Wright Brothers – Honoring the Wright Brothers

Articles relating to the honoring of the Wright Brothers.

Steady winds…..Velvet sands

Determined Brothers…..Willing hands

Gifted men…..Self-taught minds.

By years of toil and eager thirst,

That from your dunes that they be first

To launch a plane by man’s own might

And ride your winds in motored flight.

From Kitty Hawk the Wrights did rise

To throttle time…..Explore the skies.

Bring nations from a distant berth

With hopes of Peace upon the earth,

That by their flight this Hallowed Date

May ground forever War and Hate

And man will strive as they once stood

To bring the World to Brotherhood.

This poem appeared on the program for the 61st anniversary of the first flight held at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on Thursday December 17, 1964.

Howerton Gowen of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, wrote it. Mr. Gowen owned an oil and chemical business for many years.

Mr. Thomas E. Myrick of Roanoke Rapids brought the poem to my attention.

The Kill Devil Memorial Hills Association, The National Park Service, The National Aeronautic Association and The Air Force Association sponsored the event in 1964.

The Kill Devil Hills Association was organized formally in 1927 to preserve and honor the original site of the Wright brothers’ flights of December 17, 1903.

In 1966, the association was rekindled as the First Flight Society. The society supports the Park Service including the annual ceremony honoring the Wright brothers held at the park on December 17th.

Orville liked to play practical jokes. It started at an early age.

He stopped attending kindergarten after the first day of class. His mother did not suspect the truth because he continued to leave the house each morning at the appointed time for school and return on time. All the while, he was playing with his friend Ed Stine.

This charade went on for several weeks until his mother, Susan Wright, stopped by the school to see how Orville was doing. She home schooled him after that until the second grade.

In the second grade he won the teachers approval to move on to the third reader by taking a test. The test the teacher gave was to select a passage at random out of the second reader for Orville to read. Orville not only rapidly read the passage, but also did it with the book held upside down.

On another occasion, he and some friends dumped a package of hot pepper in his classroom’s hot air register to force the dismissal of class. Nothing happened until several days later when the pepper got hot enough to send fumes into the classroom. Their plan backfired when their teacher, unfazed, apologized to the class, opened the windows and continued with lessons while the students sat sneezing and wiping their eyes

He was sent home from school in the sixth grade for some unreported mischief. His eighth-grade teacher sat him in the front row in order to keep a watchful eye on him.

As an adult, Orville continued his pranks. Nephews were often targets.

One of the nephews liked mashed potatoes. One Sunday Orville pasted a thread to the bottom of a nephew’s plate. At the appropriate time Orville commented that it seems funny how Bus’s plate always made for the mashed potatoes as Orville moved the plate towards the mashed potatoes he was serving.

He used the thread trick in other ways. One of the family was having lunch with Orville when a big cockroach ran from under his plate. It turned out to be a tin cockroach attached to a thread manipulated by Orville.

Dayton put on a grand celebration for the Wright Brothers in 1909. Orville and Wilbur rode in a carriage in the parade with Ed Sines, boyhood friend of Orville and Ed Ellis, friend of Wilbur. All along the route people reached out to the carriage to shake hands with the famous Wrights. As a practical joke Sines and Ellis did much of the handshaking as if they were the heroes.

One night an English writer friend of Orville’s was visiting at Hawthorn Hill. After dinner Brewer committed, “you know, I have often thought after you and your brother learned to fly, the problem that baffled men for centuries suddenly seemed most simple. You’d think anyone could have done it. There is a passage of poetry that expresses that very well. I have been trying to think of it for years. All I can remember is “…so easy it seemed once found, which yet unfound most would have thought impossible.” There is more to it about invention. I wish I could find the whole passage. Do you know it?”

“No, I think not,” answered Orville, “but I have an extensive collection of poetry in the library. Let’s look.”

The two men spent several hours hunting for the lines, but the passage eluded them.

The very next morning one of the coincidences so common in life happened. A letter asking for Orville’s autograph arrived and in the letter the writer included the very quotation Brewer had asked about and gave the information that it came from Paradise Lost, Book VI. Orville took down his Milton and began to search. Finally at line 499 he came to the passage, which began

Th’ invention all admired, and how he

To be th’ inventor missed;…

It concluded as Brewer had quoted.

Orville put the book back on the shelf, at the same time pulling the book directly above it out from the shelf a shade of an inch.

When dinner ended that night, Orville said, “I’d still like to find the passage of poetry we talked about last night. I have never told you before, but I am somewhat psychic.”

“I thought I might try to locate the passage by using my psychic powers. I’ll blindfold myself, run my fingers along the books and perhaps my psychic genius will guide them to the book.”

“Amazing,” said Brewer. “Let’s try it.”

After blindfolding himself, Orville ran his fingers along the shelves. At last his fingers stopped at one book and pulled out a volume. He took off the blindfold. “H’mmmm. Milton. Something tells me this is the book.”

Brewer looked at the book. “Milton? I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like Milton to me.”

“There must be a reason why my fingers were led to this book.” Orville leafed through the pages long enough to make his act look good. Then he handed the volume to Brewer and pointed to the lines.

Brewer looked at Orville with astonishment showing on his face. Orville placed the book back on the shelf. He never did tell Brewer how his psychic powers worked.

