Wright Brothers Receive Dubious Honors

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

In 1909 Orville and Wilbur Wright were flying before excited fans on two continents. It had been six years since their history making first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. Honors long due were beginning to roll in. Unfortunately, many honors were a sham because they did not recognize the brothers as the inventors of flight.

Conspicuously absent was the date, December 17, 1903, and of what happened there on that date.

This is the story.

President Taft Presents Medals

In mid-June the Wright Brothers were invited to visit the White House by President William Howard Taft to receive medals awarded by the Aero Club of America. Accompanying the brothers was their sister Katharine. Before the presentation there was a grand luncheon attended by members of Congress at the exclusive Cosmos Club. Their “all male” rule was suspended to allow Katharine to attend.

That afternoon, the portly President presented the medals in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. In a good mood, he jested that his own girth would keep him on the ground.

The gold medals showed busts of the Wrights, their airplane and the dates of the first flight made by Orville at Fort Myer, Va. and Wilbur in France. But, what wasn’t inscribed was more significant. Despite all the pomp and ceremony, there was no indication on the medals that the brothers were the inventors of flight.

Awards in Dayton

A few days later in Dayton, Ohio, there was a two-day grand celebration in which the brothers received additional medals. Brigadier General James Allen, U.S. Signal Corps, awarded them a special U.S. Congressional Medal. Ohio Governor Judson Harmon presented them a State of Ohio Medal. Dayton Mayor Edward Burkhart presented them a City of Dayton Medal. (Click image for larger version.)

There were parades, fireworks and speeches by dignitaries, but again, none of the medals said that the brothers were the inventors of flight. The inscriptions on the medals were as follows:

U.S. Congress Medal: On one side, “In recognition and appreciation of their ability, courage and success in navigating the air.” The other side showed an angel with the inscription: “shall mount up with wings as angels.”

Ohio Medal: “Presented to Wilbur Wright (and Orville) by an act of the General Assembly of the State of Ohio.”

Dayton Medal: “A testimonial from the citizens of their home in recognition and appreciation of their success in navigating the air.”

The brothers, being modest, said nothing about it, but they were not pleased. They did not want the celebration and had asked the city officials to cancel it. Wilbur complained that the celebration “has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us.” Following the presentations, Wilbur stepped to the microphone and said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and sat down. They left the ceremony in Dayton as soon as they could.

No doubt some of the oversight can be attributed to ignorance. But much of it may have been perpetuated by the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian claimed that Dr. Samuel Langley, a Secretary of the Smithsonian, discovered principles of heavier-than-air flight prior to the Wright Brothers. The Smithsonian claimed that Langley deserved to be honored as a co-equal along with the Wrights. They did not retract this claim until 1942.

Smithsonian Awards Langley Medal

On February 1910, the Smithsonian awarded the brothers the first Langley Medal for “achievement in aerodynamic investigation and its application to aviation.” Again there was no reference to the invention of flight.

To make matters worse, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and regent of the Smithsonian, effusively praised Langley in his introductory speech at the award ceremony. It may be that the scientists associated with the Smithsonian couldn’t accept the reality that two bicycle makers without college diplomas had bested them.

A side note: In 1922 the first U.S. aircraft carrier was commissioned the “U.S.S. Langley”.

Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the first flight, December 1928, marked the laying of the cornerstone of the national memorial and the unveiling of a large granite boulder marking the takeoff spot of the flight. Orville was in attendance as was Amelia Earhart and four of the original witnesses of the event.

Orville returned for the dedication of the completed monument in November 1932. The inscription on the monument’s exterior reads:

“In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

It may be implicit that the inscription refers to the invention of flight, but it doesn’t explicitly say so. At the time of the dedication, the 1903 Flyer was in exile on England.

Wright Memorial in Dayton, Ohio

As time went on, the weight of overwhelming evidence supported the Wright’s claim of being first in flight. The Wright Brothers Memorial, dedicated in 1940 in Dayton, Ohio, represents this new confidence. It recognizes the Wrights by boldly stating:

“As scientists Wilbur and Orville Wright discovered the secret of flight. As inventors, builders and flyers they brought aviation to the world.” It goes on to state: “— enabled them in 1903 to build and fly at Kitty Hawk the first man-carrying aeroplane capable of flight.”

Wilbur died in 1912. Orville had many honors given to him in his old age. These included the Distinguished Flying Cross and six honorary doctorates.

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