The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy

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Smithsonian     Apologizes 

Could the 1903    
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n the end it was politics – or at least political considerations – that finally resolved this stand-off. In early 1942, Fred C. Kelly contacted Charles Abbot to tell him that he was writing the first authorized biography of the Wright brothers. As part of Kelly’s agreement with Orville Wright, he was to do what he could to resolve the differences between the Smithsonian and the Wrights. Abbot’s first reaction was to tell Kelly how much grief this problem had cost him. Then, for four months, he voiced the same objections and opinions that he had raised when Lindbergh and others had attempted to negotiate a settlement.

Kelly, however, brought two things to the table that hadn’t been tried before – a sense of humor and an exceptionally perceptive understanding of human behavior. In addition to being an accomplished journalist and biographer, Kelly was also a humorist and had written books and articles on the psychology of economics. Kelly’s letters to Orville were playful and those to Abbot were unfailingly respectful. He did not confront either man and as a result earned the trust and friendship of both. Abbot cut off the conversation at one point, but Kelly was patient and eventually brought him back.

Abbot himself must have felt tremendous pressure. An authorized biography would have a shelf-life measured in eons, and Kelly wasn’t shy about telling Abbot that it would have an entire chapter dedicated to the tale of the Wright/Smithsonian controversy. The invention of the airplane was a matter of national pride, the exile of the Wright Flyer in England was a continuous embarrassment for the Smithsonian, and the Board of Regents wanted to end it. On the other hand, the Board also wanted to avoid the embarrassment of admitting the Smithsonian’s error. In fact Frederick C. Walcott, Charles Walcott’s nephew, was on the board and did not want to see his uncle’s name disparaged. Additionally, Albert Zahm – who was now responsible for the aviation section of the Library of Congress – was in the loop and anxious to preserve his own reputation. If all this wasn’t pressure enough, Abbot knew that Orville was an old man. If Abbot didn’t write a better ending to the tale now, he might never get another chance.

In the summer, Abbot stopped blustering, put pen to paper, and began to work out what he might publish that would end the conflict. ”He seems desperate to satisfy you,” Kelly wrote to Orville. Nonetheless Abbot was slow to respond to Kelly’s suggestions and Orville’s demands, probably because he had to run any response past the Board of Regents. But the two parties inched towards an agreement. In August, Abbot requested Kelly come to Washington for two long face-to-face sessions in which they hammered out the details. Abbot balked on small points, particularly concerning Walcott and Zahm, but Kelly was good-natured and insistent. By the end of September, Walcott sent Orville what he hoped was the final version of the apology that he would publish in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Reports. “I judge that he has completely caved in,” Kelly wrote to Orville.

When Orville and Abbott next met at a NACA meeting on 23 October, Orville was “as happy as a schoolboy over the outcome,” Abbot told Kelly. All seemed forgiven, but there was one more hiccup. Three days later, the Smithsonian published “The 1914 Tests of the Langley ‘Aerodrome’” which listed every change made to the Aerodrome prior to its test flights and apologized for the misinformation the Smithsonian had published on this matter, and said in plain language, “The flights of the Langley Aerodrome at Hammondsport in 1914…did not warrant statements published by the Smithsonian Institution that these test proved that the Langley machine of 1903 was capable of sustained flight carrying a man.” Unfortunately Abbott, without consulting Kelly or Orville, had made some minor changes right before publication, adding comments about the list of changes to the Aerodrome and Langley’s 1896 flights. This angered Orville.

Fortunately, Kelly stepped in before Orville could confront Abbott. He talked Orville down, pointing out that the media had received the news of the Smithsonian’s apology very well and were already celebrating the end of the feud. The New York Times, in an article titled “An Air Quarrel Ended,” summed it up this way: “Dr. Abbott’s sweeping repudiation of past Smithsonian claims cannot remake history, but so generous an acknowledgement should end old estrangements." The editor ended with this hopeful plea: “Perhaps Orville Wright will now bring the Kitty Hawk plane home to the United States, where it should rest forever.”

Orville held his tongue and agreed to bring the Flyer back from England. In fact, Orville very graciously buried the hatchet after the release of Kelly’s book, “The Wright Brothers: A Biography Authorized by Orville Wright,” in May 1943. The book contained a copy of Abbott’s apology of 26 October 1942, giving it much wider distribution than it might have had otherwise. Orville wrote to Abbott, “I can well understand the difficult position you found yourself in when you took over the administration of the Institution at a time when it had on its hands an embarrassing controversy for which you were not responsible, so I appreciate the more your effort to correct the record of the tests at Hammondsport in 1914 which brought on that controversy.”

