Published December 12, 2003
The Smithsonian Institution (search) is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight with a Web presentation and the grand opening of a new branch of the National Air and Space Museum.
The tribute is ironic as the Smithsonian spent 28 years denying the Wrights credit for the first flight in favor of promoting the dubious legacy of one of its own.
The dark saga is extensively documented in Fred Howard's book, "Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers" (Dover, 1987) — but it isn't even alluded to in the Smithsonian's "tribute."
Samuel Langley, the former head of the Smithsonian Institution, had researched flight for 12 years before the Wrights began their work in 1899.
Underwritten by a $50,000 War Department contract, Langley tested an airplane on Oct. 7, 1903. Resembling a giant dragonfly, the "Aerodrome" (search) was 54 feet long and had two 48-foot wings.
When launched from a houseboat on the Potomac River, the Aerodrome "simply slid into the water like a handful of mortar," reported observers. The effort was so dismal the New York Times editorialized that one million to 10 million years would be needed to develop an airplane.
After another failure on Dec. 8, Langley blamed faulty launch equipment — not his design. The discouraged War Department ended the project.
Nine days later, the Wrights flew their airplane 100 feet in 12 seconds — seemingly, straight into the history books.
By 1908, the Wrights owned a general airplane patent in the United States and Europe and aggressively enforced their rights with lawsuits. Their principal U.S. foe was aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss, who repeatedly lost court battles with the Wrights between 1910 and 1914.
In early 1914, Curtiss met with Albert Zahm, one of his former expert witnesses, who had just become the head of the Smithsonian's Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory — the Aerodrome's custodian.
Zahm suggested rebuilding and retesting the Aerodrome to see if Langley's design was capable of flight had it not been thwarted by the supposedly faulty launching equipment. If it could be shown that the Aerodrome was capable of flight first, then a court might limit the Wright patent.
Smithsonian chief Charles Walcott, a friend of Langley's and a supporter of his Aerodrome project, agreed to this "restoration" scheme, cloaking his approval in historical and aeronautical safety rationale. Walcott then commissioned Curtiss — hardly a disinterested party — to rebuild and test the Aerodrome!
Curtiss went far beyond restoring the Aerodrome's original design. Engine parts were changed. The propellers and wings were enhanced. Pontoons were added to replace Langley's houseboat-launch set-up.
Curtiss' reconstructed Aerodrome wasn't Langley's original Aerodrome, at all.
At a May 1914 test flight, the Smithsonian's Zahm reported that the "restored" Aerodrome "rose in level poise, soared gracefully for 150 feet and landed softly on the water."
The New York Times, however, reported the news differently — "observers who watched the proceedings from the shore failed to see that the machine rose at all from the water."
Two photos were taken of the Aerodrome with its pontoons just above the water's surface at a subsequent test in June 1914. No time or distance estimates were recorded for the "flight."
Curtiss then lured Orville — Wilbur had died in 1912 — into filing another infringement suit in November 1914.
As evidence of the Aerodrome's capacity for flight, Curtiss used the Smithsonian's annual report for 1914 in which Zahm described the Aerodrome as the "first man-carrying aeroplane capable of sustained free flight." The report included the photos of the Aerodrome aloft, maintaining the machine was unmodified.
But the Curtiss-Smithsonian scheme didn't impress the court, which upheld the Wright patent. Curtiss' defeat, however, didn't end the Smithsonian's effort to deny the Wrights' claim to fame.
In 1918, the Smithsonian restored the Aerodrome to its original 1903 condition and displayed it in the museum with the label, "The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built, and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914."
"It was a lie pure and simple, but it bore the imprimatur of the venerable Smithsonian and over the years would find its way into magazines, history books, and encyclopedias, much to the annoyance of those familiar with the facts," wrote Fred Howard in "Wilbur and Orville."
The lie lasted 25 years.
Angered at the Smithsonian, Orville sent the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London in 1928.
In 1942, a new Smithsonian regime finally retracted its Aerodrome claims and privately acknowledged wronging the Wrights. The 1903 Flyer was finally repatriated and installed in the Smithsonian in December 1948 — 11 months after Orville's death.
All isn't forgiven, though the Smithsonian apparently wants the controversy forgotten.
The Smithsonian's centennial Web presentation doesn't mention scheming with Curtiss or denying the Wright Brothers' preeminence in flight.
Seeming to maintain some institutional grudge, the Smithsonian portrays Curtiss as an innocent "target" of the Wrights' "litigiousness."
If only the Aerodrome's propellers had that kind of spin.
The Smithsonian describes itself as a "vital center for research into the history, science, and technology of aviation." Sadly, instead of presenting the unvarnished history of flight, the museum seems as committed as ever to its historical flight from the truth.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).