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A Study in Human Incredulity
By Fred C. Kelly
[Ed. – This article by Fred Kelly, the Wright brothers' only
"authorized" biographer, examines the popular myth that the Wrights
were secretive, hiding their early aeronautical experiments from the
eyes of the public. Kelly makes a convincing argument that they were
not. Instead, he presents evidence that this was an excuse that
American journalists adopted to cover their embarrassment for having
completely overlooked the biggest story of the twentieth century.
The truth of the matter was that the American media – in fact, the
world media – just couldn't bring themselves to believe that
men had flown.]
From Harper's Magazine,
August 1955, pps. 286-300
When Wilbur and
Orville Wright had returned from Kitty Hawk, N. C, to their home in
Dayton, Ohio, after their historic feat, on December 17, 1903, of
becoming the first men ever to fly in a heavier-than-air machine,
they naturally knew they "had something." They felt a glow of pride
and satisfaction in having both invented and demonstrated the device
that had baffled the ablest scientists through the centuries. But
they did not expect to make their fortunes. True, they had applied
for certain patents (not issued until 1906) nine months before they
flew, but that was by way of establishing a scientific record. They
hadn't even employed a patent lawyer.
Not long ago I
asked Orville Wright: "What would you and Wilbur have taken for all
your secrets of aviation, for all patent rights for the entire world
if some one had gone along and made you an offer just after those
"I don't know," he
replied, thoughtfully; "but I imagine that if we had received an
offer of ten thousand dollars we might have accepted it."
Since there was
not yet any practical use for the airplane, ten thousand dollars
might have been considered a big return for their time, effort, and
outlay. They had had all the fun and satisfaction and their expenses
had been surprisingly small. Their cash outlay, as nearly as Orville
can now recall, was less than $1,000, including their railroad fares
to and from Kitty Hawk. Of course the greater part of their expenses
would have been for mechanical labor, which they did themselves. But
skilled labor was low-priced at that time; one could hire a better
than average mechanic for as little as $16 a week. Even if the
Wrights had charged themselves with the cost of their own work,
their total expenses would still have been less than $2,000.
Inasmuch as their costs had been spread over more than three years,
they had spent no more than do hundreds of young men on hobbies.
Many fantastic stories have been told about the sacrifices the
Wright family made to enable the brothers to fly, and of how they
were financed by this person or that. One persistent story is that
they raised money for their experiments by the sale of an Iowa farm
they had inherited. The truth is that this farm, which had been
deeded by their father to the jour Wright brothers, was sold about
1900, before Wilbur and Orville had even begun their experiments,
and the reason for the sale had no relation to aviation. Another
story is that their sister Katharine had furnished the money they
needed, out of her salary as school teacher. Miss Wright was always
amused over that tale, for she was never a hoarder of money or a
financier and could hardly have provided funds even if this had been
necessary. Nor was it true that the Wright home was mortgaged during
the time of the brothers' experiments. More than one man of wealth
in Dayton has admitted that he financed the Wrights. Indeed, one man
told such a mythical story so often that he came to believe it
himself. The fact is that no one ever financed the Wright brothers'
experiments but the Wright brothers themselves. And whatever
financial scrimping was necessary came after they had flown; after
they knew they had truly made a discovery worth following up. What
made their work more costly from now on was that, as aviation
absorbed more and more time, they had little left for their job of
building or repairing bicycles. Indeed, they never built any more
bicycles after that first Kitty Hawk flight. They disposed of the
bicycle frames still on hand and turned over most of the routine
work of the shop to their chief mechanic.
But the Wrights'
belief that they had achieved something of great scientific
importance was not bolstered by the attitude of the general public.
Not only were there no receptions, brass bands, or parades in their
honor, but the neighbors paid less attention to the history-making
feat than if the "boys" had simply been on vacation and caught a big
fish or shot a bear.
One neighbor, Mr.
Webbert, father of the man from whom they rented their bicycle shop,
"I know you boys
are truthful and if you say you flew through the air in a machine, I
believe you. But then," he added, "down there on the Carolina coast
you had special conditions to help you. Of course you couldn't do it
Then the brothers
remembered that this man was a spiritualist.
thought if the thing had been done at all it must have been an
accident, because of unusually powerful winds, and at best was just
a stunt, not likely to happen again. One had remarked, just before
the Wrights went to Kitty Hawk: "People will fly at the same time
they hit on perpetual motion."
But even if the
boys had flown, what of it? Men had been flying in Europe for a long
time, hadn't they? Hadn't Santos-Dumont flown some kind of a
self-propelled balloon? Many of the Wrights' acquaintances made no
reference when they met the inventors to the reported flight,
because it was embarrassing to discuss anything so preposterous.
One reason why
nearly everyone in the United States was disinclined to swallow the
reports about flying with a machine heavier than air was that
important scientists had already explained in the public prints why
the thing was impossible. When a man of the profound scientific
wisdom of Simon Newcomb, for example, had demonstrated with
unassailable logic why man couldn't fly, why should the public be
fooled by silly stories about two obscure bicycle repairmen who
hadn't even been to college? In an article in the
Independent—October 22, 1903, less than two months before the
Wrights flew—Professor Newcomb not only proved that trying to fly
was nonsense, but went farther and showed that even if a man did
fly, he wouldn't dare to stop. "Once he slackens his speed, down he
begins to fall…Once he stops, he falls a dead mass. How shall he
reach the ground without destroying his delicate machinery? I do not
think that even the most imaginative inventor has yet even put on
paper a demonstrative, successful way of meeting this difficulty."
pooh-poohing articles by Newcomb and other scientists were probably
read by relatively few people, they were seen by editors, editorial
writers, and others, and thus indirectly had much influence on
public opinion. Naturally no editor who knew a thing couldn't be
done would permit his paper to record the fact that it had been
The Wrights were
amused rather than disturbed by the lack of public recognition that
flying was now possible. They inwardly chuckled when they heard
people still using the old expression: "Why, a person could no more
do that than he could fly!" But they knew they had only begun to
learn about handling a flying-machine. If their machine was capable,
as they had demonstrated, of flying by its own power for 852 feet,
there was no reason why it shouldn't go many times as far. They
determined to learn also how to steer the machine in a circular
route. Much practice would be necessary and they began to look for a
suitable field not too far from home.
They found a field
fairly level, handy to an interurban railway, between Dayton and
Springfield. This cow pasture of eighty-seven acres was part of a
farm belonging to a Dayton bank president, Torrence Huffman. Without
delay they introduced themselves to Mr. Huffman and asked if they
might rent his field for their experiments. He granted the request,
simply because he knew that the Wright brothers were decent young
men, and he told them they were welcome to use the field free of
charge. But he said he hoped they wouldn't run over his cows.
Toward the end of
April, 1904, the Wrights had built a tar-paper shed at the field to
house their flying-machine and were ready to continue their
experiments. Compared with a modern aviation field, the Huffman
pasture was not quite ideal. It contained a number of trees and was
near power wires and poles. Also there were cows to be shooed out of
the way. Orville, being the younger brother, usually acted as
herdsman and drove the cows over into a corner separated from the
rest of the field by a small ditch.
At first the
flyers had to wait for a suitably stiff wind before launching the
machine, from a short stretch of wooden track; but later they set up
a sort of derrick with a pulley and weights to aid them in taking
off. The feet of their engine—that is, the projections by which it
was fastened to the plane—had been broken at Kitty Hawk, and during
the winter they had built a new engine.
Though of the same
size and design as the original engine, the new one developed a bit
more power, partly because the Wrights took a little more pains to
decrease friction. Later, again using the original parts, they built
a third engine that developed still more power, and, as there were
no further mishaps to necessitate its rebuilding, that is the engine
now in the original Wright plane on exhibition at the Kensington
Museum in London.
experiments in the Huffman cow pasture were the big scientific news
of the century, almost nothing was ever said about them by the
newspapers, not even by those in Dayton, only eight miles away. This
was not because the Wrights were secretive. It was true that they
preferred to work unhampered by curiosity-seekers; but they knew the
best way to be unmolested was to make no mystery of what they were
doing. Even if they had tried to they could hardly have kept secret
what they were up to in that open field, with an inter-urban car
line and a public highway on one side of it and a railroad on
another. Moreover, though they did not want any personal publicity,
yet they realized that their experiments were of great scientific
importance, presumably of interest to newspapers. It would hardly be
courteous not to let the newspaper people know that they would
always be welcome. Therefore, before they attempted even one trial
flight at the Huffman pasture they wrote letters to each of the
Dayton papers, as well as to each of the Cincinnati papers, that on
a certain day they would attempt to fly and would be glad to have
any newspaper representatives who felt interested come to watch
them. About a dozen or fifteen newspapermen showed up. Also on hand
were a number of friends and neighbors of the Wright family.
Altogether perhaps fifty persons were present.
brothers dragged their machine out of the shed and started to warm
up the engine, but the engine did not work properly. This had not
happened before. They had never had the slightest engine trouble at
Kitty Hawk. Whatever was wrong now was too puzzling to remedy in a
few minutes. Moreover, the wind was low—only about five miles an
hour, and at least an eleven-mile wind was needed to launch the
plane. The Wrights said they would try a flight if the wind picked
up, even though the engine wasn't behaving well. But the wind failed
to increase. The crowd waited and two or three of the reporters—too
experienced to be easily fooled—began to make comments to one
another. They hadn't wanted to come in the first place. Why had they
been asked to waste time on such an assignment? A few of the
bystanders though had only sympathy for the brothers. They actually
seemed sincere in thinking they could fly.
The Wrights were
sorry to disappoint the spectators but showed no signs of
embarrassment. They had learned to take events as they came.
Finally, after the day had dragged on with no sign of a more
favorable wind, one of the brothers announced:
"We can't fly
to-day; but since you've taken the trouble to come and to wait so
long, here's what we'll do: we'll let the machine skim along the
track until it rises a few feet in the air and you'll get an idea of
what it's supposed to do. With so short a track and the engine not
acting right, we shan't much more than get off the ground, but
you'll see how it operates."
The machine rose
five or six feet from the ground and went perhaps sixty feet before
it came down. That wasn't much of a story for the reporters, but
most of them wrote something about it. The versions differed widely.
Some reports had the machine rising to a height of about
asked if there would be a flight the next day. But the Wrights
couldn't be sure. First of all they must find out what ailed that
engine. They might be able to do that overnight or it might take
However, all that
wished to return the next day would be welcome. Indeed, any
newspaper representative would be welcome at any time.
One or two of the
newspapermen did return the next day. But they didn't tarry long.
The wind was a bit more favorable but the engine still sulked. None
of the reporters ever came again!
One friend of
Orville Wright still insists, jokingly, that the Wrights purposely
failed to fly when the newspapermen came to the field to insure
against being bothered by reporters again. That would be a good
after-dinner story except that it isn't true.
Recently I talked
with genial Dan Kumler, who was city editor of James M. Cox's
Daily News in Dayton during those early years of flying.
"People who had
been on interurban cars and seen the Wrights flying used to come to
the office," Kumler recalled, "to inquire why there was nothing in
the paper about the flights. Such callers got to be a nuisance."
"And why wasn't
there anything in the paper?" I asked.
"We just didn't
believe it," he said. "Of course you remember that the Wrights at
that time were terribly secretive."
