Wilbur Writes to Smithsonian, 1899

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Inventing The Airplane

While engaged in the bicycle manufacturing and repair business in 1897 and 1898 in their shop at 22 South Williams St., the Wrights focused their attention on the problems of mechanical and human flight.

Otto Lilienthal, German engineer and aeronautical pioneer, died in Germany on August 10, 1896 following injuries suffered in a crash the previous day of his latest single-surface glider with an adjustable horizontal tail. This event triggered the Wrights interest in solving the problem of flight and the question of whether they could go on from where he had left off. They decided to begin by conducting “a systemic study of the subject in preparation for practical work.”

Wilbur was familiar with the flying activities of Lilienthal from reading an article on Lilienthal entitled “The Flying Man” in McClure’s Magazine that they had access to in their father’s library. He also had access to books on the work of Cayley, Penaud and Marey.

Wilbur visited the Dayton Public Library to obtain more information but they had nothing on the subject of human flight. He decided to write to the Smithsonian Institution on May 30, 1899.

Here is a copy of that letter including some of my comments:

Dear Sirs;

I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley’s and Penaud’s machines. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable.

Comment: Bishop Milton Wright, on return from a short trip on church business, brought home a toy Penaud-type helicopter using twisted rubber bands for motive power, arousing the boy’s first interest in flight. They discovered their first mystery about flight when they tried to build larger versions of the toy and found they wouldn’t fly. They didn’t know then that as the linear measurement of a model is doubled it needs about eight times the power to fly.

Sir George Cayley engraved an image of a flying machine on a silver disk in 1799. That imprint was the first to resemble the configuration of a modern airplane. Through the next decade he built both model and full-size gliders.

It is only a question of knowledge and skill just as in all acrobatic feats. Birds are the most perfectly trained gymnasts in the world and are specially well fitted for their work, and it may be that man will never equal them, but no one who has watched a bird chasing an insect or another bird can doubt that feats are performed which require three or four times the effort required in ordinary flight. I believe that simple flight at least is possible to man and that the experiments and investigations of a large number of independent workers will result in the accumulation of information and knowledge and skill which will finally lead to accomplished flight.

The works on the subject to which I have had access are Marey’s and Jamieson’s books published by Appleton’s and various magazine and cyclopaedic articles.

Comment: The Jamieson’s books published by Appleton are somewhat of a mystery because they have never been found. It is known that an Andrew Jamieson was an author of a textbook on Applied Mechanics.

I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work which I expect to devote what time I can spare from regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.

Comment: There had been so many failed attempts to fly that many believed that flying was impossible. Wilbur apparently wanted to make it clear he was not some crackpot.

I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain success. I don not know the terms on which you send out your publications but if you will inform me of the cost I will remit the price.

Yours truly,

Wilbur Wright

On June 2nd, only three days later, Richard Rathbun, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian sent the Wrights a list of works and four Smithsonian pamphlets on the subject of aerial navigation, which further stimulates the Wrights’ interest in gliding as a sport.

On June 14, Wilbur acknowledges Rathbun’s letter and orders a copy of Samuel P. Langley’s “Experiments in Aerodynamics.”

The Wrights decide that control is the primary problem to solve. During July and August they construct and Wilbur tests and flies a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan that incorporates their idea of wing warping to effect control in the roll dimension. The successful kite experiment encourages them to proceed with the building of a man-carrying machine embodying this principle.

The kite hung on a wall of a room over their bike shop until destroyed about 1905 to make room for an upstairs office.

On November 27 Wilbur wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau for information on a suitable place to conduct their flying experiments.

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