Yes, They Were First

Ah, I love big anniversaries–they always bring out the crackpots and conspiracy theorists. Whether it’s the Kennedy assassination or the Wright Brothers first flight, there’s never a lack of entertaining material to read.

The 100th anniversary of the brothers’ achievement is a week from today and the press has run out of things to talk about. So CNN has picked up and given top placement to a Reuters article entitled “Was the Airplane’s Inventor Brazilian?”. They quote a taxi cab driver and apparent aviation history expert who contributed scintillating gems like:

“It’s one of the biggest frauds in history,” scoffs Wagner Diogo, a taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro, of the Wrights’ inaugural flight. “No one saw it, and they used a catapult to launch” the airplane.

Don’t quit your day job, Mr. Diogo.

The first flight was witnessed by five people. Wilbur Wright, Will Dough, Adam Etheridge, and Johnny Moore were there. And of course John Daniels was present. He’s the one that snapped the world famous photo of that first flight. So unless all five witnesses were lying and they somehow managed to forge a photograph in 1903 that has stood the test of time for a century, you’d have to admit that it did take place and plenty of people saw it.

Brazilians also claim that the Wrights launched their Flyer in 1903 with a catapult or at an incline, thereby disqualifying it from being a true airplane because it did not take off on its own.

The Wrights attempted a flight from a downward sloping hill on December 14, 1903, but the Wilbur stalled the aircraft and it crashed, damaging the canard. The flight on the 17th was from level ground. There was no slope.

And as far as the catapult is concerned, what does that matter? The question at hand is who was the first to achieve sustained, controllable, heavier than air powered flight, not who was the first to fly an airplane that could take off on its own. The Wrights made their first flight from sand dunes! Even today, not many fixed wing aircraft could take off from that sort of terrain.

“If we understand what the criteria were at the end of the 19th century, the Wright brothers simply do not fill any of the prerequisites,” says Lins de Barros.

Prerequisites? The only prerequisite was that it was heaver than air, sustained flight, and was controllable. The 1903 Wright Flyer did all those things.

Articles like this one are unfortunate, because the give credence to pie-in-the-sky nationalists who refuse to believe that an American was first. If you visit France, they’d probably tell you Clement Adler beat the Wrights. If you visit New Zealand, they will claim that Richard W. Pearse flew in March of 1903, nine months before the Wright brothers.

To those people I say: prove it. Show me an airplane, a witness, and a photograph. Show me a prototype. Show me a subsequent aircraft with improvements on the original design. Give me anything but a third-hand account published by a newspaper with an axe to grind.

The Wrights were the only ones to deliver an actual aircraft (which they stored for later proof), multiple witnesses, and a photograph. Not to mention telegrams, design studies, wind tunnel tests, and other paperwork. We also have the Wright gliders (which preceded the first powered flight) and the subsequent powered aircraft which improved upon the initial design.

Even the U.S. court system and Patent Office have passed judgment on this. Glenn Curtis built an airplane in the years after the Wright’s first flight using their technology. The Wrights warned him that if he tried to make money off an airplane using ‘three-axis control’, they’d sue him for violating their patent. He did, and as promised the Wrights sued. It got very bitter and lasted for many years. Wilbur died, and the Wright family blamed the stress from the lawsuit for his demise. Eventually the courts ruled in favor of the Wright brothers. Curtiss appealed and lost.

Curtiss’ next strategy was to try and invalidate the patents by demonstrating that the Wrights were not the first ones to construct an aircraft capable of sustained powered flight. In 1914 he dredged up the 1903 Langley Aerodrome and flew it. Unfortunately, he made about 30 modifications which greatly improved the Aerodrome. Without the mods it wouldn’t have flown.

In the end, the Wrights had a patent on 3 axis powered flight which survived all the legal challenges. So how is it that a company can manufacture aircraft today without paying a royalty to the Wrights? In 1915 World War I broke out and to help the war effort, the U.S. government established a patent pool so everyone could benefit from existing aviation knowledge and built better war machines. By the time it was over, things had shifted enough that the patents were never pursued by either side.

Ironically, Orville Wright sold the Wright Company and the new owners eventually merged it with the Curtiss Company. That’s how it became the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. Which still exists to this day, actually.

So to those doubting Thomases around the world, I’ll leave you with a quote from Pulp Fiction: “If my answers frighten you, then cease asking scary questions.” Others flew gliders and balloons before them, but the Wrights were the first to definitively achieve sustained, controllable, powered flight.

  6 comments for “Yes, They Were First

  1. aunt betty
    December 11, 2003 at 7:00 am

    thanks for teaching me so much about things that i really was not aware of. my grandfather, your greatgrandfather, always said “that the day you stop learning is the day you die”, so keep on learning and teaching.
    “aunt” betty

  2. Jon
    December 15, 2003 at 9:12 am

    You tell ’em, Ron! Farging bastages!

  3. Jon
    December 15, 2003 at 9:13 am

    Hey… I thought e-mail addresses wouldn’t be shown in your comments. Did you change that recently?

  4. December 17, 2003 at 11:49 am

    I didn’t change it on purpose. There’s something weird going on with the comment code. Some commens have the email address properly munged, others don’t. The best way to keep the email address from showing is to just put in your URL. That then shows up as the link instead of your email address.

  5. December 17, 2003 at 12:14 pm

    I think I found the problem. The MT tag was set as [$MTCommentEmail spam_protect=”1″$]. You’d think that would work, but it wasn’t for some reason. There’s another alternative: [$MTCommentAuthorLink show_email=”0″$]

    I made that change and it’s now not posting email addresses at all. If you have a web site address, it’ll autolink that URL to your name in the comment listing.

  6. Marty Lavergne
    July 19, 2004 at 11:08 am

    Sorry, the catapult does matter. Taking off under its own steam is what set the Wrights’ flyer apart. It’s too bad that the Wrights’ real genius and contributions to flight are overshadowed by this myth of a “first flight.” Why does history, and especially America’s place in it, have to be so tidy? They invented so much, and are remembered for something that didn’t happen. For shame. Give them their due.
    Marty Lavergne

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