Wright Brothers Liked To Take Pictures

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

Wilbur and Orville were camera enthusiasts. Even before they got serious about flying, they loved to take pictures of family and home, bicycles, neighbor kids and events. In 1896 they wrote a weekly publication called Snap-Shots. Their father was interested in genealogy and had the children photographed several times as they grew up. So it was only natural that when the brothers began their flying experiments they would take lots of pictures.

Prior to 1902 they used a 4 x 5 camera.

For their later experiments they used one of the best cameras on the market, a “5 x 7” Korona-V made by Ernst Gundlach of the Gundlach Optical Company, Rochester, N.Y. It was a dry glass plate camera mounted on a tripod. Orville paid $85 for the camera, which was a fairly expensive investment for the penny-pinching Wrights.

The Korona-V camera used at Kitty Hawk is on display at the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton.

The Wrights didn’t bother with making detailed engineering drawings, so the best record we have of the invention of flight is revealed in the many pictures they took of their gliders and airplanes from their first glider in 1900 through the first practical airplane in 1905. It is the first major invention whose development was fully documented on film.

For each photo they kept a record of the date, subject, f-stop and type of film. Exposures were rarely shorter than 1/25 of a second.

There are at least 1,500 original prints that exist and some 300 glass-plate negatives that have survived. Some of the negatives, including the picture of the first flight, were damaged from being under water in the Dayton flood of 1913. The brothers printed all their photographs themselves in their darkroom located in a shed behind their house.

Wilbur once remarked: “In the photographic darkroom at home we pass moments as thrilling as any in the field, when the image begins to appear on the plate and it is yet an open question whether we have a picture of a flying machine, or merely a patch of open sky.”

They only took one picture of their glider at Kitty Hawk in 1900. The other pictures were of their surroundings like typical tourists.

In 1901, their friend Octave Chanute advised them to keep a detailed record. “Please take plenty of snapshots. You will want them to illustrate what you write.” But I don’t think they needed any advice because they recognized the important function photography would be in documenting their work.

And of course the most famous picture of all is the one that John T. Daniels, a local man from the life saving station, took of the first flight on the morning of December 17, 1903. Orville had set up the camera and carefully aimed it at the end of the launching rail. A class plate held in an light-tight holder had to be inserted into the back of the camera and the “dark side” removed before each exposure.

He instructed Daniels about how to snap the shutter and told him to do so the instant the Flyer left the rail. The shutter was air driven with a hand-held bulb used to blow air through a tube and push the shutter into action. Daniels had never taken a picture before but miraculously the picture turned out to be perfect.

A life-size sculpture depicting the famous scene has been constructed at the Wright Brothers National Monument. The bronze-and-steel piece will depicts the famous scene of the first flight and will shows Daniels behind the camera.

Most of the surviving photographs taken during 1900 with their 4 x 5 camera were of the landscape at Kitty Hawk and views of their camp. It was like they were tourists on vacation, which in a way they were. The photographs they took were of their glider flown as a kite on a tether.

The following years the photographs were mostly of their flying experiments. These were more difficult to do because they had to catch the moving glider within the frame of a camera mounted on a tripod. This required skill as well as a certain degree of luck.

They added to the camera a convertible anastigmatic lens that helped. The lens allowed the Wrights to vary the focal length from a wide angle to a long lens. The combination provided a slightly wide-angle view that was used to increase the probability of the glider being captured on the photographic plate.

The Wrights often discouraged photographs taken of them. In May 1903, Octave Chanute wrote them and requested they send him pictures of themselves to be included in an article on the Wrights that Chanute wrote for publication in the French magazine L’Aerophile.

Wilbur answered, “Your promise of our portraits for L’Aerophile is causing us a great deal of distress. I do not know how to refuse you when you have put the matter so nicely, and on the other hand, we haven’t the courage to face the machine (camera).”

The Wrights didn’t like others taking pictures of their machines either.

In 1905 at Huffman Prairie, reporters began to appear to investigate the increasing reports on the Wright Brothers’ flying activities. Wilbur positioned a person on the entrance road to tell any reporters that cameras were not welcome.

In 1908 in France, Wilbur jumped over a low fence to confront a man who was taking unauthorized pictures of his airplane that was in the process of being prepared for takeoff.

In 1909 at Fort Myer during the Army trial flights, Wilbur discovered a photographer snapping pictures after a minor crash. He picked up a piece of wood and threw it at him, then demanded the exposed plates.

When you look today at the pictures of flight that the Wrights Brothers took, one can almost experience the exhilarating thrill that they must have felt.

Previous post:

Next post: