CHAPTER XIX - WHY THE WRIGHT PLANE WAS EXILED
Why was the original Wright airplane, the first-flying machine in the world capable of flight, deposited in the Science Museum at South Kensington, London, England, rather than in the United States National Museum, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington? Why should Exhibit A of one of the greatest of all American scientific achievements have been in exile?
For the answers to these questions, puzzling to a vast number of patriotic Americans, we must trace events back a number of years.
It will be remembered that Dr. Samuel P. Langley, while Director and Secretary of the Smithsonian, with a $50,000 government fund at his disposal for experiments (besides $20,000 from the Hodgkins fund), had failed in his attempts to build a successful man-carrying flying-machine. At each trial, in 1903, his machine promptly fell from its launching platform into the Potomac. Doubtless Langley’s failure was a bitter disappointment to him – all the more so because he was derided in the public press for having even tried what was commonly believed to be impossible. But when the Wrights flew, only nine days after Langley’s final unsuccessful trial, they in a measure saved the Langley reputation. No one could any longer say that he was a “crank.” The Wrights had vindicated his belief that man could fly.
Langley uttered no word to minimize the importance of the Wrights’ feat. Nor was anything unfriendly toward Langley ever said by either of the Wrights. On the contrary, the Wrights more than once gave Langley credit for having been a source of inspiration to them, from the simple fact that he, an eminent scientist, considered human flight possible. Indeed, the Wrights took advantage of an opportunity to save the Langley name from being made ridiculous. After Dr. Langley’s death, the Smithsonian Regents ordered the erection in the Smithsonian building of a tablet in his memory. The plan was to inscribe on the tablet the “Langley Law,” as Langley’s chief contribution to aeronautical science. Dr. Charles D. Walcott, who succeeded Dr. Langley as Secretary of the Smithsonian, sent the proposed inscription to the Wrights for their opinion of it. Wilbur Wright replied that it would be both unwise and unfair to Langley to rest his reputation in aerodynamics especially on that so-called Langley Law or upon the computations which gave rise to it. The Wrights knew at that time, as all aeronautical engineers know today, that the Langley Law was simply a mistake and not true. Because of what Wilbur Wright pointed out in his letter, the Langley Law was omitted from the memorial tablet. But, having eliminated the discredited Law that was Langley’s, Dr. Walcott then put in its place on the tablet an inscription crediting Langley for a discovery that was not his! The inscription claimed for Langley that he had “discovered the relations of speed and angle of inclination to the lifting power of surfaces moving in the air.” (His tables of air pressures had been antedated by both Duchemin and Lilienthal.)
This tendency to claim for Langley what was not his was destined to show itself in a more pernicious form in later acts of Dr. Walcott. If Langley had lived, the relations between the Smithsonian and the Wrights would doubtless have continued to be marked by mutual respect and consideration. But after Dr. Langley’s death, the attitude of the Smithsonian began to change. The Institution started a subtle campaign to belittle the Wrights, to try to take from them much of the credit for having both produced and demonstrated the first machine capable of flight, and for having done the original research that made the machine possible. Indeed, the Institution even went so far as to issue false and misleading statements.
One of these was in connection with the first award of a Langley medal, publicly presented to the Wrights in February, 1910. In referring to that presentation, the Annual Report for the year 1910 (page 23), by the Secretary of the Institution, quoted Wilbur Wright as making a statement not made by him on that occasion at all, but used in a different connection at another time. The improper use of that quotation helped to create a false impression over the world that the Wrights had acknowledged indebtedness to Langley’s scientific work. The truth was that Wilbur Wright had in a private letter mentioned indebtedness to Langley, not for scientific data but for the fact that it was encouraging to know that the head of a scientific institution believed human flight to be possible. (Langley’s published work in the field of aerodynamics dealt with measurements of air pressure on flat surfaces only – and later experiments proved even that to be incorrect.)
The Smithsonian has more than once mentioned the award of the Langley medal to the Wrights as proof of the Institution’s disposition to honor them. But the truth is that the Langley medal was established to honor Langley, not the Wrights. Neither in the award nor in the presentation of the medal to the Wright Brothers was there any suggestion that the Wrights were the first to fly.
In 1910, Dr. Walcott made it evident that the Institution actually did not want the original Wright plane of 1903 as an exhibit. This could be seen in letters he sent to Wilbur Wright in the spring of 1910. The first of these, dated March 7, said:
The National Museum is endeavoring to enlarge its collections illustrating the progress of aviation and, in this connection, it has been suggested that you might be willing to deposit one of your machines, or a model thereof, for exhibition purposes.
The great public interest manifested in this science and the numerous inquiries from visitors for the Wright machine make it manifest that if one were placed on exhibition here it would form one of the most interesting specimens in the national collections It is sincerely hoped that you may find it possible to accede to these request.
Wilbur Wright replied as follows:
My Dear Dr. Walcott: . . . If you will inform us just what your preferences would be in the matter of a flier for the National Museum we will see what would be possible in the way of meeting your wishes. At present nothing is in condition for such use. But there are three possibilities. We might construct a small model showing the general construction of the airplane, but with a dummy power plant. Or we can reconstruct the 1903 machine with which the first flights were made at Kitty Hawk. Most of the parts are still in existence. This machine would occupy a space 40 feet by 20 feet by 8 feet. Or a model showing the general design of the latter machine could be constructed.
The peculiar attitude of the Smithsonian then began to appear. In his next letter to Wilbur Wright, dated April 11, 1910, Dr. Walcott wrote:
. . . The matter of the representation of the Wright airplane has been very carefully considered by Mr. George C. Maynard, who has charge of the Division of Technology in the National Museum. I told him to indicate what he would like for the exhibit, in order that the matter might be placed clearly before you and your brother. In his report he says:
“The following objects illustrating the Wright inventions would make a very valuable addition to the aeronautical exhibits in the Museum:
“1. A quarter-size model of the aeroplane used by Orville Wright at Fort Myer, Virginia, in September, 1908. Such a model equipped with dummy power plant, as suggested by the Wrights, would be quite suitable.
“2. If there are any radical differences between the machine referred to and the one used at Kitty Hawk, a second model of the latter machine would be very appropriate.
“3. A full-sized Wright aeroplane. Inasmuch as the machine used at Fort Myer has attracted such world-wide interest, that machine, if it can be repaired or reconstructed, would seem most suitable. If, however, the Wright brothers think the Kitty Hawk machine would answer the purpose better, their judgment might decide the question.
“4. If the Wright brothers have an engine of an early type used by them which could be placed in a floor case for close inspection that will be desirable.”
The engine of the Langley Aerodrome is now on exhibition in a glass case and the original full-size machine is soon to be hung in one of the large halls. The three Langley quarter-size models are on exhibition. The natural plan would be to install the different Wright machines along with the Langley machines, making the exhibit illustrate two very important steps in the history of the aeronautical art.
The request of Mr. Maynard is rather a large one, but we will have to leave it to your discretion as to what you think is practicable for you to do.
Charles D. Walcott
If Dr. Walcott’s suggestions, that the Wrights provide a reproduction in model size of their 1908 plane and the 1908 plane itself, had been accepted, then the proposed exhibits in the National Museum of models and full-size machines by Langley and the Wrights could easily have been of a nature to give a wrong impression. Surely a good many uninformed visitors to the museum would hardly have known, or stopped to think, that is one thing to build and fly a small model plane, but an altogether different problem to build and fly a plane, of the same design, large enough to carry a man. Small models of flying-machines were flown by the Frenchman, Penaud, as early as 1871. But a larger machine of the same design could not be flown – as the Wrights themselves in early boyhood had found out. Likewise, the fact that Langley flew a steam-driven model in 1896, and a gas-driven model in 1903, would not indicate to anyone who understands such matters that a full-size machine of the same design as either of the models could support itself in the air. Langley’s own experiments had proven how great is the gap between success with a model and with a larger machine. His full-size machine of 1903, of the same design as the model size of the Wright machine flown with a pilot in 1908. If he hadn’t read the labels carefully, or the labels didn’t go into enough detail to make the facts clear, couldn’t he easily have received the false impression that Langley had been at least five years ahead of the Wrights? And if the visitor didn’t know that the Langley full-size machine of 1903 never flew, wouldn’t the sight of it, alongside the Wright machine flown in 1908, have seemed to confirm the wrong impression? Perhaps, however, that was the impression Dr. Walcott wanted museum visitors to receive!
The Walcott letter said, it may be noted, that if there were “any radical differences” between the first Wright machine and the one flown in 1908, then a “model” of the first machine might be appropriate. But since there were no radical differences between the 1903 and 1908 machines, not even a small-sized model of the first machine ever to be flown was being asked for. The Wrights took the letter to mean that the Smithsonian did not want the exhibit that would emphasize the fact of their having flown a successful, man-carrying machine as early as 1903. They thought it was significant that the letter did not say that the Wright’s own opinion would decide which machine was more suitable, but only that their judgment “might” decide the question. Because of their strong belief that the Smithsonian was showing a prejudiced attitude, they made no reply to the Walcott letter.
There was no further correspondence on this subject between the Smithsonian and the Wrights until six years later. In 1916, the original Wright plane was exhibited at the dedication of the new buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, saw the plane and expressed astonishment. It was the first he knew that it was still in existence. Shortly afterward, in a conversation with Orville Wright, he asked why the plane was not being exhibited by the Smithsonian.
“Because,” replied Orville, “the Smithsonian does not want it.”
“Indeed the Smithsonian does want it!” exclaimed Dr. Bell. He was sincere in thinking so and requested Dr. Walcott to be in touch with Orville Wright.
Walcott on December 23, 1916, wrote what Orville considered a perfunctory letter saying”. . . the importance of securing for the National Museum the Wright aeroplane which was exhibited at the opening of the new buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been suggested to me.”
Orville Wright replied that he would be glad to take up the question with Dr. Walcott in a personal interview. A few days later the two met in Washington, but it was soon evident to Orville that Dr. Walcott’s attitude had not changed; that he did not want that original Wright machine which had flown exhibited beside the Langley machine which had failed to fly.
When Orville found that Walcott’s attitude had not changed in the six years since the former correspondence, he gave the question no further condition.
Meanwhile, in 1914, after the Federal courts had upheld the Wright patents in the suits against Glen H. Curtiss and others, and recognized the Wrights as “pioneers” in the practical art of flying with heavier-than-air machines, an astounding thing happened.
A few days after the final court decision had been delivered, Lincoln Beachy, a Curtiss stockholder, telegraphed to Secretary Walcott, of the Smithsonian, asking permission to attempt a flight with the original Langley machine. That proposal was not accepted; but two months later, when Glen H. Curtiss himself said he would like to test the Langley machine, his request was granted. The Smithsonian entered into a deal with Curtiss in which he was to receive a payment of $2,000, and was permitted to take the original Langley plane from the Smithsonian to his shop at Hammondsport, New York. There he made numerous vital changes in the machine, using knowledge of aerodynamics discovered by the Wrights but never possessed by Langley. No information is available to indicate that the Smithsonian offered any objections to these alterations being made. The Smithsonian’s official observer, in connection with the tests of the machine, was Dr. A. F. Zahm, who had been technical expert for Curtiss in the recent lawsuits. No one officially representing any disinterested scientific body was present during the time the changes in the machine were made nor during the time it was tested.
It seems highly improbable that Dr. Walcott could have been so unintelligent or so uninformed as not to know about the recent decision of the U. S. Court of Appeals against Curtiss; and equally improbable that he could have been unaware of Zahm’s relations with Curtiss as expert witness and advisor. One may well wonder, too, if Dr. Walcott could have failed to understand why Curtiss had recently become interested in testing the Langley plane. In hundreds of pages of direct testimony in the lawsuits, neither Curtiss nor Zahm had mentioned Langley’s name, though they had more than once referred to Chanute, Maxim, Henson, Marriot, Boulton, Pilcher, Harte, and other pioneers. One may further wonder if Walcott could have been unaware when, in 1913, the Smithsonian awarded the Langley medal to Curtiss, that he had already been pronounced an infringer of the Wright patents by a Federal court, and that another decision in a higher court was pending. It almost looked as if there might have been an intent to try to influence the decision.
Curtiss had a strong motive for wanting to make it appear that the Langley plane could have flown. The United States Court of Appeals had held that the Wrights were pioneers in the field of heavier-than-air flying-machines, and that therefore their patent claims were entitled to a “liberal interpretation.” If Curtiss could demonstrate, or seem to demonstrate, that a machine capable of flight had been build before the Wright machine, then he could weaken their claims, to his financial advantage, in a patent suit he expected to have to defend. In consequence of the important changes that were made. Curtiss finally was able to make several short hops, of less than five seconds, with the reconstructed machine, in May and June, 1914, over Lake Keuka, at Hammondsport, N. Y. Then the Smithsonian, in its annual report of the U. S. National Museum for that year, falsely stated that the original Langley plane had been flown “without modification”! And the annual report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1914, with equally glaring falsity, said: “It [the Langley machine] has demonstrated that with its original structure and power, it is capable of flying with a pilot and several hundred pounds of useful load. It is the first aeroplane in the history of the world of which this can truthfully be said”! (Italics supplied.)
The Institution’s annual report for 1915 continued to repeat such untruths. “The tests thus far made have shown that former Secretary had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man.”
Similar misstatements were made in the Institution’s reports for 1916, 1917, 1918, and afterward.
Altogether here had been something probably unique in scientific procedure. A test was made purporting to determine if the original Langley plane was capable of flight; but the test was not made with the machine as designed and built by Langley, nor with an exact copy of it. No disinterested official observer was present. Misstatements were published about the results, and no information was furnished, regarding the changes made, to enable anyone to learn the truth. To have made one more honest test of the Langley plane that had immediately crashed each time it was launched over the Potomac would have been permissible. But for a scientific institution officially to distort scientific facts, and in collaboration with a man who stood to gain financially by what he was doing, has been called worse than scandalous.
After the Langley machine had been restored as nearly as possible to its original state, it was placed on exhibition by the Smithsonian. Son afterward it bore a label that falsely proclaimed it be “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”
But neither in connection with the exhibit of the Langley plane nor in a any report of the Smithsonian Institution was there any hint of the fundamental changes made at Hammondsport, without which the plane could not possible have carried its weight. One of these changes had to do with the supporting posts on the wings. Professor Langley had not known – indeed, no one knew until the Wrights’ wind-tunnel experiments established the facts – where the center of the air pressure would be on a curved surface, and consequently he had failed to place his wing-trussing posts where they were most needed. In the attempts to fly the machine over the Potomac, in 1903, the wing that bore the greater part of the weight had each time collapsed at the moment the apparatus left the starting platform. (Lacking the knowledge about curved surfaces that later was available, those in charge of the 1903 trials had blamed the trouble on the launching apparatus.) At the Hammondsport tests, the trussing posts were moved thirty inches rearward. This brought the guy posts almost exactly in the same plane with the center of pressure on the wings and thus eliminated the backward pull that had wrecked the machine in the 1903 tests.
Three fundamental changes were made in the design of the wings themselves: (1) The camber was greatly changed; (2) the shape of the leading edge was entirely different; (3) the aspect ratio – the ratio of span to cord – was increased. These three features are the most important characteristics in determining the efficiency of the wing. The change of the camber of itself may increase the efficiency of a wing by thirty per cent. And not only were the wings changed as to design, but they were strengthened by various means of reinforcing and trussing not used by Langley. Even the cloth on the wings was improved by varnishing, to make the wings more efficient. Langley had not used varnish on the cloth.
Numerous changes were made in other parts of the machine. The large fixed vertical keel surface, situated below the main frame in 1903, was entirely omitted in 1914. This omission improved the machine’s stability. A different kind of rudder was used. The position of the “Penaud tail” used by Langley was raised about ten inches to increase the stability of the machine, and was connected to a modern steering post, to give better control. The forward corners of the original Langley propellers were cut off in the manner of the early Wright brothers to increase their efficiency. As the system of control Langley had used was not adequate, the aileron system, covered by Wright patents, a system unknown to Langley, was added.
How did all these changes become known? Orville Wright called attention to them in an affidavit in 1915 in the Wright-Curtiss lawsuit. One way to learn most of the facts is astonishingly simply. All that is necessary to any observer who knows what to look for is to make careful comparisons of the Smithsonian photographs of the original Langley machine with Smithsonian photographs of the machine tested at Hammondsport.
It was learned, too, that even the engine used by Langley was changed in several respects. A modern type carburetor, a new intake manifold, a magneto ignition, and a modern radiator were installed.
Though all these changes and many others were made in the machine at Hammondsport, the Smithsonian published only a few of them – the less important. It did not tell of the fundamental changes. And the Institution made statements, by implication, practically amounted to a denial that any changes of importance had been made.
By omitting from its published reports at the time and for many years afterward, the facts about the changes in the Langley machine, the Smithsonian Institution succeeded in deluding the public. If the stories about these fake tests had been issued by Curtiss, who conducted them, or by an organization less well known than the Smithsonian, they might not have been taken seriously. But when false and misleading announcements were backed by the prestige of a famous scientific institution, it was possible to have the fraudulent character of the experiments pass generally unsuspected. When the reports of Secretary Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution said the “original” Langley machine had made “flights,” and when the report of the National Museum said the Langley machine had been flown “without modification,” such statements, untrue though they were, naturally carried weight. Indeed, the misstatements were so widely accepted as fact that they began to find their way into school text-books and into encyclopedias.
Griffith Brewer, the English aeronaut, delivered a lecture before the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, in October, 1921, and exposed the fraudulent nature of the Hammondsport tests. In this lecture he mentioned many of the vital changes made in the Langley plane before any attempt was made to fly it. Dr. Walcott made a statement in reply to Brewer. Up to this time Orville Wright had thought that Walcott could have been ignorant of those changes; but after reading the Walcott statement he was convinced that there was nothing accidental or unintentional about the misstatements published by the Smithsonian regarding the tests at Hammondsport.
While the Kitty Hawk plane rested in its storage place, subject to possible fire hazards, officials of the Science Museum at South Kensington, London, England, had made requests to have the machine for exhibition there. After Orville Wright became convinced that none of the Members or Regents of the Smithsonian Institution or any other influential persons were enough interested in establishing the facts in controversy to go to the trouble of making an investigation, he reluctantly decided in 1923, to accede to the requests from London. In reply to letters deploring this decision, he expressed his reasons as follows:
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.
In its campaign to discredit others in the flying art, the Smithsonian has issued scores of these false and misleading statements. They can be proved to be false and misleading from documents. But the people of today do not take the trouble to examine this evidence.
With this machine in any American museum the national pride would be satisfied; nothing further would be done and the Smithsonian would continue its propaganda. In a foreign museum this machine will be a constant reminder of the reason of its being there, and after the people and petty jealousies of this day are gone, the historians of the future may examine impartially the evidence and make history accord with it.
Your regret that this old machine must leave our country can hardly be so great as my own.
Reluctant to carry out his intention to send the Kitty Hawk plane out of the country, Orville Wright in 1925 proposed that the controversy be settled through the investigations of an impartial committee. But the suggestion got no response. He wrote a letter, on May 14, 1925, to Chief Justice William Howard Taft, as Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, in the hope that it might yet be possible to have an impartial hearing. In this letter, after reviewing the relations of the Wrights and the Smithsonian, he said:
It was not until 1921 that I became convinced that the officials of the Smithsonian, at least Dr. Walcott, were fully acquainted with the character of the tests at Hammondsport. I had thought up to that time that they might have been ignorant of the fundamental changes which had been incorporated in the machine before these tests were made, and that when these changes were pointed out to them they would hasten to correct their erroneous reports. They did not do this, but have continued to repeat their early statements. By these the public has been made to think that flights were made in 1914 with the original Langley machine, with no changes, excepting such as were necessary to attach floats for the new system of launching.
When the proofs on both sides concerning these changes are shown, I do not think it will take you five minutes to make up your mind whether the changes were made and whether they were of importance.
It seems to be possible that you as Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution may wish me to be present personally to you my evidence on these points and to have Dr. Walcott present at the same time to give his proofs to the contrary. It may be a way of cutting short a long and bitter controversy.
Chief Justice Taft replied that his position as Chancellor and head of the Smithsonian was purely nominal; that his other duties were such that he did not have the time to give any real attention to questions that have to be settled by the Institution’s Secretary.
A similar preference to stand aside was shown by others nominally in a position to exercise authority over the acts of the Smithsonian. That Institution has as its members the President of the United States, the Vice President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and members of the President’s cabinet. Its Board of Regents is made up of the Chief Justice, the Vice President, three members of the Senate, three members of the House of Representatives, and six citizens appointed by joint resolution of Congress. Any one of these members of the Board of Regents could doubtless have forced an investigation of any reported injustice committed by the Smithsonian. But all had other duties to occupy their time and, like Chief Justice Taft, they were willing to let the Secretary of the Smithsonian act as he saw fit. Thus the Secretary of the Smithsonian, which administers several important government bureaus besides the National Museum, could exercise great influence. That is how it came about that the attempt to mislead the public regarding the epochal achievements of the Wrights went so long unchecked by official action. And as Orville Wright once said he had discovered, “Silent truth cannot withstand error aided by continued propaganda.”
After the exchange of letters with Chief Justice Taft, Orville Wright still delayed sending the Kitty Hawk plane to England. There was nothing impetuous about what he did. Not until early in 1928, or fourteen years after the fraudulent tests at Hammondsport, with the Smithsonian still showing no intention to correct its false record of those flights, did he send the machine to the Science Museum at South Kensington. The arrangement he made with the Science Museum was that the plan should stay there for not less than five years, and permanently unless ordered back to the United States within his lifetime.
Early in 1928, a bill was introduced in Congress to ascertain which was the first heavier-than-air flying-machine. Shortly afterward the Smithsonian adopted a resolution declaring that “to the Wrights belongs the credit of making the first successful flight with a power-propelled heavier-than-air machine carrying a man.”
That resolution was, of course, superfluous, for there had never been any question, even by the Smithsonian, as to the first machine to make a sustained flight. But the Smithsonian continued to claim for Professor Langley credit for the invention of the first machine capable of flight.
Dr. Charles G. Abbott became the Secretary and Director of the Smithsonian in 1928, succeeding Dr. Walcott, who had died in 1927. Soon after he became the head of the Institution, Dr. Abbot invited Orville Wright to go to lunch with him at the Carlton Hotel in Washington. In the course of their talk Dr. Abbot expressed the wish that they might come to an agreement by which the Kitty Hawk plane could be returned to America and placed under the care of the Smithsonian in the National Museum. Orville Wright said that this could easily be done. All that he asked for, he said, was a correction in the Smithsonian publications of the false and misleading statements previously made in those publications. Dr. Abbot expressed a willingness to do so, provided this could be accomplished without injuring the reputation of his predecessor or the prestige of the Institution.
But the painful fact was that the Smithsonian, however spotless its previous reputation, had committed a serious offense, one or the other of two courses were open to it: (1) to confess its guilt and make a full, frank correction; or (2) to try to keep the misdeed concealed. Unfortunately, the Institution adopted, at the beginning, the latter course, evidently in the belief that its great prestige, acquired through an honorable past, could crush any imputation against it. Indeed, that course did prove successful up to the time Orville Wright sent the Kitty Hawk plane abroad.
Dr. Abbott had not been responsible for the disgraceful situation he inherited when he became Secretary of the Smithsonian and found himself in the unenviable position of having to make an embarrassing decision. But it seemed as if he could not quite muster the courage to break away from the course the Institution had been following. Instead, he at first tried to justify the Institution’s previous attitude, though he did concede that it was not true that the Langley plane had been flown at Hammondsport “without modification” as the Smithsonian had published. There were “many differences,” he admitted, “Some of the changes were favorable, some unfavorable, to success,” he declared, “Just what effects, favorable or unfavorable, the sum total of these changes produced can never be precisely known.” Orville Wright, on the other hand, insisted that the “effects, favorable or unfavorable” could be easily be determined by experts if only the changes were made known to them.
But Dr. Abbot still failed to publish the changes.
Since then Orville Wright more than once let the Smithsonian know what he thought should be done to settle the controversy. In a letter he sent to Dr. Abbot on December 23, 1933, he wrote:
The points involved in the straightening of the record are not on matters of mere opinion. They are on matters of fact, which at this time can be easily and definitely established. All that I have demanded in the past has been that there be an impartial investigation of the matters in controversy and that the record be made to agree with the facts.
The suggestion made by me in 1925, three years before the plane left this country, that a committee be appointed to make an impartial investigation and settle the controversy, received from the Smithsonian no response. Nevertheless, I shall be most happy now to join with you in the selection of such a committee, with the understanding that the committee will fully investigate the matters in controversy and will make a full report of the findings.
