Auction of Wright brothers’ papers reveals spat over flight

Aviators battled with the Smithsonian Institution for 17 years over prized distinction

The Wright brothers are credited with building and flying the first heavier than air flying machine, but it was not always so.

They battled with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for 17 years over this distinction and a presidential commission was formed to decide the issue.

Details of this row from the early days of the flying machine are found in documents relating to Orville and Wilbur Wright that are up for online auction closing on January 28th.

One is a letter sent by Orville to US senator Hiram Bingham dated March 24th, 1928, just three weeks after the formation of the presidential commission.


It details the Wright brothers' annoyance at the Smithsonian for continuing to claim the first flight distinction for itself.

“The important point at issue is who was the inventor of the first successful flying machine,” he wrote.

“The Smithsonian for the past 17 years has kept up a constant propaganda to take the credit for this away from my brother and myself.”

The brothers' claim was based on a successful first flight achieved with Orville behind the controls on December 3rd, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Calvin Coolidge

The Smithsonian later claimed it had achieved the first flight and so the battle raged between the competing claims. By 1928 it was still a hot enough issue to cause 30th president Calvin Coolidge to attempt to settle the dispute.

“The President of the United States be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to appoint a commission of five distinguished citizens of the United States to whom Orville Wright, and all other persons in any way interested, shall be publicly invited to present evidence as to which was the first successful heavier-than-air flying machine,” a card accompanying the letter states.

Orville declared that Sen Bingham like many others had been “misled” over the issue.

He also defended his and his brother’s claim to the flight.

“Wilbur and I did not take nearly so much pride in the fact that we were the first to fly as we did in the fact that we were the first to have the scientific data from which a flying machine could be built,” he wrote.

“I have never thought for an instant that I was entitled to more credit than Wilbur because I made the first flight. There were thousands of men who could have taken our 1903 machine into the air for the first flight; but I believe there was no one else in the world at that time beside Wilbur and myself that had the scientific data for building a machine that could fly.”

The auction also includes correspondence between Orville Wright and the Patent Office dated to 1916 listing patents for improvements to a “flying machine”.

The sale is organised by Nate D Sanders Auctions of Los Angeles and closes at 5pm January 28th California time, or 1am January 29th Irish time.


Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.