The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy

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n early 1914, the Smithsonian Institution lent Glenn Curtiss the remains of the 1903 Langley Aerodrome. This was the manned aircraft that Samuel P. Langley, then the Secretary of the Smithsonian, had tried to fly right before the Wright brothers made their first successful powered flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903.  Actually, Langley had tried to fly the Aerodrome twice on 7 October and 8 December 1903 and failed both times. Curtiss rebuilt the Aerodrome, making significant changes to the airframe, wings, drive train, and controls. He then managed to make a few hop-flights off the surface of a lake near Hammondsport, NY. None of these lasted more than a few seconds nor could they be sustained for longer than a few hundred feet. Nonetheless, both Glenn Curtiss and the Smithsonian crowed that these flights proved that the Langley Aerodrome had been "capable" of flight in 1903. It was, they insisted, the first true aircraft.

Griffith Brewer, an English patent attorney and a friend of Orville's, was visiting the United States at the time. At Orville's request, he traveled to Hammondsport to see what was going on. He shot photos that documented the changes made to Langley's aircraft, then fired off a letter to the New York Times charging that the flights did not prove that the Langley Aerodrome was airworthy in its original configuration. This letter touched off a controversy that raged for almost thirty years, pitting Orville Wright against the Smithsonian Institution.

The reasons that Glenn Curtiss had made these test flights were purely commercial. He had lost the patent suit that the Wrights had filed against him; the courts had ruled not just that the control systems of Curtiss aircraft were derivative of the Wright's patented system, but also the Wright system was necessary for aerial navigation, period. It was the "pioneer patent" of the aircraft industry. By flying the Langley Aerodrome, Curtiss was attempting to show that another airplane could have successfully navigated the air before the Wrights. Therefore their patent was not entitled to the pioneer status the courts had given it.

The Smithsonian's interest in these flights was political. The reputation of the Smithsonian had suffered greatly in 1903 when Langley's Aerodrome failed to fly. This made it more difficult to obtain funding, which limited its growth and effectiveness as a scientific organization. The current Secretary, Charles Walcott, felt that the best way to repair this reputation was the show the Aerodrome could have flown; the time and money spent on it had not been wasted.

Walcott also had a vested interest in the Aerodrome; it's failure had affected his reputation as well. He had been involved with the project from its inception in 1898; it was Walcott that had found the backing Langley needed to build the aircraft. When he took over the Smithsonian from Langley in 1906, both the institution and its Secretary were tarnished in the eyes of many. Walcott immediately began to rebuild his political effectiveness and that of the Smithsonian by rehabilitating the memory of Samuel Langley. He created a Langley Medal for outstanding contributions to aeronautics, erected a Langley memorial tablet to immortalize Langley's own contribution, even decreed a "Langley Day" to remember his many scientific triumphs.

In 1914, there was talk of creating a national aeronautics laboratory with an advisory council to direct research and encourage the growth of this new industry. Walcott wanted to re-open Langley's aeronautical workshop at the Smithsonian to serve this function, but the Smithsonian was just one of several organizations that were vying for this honor – and its attendant funding. When the opportunity came to rebuild and fly the Aerodrome, Walcott moved quickly to make it happen. A successful flight, properly presented in the press, would go a long way toward restoring the Smithsonian's reputation. This in turn might convince Congress that the Smithsonian would be a good place to conduct aeronautics research. Within days of concluding an agreement with Curtiss, he shipped the remains of the Aerodrome to Hammondsport.

Once Curtiss got his hands on the old aircraft, he discovered problems and weaknesses that affected its airworthiness. He chose not to launch it in its original condition and instead made changes that would enhance its performance, controllability, and structural integrity. The aircraft that flew in Hammondsport was, as Brewer had claimed, not the same that Langley had tried to launch in 1903. Curtiss and the Smithsonian, however, insisted it was close enough. No matter, the flights did not achieve their objectives – events marched past the Hammondsport trials. Congress created the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA) independent of the Smithsonian, and NACA created a patent pool, the Manufacturers Aircraft Association (MAA), that resolved Curtiss' patent dilemma.

The Smithsonian, however, could not back away from its conclusion that the Langley Aerodrome was the first man-carrying powered aircraft "capable of sustained flight." It published reports that repeated these claims in the Smithsonian Annual Reports beginning in 1914 through 1918. And in 1918, it displayed a newly-restored Langley Aerodrome in the Arts and Industries Building with a label that claimed it was the first aircraft "capable" of flight. As evidenced by books and magazines that were published during that time, the public began to believe that Langley was the "father of flight."