"You mean they
were secretive about the fact that they were flying, over an open
"I guess," said
Kumler, grinning, after a moment's reflection, "the truth is that we
were just plain dumb."
The Wrights did
aim at first not to be in the air when an interurban car was
passing. But that precaution soon proved to be unnecessary. Few
people ever paid any attention to the flights. One day the general
manager of the interurban line was on a passing car when the plane
was in the air and he ordered the car stopped for a few minutes. He
and a friend stood gazing at the incredible sight. But none of the
other passengers bothered to step off. Passengers on the Big Four
railroad trains which passed near the field must have observed the
flights from time to time. Yet there was no indication that their
stories of what they had seen ever caused any "talk." As the train
sped by they had seen what appeared to be a flying-machine high in
the air but it couldn't have been that, because everyone knew flying
was impossible. Probably if it was anything it was some kind of
new-fangled balloon. If it had been a flying-machine surely there
would have been something about it in the newspapers.
One fact that kept
the flights relatively inconspicuous was that much of the time they
were within 10 or 15 feet of the ground. Only occasionally were they
up 75 or 100 feet. They never flew beyond the field itself, because
if they had had to make a forced landing elsewhere they might have
faced an irksome job toting the machine back to its shed.
At first, the
inventors made only short straightaway hops, as at Kitty Hawk. But
they knew of course that if their machine was to be practical they
must be able to steer it in any direction, and by the late summer of
1904 they were making circular flights. On September 15th Wilbur
turned the machine a half-circle in the air, and five days later
Orville made the first complete circle.
It was not until
the autumn of 1905 that they began to attempt much distance. As they
used only a small gas tank and had no grease cups on their bearings,
each flight ended either when a bearing became overheated or the
fuel was exhausted. But they added grease cups, one at a time, as
more lubrication proved to be necessary, and then installed a larger
gas tank. On October 3, 1905, Orville flew about 20 miles, in 32
minutes; and two days later Wilbur flew 24 miles in 38 minutes and 3
seconds. The gas tank had not been full when he started, or he might
have continued much longer.
Yet the miracle of
flight still failed to attract much attention. Amos Stauffer,
plowing corn in an adjoining field, could not help seeing the
flying-machine in the air, but he kept right on plowing.
Springfield pike from the cow pasture lived the Beard family,
tenants on the Torrence Huffman farm. They had a young son, Torrence,
named for their friendly landlord, and this boy often came over with
a bucket of drinking water. Whenever the plane landed abruptly Mrs.
Beard was likely to dash across the road with a bottle of arnica,
feeling sure it would be needed, as sometimes it was. But there were
few other visitors.
mysterious visitors did come, however. The Wrights saw two men
wandering about nearby fields during most of one day and thought
they must be hunters, though there was not much game thereabouts. On
the following day the two strangers were seen again, and finally
they came across the field to where the Wrights were tinkering with
their machine. One of them carried a camera. They asked if visitors
"Yes, only we'd
rather you didn't take any pictures," one of the brothers
The man with the
camera set it down off to one side, twenty feet away, as if to make
it plain that he was not trying to sneak any shots. Then he inquired
if it was all right to look into the shed. The brothers told him to
make himself right at home. Was he a newspaperman? No, he said, he
was not a newspaperman, though he sometimes did writing for
publication. That was as near as he came to introducing himself.
It was some time
later that the Wrights learned the identity of that visitor. Orville
chanced to recognize him in a group picture of members of the Aero
Club, in a magazine. It was Charles M. Manly, chief mechanic for
Professor Langley of the Smithsonian Institution. The Wrights had
not been "secretive" about what they were doing even though their
visitor had been needlessly uncommunicative.
That the Wrights
were secretive had become such a legend, however, that nearly all
who wrote about them felt in duty bound to build up that idea. In
1905, M. Coquelle, representing the magazine, L'Auto, of
Paris, came to the United States to attend the six-day bicycle races
in New York, and made a trip to Dayton. His magazine was a
competitor of Le Sport, in Paris, and these rival
publications had taken opposite sides regarding the possibility that
the Wrights really had flown. Since M. Coquelle's magazine was
pro-Wright, he wished to report in a way to make a sensation.
Unhampered by facts, he did an imaginative tale almost worthy of his
compatriot, Dumas. While in Dayton, according to his story, he went
to a newspaper office to learn if anything had been printed about
the Wrights' experiments. One of the printers, after at first
refusing to talk, finally took from a leather case in his pocket a
proof sheet of an article about the Wrights' first flight. It was
the only article of the kind ever printed, but had never appeared in
the paper, the inventive Coquelle said the printer told him, because
the Wrights had enough influence to suppress it!
newspapermen did not exactly besiege the Huffman pasture for details
of the great news story lurking there, one of their number was in
frequent contact with the Wrights. That was Luther Beard—no kin to
the other Beards mentioned—managing editor of the Dayton Journal.
Besides being a newspaper editor, Beard also taught school at
Fairfield, about a mile from the Huffman farm, and went back and
forth by the interurban car line that passed the field where the
Wrights were making history. It frequently happened that on the trip
back to Dayton he was on the same car with one or both of the Wright
brothers, returning from their flights.
Beard, now an
insurance agent in Dayton, told me recently about those trips with
"I used to chat
with them in a friendly way and was always polite to them," he said,
chuckling over the joke on himself, "because I sort of felt sorry
for them. They seemed like well-meaning, decent enough young men.
Yet there they were, neglecting their business to waste their time
day after day on that ridiculous flying-machine. I had an idea it
must worry their father."
with the Wrights, Beard sometimes tried to steer away from the
subject of flying and talk of something sensible. But one day
several of the school children had told him the Wrights had flown
around the field for fully five minutes. Maybe there might be an
item in that for the paper. So that afternoon when he saw Orville
Wright on the car Beard asked him if it were true they had stayed up
in the air for five minutes.
