Gleanings in Bee Culture

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

The first accurate eyewitness article describing the Wright airplane in flight was published in an unlikely publication called “Gleanings in Bee Culture” in January 1905. Amos Ives Root, the magazine’s creator, publisher and editor, wrote it. Stranger yet, Root had the approval of the publicity-shy Wrights to write the article.

And Root was not just a casual observer, rather he was invited by the Wrights to witness, keep detailed notes and write about an important event in the history of aviation taking place at Huffman Prairie. The Wrights planned to attempt the first flight in a complete circle. Doing so would validate the Wrights’ mastery of three-axis control. Here is Root’s description of the event as he wrote it in “Gleanings:”

“It was my privilege, on the 20th day of September, 1904 to see the first successful trip of an airship, without a balloon to sustain it, that the worlds has ever made, that is, to turn the corners and come back to the starting-point.”

“During all of these experiments they kept so near the soft marshy ground that a fall would be no serious accident, either to the machine or its occupant. In fact, so carefully have they managed, that, during these years of experimenting, nothing has happened to do any serious damage to the machine nor to give the boys more than what might be called a severe scratch.”

“I think great praise is due along this very line. I told you there was not another machine equal to such a task as I mentioned, on the face of the earth; and, furthermore, just now as I dictate there is probably not another man besides these two who has learned the trick of controlling it.”

“In making this last trip of rounding the circle, the machine was kept near the ground, except in making the turns. If you watch a large bird when it swings around in a circle you will see its wings are tipped up at an incline. The machine must follow the same rule; and to clear the tip of the inside wing it was found necessary to rise to a height of perhaps 20 or 25 feet.”

“When the engine shut off, the apparatus glides to the ground very quietly, and alights on something much like a pair of light sled-runners, sliding over the grassy surface perhaps a rod or more. Whenever it is necessary to slow up the speed before alighting, you turn the nose up hill. It will then climb right up on the air until the momentum is exhausted, when, by skillful management, it can be dropped as lightly as a feather.”

“Since the above was written they have twice succeeded in making four complete circles without alighting, each circle passing the starting point. These circles are nearly a mile in circumference each; and the last flight made Dec. 12 could have been prolonged indefinitely had it not been that the rudder was in such position it cramped the hand of the operator so he was obliged to alight. The longest flight took only five minutes and four seconds by the watch. Over one hundred flights have been made during the past summer. Some of them are 50 or 60 feet above the ground.”

Root, age 64, didn’t waste any time traveling the 200 miles from his home in Medina, Ohio near Cleveland to Dayton. He boarded with the Dave Beard family whose farm house was the closest to Huffman Prairie. On the morning of September 20, he walked over to the flying field and introduced himself to the Wright brothers and asked for permission to observe their experiments. Surprisingly, the Wrights readily agreed and invited him to be their guest. A long time friendship began soon after.

How is it that Root was readily accepted while many others writers were rebuffed? It turns out that Root and the Wrights had many things in common.

Root grew up on a farm, was a good reader and read a lot at an early age. He had an intense interest in the natural world, particularly in science. He loved machines and was interested in chemistry and electricity. He owned the first bicycle in Northern Ohio.

The bicycle was the kind with a large front wheel in front. It was difficult to ride, but Root was determined to learn how even though people laughed at his effort.

He left home at an early age and with a partner, toured the Midwest giving demonstrations on electricity and magnetism. That enterprise ended in tragedy when his partner and their horse drowned while crossing a swollen stream. His story on the tragedy, his first venture in writing, appeared in the Medina Gazette.

He then became interested in jewelry, read up on the subject, built a factory making jewelry and became wealthy. In the process he married a local girl and subsequently had five children.

He became interested in bees when one day a swarm of bees hovered over his workplace. As a hobby he read every thing he could find on bees and became the leading authority in the world on bees. He founded the A. I. Root company in 1869 and manufactured a new beehive that for the first time made it possible for beekeepers to harvest their honey without destroying the colony of bees.

He decided to share what he had learned with others so he founded and published a trade journal about bees and named it “Gleanings in Bee Culture.” By 1904, it had been in publication for 30 years.

“Gleanings” became more than a publication on bees, it included the other things that Root was interested in such as gardening, science and technology and religion and had an international circulation of some 150,000.

Religion was important facet of Root’s life. His employees were expected to attend daily prayer meetings on company time. He didn’t believe in drinking alcohol, smoking or working on Sunday. He believed that technological progress was a gift from God and would result in social betterment.

Many farmers at the time considered automobiles to be a menace. Local citizens considered Root eccentric.

The beginning of Root’s article in “Gleanings” reflects his God-technological sentiments.

“What has God wrought? – Num. 23:23.

“Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you – a story that, in some respects, out rivals the Arabian Night fables – a story, too, with a moral that I think many of the younger ones need, and perhaps some of the older ones too if they will heed it.”

“God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat, instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank the electric cars, the automobiles, and all other methods of travel, and one which may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy. Am I claiming a good deal? Well, I will tell my story, and you shall be the judge. In order to make the story a helpful one I may stop and turn aside a good many times to point a moral.”

