A Long Twilight

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rville Wright’s life changed dramatically in 1914. The year had started on a high note. On 13 January 1914, the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit judged the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company to have infringed on Patent No. 821,393 – the Wright brothers’ 1906 patent on an aircraft control system. At the same time, Chief Judge Learned Hand upheld a previous decision by Judge John R. Hazel, declaring the patent was entitled to “liberal interpretation” and designating it as the grandfather or “pioneer” patent of the aviation industry.  This had happened only a handful of times in the past, most notably when Alexander Graham Bell had his telephone patent adjudicated to be the pioneer patent of the telecommunications industry.

But the victory was fleeting. Glenn Curtiss responded by convincing the Smithsonian Institution to let him borrow the remains of the 1903 Langley Aerodrome A and try to fly it. The Smithsonian, for its part was also anxious to see Langley's airplane fly; the failure of the 1903 test flights had haunted the Smithsonian and diminished it politically.  Beginning in May, Curtiss made a series of brief hop-flights in a much-modified and improved Aerodrome. In its annual report, the Smithsonian ignored the modifications and claimed, “…former Secretary Langely had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man.” The Curtiss lawyers prepared to argue that since the Aerodrome A was flightworthy and could have flown before the Wright Flyer, the Wright brothers’ work was not the foundation of aviation. The Smithsonian claimed Samuel Langley was vindicated and displayed the rebuilt Aerodrome A as the “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight,” essentially rewriting aviation history.

Orville was outraged and determined to protect his and his deceased brother’s reputation. He sold his company, ridding himself of the day-to-day responsibilities of management, and launched himself into a battle to convince the Smithsonian to admit that (1) Curtiss had made dozens of modifications to the Great Aerodrome, (2) without these modifications, the Aerodrome was incapable of flight, and (3) the 1903 Wright Flyer was the first to make a “sustained, controlled, powered flight” with a man aboard..

At the same time, he continued to contribute to aviation and several other industries. Most biographies portray him as a “tinkerer” during this period, recalling family stories of his attempts to invent a record changer or his contrived “railroad” that ferried groceries to his vacation home on Lambert Island. Nothing could be further from the truth. A little over a year after he sold the Wright Company, he joined another venture in which he participated in the design of the first guided missile and participated in the development of the legendary Liberty engine. He designed a record-setting cabin biplane, the OW-1. He was a lifelong member of the board of directors of NACA (later NASA), and also served on the board of the Guggenheim Fund, helping to develop instrument flying and improving flight safety. He worked on aerodynamic bodies for automobiles, the electromechanical works of what would become the first  computers, even designed toys and improved means of toy manufacture. Perhaps the reason that history overlooks these accomplishments is the Orville thoroughly enjoyed being part of a team, just as he had once teamed with Wilbur. And more often than not his shy nature kept him  in the background letting others enjoy the spotlight.

Besides, none of these endeavors, however exciting or important, warranted his complete and enduring focus – none except his private war with the Smithsonian.


  • 1916 – For the first time since 1903, Orville opens the boxes containing the parts of 1903 Flyer. He restores the aircraft for its first public showing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will show it several more times at special events over the next decade. This relic will become his most potent weapon in his struggle with the Smithsonian.

  • 1916 on – Since his family moved to Hawthorne Hill in 1913, Orville had taken on the care of the mansion and adapted it to be his machine for living. Now he built two more personal spaces. Leaving his offices at the Wright Company, he built a small personal office and laboratory at 15 North Broadway in Dayton, Ohio, just a few blocks from his former home. That same year during a vacation in Canada, Orville purchased Lambert Island in Lake Huron to be his summer home, and immediately began rearranging and rebuilding the structures on the island to suit himself. Both Hawthorne Hill and Lambert Island took on a new importance to the Wright family when Bishop Milton Wright died in 1917 and Orville became its new patriarch.

  • 1917 to 1923 – Orville lends his name to the newly incorporated Dayton Wright Aeroplane Company (later Dayton Wright Aeronautical Corporation). He also accepts a position as consulting engineer. In this capacity, he participates in the development of aircraft engines, a guided missile, a cabin biplane, wing shapes, retractable landing gear, and many other improvements in aircraft design. Additionally, he frequently consults at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio where the Army Air Corps has set up its central research and design facility.

  • 1920 – The National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA) had begun quietly in 1915 at the prompting of the Smithsonian and other scientific institutions. It’s original purpose was to help direct and coordinate the aeronautical research and manufacturing programs in the United States, but its mission quickly grew to include research in advance aviation technology. In 1917, NACA built its first research laboratory near Norfolk, Virginia. By 1920, it employed over 100 scientists and President Woodrow Wilson appointed Orville to its board of directors. Orville would serve for 28 years, until his death.