Oh, yes, Orville
admitted, they often did that. Sometimes they flew for even longer
Evidently then the
story didn't amount to anything after all. Orville Wright himself
didn't seem to think it was unusual or important. There was no use
putting it in the paper. One more reason perhaps for not printing
much in the Journal about what the poor misguided Wrights
were doing was that such items were annoying to Frank Tunison,
another of the editors, who also represented the Associated Press.
It was Tunison who had turned down the story of the first flight at
Kitty Hawk when he had the first chance at it. Having decided that
the Wrights were not news, he was naturally irritated to see an
occasional reference to them, even on an inside page. "Why do we
print such tripe?" he would ask.
said to Orville, as they rode along on the car: "Well, if you ever
do something unusual be sure and let us know." From time to time he
or one of his reporters went or telephoned to the Wright home to
find out if by remote chance the brothers had done anything worth
"Done anything of
special interest lately?" asked a Journal man of Wilbur
Wright one evening.
much," replied Wilbur, trying to be modest. "Today one of us was
able to steer the plane in a circle."
"How big a circle
"I see. Well,
we'll keep in touch with you."
reflected the newspaperman, the Wrights' circling of Mr. Huffman's
pasture was pretty good for two local boys. But it was hardly a
thing to take up space in the paper. Hadn't Santos-Dumont in Paris
circled the Eiffel tower and flown all around the city? One more
newspaper writer, like hundreds of others, had failed to distinguish
between an airship with a gas bag and a flying-machine heavier than
young newspaperman in that locality didn't grasp quite the full
significance of what the Wrights were doing. The Dayton Journal
had a branch office at Xenia, about eleven miles from where the
Wrights did their flying. The reporter in charge at that branch
office was an enterprising lad, just out of college, who answered to
the name of Fred C. Kelly. His eagle eye spotted an item about the
Wrights and their flying machine in a country weekly, the Osborn
Local, published in a village a mile or two from the Huffman
field. Did he investigate the story? Of course not. Being
exceptionally smart, he didn't need to investigate it to know it
must be nonsense. No one could fool him.
the first public announcement by word of mouth about the Wrights'
flights at Kitty Hawk was in a Sunday school. A. I. Root, founder of
a still prosperous business for the sale of honey and beekeepers'
supplies at Medina, Ohio, taught a Sunday-school class. One morning
shortly before the dismissal bell, observing that the boys in the
class were restless, he sought to restore order by catching their
interest. Perhaps he wished to show too that miracles as wonderful
as any in the Bible were still possible.
"Do you know,
friends," he said, "that two Ohio boys, or young men rather, have
outstripped the world in demonstrating that a flying-machine can be
constructed without the aid of a balloon?" He had read an obscure
item about the Wrights in an Akron paper.
The class became
attentive and Root went on: "During the past few months these two
boys have made a machine that actually flew through the air for more
than half a mile, carrying one of the boys with it. This young man
is not only a credit to our State but to the whole country and to
Though this was in
February, 1904, several weeks after the Wrights had flown at Kitty
Hawk, no one in the class had ever heard about it, and incredulously
they fired questions at the teacher.
"Where do the boys
live? What are their names? When and where did their machine fly?"
Root described not
too accurately the Kitty Hawk flight, and added: "When they make
their next trial I am going to try to be on hand to see the
An important part
of Root's business was publication of the still widely circulated
magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, and in his issue of March
1, 1904, he told of the episode in the Sunday school. By printing
that story, the Medina bee man became the first editor of a
scientific publication, indeed the first editor of a magazine of any
kind, to recognize that man could fly.
1904, when the Wrights were experimenting at Huffman field, Root
went down to see them. He chanced to arrive in time to see that
first circular flight. Later he offered to contribute one hundred
dollars to help the Wrights in their experiments; but they returned
his check. Root continued to print articles about the Wrights in
Gleanings in Bee Culture.
In December, 1905,
he wrote that he had permission from the Wrights to tell that a
great number of long flights were made during the previous summer,
"one of 24 miles in 38 minutes." His publication of that
record-making flight was probably the first in the United States.
Not wishing to be
miserly with his information, Root sent an eye-witness account of
what the Wrights were doing to the Scientific American, with
a letter telling the editor he was free to use it. But the editor
was not to be taken in and made no effort to investigate what Root
had dropped into his lap. Though the Scientific American
printed in 1905 many articles about flying, nearly all were about
devices that maybe ought to be tried. The theme was: "If man ever
does fly, possibly this is the way he will do it." In the issue of
December 16, 1905, the editor appeared to have heard rumors about
the Wrights, for in an editorial headed "Retrospect for the Year,"
he wrote: "The most promising results (with the airplane) to date
were those obtained last year by the Wright brothers, one of whom
made a flight of over half a mile in a power-propelled machine."
Earlier in the same editorial, however, was the assertion: "the only
successful 'flying' that has been done this year—must be credited to
the balloon type." More than two months before that editorial
appeared the Wrights' flying had totalled about 160 miles; and their
record flight of more than 24 miles had ended only because the fuel
tank was empty. Yet as late as October 6, 1906, the Scientific
American devoted considerably more than a column to a letter from J.
C. Press of Norwalk, Conn., seeking to justify his belief that "man
may fly within a few years."
Though hundreds of
people by now had actually seen the Wrights flying, the vast
majority throughout the country, including practically all
scientists, simply didn't believe any flying-machine had ever left
the ground by its own power. Human flight was not only unacceptable
as fact to scientists; the idea was ridiculous even to professional
humorists. The humorous weekly, Puck, in its issue of October 19,
1904—just two weeks after that flight of 24 miles—published a joke,
inspired presumably by absurd reports about two Dayton boys.
the friend, "will you wing your first flight?"
