The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy

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 The Flight    
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The Langley    

An Idea Whose    
Time Had Come 

Making the    

The Patent Pool 

The Flow of    

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 Why the Wright    
Flyer Was Sent    
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Wright Relations 

 The Plot to    
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he Smithsonian did not answer Northcliffe’s accusations. They pointedly ignored the Albert Medal presentation and continued to promote Langley’s Aerodrome as the first true airplane. Their contention seemed on its way to becoming accepted aviation history, a prospect which rankled Griffith Brewer as much as it did Orville Wright. The Englishman decided to take another stab at setting the record straight.

On 21 October 1921, 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.

Because Brewer was a patent attorney for the Wrights, some dismissed his attack as mercenary. However, there was no mercenary effect. The position of the Smithsonian Institution at that time 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/MAA patent pool had both validated those patents and neutralized their alleged economic threat. Brewer was simply exposing an untruth and correcting the historical record as he saw it.

Brewer’s speech and its rebuttals created a furor. It galvanized Orville, who up to this time had presumed the Smithsonian was misled by Curtiss and Zahm. But Walcott’s response to Brewer’s speech had made it clear that the Smithsonian was partly responsible for the deception, which hardened Orville in his position. While both sides of the controversy dug in, Brewer suggested a drastic course of action, fighting politics with politics – banish the original 1903 Wright Flyer I, arguably the most precious historic artifact in aviation, to the Science Museum in Kensington, England’s equivalent of the Smithsonian. As early as 1920, Sir Henry Lyons, the director of the Science Museum, had asked to exhibit the Flyer for a short time while his curators made precise measurements and drawings so they could build an exact replica of the aircraft. Orville had promised to supply the drawings himself, but he never seemed to get around to it. In 1923, Brewer approached both Orville and Lyons with a proposal to exhibit the Flyer in England permanently.

Since Orville had begun to exhibit the restored aircraft, several American museums had offered to give the Flyer a home, but none with the prestige of the Smithsonian. The Science Museum had the status that Orville wanted; and although it wasn’t his native land, England had proved loyal and supportive. He responded to Brewer, “If I were to receive a proposition from the officers of the Kensington Museum offering to provide our 1903 machine a permanent home in the Museum, I would accept the offer, with the understanding, however, that I would have the right to withdraw it at any time after five years, if some suitable place for its exhibition in America should present itself.” Sir Henry Lyons contacted Orville and they began to work out the details of transporting the plane to England. On 30 April 1925, Orville 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.

Walcott responded on 4 May, reasserting the Smithsonian’s position that the Langley Aerodrome was indeed capable of flight. Even then Orville made an effort to keep the Flyer in America. He asked Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who was also the Chancellor of the Smithsonian, to convene an impartial investigation into the matter. When Taft declined, Orville had Grover Loening carry a message to the Smithsonian saying  that he would give them the Flyer if, when they next published their annual report, they would print both sides of the controversy and display the Flyer in the National Museum with a label that identified it as the first successful man-carrying airplane.

Walcott’s response to this was to ask two fellow members of NACA, Dr. Joseph Ames (who had helped form the MAA) and Rear Admiral David W. Taylor to look into the matter and make recommendations. Their report, submitted 3 June, was a waffle – both sides of this controversy had some validity, they decided. The Wrights had flown first, but Langley they likened to Moses. He had led his people to the promised land of aviation, but either through bad luck or bad design, hadn’t been able to fly himself. Ames and Taylor’s fence-sitting was best summed up in the wording they prescribed for a new label on the Aerodrome exhibit:

“The Original Langley Flying Machine of 1903 Restored.

 “In the opinion of many competent to judge, this was the first heavier than air craft in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man.

 “This aircraft slightly antedated the machine built be Wilbur and Orville Wright, which on December 17, 1903, was the first in history to accomplish sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man.”

Walcott made the recommended changes to the label, but the interpretive information displayed with the Aerodrome also included a recounting of the 1914 Hammondsport trials and stated that the original machine “would have flown if it had been successfully launched.” It also said that the Aerodrome’s engine and airframe were the same in the 1914 trials as they were in 1903, and that the wings and controls had been “reconstructed.” Orville saw the change of labels as nothing more than smoke, meant to appear conciliatory while the Smithsonian continued to promote the Aerodrome as the first true airplane. If he had any doubts that his decision to send the Flyer abroad was the best course of action, they were resolved by the reaction of the Washington establishment in 1925.

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. The aviation magazine Contact initiated a drive to petition the Smithsonian to admit its error. Bills were introduced in Congress to investigate and resolve the matter. A group calling themselves “Men With Wings” organized to support the return of the Flyer to America. And hundreds of concerned Americans, including schoolchildren, wrote the Smithsonian to complain. This happened so frequently that Abbott 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

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.

A letter to from Griffith Brewer to Earl Findlay, editor of the US Air Service Journal, informing him that Brewer would help to construct the 1903 Wright Flyer when it arrived at the Science Museum in Kensington. "People from all over the world will learn that it was not a gimcrack accident which flew to begin with, but a machine on which all modern aeroplanes are fundamentally based," wrote Brewer.

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.

Orville Wright (left) in 1928 at the dedication of the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. To the right of the plaque is Senator Hiram Bingham and Amelia Earhart.

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.

In December 1928, Boys Life Magazine published a special edition on aviation, encouraging young men to pursue careers in the field. One of its featured stories was "How I Learned To Fly," by Orville Wright, Honorary Scout.

Orville Wright (left) met Charles Lindbergh (center) in 1927 when Lindbergh landed at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio shortly after Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. They quickly became friends.

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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