  • 1922 to 1929 -- Katharine Wright begins to correspond with an old friend from Oberlin College, Henry J. Haskell, now editor and part owner of the Kansas City Star newspaper. In 1924, Katharine is appointed to the board of directors of Oberlin College along with Haskell and the two begin to see more of each other. In 1926, she announces her engagement to Henry. Orville is distraught, convinced she has violated a pact between them. He refuses to attend her wedding on 20 November 1926, and then ignores Katharine and her new husband when the couple moves to Kansas City. Two years after her wedding, Katharine contracts pneumonia. Orville’s brother Lorin convinces Orville to see her. He arrives at her bedside just before her death on 3 March 1929.

  • 1923 to 1930 – At the request of his niece Ivonette, Orville designs Flips and Flops, a toy catapult that launches a miniature clown. If launched just right, the clown catches a trapeze and whirls around. The toy is manufactured by the Miami Wood Specialty Company, in which Ivonette’s husband has invested. Later on, when brother Lorin (Ivonette’s father) buys into the company, Orville designs a printing press that will print on balsa wood, adding color and graphics to toy airplanes.

  • 1925 to 1930 -- Orville joins the board of directors at the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. The Guggenheims were concerned that the United States was falling behind in aviation and organized the fund to bring it up to speed. They helped establish new aeronautical engineering programs at universities, and sponsored programs to develop aerial navigation, instrument flying, and flight safety. The fund disbanded in 1930 having accomplished its purpose, but the Guggenheim foundation continued to sponsor advanced research in aeronautics and established the Guggenheim Medal for exceptional contributions to aviation. The first medal, award in 1930, went to Orville Wright.

  • 1925 to 1928 – After several reports and articles appear supporting the Smithsonian’s position that the Langley Aerodrome was the first aircraft “capable” of flight; Orville Wright announces that he will send the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Science Museum in Kensington, England. Here he says the curators will give his deceased brother Wilbur and himself the credit they deserve as the inventors of the airplane. The decision causes uproar in press. Smithsonian Secretary Charles Abbot issues paper that partially  recants the Smithsonian’s position. Abbot also reduces the label on the Aerodrome A display to read simply, “The Original Langley Flying Machine of 1903, restored.” It is not enough for Orville; he wants the Smithsonian to address the 1914 Aerodrome test-flights and admit that these did not prove the Aerodrome could have flown in 1903. Abbot balks and Orville sends the Flyer off to Kensington in 1928.

  • 1927 to 1934 – Carl Beer, chief engineer of the Chrysler Company, engages Orville Wright to help design and oversee wind tunnel tests to create an aerodynamic automobile. The result, introduced in 1934, is the DeSoto Airflow, which eventually breaks 32 stock car records, including the fastest mile at 86.2 mph.

  • 1926 to 1940 – The first monument erected to the Wright brothers was a simple granite obelisk commissioned by their old “banker” friend Captain William Tate and placed in his front yard in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Dedicated in 1927, it marked the spot where Wilbur had built the 1900 glider and where, Tate insisted, the Age of Aviation began. This was followed in 1932 by a mammoth granite shaft carved with Art Deco wings atop the “Big Hill” at Kill Devil Hills. Conceived by North Carolina congressman Lindsay Warren and U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, its purpose – besides commemorating the Wright brothers – was to attract tourists to the Outer Banks. And it did. Dayton, Ohio finally got its own monument in 1940, yet another granite shaft on a ridge overlooking Huffman Prairie.

  • 1933 to 1937 – At the suggestion of Secretary Charles Abbot, Charles Lindbergh heads an attempt to reconcile the differences between the Smithsonian and Orville Wright. All three men meet and Orville makes his case very clear: Admit that the 1903 Langley Aerodrome had been extensively modified before its 1914 test flights and retract the report that declared the Aerodrome was the first airplane capable of flight. Abbot makes two counterproposals, first that the issue be decided by a committee of government officials; and then, when Orville rejects this, that the Smithsonian prepare a paper describing a complete history of the controversy, including Langley’s work in aeronautics, the history of the Aerodrome, the Smithsonian's 1914 report, Orville’s list of changes, the Smithsonian’s notes on Orville’s list, and all that had happened since 1914. Orville objects; this is too complex; it obscures the heart of the controversy. Abbott objects to publishing Orville’s list without context. Lindbergh eventually gives up. In preparing his will, Orville states that unless the will was amended by a letter from him, the 1903 Flyer should remain in England.