"Just as soon,"
replied the flying-machine inventor, "as I can get the laws of
flight, not to be swallowed by either scientists or jokesmiths,
seemed shocking to certain professional readers when they
encountered it in fiction. In the spring of 1908—more than four
years, remember, after the first Kitty Hawk flight—appeared an H. G.
Wells novel, Tono Bungay, in which the leading character
built a gliding machine "along the lines of the Wright brothers'
aeroplane," and finally a flying-machine, in which he made thrilling
journeys. At least one or two American book reviewers chided the
author for bringing such fantastic material into an otherwise
logical tale. Wells' earlier books about men from Mars had been
frankly scientific fairy tales and there it was permissible to let
his imagination run riot; but now when he was trying to depict
realistic human behavior, was it not silly to bring in the
Bell, though one of the first scientists to concede that the Wrights
had flown, published a statement in 1907 expressing fear about the
reported speed of thirty-four miles an hour—so dangerous, he said,
that the airplane would always be impractical.
group of people, the nature of whose jobs might have been expected
to make them curious about rumors that man could fly, were more
annoyed than interested. These were in the United States War
Department, predecessors of those who to-day are always besieging
Congress for more appropriations for airplanes.
patriotically wished to offer to their own government a world
monopoly on all their patents and, more particularly, all their
secrets relating to the airplane. They thought it might finally be
useful for scouting purposes, and this belief was supported when
foreign governments, especially the French, began flirtations with
them. Hence the inventors got in touch with their Representative in
Congress to find out how to begin negotiations with the proper
officials in Washington. Not long afterward, at the suggestion of
their Congressman, they wrote a letter to the Secretary of War,
expressing their willingness to give the United States government
first opportunity to control all rights in their invention. The War
Department evidently regarded the letter simply as something for
their "crank file." They had of course received many proposals in
the past from inventors of flying-machines and perpetual-motion
machines and had form letters to use in reply. The letters to the
Wrights from the War Department people invariably seemed to follow
routine forms and contained stock phrases bearing no relation to
anything the Wrights had written.
One of these
letters, signed by a major general of the General Staff, and
president of the Board of Ordnance, in October, 1905, said that "the
Board found it necessary to decline to make allotments for the
experimental development of devices for mechanical flight, and had
determined that, before suggestions with that object in view would
be considered, the device must have been brought to the stage of
practical operation." (At no time had the Wrights asked for or
even remotely implied that they sought any allotment for the
experimental development of their machine.) A little later in 1905
the Wrights got another reply to a letter of theirs, this one signed
by a captain in the Ordnance Department, who told them the Board of
Ordnance did not care to formulate any requirements for the
performance of a flying-machine or take any further action "until
a machine is produced which by actual operation is shown to be able
to produce horizontal flight and to carry an operator."
interests, on the chance that the Wrights' reported feats might be
true, had sent a representative to Dayton to talk with the inventors
with a view to a possible deal. When this Frenchman was about to
sail for home, early in 1906, he admitted to ship news reporters at
the New York pier that he had seen the Wrights. He didn't give many
details, but newspapers carried an item that the Wrights were
dickering with a foreign country for use of their new-fangled
"airship." A member of the Cabot family in Massachusetts noted the
item and wrote to the Wrights inquiring why they did not give
preference, if they had something worth while, to their own
government. The Wrights replied, telling how they had repeatedly
tried to interest their government; and Cabot sent the
correspondence to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who forwarded it to the
Secretary of War—who shoved it along, with a memorandum, to the
Ordnance Board. There it presumably went into the files. But nothing
else was done about it.
Early in 1907
someone sent to President Roosevelt a clipping from the
Scientific American—whose editor had now learned more about the
Wrights. Roosevelt marked the clipping "Investigate" and passed it
along to Secretary of War Taft. Taft added his own "Investigate" on
a memorandum slip attached to the clipping and sent it to the
Ordnance Board. The personnel there had changed, at least partly,
since the correspondence with the Wrights in 1905, but they had the
same skepticism. Though they made a half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek
"investigation," consisting of a letter or two, they made it plain
to the Wrights that War Department people were still too shrewd to
be taken in. They were now only complying with orders from higher
The Wrights had
begun to suspect that the War Department did not believe them when
they said they could fly. They didn't get angry; still, they did
feel a bit of vexation, mixed with amusement. That may have been one
reason why, early in 1907, partly in a spirit of mischief, and with
a sense for the dramatic effect, they planned a little joke on the
government as well as on the general public. An exposition was held
on the Virginia coast that year to celebrate the three hundredth
anniversary of the founding of the first English colony, at
Jamestown. In connection with the Jamestown Exposition there was to
be a big naval review, on April 26th, at Hampton Roads. President
Roosevelt and various other important government officials would be
there. It occurred to the Wrights that it might be a neat idea to
equip their plane with pontoons for emergency landing, take it to
Kitty Hawk, and then fly from there up along the Virginia coast.
They would fly nonchalantly right ever the battleships during the
big naval review. All government officials and others who knew that
flying was impossible would be set to wondering. The Wrights put an
engine on pontoons and placed it on the river near Dayton for
preliminary experiments. But the propeller hit the water and was
damaged in the first tests, and before repairs could be made a flood
broke the dam in the river. The brothers had to abandon their plans
for a practical joke that would have been a national sensation.
It was a curious
chain of circumstances that aroused more interest abroad in the
Wrights' scientific work than in the United States. Captain Louis F.
Ferber, of the French Army, was acquainted with Octave Chanute, of
Chicago, with whom the Wrights had formed a friendship after writing
to him for information about suitable places in the United States
for experimenting with gliders. Chanute, born in France, made annual
trips to Paris, and, as he and Captain Ferber were both interested
in aeronautics, the Captain heard from Chanute about the Wrights.
