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 Wright Brothers Papers


16,500 pages of Wright Brothers papers. Documentation of the pioneering aviation work of Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright. Documents include: correspondence, diaries, notebooks, drawings, printed matter, legal documents, and other documents ranging from 1881 to 1952.


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Wilbur and Orville Wright made the world's first powered, sustained, and controlled flight in their heavier-than-air flying machine on December 17, 1903, thereby achieving one of mankind's oldest and most persistent dreams.  On the morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers took turns piloting and monitoring their flying machine in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Orville piloted the first flight that lasted just twelve seconds. On the fourth and final flight of the day, Wilbur traveled 852 feet, remaining airborne for 57 seconds. That morning the brothers became the first people to demonstrate sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of the pilot. They had built the 1903 Flyer in sections in the back room of their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. Through their own research and experimentation, and by studying the attempts of other would-be pilots, the Wright brothers knew that heavier-than-air flight was possible. They corresponded frequently with engineer Octave Chanute, a friend and supporter of their work.  The announcement of the Wright brothers' successful flight ignited the world's passion for flying.


Documents include:


700 pages of Wright Brother notebooks dating from 1900 to 1919. Wilbur and Orville Wright's diaries and notebooks, most of which document the brothers' flights at Kitty Hawk and elsewhere as well as their scientific data, formulas, and computations relating to the aerodynamic and design factors which enabled them to achieve flight.

In his December 17, 1903 entry, Orville Wright in about six pages set down the details of all four flights that the brothers made that day. Rather than reveling in their making history and achieving a dream of mankind, Orville instead provides a matter-of-fact account packed with what he considered the necessary and important details. Thus his retelling of that day's events contains not a hint of emotion nor hardly anything subjective, but concentrates on setting the record straight and getting all the facts down. The only suggestion of drama in Orville's telling is his description of how the wind-tossed machine nearly killed John T. Daniels, who had become tangled in its engine and chains.



1200 pages of Wright family papers dating from 1881 to 1924. Correspondence between Orville and Wilbur, and between the brothers and their sister Katherine and their father Milton. A 1881  postcard written in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before the family returned to Dayton, Ohio,  written by Orville Wright, then nine-years-old to his father, demonstrates a typical Wright Brothers trait, natural curiosity followed by an experiment. Bishop Wright made sure that his children knew how to write letters in clear language at an early age. He also saved all their letters that came into his hands.

In a letter written by Wilbur Wright on September 23, 1900, less than two weeks after Wilbur made his lone journey to Kitty Hawk, he wrote his father Milton, telling him about his situation and plans. After assuring Bishop Wright that he was safe and comfortable, Wilbur described Kitty Hawk and told of daily life at this extremely remote place. He sought to reassure his father that he was acting responsibly and knew what he was doing: his machine was a motorless glider and no danger was involved since he did not expect to rise but a few feet above the soft sand. Always modest, Wilbur told his father that he had not taken up the problem of flight "with the expectation of financial profit," and that, even if he learned nothing, his trip would still be a success, for his health would improve. Five days later, Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk with additional supplies

In a letter written by Orville Wright on September 29, 1902, to his sister Katharine, Orville writes of conditions at Kitty Hawk at the beginning of the brothers' third season there. Addressed to "Sterchens," an affectionate shortening of Schwesterchen, the German word for "little sister," the letter humorously tells of the brothers' four primary occupations in Kitty Hawk: "eating, sleeping, chasing pigs and mice, and gliding now and then when the weather is favorable and the machine is not in the repair shop." While Orville brags about his gliding accomplishments and calls their new 1902 glider a great improvement over last year's machine, he writes mostly about their camp adventures: smoking mosquitoes out of their living quarters, chasing wild pigs with tent pegs, polishing up his French, and spending a great deal of time matching wits with a bold little mouse who refuses to be caught. He closes by asking Katharine to "Write a little oftener to your bubo." Orville's family nickname was "Bubbo" or "Bubs," which was how then four-year-old Wilbur pronounced his new brother's name. Wilbur was called "Ullam," short for Jullam, a German version of William.

In a letter written by Orville Wright on November 14, 1908 to Wilbur, following his near-fatal crash at Fort Meyer, Orville spent seven weeks in the hospital and wrote his first letter to Wilbur, who was in France. Orville spends little time talking about his own injury, but rather provides as much detail as he can about the disastrous flight. He tells Wilbur that during the fourth turn around the field, he "heard (or felt) a light tapping in the rear of the machine." Realizing that something had broken, he shut off the power but soon found the machine shaking terribly and the controls useless. Flying at least one hundred feet up, the machine headed straight for the ground, and Orville recalled that, "the first 50 ft of that plunge seemed like a half minute." Although it nearly righted itself, the machine crashed, breaking Orville's leg and ribs, injuring his back, and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Later tests proved that Orville was correct when he wrote Wilbur that a broken propeller was probably the cause.



