Chapter VI - FIRST POWER FLIGHT
Immediately on their return to Dayton after the 1902 glider flights, the Wrights set to work to carry out plans, already begun at Kitty Hawk, for a power machine. The satisfactory performance of the glider had demonstrated the accuracy of the laboratory work on which its design was based, and they could calculate in advance the performance of any machine they built, with a degree of accuracy not possible with the data available to their predecessors.
Early in their preparations, they took steps to obtain a suitable engine. They knew that a steam engine might do well enough for their purpose, but a gasoline engine would be simpler and better. Some time previously they had built an air-cooled, one-cylinder gas engine for operating the machinery of their small workshop; but they did not feel experienced enough to build the kind they now needed and preferred to buy one.
They wanted a motor to produce at least eight horsepower and to weigh, without accessories, not more than twenty pounds per horsepower. It seemed doubtful if such a motor as they required was then being manufactured; but perhaps one of the automobile companies could build one light enough by reducing the weight of the flywheel and using more aluminum than in the regular output. On December 3, 1902, they sent letters to a number of automobile companies, and to gasoline motor manufacturers, altogether to nearly a dozen, asking if they could furnish a motor that would develop eight brake horsepower and weigh not more than 200 pounds. Orville Wright was not sure in after years whether he and Wilbur revealed in their letters the use they planned for the motor they were seeking; but most of the companies replied that they were too busy with their regular business to undertake such a special order. There is reason to suspect the companies may have got wind of the purpose to which the motor would be put and were afraid to become implicated in the project. If a company provided a motor for a so-called flying-machine, and this fact should leak out, it could hurt their business prestige, because it might look as if they considered human flight a possibility.
One company replied, however, that they had motors, rated at eight horsepower, according to the French system of ratings, which weighed only 135 pounds, and if the Wrights thought this would develop enough power for their purpose, they could buy one. After an examination of the particulars of this motor, from which they learned that it had but a single cylinder, of four-inch bore and five-inch stroke, the Wrights decided its power was probably much overrated.
Finally the brothers decided that they would have to build their motor themselves. They estimated that they could make one of four cylinders, of four-inch bore and four-inch stroke, weighing not more than two hundred pounds, with accessories included. Their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, gave them enthusiastic help. In its final form, the bare engine, without magneto, weighed 152 pounds: with accessories, 170 pounds. At 1,200 revolutions per minute, it developed sixteen horsepower – but only for the first fifteen seconds after starting; after a minute or two it did not give more than about twelve horsepower. Since, however, they had not counted on more than eight horsepower, for a machine of a total weight of 600 pounds, now they could add 150 pounds for strengthening wings and other parts. Not yet knowing how much power an engine of that size ought to have developed, the Wrights were much pleased with its performance. Long afterward they found out that the engine should have provided about twice as much power as it did. The trouble, as they later said, was their “lack of experience in building gasoline motors.”
The wings of this new power machine had a total span of a few inches more than forty feet, and the upper and lower wing surfaces were six feet apart. To reduce the danger of the engine ever falling on the pilot, it was placed on the lower wing a little to right of center. The pilot would ride lying flat, as on the glider, but to the left of center, to balance the weight. To guard against the machine rolling over in landing, the sled-like runners were extended farther out in front of the main surfaces than on the glider. These two runners were four feet, eight inches apart. The tail of the machine had twin moveable vanes instead of a single vane as in the 1902 glider.
The Wrights left the designing of the propellers until the last, because they felt sure that part of the job would be easy enough. Their tables of air pressures, derived from wind-tunnel experiments, would enable them, they thought, to calculate exactly the thrust necessary to sustain the machine in flight. But to design a propeller that would give the needed amount of thrust, with the power at their command, was a problem they had not yet considered. No data on air propellers were available, but the Wrights had always understood that it was not difficult to obtain an efficiency of fifty per cent with marine propellers. All that should be necessary would be to learn the theory of the operation of propellers from books on marine engineering and substitute air pressures for water pressures. What could be simpler or easier? Accordingly, the brothers got several such books from the Dayton Public Library. But when they began to read those books, they discovered to their surprise that much less was known about propellers than they had supposed.
All the formulae on propellers in the books were found to be based on experiment and observation rather than on theory. The marine engineers, when they saw that a propeller would not move a boat fast enough, had then tried one larger, or of a different pitch, until they got one that would serve their purpose. But they could not design a propeller on paper and foresee exactly what its performance on a certain type of motor-boat would be. Exact knowledge of the action of the screw propeller, though it had been in use for a century, was still lacking.
The Wrights knew that rough estimates, which might be near enough for a motor-boat, would not do for an airplane. On a boat a propeller having only a fraction of one per cent of the desired efficiency could move the boat a little; but on an airplane, unless the propeller had the full amount of thrust needed, it would be worthless, for it couldn’t lift the plane into the air at all! In short, the Wrights had to have a propeller that would do exactly what was expected of it. And they had neither the time nor money to carry on a long series of experiments with different kinds of propellers until they could hit on one suitable. They couldn’t afford to make mistakes except on paper. They must somehow learn enough about how propellers acted, and why, to enable them to make accurate calculations.
It was apparent to the Wrights that a propeller was simply an airfoil traveling in a spiral course. As they could calculate the effect of an airfoil travelling in a straight course, why should they not be able to calculate the effect in a spiral course? At first thought that did not seem too difficult, but they soon found that they had let themselves into a tough job. Since nothing about a propeller, or the medium in which it acts, would be standing still, it was not easy to find even a point from which to make a start. The more they studied it, the more complex the problem became.” The thrust depends upon the speed and the angle at which the blade strikes the air; the angle at which the blade strikes the air depends upon the speed at which the propeller is turning, the speed the machine is travelling forward, and the speed at which the air is slipping backward; the slip of the air backward depends upon the thrust exerted by the propeller, and the amount of air acted upon.” It was not exactly as simple as some of the problems in the school arithmetic – to determine how many sheep a man had or how many leaps a hound must make to overtake a hare.
In trying to work out a theory about the action of screw propellers, Wilbur and Orville got into many arguments. Right here it may be noted that this habit the brothers had of arguing technical points was one of the reasons why they were able to accomplish all they finally did in a relatively short time. Neither was a “yes” man to the other. But in their arguments about propellers a peculiar thing happened. “Often,” Orville later reported, “after an hour or so of heated argument, we would discover that we were as far from agreement as when we started, but that each had changed the other’s original position.”
Many months passed before the intricacies of the problem began untangle themselves. The Wrights finally got a better understanding of the action of screw propellers than anyone had ever had before. The time came when they felt sure of their ability to design propellers of exactly the right diameter, pitch, and area for their needs.
A calculation indicated that 305 revolutions of the propeller would be required to produce 100 pounds of thrust. Later, actual measurement showed that only 302 instead of 305 propeller turns were required, or not quite one per cent less than the calculated amount. The propellers delivered in useful work 66 per cent of the power expended. That was about one-third more than either Hiram Maxim or Professor Langley in their attempts at flying had ever been able to attain.
For two reasons the Wrights decided to use two propellers. First, they could in that way obtain a reaction against a greater quantity of air, and at the same time use a larger pitch angle; and, by having the propellers run in opposite directions, the gyroscopic action of one would neutralize that of the other The propellers were on tubular shafts about ten feet apart, both driven by chains running over sprockets, somewhat as on a bicycle.
L. M. Wainwright, president of the Diamond Chain Company, of Indianapolis, became interested in the Wrights’ transmission problem and gave them valuable advice.
The Wrights found that the chains would have to be run through guides to prevent slapping and to overcome undue stresses on the machine. They adopted tubular guides and found that they could cross one of the chains in a figure eight and thus have the propellers running in opposite directions.
Not until September 23 was all in readiness for the Wrights to set out for Kitty Hawk. They were able to make good connections with a boat and arrived at camp two days later, on a Friday. Discussing en route what they hoped to accomplish, neither had the slightest doubt about the fulfillment of their dreams. Besides being full of confidence they also felt the exuberance of excellent physical condition. Orville was now thirty-two years old and Wilbur thirty-six. Five foot ten and a quarter inches in height, Wilbur was the taller of the two by a little more than an inch and a half. Orville weighed 145 pounds, about five more than Wilbur. Each of them had grayish-blue eyes and they might have been recognized as brothers, though in their own family Wilbur at that time was considered “more of a Wright” in his facial conformation. Orville looked a little more like his mother. Both were suitably built for bird men.
Plenty of annoyances, difficulties, and delays were still to be faced. When they reached their camp near Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights found that a storm had blown it from its foundation posts. They repaired the shed and also built a new one. With two sheds they had enough space for housing both the 1902 glider and the power machine, and also for a better workshop.
Just as the new building was nearing completion, the Kitty Hawk region had one of the worst storms in years. It came without warning, soon blowing forty miles an hour, and increased during the night until the next day the wind was more than seventy-miles an hour. Orville risked climbing to the roof to nail down some of the more exposed parts. But by the time he got to the roof edge, the wind had blown his coat about him in a manner to pinion his arms and leave him helpless. Wilbur rushed to his assistance and held down his coat, but the wind was so strong that it was almost impossible to swing a hammer accurately enough to hit a nail.
Three weeks were needed for assembling the new machine. From time to time, also, they took out the 1902 glider, still in fairly good condition in the shed where they had left it, and got practice. After the first few trials each brother was able to make a new world’s record by gliding for more than a minute.
It was hoped to have the power machine ready for its first trial early in November. But at the first run of the motor on the completed machine, an unexpected strain from backfiring twisted one of the propeller shafts and tore loose the cross-arm to which the propeller was fastened. Both shafts were then sent back to the bicycle shop at Dayton to be made stronger. Dr. Spratt had arrived on October 23 to witness tests of the new machine, but the weather had become so wintry that he started home on November 5, taking with him as far as Norfolk the shafts for shipment to Dayton.
Octave Chanute came, on invitation, the next day, but he too found it difficult to be comfortable with the weather increasingly wintry and he stayed less than a week. Before leaving camp, Chanute had unintentionally given them something else to worry about. He had remarked that at least twenty per cent usually must be allowed in chain transmission for loss of power. As the Wrights had allowed only five per cent, they felt considerable alarm.
Since Chanute was a capable and famous engineer, it seemed prudent to find out whose estimates were more nearly correct. After Chanute had gone, the brothers suspended one of the drive chains over a sprocket and hung a bag of sand on each end of the chain. By measuring the amount of weight on one side needed to lift the other, they calculated the loss in transmission. As nearly as they could tell, this loss was even less than the five per cent they had estimated.
The shafts, made of larger and heavier tubing, arrived from Dayton on November 20. When they were tested again, a new difficulty appeared. The sprockets which were screwed to the shafts and locked with nuts of opposite thread, kept coming loose. This was a small problem, and yet the brothers did not at once see any way to solve it. They went to bed discouraged. The next day, however, they tried, as they often did, something they had learned in the bicycle business. They had found a great variety of uses for the kind of cement intended for fastening tires to rims. Once they had used it successfully in fastening the hands of a stop-watch that several watch smiths had said was beyond repair. Why not try tire cement on those sprockets? They heated the propeller shafts and sprockets, poured melted cement into the threads and screwed them together. There were no more loose sprockets.
Just as the machine was ready to test, bad weather set in. There was rain or snow for several days and a wind of twenty-five to thirty miles an hour from the north. But while being delayed by the weather the Wrights were not idle. They busied themselves contriving a mechanism to measure automatically the duration of flight from the time the machine started to move forward to the time it stopped, the distance traveled through the air in that time, and the number of revolutions made by the motor and propeller. A stop-watch took the time, an anemometer measured the air traveled through; and a counter took the number of revolutions made by the motor. The watch, anemometer, and revolution counter were all automatically started and stopped simultaneously.
During this time, the Wrights occupied themselves also in making tests of the strength of the wings, as well as many satisfactory tests of the engine. During the test of the engine on November 28, they discovered that one of the recently strengthened tubular shafts had developed a flaw and cracked!
With winter almost upon them, there was no time to trust to express service in getting the shafts to Dayton. Orville decided he would go there at once. Instead of tubing shafts, they would use solid tool steel, necessary, it seemed, to take up the shock of premature or missed explosions of the engine.
Not until Friday, December 11, did Orville get back to camp. (En route, he had read in a newspaper of the last unsuccessful attempt to fly the Langley machine over the Potomac at Washington.)
It didn’t take long to install the new propeller shafts and the next afternoon, Saturday, the machine was again ready for trial. But the wind was so light that a start could not have been made from the level ground with a run of only sixty feet permitted by the monorail track to be used. Nor was there enough time before dark to take the machine to one of the near-by hills, where, by placing the track on the steep incline, enough speed could be promptly attained for starting in calm air.
All day Sunday the Wrights just sat at the camp and read, hoping for suitable weather the next day. They were now particularly eager to avoid delay because of their boyish craving to be home by Christmas. If there should be a spell of bad wintry weather they might have to stay at Kitty Hawk for another two or three weeks.
Monday, December 14, dawned beautifully clear, but cold, and there was not enough wind to permit a start from level ground near the camp. The Wrights therefore decided to attempt a flight from the side of Kill Devil Hill. With a relatively light wind it should be all the easier to handle the machine. The pilot, whichever one of them it should be, ought to be able not only to fly successfully but to go on down far beyond the Kitty Hawk life-saving station, nearly five miles away before landing.
Contrary to reports of secretiveness, the Wrights, naturally desiring witnesses, had extended a general invitation to people living within five or six miles to come and see their first attempt at flight. But it was impossible to send word or give a signal as to the exact time the attempt would be made. They had arranged, however, to put a signal on one of the sheds that could be seen from the Kill Devil Life Saving Station only a little more than a mile away. Members of the life-saving crew were on the lookout for the signal. Soon after the signal was hung against the wall of the shed, the Wrights were joined by John T. Daniels, Robert Westcott, Thomas Beacham, W. S. Dough, and “Uncle Benny” O’Neal. All helped to get the machine to the place selected, a quarter of a mile away, on the hillside. It would not have been easy to drag the 750-pound machine that distance and the Wrights used a characteristic bit of ingenuity. They set the machine on the monorail track they were going to use for the takeoff, slid it along to the end of the sixty-foot wooden rail, then took up a rear section of the track and added it to the front end. By thus re-laying the track over and over, they were able to have the machine run on wheels all the way. The sled-like skids that were the landing gear of the machine rested on a truck – a plank about six feet long, laid across a much smaller piece of wood to which were attached two small wheels, one in front of another. Each was kept on the track by two vertical guides. These little wheels had ball-bearings. They were modified hubs from wheels of a bicycle. The rail itself was two by four inches, set on edge, with the upper surface covered by a thin strip of metal.
As soon as they reached the hill, the Wrights prepared for the test. Each was eager for the chance to make the first trial, and they tossed a coin to determine which of them it should be. Wilbur won the toss.
After the machine had been fastened to the track by wire to prevent its moving until released by the operator, one of the Wrights started the motor and let it run for a few minutes to make sure it was working properly. Then Wilbur took his place on the machine. Two small boys with a dog, who had come to see what was going on, were scared away by the noise of the motor.
Here is Orville Wright’s own account of what then happened:
I took a position at one of the wings, intending to help balance the machine as it ran down the track. But when the restraining wire was slipped, the machine started off so quickly I could stay with it only a few feet. After a 35- to 40-foot run, it lifted from the rail.
But it was allowed to turn up too much. It climbed a few feet, stalled, and settled to the ground near the foot of the hill, 105 feet below. My stop-watch showed that it had been in the air just 3 ½ seconds. In landing, the left wing touched first. The machine swung around, dug the skids into the sand and broke one of them. Several other parts were also broken, but the damage to the machine was not serious. While the tests had shown nothing as to whether the power of the motor was sufficient to keep the machine up, since the landing was made many feet below the starting point, the experiment had demonstrated that the method adopted for launching the machine was a safe and practical one. On the whole, we were much pleased.
Two days were consumed in making repairs, and the machine was not ready again till late in the afternoon of the 16th. While we had it out on the track in front of the building making the final adjustments, a stranger came along. After looking at the machine a few seconds he inquired what it was. When we told him it was a flying-machine he asked whether we intended to fly it. We said we did, as soon as we had a suitable wind. He looked at it several minutes longer and then, wishing to be courteous, remarked that it looked as if would fly, if it had a “suitable wind.” We were much amused, for, no doubt, he had in mind the 75-mile gale when he repeated our words, “a suitable wind”!
During the night of December 16th a strong cold wind blew from the north. When we arose on the morning of the 17th, the puddles of water, which had been standing about the camp since the recent rains, were covered with ice. The wind had a velocity of 10 to 12 meters per second (22 to 27 miles an hour). We thought it would die down before long, and so remained indoors the early part of the morning. But when ten o’clock arrived, and the wind was as brisk as ever, we decided that we had better get the machine out and attempt a flight. We hung out the signal for the men of the Life-Saving Station. We thought that by facing the flyer into a strong wind, there ought to be no trouble in launching it from the level ground about camp. We realized the difficulties of flying in so high a wind, but estimated that the added dangers in flight would be partly compensated for by the slower speed in landing.
We laid the track on a smooth stretch of ground about one hundred feet west of the new building. The biting cold wind made work difficult, and we had to warm up frequently in our living room, where we had a good fire in an improvised stove made of a large carbide can. By the time all was ready, J. T. Daniels, W. S. Dough and A. D. Etheridge, members of the Kill Devil Life-Saving Station; W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a boy from Nag’s Head, had arrived.
We had a “Richard” hand anemometer with which we measured the velocity of the wind. Measurements made just before starting the first flight showed velocities of 11 to 12 meters per second, or 24 to 27 miles per hour. Measurements made just before the last flight gave between 9 and 10 meters per second. One made just afterward showed a little over 8 meters. The records of the Government Weather Bureau at Kitty Hawk gave the velocity of the wind between the hours of 10:30 and 12 o’clock, the time during which the four flights were made, as averaging 27 miles at the time of the last.
With all the knowledge and skill acquired in thousands of flights in the last ten years, I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a twenty-seven-mile wind, even if I knew that that machine had already been flown and was safe. After these years of experience, I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine under such circumstances. Yet faith in our calculations and the design of the first machine, based upon our tables of air pressures, obtained by months of careful laboratory work, and confidence in our system of control developed by three years of actual experiences in balancing gliders in the air, had convinced us that the machine was capable of lifting and maintaining itself in the air, and that, with a little practice, it could be safely flown.
Wilbur having used his turn in the unsuccessful attempt on the 14th, the right to the first trial now belonged to me. After running the motor a few minutes to heat it up, I released the wire that held the machine to the track, and the machine started forward into the wind. Wilbur ran at the side of the machine, holding the wing to balance it on the track. Unlike the start on the 14th, made in a calm, the machine, facing a 27-mile wind, started very slowly. Wilbur was able to stay with it till it lifted from the track after a forty-foot run. One of the Life Saving men snapped the camera for us, taking a picture just as the machine had reached the end of the track and risen to a height of about two feet. The slow forward speed of the machine over the ground is clearly shown in the picture by Wilbur’s attitude. He stayed along beside the machine without any effort.
The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine. The control of the front rudder was difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center. This gave it a tendency to turn itself when started, so that it turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result, the machine would rise suddenly to about ten feet, and as suddenly dart for the ground. A sudden dart when little over a hundred feet from the end of the track, or a little over 120 feet from the point at which it rose into the air, ended the flight. As the velocity of the wind was over 35 feet per second and the speed of the machine over the ground against this wind ten feet per second, the speed of the machine relative to the air was over 45 feet per second, and the length of the flight was equivalent to a flight of 540 feet made in calm air.
This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started. A surprising thing about the flights was that each brother wore, as usual, a stiff white starched collar and a necktie.
With the assistance of our visitors we carried the machine back to the track and prepared for another flight. The wind, however, had chilled us all through, so that before attempted a second flight, we all went to the building again to warm up. Johnny Moore, seeing under the table a box filled with eggs, asked one of the Station men where we got so many of them. The people of the neighborhood eke out a bare existence by catching fish during the short fishing season, and their supplies of other articles of food are limited. He probably never had seen so many eggs at one time in his life.
The one addressed jokingly asked him whether he hadn’t noticed the small hen running about the outside of the building. “That chicken lays eight to ten eggs a day!” Moore, having just seen a piece of machinery lift itself from the ground and fly, a thing at that time considered impossible as perpetual motion, was ready to believe nearly anything. But after going out and having a good look at the wonderful fowl, he returned with the remark, “It’s only a common-looking chicken!”
At twenty minutes after eleven Wilbur started on the second flight. The course of this flight was much like the first flight, due to the lesser wind. The duration of the flight was less than a second longer than the first, but the distance covered was about seventy-five feet greater.
Twenty minutes later, the third flight started. This one was steadier than the first one an hour before. I was proceeding along pretty well when a sudden gust from the right lifted the machine up twelve to fifteen feet and turned it up sidewise in an alarming manner. It began a lively sidling off to the left. I warped the wings to try to recover the lateral balance and at the same time pointed the machine down to reach the ground as quickly as possible. The lateral control was more effective than I had imagined and before I reached the ground the right wing was lower than the left and struck first. The time of this flight was fifteen seconds and the distance over the ground a little over 200 feet.
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured and found to be 852 feet; the time of flight 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in a day or two.
While we were standing about discussing this last flight, a sudden strong gust of wind struck the machine and began to turn it over. Everybody made a rush for it. Wilbur, who was at one end, seized it in front. Mr. Daniels and I, who were behind, tried to stop it by holding to the rear uprights.
All out efforts were in vain. The machine rolled over and over. Daniels, who had retained his grip, was carried along with it, and was thrown about, head over heels, inside of the machine. Fortunately he was not seriously injured, though badly bruised in falling about against the motor, chain guides, etc. The ribs in the surfaces of the machine were broken, the motor injured and the chain guides badly bent, so that all possibility of further flights with it for that year were at an end.
It is unlikely that any of the five spectators who had seen these flights sensed their scientific importance. But some of them felt interested, from one point of view, because they would have the laugh on a number of natives thereabouts who had insisted that these Wright brothers must be a pair of harmless cranks. A common argument had been: “God didn’t intend man to fly. If he did, he would have given him a set of wings.”
It was the regret of his life to the Wright’s friend, “Bill” Tate, that he missed witnessing that first flight. He had decided that “no one but a crazy man would attempt to fly in such a wind,” and made no effort to be there.
After preparing and eating their lunch, and then washing their dishes, Wilbur and Orville set out, about two o’clock that afternoon, to walk over to the Kitty Hawk weather station, four or five miles away, to send a telegram to their father. It must have been about three o’clock when they reached the station. So few telegrams were sent from this locality that no regular commercial office existed and it was permitted to send them over government wire as far as Norfolk where they would be relayed by phone from the weather bureau to the office of one of the telegraph companies.
Orville wrote out the following message to their father: “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one-mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 59 seconds inform press home Christmas. Orville Wright.”
What Orville meant when he wrote “against twenty-one-mile wind” was that the wind was at least twenty-one miles an hour during each of the flights. At the time of the first flight it was, as already noted, between twenty-four and twenty-seven miles an hour – probably about twenty-six miles.
After handing the message to Joseph J. Dosher, the weather bureau operator, Orville joined Wilbur over in a corner of the room to examine the record on an instrument that recorded the wind velocity.
Dosher got an almost instantaneous connection with Norfolk, and while the Wrights were still looking at the wind record, he said:
- “The operator in Norfolk wants to know if it is all right to give the news to a reporter friend.”
But the Wrights replied: Absolutely no! They preferred to have the first news of the event come from Dayton.
Dosher clicked out the refusal.
The operator at Norfolk, however, did not heed the warning.
When they left the weather bureau after sending their message, the Wrights went over to the Kitty Hawk life-saving station, a few steps away, and chatted with members of the crew there. Captain S. J. Payne, in charge of the station, declared he had seen one of the flights with the aid of a pair of binoculars.
Then the Wrights walked to the post office at Kitty Hawk; and before returning to camp they stopped for a farewell visit at the home of Captain Hobbs, who had often done hauling and other work for them.
Meanwhile, the telegraph operator at Norfolk, disregarding the Wrights’ adverse response to his request, had promptly gone ahead and given a tip about the flights to a young friend, H. P. Moore, of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Moore was connected with the circulation department of the paper but was breaking in as a reporter and was in the habit of calling at the weather bureau. He made a desperate effort to reach by telephone over the government line someone at Kitty Hawk or elsewhere along the coast who could furnish details about what the flying-machine looked like, and about this Mr. Wright who was supposed to have operated it. Whatever information he got did not come from eyewitnesses of the flights or from anyone who had ever seen the machine, and the account published the next morning was about ninety-nine per cent inaccurate. It described a flight of three miles by Wilbur and told of Orville then running about yelling “Eureka.” The machine had one six-blade propeller beneath it, to elevate it, so the story ran, and another propeller at the rear to shove it forward.
“Very little can be learned here about the Wrights,” the story said. “They are supposed by the natives of Kitty Hawk to be people of means and are always well dressed.”
(When Moore met Orville, years later, and asked him what he thought of the account, Orville good-naturedly replied: “It was an amazing piece of work. Though ninety-nine per cent wrong, it did contain one fact that was correct. There had been a flight.” Then Moore wrote that Orville had corroborated his story.)
One must give the Virginian-Pilot editors credit for treating the news as important. The headline over the flight story the next morning extended clear across the top of the first page.
Moore sent brief “queries,” outlining the story, to twenty-one other newspapers over the country, including several in Ohio, one of them to the Dayton Journal. But nearly all the telegraph editors resented having a correspondent suggest that a human being could fly by machinery. Of the twenty-one newspapers to whom it was offered, only five ordered the story. They were the New York American, the Washington (D.C.) Post, the Chicago Record-Herald, the Philadelphia Record, and the Cincinnati Enquirer. But not all five papers that received the story published it the next morning. The Chicago Record-Herald and the Washington Post delayed using it, and the Philadelphia Record did not print it at all. Thus only three newspapers in the United States had a report of the great event at Kitty Hawk the next morning. The Cincinnati Enquirer was the only one besides the Virginian-Pilot that gave space to the account on the front page.
One might have thought the news would especially interest the Dayton Journal; but Frank Tunison, the telegraph editor there (who also handled outgoing news for the Associated Press) was a man who took pride in not being easily fooled, and he paid no attention to the query from Norfolk.
Orville’s telegram to his father did not reach Dayton until 5:25 that evening. In transmission, errors had got into the message; fifty-nine seconds had become fifty-seven, and the sender’s name was spelled “Orevelle.”
Katherine Wright immediately sent a message to Octave Chanute that the “boys” had reported four successful flights. Bishop Wright asked his son Lorin to prepare a brief statement with a copy of the message and give it to the Associated Press. After he had finished his dinner, Lorin went to the office of the Journal and inquired if the Associated Press representative was there. He was referred to Frank Tunison. Whether Tunison had already received the query from Moore at Norfolk is not certain. But he seemed annoyed over being expected to accept such a tale.
Without looking up from his work, he yawned and said to Lorin:
“Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item.”
Nothing about the Wrights’ feat appeared in the Dayton Journal the next morning. But news considered important enough to be displayed on the first page of that same issue included items about a routine weekly meeting of the local united trades and labor council; a colored man named Charles Brown, who admitted pocketbook thefts; the pardoning of a robber from Joliet prison, in Illinois. On the page opposite the editorial page, the biggest, blackest headline was: “Stores Are Filled with Christmas Shoppers.”
Dayton afternoon papers on that December 18 did print accounts of the receipt of the telegram by Bishop Wright, as well as other “facts” about the flight. The Dayton Herald article appeared to be a rehash of the dispatch from Norfolk in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Over the article in the Dayton Daily News, on an inside page, alongside of so-called “country correspondence” from near-by towns, the heading was: Dayton Boys Emulate Great Santos-Dumont! Lacking scientific knowledge, the editors failed to distinguish between a flying-machine, heavier-than-air, and an airship consisting of a gas-bag equipped with a propeller. Indeed, from then on, nearly all who had heard of the reported flights, editors included, were in one or the other of two groups of disbelievers: (1) those who refused to believe the flights had taken place at all; and (2) those who thought that even if they had been made they were not of great importance.
The Associated Press, that had declined to accept news of the flights at either Norfolk or Dayton the day before, now sent out for afternoon papers on December, a brief report, less than 350 words, from Norfolk. This appeared to be simply a condensation of the article in the Virginian-Pilot that morning and contained most of the same inaccuracies. Not more than two or three sentences in the AP dispatch were correct. “The machine flew for three miles,” the report said,” . . . and gracefully descended to the earth at the spot selected by the man in the navigator’s car as a suitable landing place. . . Preparatory to its flight the machine was placed upon a platform . . . on a high sand hill and when all was in readiness the fastenings to the machine were released and it started down an incline. The navigator, Wilbur Wright, then started a small gasoline engine which worked the propellers. When the end of the incline was reached the machine gradually arose until it obtained [sic] an altitude of 60 feet. . . . In the center is the navigator’s car and suspended just below the bottom plan [sic] is a small gasoline engine, which furnishes the motive power for the propelling and elevating wheels.
“There are two 6-blade propellers,” the dispatch said, “one arranged just below the frame so as to exert an upward force when in motion and the other extends horizontally from the rear to the center of the car furnishing forward impetus. Protruding from the center of the car is a huge fan-shaped rudder of canvas, stretched upon a frame of wood. This rudder is controlled by the navigator and may be moved to each side, raised or lowered.” Not all the Associated Press papers printed the dispatch in full; in fact, many did not use it at all.
With the first reports “confirmed” by the Associated Press, two papers, the Washington Post and Chicago Record-Herald, that had withheld the story bought from Mr. Moore at Norfolk, finally printed the Moore dispatch on the morning of December 19. The Washington Post even used it on the front page, but cautiously inserted qualifying phrases, saying “it is reported” that a flight was made. And the Chicago Record-Herald on December 20 had an editorial about the flights, or about “the” flight. But as the editorial restated many of the inaccuracies contained in the news report, it only added to the general misinformation.
(A few newspaper editors are still touchy about the inadequate reporting of the Wright’s first flights. As recently as January 29, 1941, the Chicago Daily News had an editorial of nearly half a column defending the merit of the hopelessly inaccurate Associated Press dispatch from Norfolk on December 18, 1903. And shortly afterward, on February 12, 1941, in connection with a letter from a reader who sought to give the historic facts, the Daily News editor, still unwilling to accept the truth, added a note insisting once again that there was “nothing fantastic” about that AP report from Norfolk!)
At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in St. Louis, December 28 to January 2, Octave Chanute made an address on the subject of Aerial Navigation in which he referred to the Wrights’ flights. But little was said about the Chanute speech in the newspapers.
(Chanute used that address as the basis for an article in the March, 1904, issue of Popular Science Monthly in which he said: “Now that an initial success has been achieved with a flying-machine, we can discern some of the uses of such apparatus and also some of its limitations. Its first application will probably be military.” He said, too, that “it may even carry mails in special cases, but the useful loads carried will be very small. The machines will eventually be fast, they will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers.” He did not think it would ever be practical to carry loads “such as a store of explosives, or big guns to shoot them.”)
Almost as surprising as the lack of effort by the usually painstaking Associated Press to get the facts about the Kitty Hawk event, was the failure of the AP, or any other press association, or any newspaper, to rush a staff man to Dayton in an effort to obtain the whole amazing story of what the Wrights had done.
Desiring to correct the misinformation that had been printed, the Wrights prepared a statement about their recent flights, and gave this to the Associated Press with the request that it be published. This appeared, at least in part, in probably a majority of the Associated Press newspapers, on January 6; but the initiative, it should be noted, did not come from the press association, but the Wrights themselves. A few editorial paragraphers made derisive comments on one sentence of the statement which suggested that “the day of flying had arrived.”
Exactly one month after the Kitty Hawk flights, on Sunday, January 17, the New York Herald, in its magazine section, had an article headed: The Machine That Flies. Despite the time that had elapsed, affording opportunity to get the facts, this article not only contained a mass of preposterous misstatements but even quoted Wilbur Wright for many of them. The article was accompanied by a drawing, an artist’s conception of the machine in flight, and a diagram, showing the two “six-bladed propellers,” one behind the machine and the other beneath it to give it elevation!
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