Griffith Brewer, A Friend of the Wrights

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

Griffith Brewer, a British patent attorney, was a true friend of the Wright brothers and the staunchest supporter of Orville in his long fight with the Smithsonian Institution over their deceitful claim that Langley’s “Great Aerodrome” was the first machine capable of flight.

Brewer met Wilbur in 1908 when Wilbur was conducting flying exhibitions in Le Mans, France, near Paris. Brewer had heard of the Wrights in 1906 but was skeptical of their claims of flying. Although Brewer was involved in balloon racing, he didn’t believe that a flying machine was possible.

Here is Brewer’s vivid description of his first meeting with Wilbur:

“I arrived at Le Mans after a heavy night journey and walked down beside the field to the shed on the right side of the road. There, opposite the shed, out in the middle of the field, was the first machine, or rather the machine of 1908, with Wilbur Wright tuning it up.

“There was quite a crowd buzzing around at his work and as you know, a crowd of that kind is very disconcerting, so I had some compunction in adding to the crowd, and instead of going out to the crowd along side the machine I sat down by the shed and smoked my pipe.

“A mechanic came from the machine over to the shed to fetch a spanner, so I gave him my card to give to Wilbur Wright, and when he returned I saw Wilbur Wright look at it and he nodded across to me and then went on with his work.

“Time went on and there was no flight. Ultimately the machine was wheeled back to the shed. The crowd dispersed, they all went back to Le Mans, and I began to think I was forgotten. Sitting with my back to the shed (the machine had gone inside and Wilbur had gone inside) I wondered whether I should sit out there indefinitely. Then out came Wilbur Wright and said: ‘Now, Mr. Brewer, let’s go and have some dinner!’ We went across to Madame Pollet’s Inn and had a very nice simple dinner. We talked of all things American and I did not bother him with aviation. That was probably his first rest from the subject of flying since he left his home in Ohio many weeks before.

“We continued our talk on topics of mutual interest long into the evening, both keenly interested in America life and habits, and when we strolled back to the shed where Wilbur turned in for the night I said goodbye and felt I had known him for a long time.”

That was the beginning of a close friendship that lasted some 40 years. Brewer first visited the Wrights in their home in Dayton in 1910 and regularly visited them some 30 times afterwards over the next four years. He attended the dedication ceremony of the Wright’s relocated home and bicycle shop at Ford’s Greenfield village in 1936.

The Wrights found him a delightful visitor. His wit was subtle, the kind of humor the Wrights enjoyed.

While at Le Mans, Wilbur surprised Brewer with a short airplane ride, making him the first Englishman to experience the thrill of flight. He asked Wilbur to teach him to fly at a later time.

In June 1914, Brewer returned to Dayton for a three months visit to take flying instructions at Huffman Prairie and begin writing on a book on the history of aviation. On the way, he stopped at the Smithsonian Institution and was surprised to learn that Langley’s Great Aerodrome, that had twice failed to fly before the success of the Wrights, had been reassembled and was in Hammondsport, NY for new flight trials under the direction of Glenn Curtiss.

The Smithsonian and other Langley supporters were belittling the Wrights’ success by claiming that Langley would have succeeded if it were not for the failures of the catapult mechanism located on the top of a houseboat. If Curtis were successful in flying the reassembled machine, it would prove that the Aerodrome was capable of flying before the Wrights. The reputation of Langley, the director of the Smithsonian and designer of the Aerodrome would be salvaged.

The rebuilt Aerodrome did lift off Lake Keuka, New York on May 28, 1914 in a straight-line flight of 150 feet. After additional tests, it was restored to its 1903 configuration and returned to the Smithsonian for display as the first machine capable of flight.

Orville was outraged over the Smithsonian activity and asked Brewer to visit Hammondsport and find out what he could. Brewer could logically ask for a tour of the site as a representative of the British aeronautical community. Brewer, a shy person, said he felt like a detective going into hostile country.

Lorin also went to Hammondsport a year later but he was caught taking photographs and was forced to give them up to the Curtiss people. He was able to observe and confirm to Orville the many design changes made to the Aerodrome.

Brewer came away from his visit with photographs that proved that the Aerodrome had been significantly modified from its original configuration in 1903. Subsequently, he wrote a letter to the New York Times that was published June 22, 1914 that enumerated some of the changes.

World War I then intervened. The war ended the visitations from the Wrights for seven years.

The unbelievable aspect of this sorry episode is that the Smithsonian continued to assert that no significant design changes had been made to the machine.

