Orville Wright Guest of Honor at Franklin Institute Award Ceremony

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Celebration Activities

Orville was the guest of honor at the Franklin Institute annual award ceremony held in Philadelphia in May 1928. He came to Philadelphia to see his friend, Charles L. Lawrance, receive the prestigious Elliott Cresson Gold Medal from the Franklin Institute. There are a number of very interesting comments that came out of the affair.

For instance, Orville never mentioned that he attended the ceremony because Henry Ford was one of award recipients

It may be because in 1914 Ford had provided his lawyer, W. Benton Crisp, to Glen Curtiss to fight the Wright brothers’ patent. In later years (1936), relations may have improved because Orville sold the Wright home and bicycle shop in Dayton to Ford for the purpose of being displayed in Ford’s Greenfield Village near Detroit.

At the Charles Lawrence’s award ceremony, the local newspaper reported that although Orville was the guest of honor, he did not speak. He was presented to the audience with the announcement that Mr. Wright always preferred not to speak.

The Franklin Institute has been honoring men of science, engineering and technology since 1825.

Orville received the Cresson Medal in May 1914 “in recognition of the epoch-making work accomplished by him at first together with his brother Wilbur, and later alone, in establishing on a practical basis the science and art of aviation.”

Orville was asked to address the audience, as was the usual practice. At first it seemed that he might actually give a short speech because he had responded with a telegram saying that he would prepare a short address on “Stability of Aeroplanes.”

However, as in 1928 ceremony, he did not address the audience. It was just his nature to be unusually shy throughout his life.

Orville’s friend, Charles Lawrance, was an American socialite and aeronautical engineer who designed the first successful air-cooled aircraft engine. Unlike Orville, Lawrance wasn’t shy about his accomplishments. In his address he boasted that the long distance flights of Admiral Byrd, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart were made possible by his J-5 Whirlwind engine which could operate continuously for 33.5 hours.

He had a sense of humor and joked about his relative obscurity — “Who remembers Paul Revere’s horse?”

Lawrance further remarked that “better engines and planes are making aviation safer, that future planes will be so large that passengers can walk about the wings, which will be increased in thickness to six and seven feet.”

“The airplane of the future will be so commodious that a mechanic can take a defective engine apart during the progress of the flight; fewer accidents will occur with such airplanes than now occur on railroads.”

Henry Ford also received a Cresson Medal on this occasion. His medal was in “consideration of his rare inventive ability and power of organization, by means of which he was able to effect high-speed production of automobiles, revolutionizing the industry, and his outstanding executive powers and industrial leadership.”

Ford forecasted, “Someday the household that now has an automobile will have an airplane.”

Ford was asked if he did not think that aviation had reached the limits of its potentialities? He responded that it is true that most highly developed planes are now within one ton of the lifting capacity of the extant engines.

But, Ford continued, “There are other lines of development for the airplane.” Pressed for an example, he said, “The discovery of new kind of fuel is one example. “Aviation should attract any man who wants to be in on a great thing of the future.”

One of the few recorded comments of Orville Wright was that the future of the airplane is limited and that it will never appreciably replace the railroad or steamship as a means of passenger and especially of freight transport.

Philip Gadsden, president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce expressed the view that Philadelphia can become the center of aviation production in this country.

Apparently, Orville had another reason for coming to Philadelphia that could have been the main reason. He wanted to survey facilities in Philadelphia for caring perpetually for the Kitty Hawk Flyer in which he and his brother made the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

He was shown the site of the proposed museum of the Franklin Institute on the Parkway.

After viewing the site, Orville responded, “The return of this plane to America is conditional upon correction of the misconceptions issuing from the Smithsonian Institution concerning the relative importance of this plane in the development of aviation. If these conceptions are corrected in my lifetime, the plane will be returned. At such a time I shall certainly consider Philadelphia’s generous offer, along with other invitations.”

What the above is all about is that three years earlier Orville announced that he was shipping the plane to England to be displayed in the London Science Museum. At the time Orville explained that he was sending the Flyer away because of the Smithsonian’s “hostile and unfair” campaign to give Langley credit for accomplishments that really belonged to the Wrights.

In 1928, he shipped the most important artifact of man’s successful attempt to fly to London. Neither Dayton, the hometown of the Wright brothers, nor Orville ever saw it again.

Orville in 1937 placed in his will a statement that the 1903 Flyer should remain in London after his death unless his will was amended by a subsequent letter from him.

By the narrowest of circumstances the Flyer did return to America in 1948 after the Smithsonian had admitted their duplicity.

Tragically, Orville died on January 30, 1948.

On December 17, 1948, 850 people were in attendance as the 1903 Flyer was ceremoniously hung from the ceiling according to Orville’s specifications in the North Hall of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. It was done 55 years after its original flight.

Reference: Philadelphia Record, May 17, 1928.

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