  • 1936 to 1938 – Edward Scripps, president of an influential organization of pioneer aviators known as the Early Birds, approaches Orville about moving the Webbert Building – once the Wright Cycle Shop – to Dearborn, Michigan where Henry Ford is building an educational facility and museum to honor American inventors. It’s called the Edison Institute and will later be known as Greenfield Village. Orville views this as a positive development in his ongoing feud with the Smithsonian. His old shop will be enshrined in a major American museum as the place where he and his brother invented the airplane. Orville agrees with the caveat that the Early Birds agree to recognize Orville and Wilbur Wright as the first to fly and support Orville’s claim against the Smithsonian. When Henry Ford comes to Dayton to arrange the transport of the bike shop, he discovers the old Wright home at 7 Hawthorne Street is available and buys it as well. The shop and home are moved to Michigan and opened to the public in 1938.

  • 1942 to 1945 – Beginning in 1926, the German Navy depended on the Enigma cipher machine to code and decode sensitive communications. This machine featured a series of rotors that could be set in thousands of different combination to create a new code each time it was used. The British “Ultra” team cracked the code with primitive computers in 1940, but the Germans added more rotors and once again made the code undecipherable. In 1942, the National Cash Register Company, under the direction of Joseph Desch, built a 7-foot-high, 11-foot-long, 5000-pound electromechanical computer called a “bombe” that cracked the German code once and for all. Orville Wright was among the many Dayton scientists who contributed to this secret program. His focus seems to have been the development of a better code machine for the Allied Forces.

  • 1939 to 1948 – Fred C. Kelly, while writing a biography of the Wright brothers, contacts Smithsonian Secretary Charles Abbott and volunteers to take one more crack at resolving the feud. Kelly learns from Orville just what is needed for reconciliation – a list of the differences between the 1903 and 1914 versions of the Aerodrome and an admission that the 1914 report on the test flights was inaccurate. Kelly guides Abbott’s hand in writing this resolution, Orville accepts it,  and both Orville and Abbott agree to announce the resolution in the 1942 Smithsonian Annual Report (due to be published in the summer of 1943). However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asks to be allowed to make the announcement during a special dinner at the White House on December 17, 193 -- the fortieth anniversary of the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Just before the dinner, Orville writes to the curators of the Kensington Science Museum and asks for the return of the Flyer. Unfortunately, there is a war on and the Flyer was stored in a British quarry for safekeeping. The Science Museum also asks for time to build an exact copy of the Flyer after the war is over, and Orville agrees. The Flyer is not returned until 1948, the year Orville dies.

  • 1946 to 1950 – Dayton industrialist Edward Deeds determines to build a historical park in Dayton and asks Orville to contribute an airplane. Orville suggests the 1905 Wright Flyer III, which he and his brother Wilbur had considered the world’s first practical airplane. The Flyer III had been abandoned in Kitty Hawk in 1908, but it was salvaged in 1911. Orville acquired the remaining pieces and worked with Harvey Geyer (a former employee of the Wright Company) and Louis P. Christman (an employee of National Cash Register) to restore it. Orville did not live to see the Flyer III restored – he died of a heart attack on 30 January 1948. But the Flyer III was completed and unveiled at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio in June of 1950. Because was the final result of the seven years of experimentation that led to the invention of the airplane, many historians have called it aviation’s most valuable artifact.

 Note: You may also want to consult the Wright Timeline.

The 1903 Wright Flyer on display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1916.

Orville with his dog Scipio at Lambert Island in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada.

Although the De Havilland DH4 produced by the Dayton Wright Aeroplane Company was a British design, it was powered by the Liberty engine designed in Dayton, Ohio.

The NACA seal shows the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903.

The Miami Wood Specialty Company produced Orville's design for the "Flips and Flops" toy for several years.

Orville (lower left) with several members of the Guggenheim Fund board, including Charles Lindbergh (top left).

"Wrong Way" Corrigan, an American pilot who flew across the Atlantic Ocean not long after Lindbergh, inspects the 1903 Wright Flyer hanging in the Kensington Science Museum.

Orville assisted in the wind tunnel tests that resulted in the first aerodynamic car design, the Desoto Airflow.

Orville Wright  was one of the few Americans to have a national memorial erected to him while he was still alive.

The Wright Cycle Shop, formerly of 1127 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, now at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The code-busting "bombe" developed at National Cash Register in 1943.

The prototype code machine that Orville Wright developed during World War II looked to be a simple affair, but it could generate over 11 million codes. Had it been put into use, these codes would likely have been indecipherable to the NCR bombe and other primitive computers of the day.

The 1903 Flyer being unloaded from the USS Palau after its trip across the Atlantic in 1948.

The restored 1905 Wright Flyer III at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio.

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The Wright Story/A Long Twilight

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers


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