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 first flights?”
“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, did concede:
“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 anywhere else.”
Then the brothers remembered that this man was a spiritualist.
Other neighbors 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.”
Though these 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 done.
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.
Though the 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.
The Wright 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 seventy-five feet.
The newspapermen 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 another day.
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 field?”
“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.
Across the 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.
Two somewhat 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 were permitted.
“Yes, only we’d rather you didn’t take any pictures,” one of the brothers courteously replied.
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!
Though Dayton 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 the Wrights.
“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.”
In conversation 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 periods.
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.
However, Beard 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 mentioning.
“Done anything of special interest lately?” asked a Journal man of Wilbur Wright one evening.
“Oh, nothing much,” replied Wilbur, trying to be modest. “Today one of us was able to steer the plane in a circle.”
“How big a circle was it?”
“Around the field.”
“I see. Well, we’ll keep in touch with you.”
Doubtless, 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 air.
Another bright 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.
Curiously enough, 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 the world.”
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 experiment.”
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.
In September, 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.
“When,” inquired the friend, “will you wing your first flight?”
“Just as soon,” replied the flying-machine inventor, “as I can get the laws of gravitation repealed.”
Indeed, human 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 impossible?
Alexander Graham 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.
Still another 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.
The Wrights 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.“
Certain French 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 up.
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, in Paris.”
Orville, puzzled, of course shook his head. No, he said, they had never made a glider for Mr. Lahm or for anyone else.
“Then,” asked Weaver, even more puzzled, “what in the world can be the meaning of this cable?” And he handed to Orville the message from Paris.
Orville then 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 the machine.
Turning to 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!”
Weaver was 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.”
The brothers 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 position.
At Cleveland, 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 wild-cat stuff.”
Salley’s news 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 alone.
The correspondents 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 miles.
“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 Orville Wright.
The Wrights 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.
Though the 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 watch you?”
“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 achievements.
“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.
Considering that 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 would occur.
“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.”
When Orville 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.