Ferber had already seen a reference to their work in a ballooning
journal published in Berlin. But he thought Chanute's stories might
be exaggerated and wrote to the Wrights asking for information about
their later experiments. The Wrights sent a brief report. Ferber
turned this over to the French Aero Club. All members of the Aero
Club then wondered, during many months, just how much truth there
could be in the Wrights' statements.
One member of the
club, F. S. Lahm, was an American. He had gone to France from
Mansfield, Ohio, many years before, and had introduced the Remington
typewriter in Europe. As a hobby he had taken up ballooning and held
a pilot's license. Other club members appealed to Lahm. Did he
happen to know anyone in the part of the United States where the
Wrights lived, and could he have an investigation made? Yes, Lahm
had a brother-in-law in Mansfield, Henry M. Weaver; and the latter
had a son, Henry Jr., probably not too busy to go to Dayton and get
the facts. Thus it came about that Lahm, in December, 1905, sent a
cable to the younger Weaver asking him to "investigate the claims of
the Wright brothers at Dayton." The young man, never having heard of
the Wrights, supposed the message must be intended for his father,
then on a business trip to Chicago, and he forwarded the message to
him there. Weaver, Sr., had never heard of the Wrights either, but
if they had a claim against his brother-in-law he would see what
could be done about settling it. As there might be more than one
firm of Wrights in Dayton, he wired a message with no address but to
"Wright brothers," ^asking if they knew F. S. Lahm in Paris. The
Wrights did know Lahm; that is, they had heard of him as a
balloonist, and wired back: Yes. Then Weaver sent another message
that he would like to have a talk with them and would come to Dayton
the next day.
When he reached
Dayton, however, he had difficulty in finding them. There was no
firm of Wright brothers in the telephone book or city directory. But
by inquiring at the office of the telegraph company that had handled
his message, he got in touch with Orville Wright. He learned also at
the telegraph office that the Wrights were supposed to have been
interested in making gliders. The mystery seemed to be lifting.
Doubtless the Wrights had made a glider for Lahm and now there was
some misunderstanding about the price.
When he met
Orville, Weaver said: "You made a glider, I believe, for Mr. Lahm,
of course shook his head. No, he said, they had never made a glider
for Mr. Lahm or for anyone else.
Weaver, even more puzzled, "what in the world can be the meaning of
this cable?" And he handed to Orville the message from Paris.
understood. Evidently, he said, Lahm as a member of the French Aero
Club wished to find out if it could be true that the Wrights had
done any flying.
As Weaver later
reported, he was already impressed by this Wright brother, and
thought it unlikely that any faker would have such a modest, honest
demeanor. But Orville laughingly said if an investigation was
desired they might as well get right at it. It was too late in the
season for flying, but he could show him the machine; and he could
introduce him to many responsible people who had seen them fly.
First of all,
Orville took him to the home of Mr. Billman, head of the West Side
Savings & Loan Company. The Billmans were a fairly large family and
all, except one daughter, had seen the Wrights fly. When the callers
were taken into the sitting room the first member of the family to
appear was a four-year-old boy. "Son," asked Weaver jokingly, "have
you ever seen a flying-machine?" He wasn't expecting to get evidence
just yet; but the boy began to run round the room, trying to imitate
with his hands the motion of a propeller and to make a noise like
Orville, Weaver laughingly observed: "I'm about convinced already.
That boy couldn't be a bribed witness."
They also went to
talk with the Beard family, across from the flying field, and with
Amos Stauffer, the nearest farmer up the road.
"Did they fly?"
repeated Stauffer. "I've seen 'em fly around and around the field
until I thought they wasn't never goin' to stop!"
completely convinced before he left Dayton and on December 6th
rushed a letter to Lahm in Paris, giving exact details of what the
Wrights had done. That letter when read at the French Aero Club
provoked a violent discussion lasting well into the night. Nearly
all, except Lahm and Ferber, were skeptical. In fact, many did not
wish to believe the story, as several Frenchmen were experimenting
at attempts to fly and it was hoped to have the honor of the first
successful flying-machine for France.
Lahm gave a copy
of Weaver's report to the Paris edition of the New York Herald,
the first to "break" the story so far as the general public in
Europe was concerned, in an article headed "Flyers or Liars."
The news was taken
up by one or two of the wire services and was cabled back to the
United States where it reached various newspapers, including those
in Dayton. Editors in Dayton couldn't imagine why the Wrights should
have stirred so much excitement in France, unless it was simply
that—well, the French, they are a funny race.
A few .months
after Weaver's letter reached Lahm the latter's son, Lieutenant
Frank P. Lahm, recently out of West Point, reached Paris for a stay,
preliminary to entering the French Cavalry School. He had already
been initiated into ballooning by his father; and in September,
1906, he won the James Gordon Bennett cup at the International
Balloon Races, in Paris. Since his father believed the Wrights had
flown, Lieutenant Lahm saw no reason to disbelieve it. Later he met
the Wrights at dinner and observing the kind of men they were, had
not the slightest doubt they had done whatever they said they had.
He was in accord with many French army officers who had decided the
flying-machine should now be taken seriously. In September, 1907,
Lieutenant Lahm was transferred by the War Department from the
Cavalry to the Signal Corps. Shortly after that the War Department
was seriously negotiating with the Wrights and the contract finally
made was handled by the Signal Corps, though the funds came from
those allotted to the Board of Ordnance and Fortifications.
Lahm, now a
Colonel in the Air Corps, stationed at Governor's Island, insists
that he knows of no influence any word or action of his could have
had on the decision of the War Department to buy an airplane. But
the presence of a new man in the Signal Corps who frankly felt
enthusiasm for the airplane's possibilities may have had its effect.
