The newspapers on September 14, 1908 announced: “Wright Brothers to get $1,000 Medals.”
The article went on to say that “in formal recognition of their recent remarkable achievements in aeronautics, the Aero Club of America, the representative organization of the United States, will hold a banquet in New York in honor of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two Americans whose aeroplane has been the wonder and admiration of two continents.”
“This was decided at a meeting of the club held yesterday when active plans were begun. On that night the organization, whose membership includes many millionaires, will present both brothers with a handsome medal, costing $1,000.”
“This is intended to denote the celebration of America’s gift of the aeroplane to the world by the Wrights, who are members of the club.”
“The drawings of the medals are now on exhibition in the club rooms. Half a dozen leading silversmiths have entered a competition, the choice of design to be made by the members of a special committee.”
“The banquet will not be held for several weeks. Orville Wright is recovering in Dayton, Ohio from injuries sustained in the government test in Washington, but the officials of the club expect he will be able to attend. Wilbur Wright is in France and he has sent assurances that he will come to New York if possible.”
“The directors of the Aero Club have appointed a committee to raise subscriptions and among the prominent members to contribute are John Jacob Astor, Chester R. Flint, Jefferson Seligman, Frank A. Munsey, Samuel H. Valentine, Russell A. Alger and J. C. McCoy.”
Members of the Auto Club of America founded the Aero Club in New York. Alexander Graham Bell was its most famous member. Most members were millionaire sportsman. Wilbur and Orville joined the club in 1906.
The award ceremony did not take place as planned. It was delayed until June 1909 because Wilbur was busy flying in Europe and Orville was conducting qualification flights for the Army at Ft. Myer.
When the officials found out that the Wrights were returning to New York from Europe in May 1909, they wanted to stage a major homecoming celebration that would include in addition to the Aero Club, the U.S. Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. Congressman Herbert Parsons invited President Taft to present the medals.
When Governor Cox of Ohio heard about the plans he protested to the planners that Dayton had already planned a major celebration in Dayton during June.
President Taft was asked to decide the issue. Taft deferred to the Wrights. The Wrights were still at sea on their way home. They told the parties involved that they had much work to do getting ready for the upcoming Army trials and would prefer to celebrate in Dayton.
President Taft said he was unable to attend the celebration in Dayton and invited the Wrights to make a short trip to Washington for award of the gold medals in the White House. The Wrights accepted the invitation.
Dayton picked June 17-18 for their grand celebration. The Wrights reluctantly agreed to participate although they would have preferred to spend the time working on their airplane
President Taft agreed to present the Aero Club medals in Washington at the White House during the second week of June.
Wilbur, Orville and Katharine arrived by train in Washington on the morning of the June 10 and were welcomed by Holland Forbes, president of the Aero Club. He escorted them to a suite of rooms at the Willard Hotel. Many people thought Forbes was Wilbur because Wilbur had been in France and was less familiar than Orville who had been in Washington in connection with the Army trials.
The next stop for Wilbur and Orville was the War Department where they met with the man who would make the decision in the near future whether the Wright Flyer would meet the Army’s specifications, Brigadier General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army. The Wrights had interrupted working on the airplane for the trip to Washington.
Katharine, during the time her brothers were at the War Department, was attending a reception at the home of Mrs. C. J. Bell, wife of the treasurer of the Aero Club of Washington.
From there the Wrights and their escorts walked through downtown Washington to the Cosmos club for lunch. The walk must have been difficult for Orville who had just recently discarded his cane, which he was using while he recovered from the serious injuries he had as a result of the crash he had at Ft. Myer the previous year. The accident left him with one leg shorter than the other and back pains which would bother him the rest of his life.
The Cosmos Club was an all-male club whose membership consisted of important members of society in Washington. Orville stayed there the previous year while flying at Ft. Myer. (I have had lunch there several times myself as a guest.)
The club suspended their all-male rule for the occasion so that Katharine and the other ladies could be present.
Alex Graham Bell and the leaders of congress were among the 159 guests in attendance.
After lunch, the entire party walked across Lafayette Square to the White House where they joined other invited quests in the East Room. Promptly at 2:40, the great double doors to the central hallway were opened and Holland Forbes and Representative Herbert Parsons escorted Wilbur, Orville and Katharine into the East Room.
Forbes made a few remarks on the behalf of Aero Club and then turned the proceedings over to President Taft. The President prefaced his presentation of the gold medals with a humorous comment. He assured the audience that, while his own girth would keep him on the ground, he shared the universal interest in flight. He followed that with saying that the work of Wright brothers was something in which all Americans could take pride.
He continued, “You made this discovery by a course that we of America feel is distinctly American, by keeping your nose right at the job until you had accomplished what you had determined to do.”
The Wrights quickly returned to Dayton to get their new Flyer ready for the Army speed trial. They did get a one-month extension to July 28 from General Allen while they were in Washington. Later, it was extended again for three days during the trials because of high winds.