Orville and Abbott had intended to share the good news about bringing the Flyer home with the publication of the 1942 Smithsonian Annual Report, due to be released in the summer of 1943 and containing yet another copy of Abbott’s apology. But they were delayed by one more round of politics. Every year since he had come to office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had sent a congratulatory note to Orville on the date of the first powered flights at Kitty Hawk. This year would mark the fortieth anniversary of those flights and Roosevelt asked to make the announcement himself at a White House dinner on 17 December 1943 where the annual Robert J. Collier Trophy (for excellence in aeronautics) would be awarded. Orville and Abbott agreed, and Orville wrote Col. Ernest Mackintosh, the director of the Kensington Science Museum on 8 December 1943 to inform him of the decision to bring the Flyer back to America. “I think you will not be surprised in learning of this decision,” wrote Orville. “But I wish to let you know of it before the public announcement is made.”

As fate would have it, Roosevelt was unable to attend his own event. He had recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a state secret of which Orville and Abbot were unaware. As 17 December dawned, the president had just returned from the Tehran Conference, the first of the "Big Three" meetings between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. Due to his deteriorating condition, the president was dangerously exhausted by the 7,000-mile journey. Orville, unaware of the president's infirmity,  was understandably upset and refused to speak when it came time for him to present the Collier Trophy to General Hap Arnold. He simply handed the envelope that contained the certificate of award to the general and sat down. But Arnold covered Orville’s silence graciously with a witty remark. Roosevelt’s words were read by Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones.

To an audience that included not only Hap Arnold, but also Eddie Rickenbacker, Roscoe Turner, Igor Sikorsky, Glenn Martin, Grover Loening and other aviation greats, Jones read Roosevelt’s summary of aviation’s “contribution to the progress of man” in war and peace. “All of these achievements and all of these hopes stem from the first Wright plane, whose basic principles still govern flying…The nation will welcome it back as the outstanding example of American genius.”

In Their Own Words

  • The 1914 Tests of the Langley Aerodrome Charles Abbot retracts the misinformation the Smithsonian had published concerning the 1914 test-flights of the Langley Aerodrome and apologizes for the whole mess.

Which Leaves Just One Final Question

  • Could the 1903 Langley Aerodrome Have Flown? Abbot's apology and retraction said nothing about the Aerodrome's airworthiness in 1903, only that the Smithsonian no longer believed that the 1914 experiments at Hammondsport proved the Aerodrome could have flown in its original configuration. The question remains: Could Langley's Great Aerodrome flown in 1903?

More Information

  • The Smithsonian Contract – Orville died before the Wright Flyer could be installed in the Smithsonian, and the executors of his estate, mindful of the long feud between Orville and the Smith,  thought it would be in his best interests to establish a contract between the Smithsonian and the Wright Estate. This agreement defined how the Flyer would be displayed and what would happen if the Smithsonian backslid and again designated the Aerodrome A – or any other aircraft – as the first capable of sustained manned flight. The "Smithsonian Contract" has since become controversial.

Fred C. Kelly profiled many prominent Americans during his long career as a journalist, columnist, and humorist. He began corresponding with Orville Wright in the late 1930s.

George Tomlinson, the British Minister of Education speaking at the Science Museum in Kensington, announces that the Wright Flyer will be going home. Although the museum was notified in 1943, the Flyer remained in England until World War II was over and it was safe to travel. The Science Museum was also given time to make a precise copy of the aircraft.

The Science Museum staff packs up the 1903 Wright Flyer.

The crated Flyer is unloaded from the escort carrier USS Palau (CVE-122) in Norfolk. VA in 1948. It crossed the Atlantic aboard the RMS Mauretania, then was transferred to the Palau at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The unveiling of the 1903 Wright Flyer in the North Hall of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on 17 December 1948 – the 45th anniversary of the first flights.

The 1903 Langley Aerodrome is now exhibited at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Annex near the Dulles Airport outside Washington DC.

The 1903 Wright Flyer is exhibited at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington DC.

Left to right – Orville Wright, Secretary Jesse Jones, and General Henry "Hap" Arnold in an awkward three-way hand shake at the Collier Trophy Award ceremony on 17 December 1943. This is probably the happiest that Orville looked all night. (Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.)

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