In 1921, Griffith Brewer gave a speech to the Royal Academy of Science in England that listed the changes to the Aerodrome that were necessary to make it fly and exposed the deception. It was simultaneously published in America, and caused a great uproar in the aviation community. The uproar spread to the general public in 1925 when Orville announced that he would send the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Kensington Science Museum in England unless the Smithsonian recanted. He finally sent the Flyer in 1928 and published his reasons. “I believe my course in sending our Kitty Hawk machine to a foreign museum is the only way of correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution.”

By this time, the Smithsonian had changed Secretaries again. Charles Abbot had taken over for Charles Walcott when the latter died. Abbot was a close personal friend of Langley and was every bit as mindful of Washington politics as Walcott. He tried to negotiate a truce with Orville in 1929, but balked when Orville demanded he publish a list of changes that had been made to the Aerodrome and to retract the statement that it was capable of flight in its 1903 configuration. Abbot told Orville that he could not do anything that would embarrass the Smithsonian or the late Walcott.

He balked again in 1934 when Charles Lindbergh tried to mediate the disagreement. But Abbot finally acceded in 1942 when Fred C. Kelly informed him that he was writing an "authorized" autobiography of the Wright brothers and had promised Orville that he would mend fences if he could. Kelly warned Abbot that this biography would have a section on the Wright/Smithsonian controversy. If the book went to press with the controversy unresolved, it would be a source of embarrassment for decades. Furthermore, Orville was an old man. If he died before amends could be made, the embarrassment would be permanent. It would be better to end the standoff, even if the Smithsonian had to admit it was wrong. In a Smithsonian Miscellaneous Report, issued in 1942, Abbot published the list of changes that Orville had asked for, admitted the 1914 test flights did not prove the Aerodrome was capable of flight in 1903,  and apologized for the affair.

When Abbot next saw Orville, all seemed forgiven. At a special dinner honoring the Wright brothers in Washington DC on 17 December 1943, and with the approval of both Orville Wright and Charles Abbot, Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones read an announcement  from President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Flyer would be returning to America and "the nation will welcome it back as the outstanding example of American genius.”

More Information

For a detailed account of the Wright/Smithsonian Controversy, follow the pages listed in the navigation column (left), beginning with The Flight of the Langley Aerodrome. We have also collected these pages, along with much additional information and resources, in a  printer-friendly file,  Politically Incorrect: The Flights and Fights Surrounding the 1914 Tests of the Langley Aerodrome.
 


The U.S. Army had funded Langley's "Aerodrome A," paying the Smithsonian $50,000 to develop a manned aircraft. Like Langley's smaller aerodromes, this was launched by a catapult atop a houseboat.

On both launch attempts in 1903, the Aerodrome had failed to fly. Langley blamed the catapult, claiming that the airplane was airworthy but the launching mechanism had failed.

When Curtiss rebuilt the Aerodrome in 1914, he discarded the catapult and attached pontoons so the aircraft could take off from the water. He also made changes to strengthen the structure and improve lift.

The Curtiss controls that were installed in the Aerodrome in 1914. At the extreme left, the sharp leading edges of the wings have been removed, altering the camber, angle of attack, and aspect ratio. These were two of the many changes that Glenn Curtiss made to the Aerodrome to make it modestly airworthy.

The improvements were just enough to get the Aerodrome off the water for few seconds. It was not able to make sustained flights until Curtiss made more changes, including  a new engine and propeller.

In front of the Aerodrome, from left to right, Charles Walcott, Glenn Curtiss, Walcott's daughter Helen, Albert Zahm and C.C. Wittmer, a Curtiss pilot.

After the test flights, the Aerodrome was restored to its 1903 configuration and displayed in the Smithsonian with a placard claiming it to be "the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight."

The 1903 Wright Flyer in the Kensington Science Museum in London, 1928.

Paul Garber (right) of the Smithsonian Institution welcomes the Flyer back to America in 1948.

A Virtual Walk-Around

  • Comparing the 1903 and 1914 Aerodromes – Explore 3D models of the Langley Aerodrome -- the original 1903 Aerodrome, the 1914 reconstruction, and a composite of both the 1903 and 1914 machines, showing what parts were discarded or added in the reconstruction. Adobe 3D-PDF software allows you to zoom, pan, slide, and turn the models to see them from any angle, close up or far away.
     


A detailed 3D digital model of the 1903 Langley Aerodrome.

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