Everybody knows that the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, the first aircraft to successfully fly, is one of the proudest exhibits at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.
What most people DON'T know, however, is that for nearly 40 years, the Smithsonian refused to take it.
The reason why is an epic tale of bruised egos, corporate intrigue and international scandal.
Let's talk about it! ( 🧵 )
First, the part of the story that you probably already know.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio. When they weren't working on bikes, they were working on a popular engineering problem of the early 1900s: trying to come up with a working flying machine.
On December 17, 1903, on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, their work paid off. Their "Wright Flyer" took to the air. By day's end, they were able to keep it in the air for 59 seconds, over a distance of 852 feet.
The Air Age had begun.
But, as mentioned above, trying to build a flying machine was a popular engineering challenge of the day. The Wright brothers were far from the only ones working on it.
Another would-be aviator came to the problem with a much more distinguished pedigree than the humble bicycle mechanics. By the time he turned his attention to aviation, he had already had a celebrated career as an astronomer and physicist. And in 1887, he had been given a very prestigious position: Secretary of the recently founded Smithsonian Institution.
His name was Samuel Pierpont Langley.
Starting with a series of small, unpowered models in the mid-1890s, Langley gradually scaled up his basic design -- which he called the "Aerodrome" -- until he had a steam-powered version that flew for a full minute in 1896. The next step up from there was obvious: a version that could carry a man.
Langley's accomplishment impressed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a young go-getter named Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt convinced the government to pay Langley $50,000 to further his research.
By 1903, Langley had an Aerodrome large enough to carry a pilot, powered by a 53-horsepower gasoline engine. As had been done with all the earlier models, this new Aerodrome was to be launched by a catapult mounted on a houseboat in the Potomac River.
The Aerodrome's first flight was scheduled for October 7, 1903 -- months before the Wrights' first attempt. Langley was poised to become the inventor of history's first flying machine.
There was just one problem: when the Aerodrome was launched by the catapult, it plunged immediately into the river.
A second attempt was made on December 8 -- nine days before the Wrights. The result was exactly the same.
The failure of the Aerodrome, combined with news of the Wrights' success, dampened Langley's aeronautical interest. He died less than three years later in 1906.
And that's where the story would have ended, if not for the man who became Langley's successor as the head of the Smithsonian: a geologist and paleontologist named Charles Doolittle Walcott.
Walcott had been a friend of Langley's; he believed his friend deserved a more central place in the story of aviation than history had granted him.
With the resources and prestige of the Smithsonian now at his command, he set out to make that happen.
Walcott eventually found an eager partner in this enterprise, in the person of motorcycle entrepreneur and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.
Curtiss wanted to get into the business of designing and building airplanes. But the Wrights, recognizing that the control system they had designed for the Flyer was key to its success, had patented its design. Anyone who wanted to build a Wright-style airplane would have to pay license fees to the brothers.
Ignoring the Wrights' patent, Curtiss sold his first plane in 1909. The brothers promptly sued him, and won.
Curtiss came to believe that, if he wanted to build a business selling airplanes, he would have to find a way to neutralize the Wrights' patent first.
Which was what drew him to Walcott and the Smithsonian. Walcott insisted that his friend Langley had created and flown a practical airplane before the Wrights had. If that were true, Curtiss realized, Langley's Aerodrome would constitute "prior art" -- invalidating the Wright patent.
There was only one hitch in this plan: its central claim wasn't true. Langley's Aerodrome had never successfully flown.
But the Smithsonian still had it sitting in a warehouse. What if, Curtiss and Walcott decided, they could pull it out and demonstrate that it could indeed fly?
All it would take to be able to do that was a few small modifications...
Curtiss ended up making more than 35 changes to the Aerodrome, touching everything from the wings to the propellers to the powertrain. He also added floats, lowering its center of gravity and giving it a way to land on water.
In May and June of 1914, Curtiss demonstrated the revised Aerodrome in several flights on a New York lake. None of them lasted longer than a few seconds.
But that was long enough for Walcott, who promptly declared that Langley's claim to have designed a working flying machine before the Wrights had been vindicated. This became the official position of the Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian's claims infuriated the Wrights, who by this point had been recognized around the world as the first to fly.
They offered their original 1903 Flyer to the Smithsonian several times between 1910 and 1928. Each time the Institution refused it, on the grounds that they already had in their collections the true first flying machine: Langley's Aerodrome.
Exasperated by the dispute, in 1925 Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912) tried one last tactic to get the Smithsonian to accept the Flyer. If they wouldn't take it, he said, he would donate it to an institution completely outside the United States -- the Science Museum in London.