It is true,
however, that the War Department had begun to show a different
attitude toward the Wrights some time before Lahm entered the Signal
Corps. News about the interest of European governments in the
airplane had begun to reach them from their military attaché's and
others. In 1907, the Ordnance Board, after repeatedly treating the
Wrights as if they were a pair of cranks, wrote a letter asking what
their price would be for a plane. The Wrights did not believe the
letter was much more than a gesture and Orville replied briefly,
mentioning a price of $100,000. The brothers had no expectation of
receiving such a price; but since the War Department had been
somewhat "snooty," it was now their turn. The next letter from
Washington, received by the Wrights in London, was the first really
polite one they had had from the Ordnance Board. It said, in
substance, that the War Department thought it might be nice to have
an airplane; but, the budget being what it was, they just wouldn't
know where they could lay their hands on $100,000. To which Orville
replied that if the only thing in the way was the price, they would
gladly make that satisfactory.
But not until 1908
was a deal made. It provided that if the Wright plane met certain
tests the price would be $25,000. The tests, as published at the
time, included provisions that the plane should be able to carry for
one hour a passenger besides the pilot, the two weighing not less
than 350 pounds; that it should have a speed of 40 miles an hour,
and carry enough fuel for 125 miles. It was arranged that a
demonstration should be made at Fort Myer, Virginia, near
Washington, in September.
During 1906-07 the
Wrights had not done any flying. They had become too busy pressing
their law suits against patent infringers and dickering with foreign
governments. But they had been planning important improvements in
their machine. During all their experiments at the Huffman pasture
they had continued to ride "belly-buster," as a boy usually does
when coasting on a sled. Someone had described a Wright flight as
resembling a man lying on his stomach looking out of the front of a
chicken coop. Lying flat in that way and controlling the machine
partly by swinging the body from one side to the other was good
enough for the experimental stages of aviation; but the Wrights knew
that if a plane was to have practical use the operator must be able
to take an ordinary sitting position and to do the guiding with his
hands and feet as in an automobile. It was not all fun lying flat
for an hour at a time with head raised to be on the lookout for
possible obstacles. "I used to think," says Orville, "the back of my
neck would break if I endured one more turn around the field."
therefore had set to work to design a new steering apparatus. Wilbur
used to lie in bed mentally practicing the necessary movements until
he was sure he could do it satisfactorily the first time in actual
flight. But many more trial flights were needed before the new
manner of steering could be done with almost automatic responses.
For these trials the Wrights returned once more to Kitty Hawk, in
the spring of 1908, and moved back into the rough cabin they had
lived in during the momentous days of 1903. They had lost none of
their skill. But now with that U. S. government demonstration ahead
of them—not to mention a similar demonstration one of them was
expected to make in France—and need to master a new method of
control, there was no time to lose.
They had not yet
decided which of them should fly at Fort Myer and which should go to
France. But both had to be equally well prepared.
We must remember
that the general public still did not believe flying was possible.
But on May 6th a reporter accidentally got wind of the fact that the
Wrights had been flying, and from a distance he saw one of them in
the air. This reporter was D. Bruce Salley, who had a roaming
assignment from The Landmark, of Norfolk, Virginia. His job
was to "cover" the Virginia and North Carolina coast, in search
mainly for maritime news. Besides his work for the Norfolk paper, he
sent news stories to a number of other papers from time to time
about important wrecks or other exceptional events, but only when
they were ordered in advance. These were paid for at space rates.
Following common practice he would send a telegraphic "query" giving
briefly the gist of the story, and the telegraph editor could ignore
it or wire a reply indicating how many words were desired.
Salley was at
Kitty Hawk just by chance when he learned that one of the Wrights
had flown that day more than 1,000 feet, at about 60 feet above
ground. That seemed to him an item good enough to offer not only to
his own paper in Norfolk but to all the others he dealt with. Among
these was the New York Herald. When the query from Salley
reached the Herald office on that evening of May 6th, the
editors were much disturbed. Crazy as the story sounded, they
hesitated to ignore it because the owner of the Herald, James
Gordon Bennett, living in Paris, was excited about aeronautics, and
if by any remote chance the report could be true any editor
implicated in missing it would probably be fired. They decided to
print the strange tale but sent a wire to Salley cautioning him to
be sure of his facts. The story appeared the next morning, and even
on page one of the Herald, though not in the most prominent
Ohio, however, the telegraph editor of the Leader not only
wasn't interested but was indignant that his intelligence should be
insulted by so silly a tale. He declined to pay the telegraph toll
even for the brief "query," though at the night press rate of only
one-third of a cent a word the cost was probably less than ten
cents. His only reply to Salley was an admonition to "cut out the
story in the New York Herald though had started something.
The editors immediately decided to send a staff man to Kitty Hawk
for the facts. For this they picked their star reporter, Byron R.
Newton—later to become Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and
Collector of Customs in New York—one of the most brilliant newspaper
writers of his generation. If the Wrights proved to be fakers no one
could do a better job than "By" Newton at exposing them. Salley was
asked to stay at Kitty Hawk to assist Newton. Other editors too who
saw the story in the Herald felt that the time had come to
get the "lowdown" on the Wright brothers. By the time Newton had
reached Elizabeth City, Virginia, he had been joined by three other
correspondents, William Hoster, of the New York American;
Arthur Ruhl, of Collier's Weekly; and James H. Hare, news
photographer for Collier's, and P. M. McGowan of the
London Daily Mail. Thus, with Salley, they were a group of six.
