The Smithsonian Letter Part 1 - May 30, 1899
The History: "We knew that the Smithsonian Institution had been interested in some work on the problem of flight, and, accordingly, on the 30th of May 1899, my brother Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian inquiring about publications on the subject. . . ." Orville Wright
Milton Wright, Orville and Wilbur Wright's father was a minister and later bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. The Wrights respected Sunday as the Sabbath and did not work, although reading and letter writing was allowed. On Sunday, May 30, 1899 Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution.
Have you heard of the Smithsonian Institute? The Smithsonian has always played an important role in the history of aviation in the United States. Several other institutions in the United States haved played interesting and even unexpected roles in the story of the Wright brothers.
The Smithsonian Institute:
The National Aeronautical Collection was established in 1876. Its first collection was a set of kites presented to the Smithsonian Institution by the Chinese Imperial Commission after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
Today, the National Air and Space Museum houses approximately 28,000 objects, which includes 356 aircraft including the 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis", and the first supersonic aircraft, the Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis".
At the turn of the century, the Smithsonian was involved in flight experiments. Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was a leading science figure in the United States in the late 1800's. He also was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1887). Especially well known for his astronomical research, Langley had begun serious investigation into heavier-than-air flight several years earlier while at the Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh (now the University of Pittsburgh).
Langley conducted experiments to investigate the flying characteristics of different shapes. He tested flat plates, small model airplanes, stuffed birds and rubber-band powered models. He used a large whirling arm to conduct this research. The arm was 60 feet long (18.3 meters) and at full speed the tips of the arm moved at almost 70 miles per hour. This whirling arm served as an early wind tunnel. Later another smaller whirling arm was housed at the Smithsonian where Langley conducted further tests of curved wing shapes and propellers.
Langley wrote about his research in "Experiments in Aerodynamics" published in 1891. In that year he also began to build and experiment with large multi-wing steam and gasoline powered machines, he called "aerodromes".
In the fall of 1903, just before the Wright's successful flight on December 17th, Langley's group attempted the first flight. It was not successful.
The Franklin Institute:
Today, The Franklin Institute Science Museum has the largest collection of artifacts from the Wright brothers' workshop. Efforts are underway to provide online access to the entire collection, in part through funding from the Wright Again project. So far, the priority has been on objects that represent 1896 through 1904, the time of the most significant objects.
The following text about the collection appeared in the August, 1951 edition of the "Journal of The Franklin Institute."
"Dr. Orville Wright deeded to The Franklin Institute in his will and through the Executors of his Estate all of his and his brother's, Wilbur Wright's, original wind tunnel apparatus, model airfoils, test data and drawings of their early airplanes. The collection also includes airfoil models tested at McCook Field during 1910, 1920, and1921 as well as some of Orville Wright's experimental aviation devices with which he worked during his lifetime. These include a shaper and cutters to prepare wax airfoil models, a special scale, smoke apparatus for wind tunnel use, a bank indicator, an incidence indicator, automatic control devices for wind tunnel and airplane control, an automatic landing device and a cypher machine.
Among the original drawings the collection includes those of the first successful airplane -- the 1903 biplane, and the 1904, 1905, 1907, and 1910 biplanes. Engine drawings include the 1910 motor and prints of the1903 motor.
In addition to the intrinsic and irreplaceable value of the many items in the collection there exists within them a record of the logical, step-by-step program of engineering research and development by which the Wright Brothers enabled them to achieve success in flying their first powered airplane. Therein lies a record of their systematic wind tunnel tests conducted to give them reliable lift, drag, and L/D (lift versus drag) values to enable them to engineer the design of the first successful airplane. Test results were collaborated by building and test-flying gliders to determine the scale effects from wind tunnel data to full scale wings. It is no little wonder that by such scientific methods two men, then known better for their printing, publishing, and bicycle activities, were first to conquer the art of flight with a heavier than air machine."
Paul Laurence Dunbar Library at Wright State University:
Today, a major collection of the Wrights resides in the Dunbar Library. There are over 6,000 items including family photographs, the diaries of Bishop Milton Wright (Orville and Wilbur's father), the brothers' technical books and journals and photographs which document their invention and careers in aviation.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Paul Laurence Dunbar was a school friend of Orville Wright. Orville's printshop produced 17 year old Dunbar's 4-page weekly newspaper The Tattler. Although The Tattler was discontinued after a few weeks, Dunbar continued to write. In 1892, Dunbar asked Orville if he could print some of his poetry in book form. Since the Wrights' printshop did not have a book binding capability, Orville suggested Dunbar work with the United Brethren publishing house (associated with Bishop Wright's church). Fifty-six of Dunbar's poems were collected into the book Oak and Ivy, published and launched Dunbar's literary career.
For fun Dunbar even wrote a short poem about Orville on the wall of the printshop:
"Orville Wright is out of sight
The Library of Congress:
Orville Wright's will stated that his estate's executors should decide which institutions should receive the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The majority of the papers were given to the Library of Congress, the remaining materials later were given to the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library at Wright State University.
One of Orville Wright's estate executors, Mr. Harold S. Miller (the husband of Orville and Wilbur's niece Ivonette Wright Miller) wrote the Library of Congress in October, 1948. He asked that those documents be "published in a comprehensive record [I] whether or not it appealed to general readers".
The result was the two volume set titled "The Papers of Orville and Wilbur Wright" edited under the guidance of Marvin W. McFarland and the Aeronautics Division of the Library of Congress, published in time for the 50-year anniversary of flight in 1953. This two volume set is acknowledged by many experts as the definitive (the "authority") work on the Wright's development of the airplane.
Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village:
Although the Wrights conducted their flight experiments in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, their home and bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio played key roles in the development of the first powered flying machine. The Wrights constructed many of the parts of the flying vehicles in the workroom of their bicycle shop. The brothers would talk and argue for hours about flight in the living room of their home on 7 Hawthorne Street -- each trying to convince the other of their point of view. Carrie Kayler Grumbach, who was the Wrights housekeeper for almost 50 years, felt that the airplane had been developed in the living room of their house through these discussions.
Henry Ford dreamed of preserving and showcasing original homes, factories, shops and farm buildings to demonstrate how America was built. These buildings were moved and reconstructed in Ford's Greenfield Village. Among these structures are Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory and the Wright's home and bicycle shop from Dayton, Ohio.