10,000  pages of letters sent to and received from friends, the general public, pioneer aviators, business associates, and famous individuals. Correspondents include: Alexander Graham Bell, Barnum & Bailey, Louis Bleriot, Leon Bollee, George de Bothezat, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Octave Chanute, Glenn Curtiss, Amelia Earhart, King of Great Britain George V,  Augustus, Herbert Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, Arch Hoxsey, Samuel P Langley, Charles Lindbergh, General George Marshall, Charles Rolls, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Selfridge,  the Smithsonian Institution, George A. Spratt, Harry S. Truman, German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Woodrow Wilson.

In a letter dated February 20, 1910 from Charles S. Rolls to Wilbur Wright, less than five months before his death in a French-built Wright machine, Charles Stewart Rolls, the British founder of the Rolls-Royce Motor Company, wrote to Wilbur Wright complaining about the quality of the Wright flyer that he had purchased in Europe. Unlike the sturdy machines built in Dayton, these license-built machines were often "unsafe & unfit to fly," said Rolls, tempting him "to go to another make" to use for the upcoming races in France. He tells Wilbur that he resigned his position at his company and taken one "which does not require any regular attendance at the office," in order "to devote myself to flight." Although Rolls is reconciled to fly "in the first few races with an old fashioned machine" that is expensive to repair, he asks Wilbur to send him drawings for a new racer, asking eagerly, "what about engine for racer? Will it have tail and wheels?" Charles Rolls died July 12, 1910, when the tail of his French-built Wright machine snapped off before a grandstand filled with horrified spectators at Bournemouth, England



3,500 pages of  Wright Brother files composed of  correspondence, business papers, journals, ledgers, legal papers, printed matter, patents, contracts, blueprints, and writings. The files date from 1894 to 1949 covering various aspects of the Wright Brothers' activities.



690 pages of Wright Brothers' letters to aviation pioneer and mentor Octave Chanute. Octave Chanute was a French born American civil engineer best known for the support he gave the Wright Brothers during the early years of their aviation work. His professional career was spent designing and building bridges and supervising the construction of railways. He first became interested in aviation about 1875 and adopted aviation as his second career when he retired from his engineering business in 1889. In 1894, he published a group of papers that described the efforts of others to build various types of flying machines from ancient times to the present. This compendium, titled Progress in Flying Machines, was the first history of aviation.

In 1896, Octave Chanute began experimenting with gliders in a camp on the shores of Lake Michigan near Chicago. He built, along with Augustus Herring, a glider that was the most advanced of its time and made about 2,000 gliding flights without an accident. The data he collected would prove useful to the Wright Brothers when they were developing their early glider designs.

Chanute freely shared his knowledge about aviation with anyone who was interested and expected others to do the same. This led to some friction with the Wright Brothers, who wanted to protect their invention through patents. Chanute died on November 2, 1910.

Chanute died on November 2, 1910.

In a letter dated May 13, 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote one of the most remarkable letters in the history of science. Wilbur seems not at all hindered by the fact that an essentially unknown person from Ohio is addressing an aeronautical authority with a worldwide reputation. Nothing about Wilbur's letter is ordinary or predictable and that fact alone must have held Chanute's attention. In fact, it does not even begin as most letters do, with some form of polite introduction. Instead, Wilbur jumps in with both feet with his very first sentence: "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man." If this sentence did not seize the older man's attention, the second one surely did: "My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life." With only two sentences, Wilbur proves himself a direct, intelligent, and capable writer. He immediately proceeds to focus on what he sees as the core of the flight problem, "skill rather than machinery"-and states that men must first learn the secrets of control before they try to apply power to flight. Wilbur takes pains to convince Chanute that he is not a crank and has done his research, yet is not above asking for help. He is confident enough to criticize the great aviation pioneer, German engineer Otto Lilienthal, but, on the other hand, insists that he is not in pursuit of financial profit, and in fact, that the problem of flight might be too great for any one person to solve.


380 pages of Patent Office files. File for Patent No. 821,393, O & W Wright Flying machine, filed March 23, 1903, and a file of documents related to patents for flying machines and flying machine improvements 1908 to 1931.


