. Zahm would later falsely claim that the design changes were inconsequential. Zahm was not an unbiased observer. He had once sought employment with the Wrights as an expert witness but was spurned.

The rebuilt Aerodrome was test flown on May 28, 1914 on a lake at Hammondsport, New York. The machine allegedly flew 150 feet in a straight-line flight according to Zahm, who was also the official observer for the Smithsonian. Conveniently, there were no other observers or pictures of the flight because it occurred beyond the sight of shoreline spectators.

On hearing the news of the flight, Bell was elated and sent a telegram to Curtiss congratulating him for his vindication of Langley’s machine.

On June 2, the Aerodrome was tested for the second time to accommodate photographers and prove that the machine could fly. Two photographs were taken of the machine showing its pontoons just above the surface of the lake as it made several short hops of less than five seconds duration.

Based on this flimsy evidence, it was announced to the world that the original Langley Aerodrome had flown.

Comparison to the Wrights’ First Flight

In comparison to the Curtiss hops, It is interesting to note that Wilbur made the first flight at Kitty Hawk, but because it was only a hop lasting a few seconds in duration, it was not considered a valid flight. Three days later, Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds and that was counted as the first flight. The Wrights still were not satisfied, however, until the fourth flight of the day that flew 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Orville’s Intelligence Gathering

In the meantime, during the activity at Hammondsport, Orville Wright was not idle. He kept himself informed by sending observers to find out what was happening. He sent Griffith Brewer to Hammondsport. Brewer was an English attorney and supporter who was writing a book on flying. There, Brewer rented a rowboat and managed to get close enough to the Aerodrome to note the changes to the original design that were being made.

Upon his return, Brewer not only reported to Orville what he had observed, he wrote a stinging letter to the New York Times. In the published letter, Brewer enumerated the various design changes made to the aerodrome and asked the rhetorical question of why an impartial person wasn’t selected to make the tests rather than a person (Curtiss) found guilty of infringement of the Wrights’ patent.

The following year Orville sent his older brother Lorin to Hammondsport. Lorin adopted the pseudonym of W. L. Oren as a disguise. He was not known to the Curtiss people and was able roam about unrecognized.

He was caught taking pictures of one of the test flights in which the wings collapsed as the machine was attempting to take off. He was forced to hand over the pictures before the Curtiss people would allow him to leave.

Aerodrome Moved to the Smithsonian

The Aerodrome was restored to its original configuration and on January 15, 1918 it was placed on display in the Smithsonian with the following label:

“The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built, and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914.”

This was a blatant distortion of the truth. First, the Aerodrome on display was not the redesigned version that allegedly was capable of flight. Second, the only claimed flight of any length at Hammondsport was on May 28. The two pictures provided with the display were of the June 2nd hops that had lasted only a few seconds. There is no evidence that the flights of May 28 or June 2 could be called sustained flights.

Smithsonian Invites Flyer to Smithsonian; Orville Objects

The Smithsonian wanted the Wright Flyer to be displayed side-by-side with the Langley Aerodrome. The Aerodrome would be described as embodying the theoretical solution to flight; the Wright Flyer would represent the first practical application of flight.

Orville, incensed at what he viewed as the Smithsonian’s complicity in fraud, vowed that the Flyer would never be displayed there. He viewed the offer as particularly offensive because he and Wilbur had offered to restore the Flyer and present it to the Smithsonian in 1910, but were rebuffed.

In 1923, at the suggestion of his British friend, Griffin Brewer, Orville offered the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum of London on a long-term loan. He wrote:

“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 presented itself.”

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