It didn't work. The Smithsonian still wasn't interested. The 1903 Flyer went to the Science Museum in 1928.
Charles Walcott died in 1927. He was succeeded in the office of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution by astrophysicist Charles Greeley Abbot. Unlike Walcott, Abbot had no personal interest in enshrining Langley as first to fly.
In 1942, Abbot published a paper titled "The 1914 Tests of the Langley 'Aerodrome'." Its opening sentence made Abbot's position on the subject clear:
"It is everywhere acknowledged that the Wright brothers were the first to make sustained flights in a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903."
The paper then laid out Curtiss' modifications to the Aerodrome, apologized to the Wrights, and stated that "Should [Orville Wright] decide to deposit the plane in the United States National Museum, it would be given the highest place of honor, which is its due."
Abbot's efforts ended the long feud between the Wrights and the Smithsonian. Orville Wright agreed to bring the 1903 Flyer home.
But he insisted on a few conditions, one of which gives us a sense for how poorly he felt he and his brother had been treated. The contract under which the Flyer was transferred to the Smithsonian specifies that:
"Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."
This clause binds the Smithsonian to this day, a fact that deeply annoys partisans of another claimant to have made the world's first flight, Gustave Whitehead. A German emigrant to the U.S., Whitehead claimed to have made several successful flights in 1901 and 1902. Whitehead's claims have never been definitively proven, but if they were, the Smithsonian's contract with Wright would prohibit them from saying so.
Abbot's peacemaking paper ended the dispute in 1942; but by then, of course, the world was embroiled in war. Even with Wright's willingness to bring the Flyer home, it was impossible to transfer it across the Atlantic safely as long as the conflict raged.
Finally, in an enterprise dubbed "Operation Homecoming," the Flyer was repatriated back to her home country in 1948. She went on display at the Smithsonian that year, and has remained there ever since.
And what of Glenn Curtiss, you ask, and his dream of breaking the Wrights' patent? As it turned out, he need never have participated in the Aerodrome skullduggery. War would get him what trickery could not.
The Wrights' zealous enforcement of their patent slowed down the pace of aircraft development in the United States. The Wright patent only applied in the US, however, so overseas aviation entrepreneurs were free to copy the Wright mechanism. By the 1910s, countries like France, Germany and the UK had taken the lead in aviation technology.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, its aircraft were so antiquated that it was forced to buy French designs. America's greatest air ace of the war, Eddie Rickenbacker, flew a French-designed and built SPAD S.XIII.
Humiliated by having to rely on foreign aircraft, the U.S. government began to apply pressure on Orville Wright to give up their patents. Curtiss had by this point obtained some patents of his own, so the same pressure came down on him.
The result was the formation of a "patent pool" called the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association (MAA) in 1917. Wright, Curtiss and all other aviation patent holders transferred their patents to the MAA; anyone wanting to build airplanes incorporating these foundational designs could license them all from the MAA as a package for one low fee, rather than having to negotiate with each patent-holder individually.
It worked. American aeronautical progress took off (sorry) in the 1920. By the 1950s, it led the world.
But as new American innovators in flight finally began to emerge, both Wright and Curtiss soon found themselves left behind.
In a deeply ironic development, in 1929 Wright Aeronautical and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged to form a new, combined enterprise: the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Curtiss-Wright went on to be an important contributor to the World War II "Arsenal of Democracy," producing such important systems as the P-40 Warhawk fighter, the SB2C Helldiver dive bomber, and the Whirlwind and Cyclone aircraft engines.
While its airplane business did not survive the postwar transition to jets, Curtiss-Wright managed to diversify, becoming a supplier of a range of aviation parts, products and services.
The company still exists today: https://curtisswright.com
And so ends our tale, which began at the dawn of the 20th century with a couple of innovators and a dream, and ended nearly 50 years later with a world transformed.
Over time, the extremely petty behavior of the Smithsonian towards the Wrights would be forgotten; the Langley Aerodrome would be reduced to a footnote in the history books; and the Wright Flyer, the crown jewel of the Smithsonian's collection, would come to seem like it had always been such.
But it had not. So if you ever happen to encounter it in the halls of the National Air & Space Museum, give a thought to the Wrights, to Langley, to Walcott and Abbot and Curtiss, and to the clash of egos that unjustly kept it from that position for so long.
Postscript: Looking back over this thread, I should offer a correction to the very first toot in the interest of accuracy.
I said there that "for nearly 40 years, the Smithsonian refused to take [the 1903 Flyer]."
