The age of flight dawned on the morning of December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, NC when the Wright Brothers’ engine-driven heavier-than-air Flyer lifted into the air and traveled 120 feet in 12 seconds. It was an extraordinary moment. The way that the press handled the event was far less than extraordinary.
That afternoon, after eating a leisurely lunch, the brothers set out about 2 o’clock to walk the four miles to the weather station office in Kitty Hawk. They sent a telegram of their success to their 74-year-old father in Dayton, Ohio. Three months earlier, while seeing his sons off in Dayton, Bishop Wright had given them a dollar to cover the cost of sending a telegram as soon as they made a successful flight. Now was the time.
There was no Western Union in Kitty Hawk, but Jim Dosher at the weather station had agreed to communicate with the weather bureau office in Norfolk who in turn would contact Western Union.
Dosher, however, was unable to deliver the news because of a break in the telegraph line. He telephoned Alpheus Drinkwater at another location on the Outer Banks who transmitted the coded message of the Wright Brothers’ successful flight to Norfolk. Drinkwater later said he was bit annoyed that he had to relay a few unimportant telegrams to the mainland.
(Note: The accuracy of the last paragraph involving the role of Drinkwater is in some dispute among historians. On the occasion of the dedication of the Wright Memorial in 1932, Orville Wright was asked who sent the first message – Drinkwater or Dozier? Orville stated: “The first message was sent by W. J. Dozier.” – News and Observer, Nov. 20, 1932 )
Orville wrote the message that was sent as follows:
“Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas. Orvevelle Wright”
An error in transmission cut two seconds off the longest flight time of 59 seconds and Orville’s name was misspelled. The wind speed of 21 mph is confusing. What Orville meant to say is that the wind was at least 21 mph during each of the four flights. The first successful flight was against a 27-mph wind.
The Norfolk operator sent a return message asking if he could share the news with a reporter at the “Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.” The Wrights gave an emphatic no! They wanted the first news of the event to be from Dayton.
The Norfolk operator, Jim Gray, ignored the negative answer and provided the information to a friend, H. P. Moore, at the paper. Having little information other than that provided in the telegram, the “Virginian-Pilot” fabricated a fanciful and inaccurate story that was published the next morning with the headline:
“Flying Machine Soars 3 Miles in Teeth of High Wind Over Sand Hills and Waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina Coast.”
They also offered the story to the Associated Press (AP) and when they declined the story, offered the story to twenty-one newspapers.
Meanwhile Orville’s telegram arrived at 5:25 that evening. The Wrights’ father, Milton Wright, instructed daughter Katharine to walk over to her brother Lorin’s house and ask him to take the telegram to the local newspaper office for publication.
Lorin went downtown to the offices of the “Dayton Journal” and spoke to Frank Tunison, local representative of the Associated Press. Tunison was unimpressed with the telegram saying, “If it had been 57 minutes then it might have been a news item.”
Two other Dayton papers did publish an account the next day in the afternoon editions. The account in “The Dayton Daily News” gave a reasonably accurate account except that it made a big mistake in indicating that the Wrights were imitators of the world famous Alberto Santos-Dumont. The headline read “DAYTON BOYS EMULATE GREAT SANTOS-DUMONT.”
Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian who pursued aviation in France. In 1901, he had dazzled the French public by rigging an engine to a hot-air balloon and flew around the Eiffel Tower. The Dayton news-editor didn’t recognize the vast difference between balloons and airplanes.
The account in “The Dayton Evening Herald” under the heading of “Dayton Boys Fly Airship,” was a 350-word rehash of the fabricated story that had earlier appeared in the “Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.” The AP, the day after the first flight, had sent out an abbreviated version of the Norfolk piece.
The story was full of errors. “The machine flew for three miles — and then gracefully descended to earth at a spot selected by the man in the navigator’s car —.” “Preparatory to flight the machine was placed on a platform on a high sand hill —.” “When the end of the incline was reached the machine gradually arose until it obtained an altitude of sixty feet —.” “There are two six-blade propellers, one arranged just below the frame so as to exert an upward force when in motion and the other extends horizontally to the rear from the center of the car, furnishing the forward impetus.” Orville had run around shouting, “Eureka!”
The Wrights, mystified how a short low-keyed message in a telegram could have gone so wrong, prepared a correct story on January 5th of their successful flights and gave it to the AP with a request that it be printed. It appeared in a majority of the AP newspapers the next day.
Exactly one month after the historic flight, the New York Herald still had it wrong and published an article showing a picture with two “six-bladed” propellers and an engine beneath the airplane to provide lift.
Wilbur and Orville gave no details about their airplane. It was their invention, developed at their own expense, and they did not yet intend to provide any pictures or detailed descriptions of their Flyer.