One must look at a
map of the North Carolina coast to get an idea of the location of
the long strip of sandy beach between the ocean and Albemarle,
Pamlico, and Roanoke sounds. If the Wrights had been seeking
primarily isolation and privacy they had it here; but it was not
isolation but the prevailing winds that had first brought them to
Kitty Hawk and the Kill Devil sand hills. They had first learned of
the desirability of this locality for their purposes in a letter
from the United States Weather Bureau. Still, when the newspapermen
arrived and noted the desolate isolation of Kitty Hawk they were
doubtless justified in assuming that the Wrights wished to be let
decided to be no less secretive than the Wrights. After arranging
for a place to stay in Manteo, twelve miles away, across the sound,
they made a dicker with a boatman to take them back and forth each
day and to act as their guide. Provided with food and water, they
would hide in the nearby pine woods, within sight of the Wrights'
base, and observe with field-glasses what happened. Meanwhile,
immediately after his arrival, Newton had sent a dispatch to the
Herald based on what Salley had told him. Salley appeared to be
so sincere in his account of having seen the plane in the air that
Newton was inclined to believe him; yet he cautiously hedged by
saying "according to Salley" when he wired his report, and it was
printed inconspicuously on an inside page.
For four days,
beginning at dawn, the correspondents kept their vigil in the woods,
fighting mosquitoes and ticks, startled occasionally by a moccasin
or other snake, and sometimes drenched by heavy rains. But to their
astonishment they several times witnessed human flight. They even
saw what no person on earth had ever seen before—flights with two
men in the machine. Wilbur and Orville each made a flight on May
14th, carrying as passenger Charles Furnas, their mechanical
assistant. One of these passenger flights was for nearly three
"The first flight
we all witnessed," says one of Newton's reports, "was early in the
morning [of May 11]…For some minutes the propeller blades continued
to flash in the sun, and then the machine rose obliquely into the
air. At first it came directly toward us, so that we could not tell
how fast it was going except that it appeared to increase rapidly in
size as it approached. In the excitement of this first flight, men
trained to observe details under all sorts of distractions forgot
their cameras, forgot their watches, forgot everything but this
aerial monster chattering over our heads."
The Wrights knew
they were being observed. From time to time they caught glimpses of
men's heads in the distance. Moreover, they heard about the visitors
from members of a life-saving crew. But they simply thought it was a
good joke on the mysterious observers, whoever they were. Why did
they stay off there where surely they must be pestered nearly to
death by mosquitoes, when they might have come right to the camp and
been relatively comfortable?
Arthur Ruhl, of
Collier's, did come to the Wrights' camp. Whether he came at the
request of his associates, as an emissary to find out if the Wrights
could be induced to be less "secretive," or on his own, he did not
say. Indeed, he said nothing about being one of a group who had been
observing the flights.
"We did not know
he had been with the others we had seen in the distance," says
invited Ruhl to stay for lunch. But he declined. He seemed to the
Wrights nervous, ill at ease, and anxious to get away. Not until
afterward did they understand the reason. Ruhl was afraid he might
give away the fact that his associates had hidden themselves in the
nearby woods, and that if the Wrights knew they were observed they
would do no more flying—thus putting him "in Dutch" with the other
correspondents. When he left he evidently still felt, despite the
Wrights' offer of hospitality, that they were "secretive." Or, if he
did not, he was unable to change the beliefs of his associates.
Wrights, with so much work to do, were doubtless glad to be let
alone, certainly they would have chased no one away.
"What would you
have done," I recently asked Orville Wright, "if all five of the
correspondents had come right to your camp each day and sat there to
"We'd have gone
ahead just as if they weren't there," he replied. "We couldn't have
delayed our work. There was too much to do and our time was short."
That the Wrights
would have treated the correspondents hospitably was indicated in a
letter, in humorous vein, from Orville Wright to Newton, dated June
7, 1908. Newton immediately after his return to New York had written
graciously to the Wrights, enclosing clippings of his dispatches to
the Herald, and expressing his admiration for them and their
"We were aware of
the presence of newspapermen in the woods at Kill Devil Hills,"
wrote Orville; "at least we had often been told that they were
there. Their presence, however, did not bother us in the least, and
I am only sorry that you did not come over to see us at our camp.
The display of a white flag would have disposed of the rifles and
shotguns with which the machine is reported to have been guarded."
Now at last came
front-page headlines announcing what the Wrights had accomplished.
Newton had written to his paper:"... there is no longer any ground
for questioning the performance of these men and their wonderful
machine." Ruhl in Collier’s told how the correspondents had
informed the world that "it was all right, the rumors true—that man
could fly." Yet even such reports by leading journalists still did
not convince the general public. People began to accept that perhaps
there might be something in it, but many newspapers still did not
publish the news. When Newton sent an article on what he had seen at
Kitty Hawk to a leading magazine it was returned to him with the
editor's comment: "While your manuscript has been read with much
interest, it does not seem to qualify either as fact or fiction."
Not until the
formal public demonstrations of flying, from the parade grounds at
Fort Myer, in September, 1908, did widespread incredulity about the
Wrights' achievements finally cease. Then, at last, everyone,
editors and even scientists, agreed that a practical flying-machine
was a reality. But the disbelief persisted up to the last minute.
Orville Wright himself got the impression that no one, not even the
Army officers in charge of the event, expected him to fly.
this was to be the first public demonstration of the outstanding
wonder of the century, the crowd that strung about the Fort Myer
parade ground was small. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., remembers that he
estimated it for his father's benefit at less than one thousand.
Indeed, it was considerably less than that. People hadn't come for
the simple reason that they didn't think anything more than a fiasco
"When the plane
first rose," says Roosevelt, Jr., "the crowd's gasp of astonishment
was not alone at the wonder of it, but because it was so unexpected.
I'll never forget the impression the sound from the crowd made on
me. It was a sound of complete surprise."
Wright landed after this flight it was his turn to be astonished.
Three or four newspapermen rushed up to interview him, and each of
them had tears streaming down his cheeks. The drama of witnessing
the impossible had "got" them.