Seven minutes of film when on June 19, 1909 the Wright Brothers demonstrated its military plane at Ft. Meyers. Thousands gathered outside of Washington DC to view the test flight, including political luminaries and President William Howard. With Orville at the controls, the plane took off and gained an altitude of 100 feet and flew at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. It was a triumph for the Brothers considering the fatal accident on the same field the previous year, when a Wright plane piloted by Orville crashed and killed its passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas D. Selfridge, the first person to die in an airplane crash.


In their correspondences with aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, the Wright Brothers learned the importance of selecting the proper location for their experiments. Wilbur and Orville Wright researched many sites from California to the southeast coast looking for a safe, sandy, test site with steady winds for gliding. Using U.S. Weather Bureau tables to compare the average wind velocities, Wilbur Wright became interested in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur wrote to the Kitty Hawk weather bureau seeking information about the conditions at that location. In this reply dated August 16, 1900, the Kitty Hawk weather bureau 's only employee,  J. J. Dosher, writes back and tells Wilbur what he was hoping to hear: the area had a wide beach clear of trees and prevailing north, northeast winds in September and October.



At 10:35 a.m., December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made what is regarded as the first powered flight, flying 120 feet in 12 seconds. After making three more flights, Orville Wright sent this telegram, from Kitty Hawk North Carolina, to his father Milton Wright. With their machine wrecked by the wind and flying done for the season, the telegram expresses the Wrights'  desire to be home for Christmas. The telegram reflects two errors in transmission: Orville's name was misspelled and the time of their longest flight was incorrect (fifty-seven instead of fifty-nine seconds). The telegram reached Dayton, Ohio, at 5:25 P.M.



A 1904 article by Amos I. Root concerning the Wright Brothers flying activities, published in the journal, "Gleanings in Bee Culture." By mid-September 1904, the Wrights were making flights up to one-half mile in length at Huffman Prairie and were even making full turns in the air. Although some local reporters visited Huffman Prairie in the spring of  1904, they were disappointed by bad weather and cancelled flights and did not return. One visitor who came and stayed, however, was Amos I. Root of Medina, Ohio. Root, the owner of a beekeeping supply house who had heard rumors of the Wrights' accomplishments in the air, decided to find out about their flights for himself. The Wright Brothers liked the curious beekeeper, who had driven 175 miles to witness their flights and allowed him to remain. Root wrote of what he witnessed for the readers of his journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture, and for the years 1904-05, the only accurate coverage of the Wrights' flights at Huffman Prairie appeared there. In one of his articles Root concluded, "these two brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men."



Illustration of patent no. 821,393,  the O. & W. Wright flying machine. It took the Wrights more than three years to obtain the patent for their flying machine, which they originally filed for on March 23, 1903, and which was not granted until May 22, 1906. Following the advice of Springfield, Ohio patent attorney Henry A. Toulmin, they sought to patent not just the mechanisms that allowed them to warp or flex a wing but, more importantly, to patent the idea of warping itself  Henry Toulmin advised the brothers that obtaining a very broad patent able to defeat all challenges in court would take time, and that, in the meantime, they should not allow details of their invention to become public. The Wrights therefore decided on secrecy until their patent was secured, during which time they continued to work at building a real, practical machine.



The first formal Army airplane contract between the U.S. Signal Corps and the Wright Brothers, signed February 10, 1908. The Wright Brothers originally offered their flying machine for sale to the U.S. War Department in January of 1905, but three years had passed before the federal government developed serious interest. In the first formal Army airplane contract signed by the Wrights and the U. S. Signal Corps, the brothers promise to deliver, in two hundred days, a heavier-than-air flying machine that meets the Corps' Specification No. 486. The major specifications stipulate that the machine be capable of carrying two persons at a speed of forty miles per hour, staying in the air for at least one hour, and landing without serious damage. For this, the Wrights received $25,000.



In this 1920 deposition, given in the lawsuit of  Montgomery versus Wright-Martin Airway Corporation, Orville Wright says that he and his brother first became interested in flight in 1878, when Orville was Six-years-old. The Wright Brothers' father Bishop Milton Wright was in the habit of bringing small toys to his children after being away from home. The Penaud helicopter that Milton Wright brought home after a church business trip in 1878 was a variation of one of Europe' s oldest mechanical toys. Orville, tells how the young brothers' fascination with a small toy powered by a rubber band eventually led them to a much more serious consideration of the problem of flight



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Other Wright Brother Files:
Wright Brothers Newspaper Articles
Wright Brothers Photography