Back in Dayton, they were committed to another grand celebration, June 17-18, which would further take away from their work on the Flyer. They were not pleased with another delay but there wasn’t much they could do about it except smile and participate.
Returning to Ft. Myer, Orville successfully completed the speed test with an average speed of 42.6-mph over a ten-mile route between Alexandria and Ft. Myer. President Taft was present for this flight and one other.
It would be interesting to know what Wilbur and Orville really thought about President Taft, who was a fellow native of Ohio. He certainly wasn’t of much help to them during the period that the Wrights were trying to interest the War Department in their airplane while Taft was Secretary of War.
In 1905 the Wrights wrote to Taft through their local congressman. Taft’s office routinely forwarded the letter to the U.S. Army Board of Ordnance and Fortification for comment. The Board treated the Wrights’ letter as if it came from cranks. Their reply was negative and insulting. Orville and Wilbur were very upset because it demonstrated a lack of respect.
In 1906 the Wrights tried again, writing directly to Taft. Again the answer was negative.
In early 1907 new hope appeared. Cortland Field, the president of the Aero Club was the brother-in-law of Congressman Herbert Parsons. Field told Parsons about the problems that the Wrights were having with the U.S. government. Parsons in turn wrote to the Wrights in April asking them to send copies of the correspondence that they had received from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification.
Parsons, after reading what the Wrights sent him, was appalled and decided to bring the issue to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. The president in turn forwarded the package Parsons sent him to Secretary of War Taft with a note to have the claims investigated. Taft sent the Wright package along with the notes from Parsons and Roosevelt, recommending a favorable response.
The secretary of the board wrote the Wrights in May requesting additional information and a specific proposal. The Board added they wanted assurance of exclusive rights to the invention. The Wrights, who were negotiating with other potential buyers in Europe, responded that was no longer possible. The Wrights heard nothing more from the Board until October.
Then an event occurred that would finally start the ball rolling to a successful conclusion. The event was the assignment of Lt. Frank Lahm to take command of a portion of the aeronautical section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Lt. Lahm wrote a letter to General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer and the highest member of the Army Board. The letter said: “I have to inform you that I have just had an interview with Mr. Orville Wright of Dayton Ohio, in regard to the purchase of the aeroplane invented and successfully operated by himself and his brother, Mr. Wilbur Wright. It seems unfortunate that this American invention, which unquestionably has considerable military value, should not first be acquired by the United States Army.”
It was just a matter of time. On February 10, the Wright brothers received notice from Allen of the acceptance of their bid on a Flyer for the War Department.
The Wrights were involved in one other episode with Taft in which Taft was not helpful. This one involved a controversy with the Smithsonian Institution in which the Smithsonian claimed that the Langley Aerodrome, which crashed twice before the Wrights successful first flight, was capable of flight and would have flown if it hadn’t experienced launching problems beyond Langley’s control.
The Smithsonian was interested in redeeming Samuel Langley’s reputation because he was a former secretary of the Smithsonian. Charles Walcott, the current secretary, sponsored Glenn Curtiss to rebuild and fly the original Aerodrome and thereby prove the claim that the Aerodrome could have flown.
Curtiss had an interest in invalidating the Wrights’ patent because he was building airplanes that were covered by the patent. Curtiss claims he did get the pontoons of the Aerodrome just above the surface of Lake Keuka in 1914. The Aerodrome however was not in its original condition. Curtiss had made significant modifications to the machine.
After the Curtiss flight, Walcott ordered the Aerodrome returned to it original condition and then displayed in the Smithsonian with a sign that read, “it was the first man carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”
Orville appealed to now Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who was also chancellor of the Smithsonian to make an impartial investigation of the Aerodrome affair.
Orville wrote, ” I do not think it will take you five minutes to make up your mind whether the changes were made and whether they were of importance.”
Taft replied that his duties as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court left him no time to decide questions that should be decided by the secretary of the Smithsonian, not the chancellor.
This complicity between Curtiss and the Smithsonian drove Orville to send the 1903 Flyer to the London Science Museum in January 1928. The Flyer didn’t return to the United States until 20 years later after the Smithsonian admitted in one of its technical publications that significant modifications had been made to the Aerodrome.
In contrast to Taft, the Aero Club remained a solid supporter of the Wrights. One of their actions was to announce on April 21, 1910 that the Aero Club had agreed to sanction air meets only after prior arrangements had been made by the Wright brothers. This was a bold action because many Wright competitors tried to avoid paying royalties to the Wrights and charged the Wrights with discouraging innovation by enforcing the patent they were awarded in 1906.
An unfortunate event occurred at the first large Aero Club American Exposition illustrating the history, status and future prospects of the flying machine. The Wrights provided for display a crankshaft and flywheel from the 1903 Flyer. Someone stole them and they have not reappeared to this day.