On October 20 1921, the war now over, Brewer went back on the offense in support of the Wrights. He gave a lecture to Royal Society of the Arts that exposed what was actually taking place, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the 1914 tests had not demonstrated that the 1903 Aerodrome was capable of flight. The paper he presented was titled, “The Langley Machine and the Hammondsport Trials.” (Orville had supplied Brewer with a list of the serious alterations made to the Aerodrome). The paper caused a great furore among the aeronautical community in Great Britain and the United States, many of who had accepted the claims of the Smithsonian at face value.

But the Smithsonian was not backing down from its claim. Some were still supporting it. The Literary Digest referred to Langley as the “Discoverer of the Air.” The French Journal-L’Aerophile congratulated Walcott, the director of the Smithsonian Institution on “doing posthumous justice” to a great pioneer.

Orville began to worry that if something was not done soon, the Smithsonian version of events would make it into the history books.

In November 1923, Brewer had an idea for a new approach. He wrote a letter to Orville that would initiate a sequence of events that would ultimately expose the Smithsonian’s treachery and restore the 1903 Flyer to its honored position of being the first airplane to fly.

In his letter, Brewer suggested that the Science Museum at South Kensington would be glad to have an opportunity of taking care of and exhibiting the first machine to fly.

Orville responded, “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 should present itself.”

In April 1925, Orville decided that he would send the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum. The Dayton Journal was the first to publicly announce the decision in a headline, “London Museum may get first Wright aeroplane.”

A number of people asked him to reconsider. He responded to their pleas by saying, “I believe that my course in sending our Kitty Hawk machine to a foreign museum is the only way of correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution.”

Orville, Mabel Beck, and Jim Jacobs reassembled the Flyer in Orville’s laboratory in Dayton to guarantee that it would appear in its original form. They performed some restoration work on the woodwork and completely recovered the plane’s fabric. They placed the machine in crates along with assembly instructions. The crates were loaded on the ship, Minnewasku, and it sailed to England on February 11, 1928.

The Flyer would not return to America until 20 years later.

On March 23, 1928, the British public was able to see the Flyer. Some 10 million people saw the Flyer while it was on display.

Orville’s decision to send the Flyer to London was a smart political decision because he knew that as long as the Flyer remained in England it would be a constant reminder to Americans of the incorrect story. This gave him a powerful bargaining chip to use with the Smithsonian.

In 1937 he wrote in his will that the flyer would stay in England until he and only he requested its return. And he wouldn’t request its return unless the Smithsonian acknowledged that the Wright plane was the first to fly.

During WW II the museum packed and stored the Flyer in the basement of the museum and later, when bombing intensified, moved it to a quarry in the West Country, some 100 feet below ground.

Several attempts were made to solve the controversy including appointing a committee headed by Charles Lindbergh to talk to Orville, but Orville was sticking to his demands.

Orville knew eventually that the political pressure would build. A congressional hearing was in the works. Also the current director of the Smithsonian had not been involved in the controversy so was not encumbered with the past. The time was ripe to reopen negotiations.

Through the efforts of Brewer and Fred Kelly, the Wrights biographer, the Smithsonian controversy was finally resolved. In compliance with one of the principle conditions of resolution, the Smithsonian admitted to their deception by publishing an article in one of their official technical magazines that enumerated the many changes that they had made in the Aerodrome tested in Hammondsport.

Orville was pleased that his demands had been satisfied. On December 8, 1943, he wrote to Colonel Mackintosh, director of the Science Museum asking for return of the Flyer when it could be transported safely.

He wrote, “I appreciate the great trouble the plane has been to the Museum under war conditions, and I am grateful for the unusual care the Museum has taken for the plane’s safety.”

Orville wanted historical accuracy. He continued his letter:

It has been suggested that I permit the plane to be retained and again be exhibited in the Museum for six months after the war is over while a copy is being made. I think this will be agreeable to me. But before the construction of a copy is started, I would suggest that another set of drawings made by the Museum in 1928 be sent to me for correction …. I have complete and accurate drawings of the engine and shall be glad to furnish them if you decide to make a replica …. I shall do whatever I can in helping you to get an accurate copy of the plane and motor.”

Tragically, Orville died January 30, 1948 before the priceless national treasure arrived in America later in the year. A month later Griffith Brewer also died.

Brewer was devoted to ensuring that the Wrights received the recognition that they deserved. He lectured many times on their behalf and never gave up.

The Wrights in turn had a great feeling of gratitude for all their faithful friend had done on their behalf.

Reference: Wright Reminiscences, compiled by Ivonette Wright Miller

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