“— These two, perhaps by accident, or maybe as a matter of taste, began studying the flights of birds and insects. From this they turned their attention to what has been done in the way of enabling men to fly. They not only studied nature, but they procured the best books, and I think I may say all the papers, the world contains on this subject.”

“When I first became acquainted with them, and expressed a wish to read up all there was on the subject, they showed me a library that astonished me; and I soon found they were thoroughly versed, not only in regard to our present knowledge, but every thing that had been done in the past.”

“These boys (they are men now), instead of spending their summer vacation with crowds, and with such crowds as are often questionable, as so many do, went away by themselves to a desert place by the seacoast. You and I have in years past found enjoyment and health in sliding down hill on the snow; but these boys went off to the sandy waste on the Atlantic coast to slide down hill too: but instead of sliding on snow and ice they slid on air.”

“With a gliding machine made of sticks and cloth they learned to glide and soar from the top of a hill to the bottom; and by making not only hundreds but more than a thousand experiments, they became so proficient in guiding these gliding machines that they could sail like a bird, and control its movements up and down as well as sidewise. Now, this was not altogether for fun or boys’ play. They had purpose in view.”

The Wrights and Root shared the same moral principles and demonstrated the same passion, desire and commitment for what they believed in. They also shared the characteristics of a contrarian. Root was someone who could appreciate what the Wrights had accomplished.

Root stood next to Orville near the catapult directly in the flight path during one flight and described the exciting experience as follows:

“The engine is started and got up to speed. The machine is held until ready to start by a sort of trap to be sprung when all is ready; then with a tremendous flapping and snapping of the four-cylinder engine, the huge machine springs aloft. ”

“When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say – a locomotive made of aluminum.”

“Well, now imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw. The younger brother bade me move to one side for fear it might come down suddenly; but I tell you friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.”

Root asked plenty of questions. One had to do with lift.

“I confess it is not clear to me, even yet, how that little aluminum engine, with four paddles, does the work. I asked the question,

“Boys, would that engine and these two propellers raise the machine from the ground if placed horizontally above it?”

“Certainly not, Mr. Root. They would not lift a quarter of its weight.”

“Then how is it possible that it sustains it in the air as it is?”

“The answer involves a strange point in the wonderful discovery of air navigation. When some large bird or butterfly is soaring with motionless wings, a very little power from behind will keep it moving.”

“Well if this motion is kept up, a very little incline of the wings will keep it from falling. A little more incline, and a little more push from behind, and the bird or the butterfly, or the machine created by human hands, will gradually rise in the air. I was surprised at the speed, and I was astonished at the wonderful power of this comparatively small apparatus.”

Root again emphasizes that God welcomes technological change in a follow-up article in the next issue of “Gleanings” published on January 15th.

“It has often been remarked that one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a ship under full sail, especially a new sailing vessel with clean white canvas.”

There is something especially exhilarating about the way in which the canvas catches the wind and sends the ship scudding through the waves. But to me the sight of a machine like the one I have pictured, with its white canvas planes and rudders subject to human control, is one of the grandest and most inspiring sights I have ever seen on earth; and when you see one of these graceful crafts sailing over your head, and possibly over your home, as I expect you will in the near future, see if you don’t agree with me that the flying machine is one is one of God’s most gracious and precious gifts.”

Root was concerned about others stealing the Wrights’ secrets.

“I may add, however, that the apparatus is secured by patents, both in this and in foreign countries; and as nobody else has as yet succeeded in doing any thing like what they have done I hope no millionaire or syndicate will try to rob them of the invention or laurels they have so fairly and honestly earned.”

Root was prescient in his observation. It wasn’t long before Glen Curtiss and the Smithsonian Institution in this country and others in Europe would steal their secrets and try to claim credit for their invention.

Even today some people credit Glen Curtiss with making the first public flight of an airplane in the U.S. on July 4, 1908. For this feat the Aero Club of America awarded him American pilot license No. 1.

Roots also had thoughts about the future of the airplane.

“When Columbus discovered America he did not know what the outcome would be, and no one at the time knew; and I doubt if the wildest enthusiast caught a glimpse of what really did come from his discovery. In a like manner these brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men. No one living can give a guess of what is coming along this line, much better than any one living could conjecture the final outcome of Columbus’ experiment when he pushed off through the trackless waters. Possibly we may be able to fly over the North Pole, even if we should not succeed in tacking the “stars and stripes” to its uppermost end.”

Why did the Wrights choose Root to publish a detailed account of their exploits? They were obviously comfortable with Root, but I think there was more to it than that. I think they relished having a nontraditional publication out scoop the establishment press. Such an event would appear to the Wrights’ sense of humor

They gave Root the permission just before Christmas to go to press with his article. The Wrights wanted to wait until they were not with their experiments for 1904 before the article was published.

Root also sent his article to the Scientific American magazine for publication, but the Scientific American didn’t believe the story was worthy of publication and therefore rejected it.

Note: The Root Company is still in business in Medina, Ohio, and today manufactures high quality candles. (

Previous post:

Next post: