Chapter IX - IT STILL WASN’T NEWS
Though Dayton newspapermen had not besieged the Huffman pasture for details of the great news story lurking there during 1904-1905, one of their number had occasionally been in 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 two miles 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 sometimes happened that on the trip to Dayton he was on the same car with one of both of the Wright brothers, returning from their flights.
“I used to chat with them in a friendly way and was always polite to them,” Beard recalled, years afterward, 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 that it must worry their father.”
In these conversations, neither the Wrights nor Beard was likely to bring up the subject of aviation. The Wrights showed no eagerness to talk about what they were doing, and Beard kept to subjects he considered more sensible. But one day, in the autumn of 1904, several of the school children told him they had seen the Wrights flying all around the field. Maybe, thought Beard, that might make a little local item for the paper. When he next saw Orville Wright in the car, a day or two afterward, Beard asked him if it was true that they had been flying all the way around the field.
Oh, yes, Orville admitted, they often did that. Then Orville began to talk about something else.
Evidently, Beard decided, the fact that an airplane could be flown under perfect control in circles 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 – the same Tunison who had turned down the story of the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Having decided that the Wrights were not news, he was naturally irritated to see any reference to them, even on an inside page. “Why do we print such stuff?” he would ask.
However, Beard said to Orville, as they rode along on the car: “If you ever do something unusual be sure and let us know.” From time to time he 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?” he asked Orville Wright one evening.
“Oh, nothing much,” replied Orville. “Today one of us flew for nearly five minutes.”
“Where did you go?” asked Beard.
“Around the field.”
“Oh! Just 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 for five minutes was pretty good for two local boys. But it was hardly a thing to take up space in the paper. Hadn’t Santos-Dumont circled the Eiffel Tower, and flown all around Paris? 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. (At the time of the thirty-eight-minute flight in 1905, however, Luther Beard was among the spectators at the field.)
Another bright young newspaperman in that vicinity didn’t grasp quite the full significance of what the Wright’s 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 of 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 OsbornLocal, published in a village a mile or two from the Huffman field. Did he investigate the story? No, he didn’t need to investigate it to feel sure it must be nonsense. If true, he reasoned, surely it would be in the Dayton papers.
The fact of human flight was still unacceptable and ridiculous even to professional humorists. The humorous weekly, Puck, in its issue of October 19, 1904 – nearly a month after that first circular flight – published a joke, inspired presumably by absurd reports about two young men at Dayton:
“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.”
The significance of the complete circular flight, on September 29, 1904, was not overlooked, however, by one man who witnessed it. That was A. I. Root, the Medina bee man. He had traveled by automobile the day before to Xenia, where he had a relative, and then went to the Huffman field, only a few miles away, to become better acquainted with the Wrights. His trip of 175 miles from Medina without serious difficulty with his machine was then almost a feat in itself. He had not needed any repairs until he reached Xenia. (Incidentally, he had remonstrated with the repair man he dealt with there, Mr. Baldner, for his frequent use of profanity; and he was impressed by the fact that no matter how puzzling or discouraging the problem, the Wrights never uttered a profane word.) After going to Huffman field, Root became more than ever interested in the Wrights and as he wished to see all he could of their work for a few days, he arranged for board and lodging at the Beard home across the road. (A little later he even offered to pay the Wrights $100 for material he had obtained from them for articles about their work – but they refused to accept any payment.)
Root knew that the circular flight he had just witnessed was of prime importance, for it demonstrated that the airplane would have practical use. He wrote an eye-witness account of what the Wrights had done for the January 1 (1905) issue of his magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, and sent a marked copy to the editor of the Scientific American, with a letter telling the editor he was free to reprint the article. The editor wrote back that he had not received the marked copy. So Root sent another. But when the editor of the Scientific American saw what Root had printed he paid no attention to it.
Root continued to print articles about the Wrights in his magazine. In December 1905, he published the fact that a great number of long flights had been made during the previous season, “one of 24 miles in 38 minutes,” probably the first publication of that event in the United States. At about the same time, in its issue of December 16, 1905, the Scientific American said, in an editorial headed “Retrospect for the Year”: “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 a half a mile in a power-propelled machine.” Previously in the same editorial, though, was the assertion: “. . . the only successful ‘flying’ that has been done this year – must be credited to the balloon type.” By that time, the Wrights’ total flying distance was about 160 miles.
In its issue of January 13, 1906, in an article headed “The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances,” the Scientific American commented skeptically on a letter written by the Wright brothers which had been published in a Paris automobile journal. In that letter the Wrights had given details of the long flights of late September and early October, 1905. In expressing its disbelief in the “alleged” flights described in the Wright letter, the Scientific American said: “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face – even if he has to scale a fifteen-story skyscraper to do so – would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?”
A few weeks later, in February, 1906, the editor of the Scientific American wrote to the Wrights to inquire if was any truth to reports that they were negotiating with the French Government. He enclosed in his letter a clipping of “The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances.”
The Wright’s wrote in reply that since the Scientific American obtained the data of what it termed “alleged experiments” directly from a published letter signed by the Wright brothers, and since it did not discredit the authenticity of the letter, but only the truthfulness of the statements, they were at a loss to understand why the editor should desire further statements from such a source. They did not answer the inquiry about the negotiations with the French Government.
Most of the long flights in late September and early October, 1905, had been seen by Amos Stauffer, a farmer working in an adjoining field. But he went right ahead husking corn. Another witness, however, was more of a gossip. At one of the October flights, William Fouts, a Dayton druggist, was present, and the Wrights cautioned him not to say anything about what he had seen. But Fouts must have taken a few people into his confidence. In the afternoon of October 5, the Dayton Daily News had an article saying the Wrights were making sensational flights every day. The Dayton correspondent for the Cincinnati Post reported this to his paper which printed it the next day. A fairly good-sized crowd then went to the Huffman pasture. But when they found nothing going on there most of them decided that the reports must have been much exaggerated. Nothing more was said about the Wrights in Ohio papers for some time. John Tomlinson, a reporter on the Dayton Journal, and correspondent for out-of-town papers, offered $50 to Henry Webbert, friend of the Wrights, to let him know the date of their next flight There was one more short flight on October 16, but no newspapermen or other onlookers were at the field.
On March 12, 1906, the Wrights had sent to the Aero Club of America the following list of names of reputable men who had seen one or more of their flights: E. W. Ellis, assistant city auditor; Torrence Huffman, bank president; C. S. Billman, secretary, and W. H. Shank, treasurer of the West Side Building & Loan Association; William, Henry and Charles Webbert, in the plumbing business; Frank Hamburger, hardware dealer; Howard M. Myers, post-office employee; William Fouts and Reuben Schindler, druggists; William Weber, plumber; Bernard H. Lambers of Dayton Malleable Iron Works. Besides those living in Dayton, were: O. F. Jamieson, traveling salesman, of East Germantown, Indiana; David Beard and Amos Stauffer, of Osborn; and Theodore Waddell, of the Census Bureau of Washington. The Wrights had a list of about sixty persons who had witnessed flights.
These witnesses named in the public list got requests for confirmatory letters from the Scientific American whose editor finally had decided that reports of what the Wrights had done might be worth looking into. Then, in the issue of April 7, 1906, the magazine reported the long flights of the previous autumn and quoted in full a letter from one of the witnesses. More than six months later, on November 21, 1906, the Aero Club itself wrote to the various persons named in the list received from the Wrights, asking for letters about the flights they had seen.
As late as October, 1906, the Scientific American had devoted more than a column to a letter from J. C. Press, of South Norwalk, Connecticut, who presented arguments to justify his belief that “man may fly within a few years.” But, on the other hand, the letter-writer quoted the editor of Collier’s Weekly as expressing “disbelief in even the ultimate possibility of flight.”
At last, however, in the issue of December 15, 1906, or nearly three years after the Wrights’ first flights, the Scientific American printed an editorial which indicated that the editor was now becoming aware of the facts. The editorial said: “In all the history of invention, there is probably no parallel to the unostentatious manner in which the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, ushered into the world their epoch-making invention of the first successful aeroplane flying-machine.”
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