In a letter a few weeks later, Dr. Abbot suggested that, if it were agreeable to Orville Wright, he would ask three public officials each to name an expert to serve on “an impartial committee” of three to investigate and report on the experiments at Hammondsport in 1914, and their bearing on the capacity of the Langley machine for flight in 1903. But all three of the Government officials that he mentioned were members of the Smithsonian. If the suggested plan had been followed, presumably Dr. Abbot himself would have had the naming of the investigating committee, for in organizations, such as the Smithsonian, appointing of committees by members is usually referred to the Secretary. (Chief Justice Taft, Chancellor of the Smithsonian, had written that because he did not have the time, he let questions regarding the Institution be settled by the Secretary.) It appeared to Orville Wright that Dr. Abbott did not have too much confidence in the findings of a committee, even if wholly appointed by the Smithsonian, for Abbott specified just what questions the committee was to investigate. And most of these were wholly irrelevant.
A little later, Orville Wright, in reply to a letter from Dr. Abbott, made this suggestion: That the Smithsonian publish a paper presenting a list of specifications in parallel columns of those features of the Langley machine of 1903 and of the Hammondsport machine of 1914; in which there were differences, along with an introduction stating that the Smithsonian now finds it was misled by the Zahm report of 1914; that thorough the Zahm report to the Institution was led to believe that the aeroplane tested at Hammondsport was “as nearly as possible in its original condition; that as a result of this misinformation the Smithsonian had published erroneous statements from time to time alleging that the original Langley machine, without modification, or with only such modifications as were necessary for the addition of floats, had been successfully flown at Hammondsport in 1914; that it ask its readers to disregard all of its former statements and expressions of opinion regarding the flights at Hammondsport in 1914, because these were based upon misinformation as the accompanying list of changes would show. (The accuracy of the list of changes was to be settled before publication by the Smithsonian, Orville Wright and a mediator.)
But the suggestion was not followed.
It will be noted that Orville Wright did not even ask that the Smithsonian should say it did not believe the original Langley machine could fly. All he asked was that the facts regarding the Hammondsport trials be made public by the Smithsonian. It had been his contention that if this information had not been withheld, then anyone having a knowledge of the science of aviation could form for himself an opinion regarding the importance of the differences between the original Langley machine of 1903 and the Zahm-Curtiss-Langley machine of 1914. He had been willing to stake his and his brother’s reputation on the conclusion that a committee of competent disinterested scientists would reach if they had all the facts.
Dr. Abbot, in the years 1933 to 1942, proposed a number of times to issue a statement by the Smithsonian for the declared purpose of correcting the record. All these statements, however, except the final one, would have left the record as confusing as it was before. The first statement proposed was to contain: (1) A history of Langley’s work up to December 1903, which was entirely irrelevant to the controversy and would have filled hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of print; (2) a history of the Langley machine from 1903 to 1914, which, likewise, had no part in the controversy; (3) A. F. Zahm’s report of the tests of the Langley machine at Hammondsport in 1914, with no correction by the Institution of its many misrepresentations of fact about those tests; (4) Orville Wright’s list of changes made in the Langley machine at Hammondsport in 1914, without any acknowledgement by the Smithsonian of its accuracy. (The accuracy of the list was later acknowledged by the Institution.) (5) A long list of “amendments,” by A. D. Zahm to Orville Wright’s list of changes. (These “amendments,” or comments, had the appearance of being corrections of errors in Orville Wright’s list, though a careful reading will disclose that they were not corrections.)
Dr. Abbot’s proposed statement thus would have dealt almost entirely with matters not involved in the controversy. About all that did touch on questions in the controversy would have been contradictory statements by Zahm and Wright. The reader, having no way of knowing which one was telling the truth, would have been more confused than ever.
All the publications proposed later, except the final one, were similar to the first, though less voluminous. None of them would have clarified the situation any more than the first. Not until September 1942, did Dr. Abbot submit a statement which, with some amendments, was satisfactory to Orville Wright. That statement, published by the Smithsonian on October 24, 1942, is given here verbatim, as follows:
(This report, in full, including drawings, can be found here– Editor, DHBO)
Publication of this statement in the Smithsonian Annual Report should mark the end of the long controversy.
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