The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
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n 21 October 1921 E. Griffith Brewer gave a speech to the Royal Academy of Sciences in London, England titled “Aviation’s Greatest Controversy.” In it, he charged “the Hammondsport trials have been inaccurately reported to the Smithsonian Institution. An official report declaring that the Langley machine had been flown at Hammondsport has since been issued by the Smithsonian Institution.” He described the changes that had been necessary to convert the Aerodrome into an airworthy machine, and for the first time divided them into alterations that had been made prior to May-June 1914, and those that had been made afterward. He also told how the Aerodrome was restored to its original condition at the Smithsonian, then labeled as the first true airplane, Brewer said unequivocally “…both the Smithsonian reports and the inscription on the machine are misleading and untrue. No attempt was made at Hammondsport to fly the original Langley machine.” This speech was simultaneously published in the October edition of the U.S. Air Service Journal, along with rebuttals from Charles Walcott and Albert Zahm. The November issue carried rebuttals from Charles Manly and Glenn Curtiss.

Of all the characters in this drama, Brewer was probably the least politically-motivated and at the same time, the most politically adroit. He  was a friend to both Orville and Wilbur Wright, as well as an attorney who managed the Wright patents in England. In 1914, he had  sued the British government for infringement of those patents, then negotiated a £15,000 licensing fee for the British Wright Company, of which he was a shareholder. However, it's unlikely that his motives in this were  mercenary. In 1921, the position of the Smithsonian Institution represented little hazard to the value of the British patents; the government had paid its one-time fee. Neither did it affect the American patents; the NACA patent pool had both validated those patents and neutralized their economic threat. In his speech, Brewer treated the 1914 flights of the Langley Aerodrome and the position of the Smithsonian as a personal affront. He was acting to set the record straight out of a sense of right and a deep respect for two men he admired.

After Brewers' speech, things snowballed. While Walcott and the Smithsonian dug in, Brewer suggested a drastic course of action, fighting politics with politics – exile the original 1903 Wright Flyer to Kensington Science Museum, England’s equivalent of the Smithsonian. Up until this time, Orville had displayed the relic at a few venues, but it had no museum to call home. Walcott and the Smithsonian had expressed an interest in acquiring it, but Orville did not want to see it displayed as an also-ran beside the Aerodrome. In 1925, he announced that he intended to send the Flyer to England unless the Smithsonian rescinded its position on the Hammondsport trials – in effect ransoming the Flyer for the truth.

As Orville was getting the Flyer ready to ship, Charles Walcott died and Charles Abbot was promoted to Secretary of the Smithsonian. Abbot had come on board in 1895 to run the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Laboratory. He was an ardent admirer of Langley and a fellow solar scientist. Within weeks of his appointment he dealt with his first Aerodrome-related crisis as Orville published his reasons for sending the Flyer abroad, “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.” Abbot quickly responded with an offer to change the label on the Aerodrome – in fact, it was changed to one that simply read, “Langley Aerodrome, the original Samuel Pierpont Langley Flying Machine of 1903, Restored.” This was not enough for Orville; a change of labels did not address the mounds of misinformation that the Smithsonian put out beginning in 1914.

There were more such crises, and they seemed to come in quick succession as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Kitty Hawk flights came and went. Senator Hiram Bingham and Representative Lindsay Warren pushed a bill through Congress to fund a national memorial to the Wright brothers at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina in 1927. In 1929, Popular Science magazine published “The Real Fathers of Flight,” an unauthorized biography of the Wright brothers in six parts by John R. McMahon. It was expanded to become a book, “The Wright Brothers: The Fathers of Flight,” in 1930. Each time the Wright story was told in the media, it mentioned the exile of Flyer and laid the blame on the Smithsonian.

In an effort to reduce the damage that was accumulating, Abbot published “The Relations between the Wright Brothers and the Smithsonian Institution” just before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first flight in 1928. It was part apology, part excuse, and part rationalization. In regard to the 1914 Aerodrome test flights, Abbot said, “In the opinion of some experts, the tests demonstrated that the Langley machine of 1903 could have flown, and in the opinion of some others, these test did not demonstrate it. It must ever be a matter of opinion.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t Orville’s opinion. The two met on 19 April 1929 to discuss their differences and Abbot admitted there were changes made to the Aerodrome prior to the May-June 1914 flights. But he refused to publish them or do anything that would damage the reputation of Charles Walcott or the Smithsonian Institution.

1934, at the request of Charles Abbot and with the approval of Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh waded into the controversy in the hopes that he could mend fences. Orville told Lindbergh and Abbot precisely what he needed – an admission that there were changes made to the Aerodrome prior to the May-June 1914 flights, and that these flights did not prove it was airworthy in 1903. He produced a list of changes, carefully winnowed so as not included any changes made after June 1914, when the Aerodrome test flights entered their second phase. Abbot suggested publishing a complete history, including Langley’s work in aeronautics, the history of the Aerodrome, Zahms’ 1914 report, Orville’s list of changes, Zahm’s notes on Orville’s list, and all that had happened since 1914. Orville objected; this was too complex; it obscured the heart of the controversy. Abbot objected to publishing Orville’s list without context. Lindbergh eventually gave up.

Lindbergh was not the first or the last person to attempt to mediate the Wright/Smithsonian controversy. Throughout his tenure as Secretary, Abbot received regular correspondence asking why the Smithsonian had not yet apologized to Orville Wright and admitted its error. This happened so frequently that Abbot developed a “form letter” to answer these inquiries, enumerating the things the Smithsonian had done to make amends. The one thing the Smithsonian could not do, however, was admit it was wrong. As late as 1941, Abbot said as much to “Jack” Stearns Gray, an aviatrix who had barnstormed in a Wright Model B with her husband George Gray beginning in 1912. Mrs. Gray persisted beyond the form letter, exchanging opinions with the Secretary several times. Abbot ended the correspondence on 6 November 1941 writing, “It appears that the only thing that would satisfy Dr. Wright and his partisans is for the Institution to say it believes what it does not believe; namely, that Langley’s plane as of 1903 was by its nature incapable of flight. I cannot recommend the Institution publish an untruth.”

In Their Own Words

Weird Stuff

Griffith Brewer with Wilbur Wright (in the back seat) and Charles Rolls and Orville Wright (in the front). The four visited the Royal Aero Club on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, England.

The Science Museum is part of a national museum complex in Kensington, England that includes the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and others.

Charles Greeley Abbot playing tennis on the courts behind the Smithsonian Castle.

The 1903 Wright Flyer on display in the Kensington Science Museum in 1928.

The January 1929 edition of Popular Science began a six-part biography of the Wright brothers. The author John R. McMahon had visited the Orville and Katharine Wright in 1915 with another writer, Earl Findley.

The annual meeting of the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1939. Charles Lindbergh and Orville Wright are seated together on the left; Charles Abbot is on the right.

George and Jack Gray barnstorming together in Florida in 1915.

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