This came from me working off of memory, knowing that the Wrights' first offer was in 1910 and it didn't end up at the Smithsonian until 1948. 1948-1910 = 38 years. Hence, "nearly 40."
But as I worked through the thread, I realized that "nearly 40 years" is somewhat misleading, since the Smithsonian gave up its official opposition in 1942 with the Abbot paper. 1942-1910 = 32 years. I guess you could still call that "nearly 40," but it would be a real reach.
"More than 30 years" would have been a better, more accurate way to word it.
I regret the error.
@jalefkowit A minor correction, which has absolutely nothing to do with your story: The Wrights were bicycle builders, not repairmen. Their expertise constructing bikes from raw tubestock served them well when they built a whole airplane the same way.
Thanks for the posts -- I've known the gist of it for a while now but it's good to be reminded of these things.
Tangentially, I wonder whether the Wrights being hard-nosed about their airplane patents might have derived from being bike builders. Practically the entirety of bicycling in the US was held hostage for a while by patent trolls in the 19th century, making them extremely expensive and difficult to buy until a couple decades before the automobile took over the roads. And I sometimes wonder whether that's contributed to public attitudes towards cycling here, compared to Europe where bicycles steadily got better and cheaper over the same period of time.
@ardgedee I think it’s more just that’s how business was done in the US at the time. It was the tail end of the Gilded Age, all the great fortunes in that era were amassed by establishing monopolies. Patents were a way for inventors to establish a monopoly.
Thomas Edison was similarly zealous about getting and enforcing patents, with similar results. Because he invented the motion picture camera, the very first movie studios actually organized near his offices in New Jersey. But Edison had gotten into the business of making movies himself, and didn’t like the competition; he argued that any non-Edison-approved studio that made a motion picture was violating his patents.
The independent studios decided to pick up stakes and get as far away from Edison and his lawyers as they could; which is how they ended up in the little scrub town of Hollywood, California. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_Picture_Patents_Company
@jalefkowit Would it really prohibit them from saying so?
Assuming it could be proven, it wouldn't be a claim anymore, would it?
My neighborhood played a small part in the ongoing dispute. Isham Park is a couple of blocks from where I live ...
@Sandra What mattered was the prize of having been first. The first is the one who gets into the history books, which means the first is usually the only one anybody remembers.
Twelve astronauts have walked on the moon. Everybody knows the name of the first one, Neil Armstrong. A few know the name of the second (Buzz Aldrin). I’d be amazed if you could find a person on the street who could name any of the other ten.
Being first means being remembered.
@Sandra Who can say? He’s been dead for a century, so we can’t ask him, or any of his contemporaries. He never put anything regarding his motives on the record, as far as I know. So we are left to guess if he was misguided, or simply cynical.
The Wrights refused to let the Smithsonian have it!
So it hung in the South Kensington Science Museum, in London, where it inspired a young man named Nevil Norway, who became one of the world's foremost aeronautical engineers in the 1920s and '30s ― but was better known as the novelist, Nevil Shute.
As a result of the quid-pro-quo to finally bring the Flyer home, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a household name and hero in Latin America, is almost unknown in the USA.
What's obscure about it?
Because of the Langley-Curtis shenanigans, the Smithsonian, to get the Flyer, had to essentially agree to a "gag order" relating to other claimants to first flight, and US educational institutions have followed suit.
Hence, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who holds the FAI record (meaning he did it in Paris in front of judges) for first powered controlled heavier-than-air flight is virtually never mentioned in the USA. In Brazil he's a national hero.
@publius @2ck Santos-Dumont was absolutely an important figure in the early days of aviation. I didn't mean to slight him by not mentioning him. The thread was just primarily about the disposition of the Wrights' 1903 Flyer, so I didn't want to wander too far away from that topic.
All that being said, the flights he made before the Wright brothers' 1903 flight were in lighter-than-air craft (such as his airship N-5, here shown circling the Eiffel Tower in 1901). He did not turn to heavier-than-air flight until 1905.
This website dedicated to the history of the Wright brothers offers as a counterpoint a letter from a Brazilian arguing the case for Santos-Dumont, and gives what I think is a fair evaluation of it: https://www.wright-brothers.org/History_Wing/History_of_the_Airplane/Who_Was_First/Santos_Dumont/Santos_Dumont.htm
Regardless of who went first, both the Wrights and Santos-Dumont were key contributors to the science of aviation. They all deserve to be remembered.
@jalefkowit Don't let a kiwi hear you claim that!
Lots of people were trying to build airplanes. Some didn't have the influence to make it into historybooks. Others got so close before they were sometimes-lethally tripped up...
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