References: Tom Crouch, Fred Kelley, and Rosamond Young

Many people are unaware that Robert Frost wrote a poem about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk. The poem is one of a collection of poems in his book, In The Clearing. It was his last book published before his death in 1963.

The poem is titled, “Kitty Hawk.” The four-time winner of the Pulitzer didn’t skimp on words. The poem consists of 473 lines. I must admit that I had to read it a number of times before I began to understand his meaning. Frost seems to be saying less than he really does. He requires you to read thoughtfully and think between sentences to become aware of his message.

The poem is too long to present in total here. Instead, I will provide selected passages. I have italicized some words for emphasis.

Frost first went to Kitty Hawk in 1894 as a young man of 19 years. He returned in 1953 for the 50th anniversary of the first powered flight.

Kitty Hawk, O Kitty,
There was once a song,
Who knows but a great
Emblematic ditty,
I might well have sung
When I came here young
Out and down along
Past Elizabeth City
Sixty years ago.

What did men mean by
THE original?
Why was it so very,
Very necessary
To be first of all?
How about the lie
That he wasn’t first?
I was glad he laughed.
There was such a lie
Money and maneuver
Fostered over long
Until Herbert Hoover
Raised this tower shaft
To undo the wrong.
Of all crimes the worst
Is to steal the glory
From the great and brave,
Even more accused
Than to rob the grave.

When the chance went by
For my Muse to fly
From this Runway Beach
As a figure of speech
In a flight of words,
Little I imagined
Men would treat this sky
Some day to a pageant
Like a thousand birds.
Neither you nor I
Ever thought to fly.
Oh, but fly we did,
Literally fly……

Though our kiting ships
Prove but flying chips
From the science shop
And when motors stop
They may have to drop
Short of anywhere,
Though our leap in air
Prove as vain a hop
As the hop from grass
Of a grasshopper,
Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite,
Made it, as it were,
Rationally ours,
To the remote
Swirl of neon-lit
Particle afloat.

Pilot, though at best your
Flight is but a gesture,
And your rise and swoop,
But a loop the loop,
Lands on someone hard
In his own backyard
From no higher heaven
Than a bolt of levin,
I don’t say retard.
Keep on elevating.
But while meditating
What we can’t or can
Let’s keep starring man
In the royal role.

God of the machine,
Peregrine machine,
Some still think is Satan,
Unto you the thanks
For this token flight,
Thanks to you and thanks
To the brothers Wright
Once considered cranks
Like Darius Green
In their home town, Dayton.

“Frost is a philosopher, but his ideas are behind his poems, not in them-buried well, for us to guess at if we please.” (Mark Van Doren, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951)

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.”

At the dedication of the new Wright Field in 1927, Brig.-General William E. Gillmore, Chief of the Materiel Division, spoke about what Wright Field will mean to the science and progress of the Nation’s Aviation Program.

The dedication of Wright Field provided the United States with the world’s Largest Aviation Plant.

Here is what he said (with some editing):

A Quarter of a century ago, Dayton saw the beginning of a new engineering industry. I speak of that which the Wright brothers engaged in as a sideline in their bicycle repair shop. To such vast proportions has that industry grown in this short span, that today it is regarded as a major arm of national defense by all civilized nations of the world.

The development of this industry was hastened through its early and anemic stages by the Great War and after the war it could not be allowed to lag. The Army’s course lay very clear ahead in that respect. To take part in, encourage, and aid in every phase of the process of flight was sheer duty to nation.

Reservoir of Science

Under this peacetime program, McCook Field and Wright Field, to which the McCook Field organization has been transferred, became the clearinghouse between manufacturer and the Army Air Corps. It interprets its needs in specifications and drawings of articles to be built, testing the products when completed, and refusing them if they did not come up to specifications.

If they did and still not prove all that was needed, “we study the weaknesses, pooling engineering experience, and suggestions with the manufacturer with hope of obtaining better functioning or more useful products.” In many instances it was breaking virgin ground, trying for equipment never used before.

Because of the large volume of testing carried on by the Materiel Division at McCook and Wright Fields through the years — static and dynamic testing of airplane structures, dynamometer testing of engines, whirl testing of propellers, precision testing of instruments, strength testing of every raw material used in connection with flight, and finally through flight testing of every airplane brought to the hangers — Wright Field has become a great reservoir of scientific aviation data.

These data have been open to the aviation public and have been drawn upon by the industry in every step of its forward progress with the exception of a few military secrets.

Because of this vast experience with and complete facilities for testing, Wright Field has been able to discover new building methods and materials. It has freely disseminated this knowledge, both for the purpose of obtaining satisfactory products for Air Corps use and also for simplifying the problems of design for the commercial builder.

Because of the great amount of all types of flying done by Air Corps pilots and because of the facilities for development at Wright Field, new problems of flight, as well as things needed for pilot and plane have been brought early for solving to the notice of technicians and engineers in charge of such work at Wright Field.

It was in answer to such problems that the idea of the earth induction compass, the radio beacon, night flying equipment, the modern air-cooled aviation engines, the airplane parachute, and other items too numerous to mention, had their inception in the organization now at Wright Field.

Reference: Aviation Progress, NCR, October 8, 1927.