Aviation’s Birth Certificate

When a private collection of Wright Company papers went public, we discovered that many of our notions about the Wrights’ business practices were wrong.

DENNIS PARKS, SENIOR CURATOR AT THE MUSEUM OF FLIGHT IN SEATTLE, runs his fingers along the edges of faded, yellow, leather-bound papers. “this company shall be called the wright company,” reads the first sheet.

“The purposes for which it is to be formed are…to manufacture, sell, deal in, operate or otherwise use at any places on the North American continent, and the islands adjacent to them, machines, ships and other mechanical contrivances for aerial operation.” Seven pages later in bold handwriting are two signatures: Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.

“This,” says Parks, “is the beginning of an industry.”

These 1909 Wright Company incorporation records are among hundreds of early-aviation documents acquired by the museum last March from a collector in Florida. While certainly of great importance to researchers and historians, the papers also proffer a compelling personal story: one of struggle, brief triumphs, and difficult decisions made by the Wrights and other company officials feeling their way through a brand-new endeavor. “They had this new thing called an airplane,” says Parks, “but they were trying to figure out what the heck to do with it and how to make money with it.”

The collection contains nearly complete records of the company’s six years in existence—ledgers, minutes from board meetings attended by such captains of industry as Cornelius Vanderbilt, and more than 900 letters chronicling the company’s efforts to establish itself. With the acquisition, the Museum of Flight has become one of the country’s three most important repositories of Wright documents, matching in importance the Library of Congress, which contains correspondences between the Wrights and famous aviation pioneers, such as Octave Chanute, and Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, hometown of the bicycle-mechanics-turned-airplane-inventors, where many Wright family records are held.

“It was the last great collection of materials related to the Wright Company outside a major library,” says Tom Crouch, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum and a biographer of the Wrights. “To have it available now at the Museum of Flight is really a wonderful thing.”

The papers show the tenuousness of the Wrights’ business. A letter from company secretary Alpheus Barnes bemoaning the poor take at a 1910 flying exhibition is typical. “The receipts of our first Meet are certainly rather disappointing,” he writes. “There is nothing left for us to do but put the money in the bank with best grace possible.” In a 1914 letter, Barnes frets over the lack of sales: “As we have had no inquiries for months, it is certain that we must advertise and let the public know we are ready to make delivery, and the reduced price, etc.” Another letter sharply questions the Illinois State Board of Agriculture about proceeds not yet received from a state fair refreshment tent—the Wrights had had an airplane there, had been promised 25 percent of the “tent receipts,” and had been told by their pilot that the tent had taken in $1,983.

Still, there were successes too: royalties from patents, ticket sales for flying exhibitions ($20,000 on one occasion in Asbury Park, New Jersey), sales of aircraft to individuals, and aircraft contracts with the U.S. Army and Navy. Those rewards are coupled with an almost touching naïveté—or is it flim-flam? In a 1910 letter to J. Fletcher Cobb of Oroville, California—a potential customer—Barnes offers these encouraging words: “We…believe that anyone can learn to fly successfully within a very short time—say a week.”

Perhaps. But the experiences of even the best trained Wright pilots indicate that flying the Wright machines was anything but easy. A letter discussing pay for pilot Archibald Hoxsey is followed a few months later by one in which Barnes mentions the creation of a trust fund for Hoxsey’s family—he was killed in a crash on December 31, 1910. Other letters arrange $12,000 to cover funeral expenses and a trust fund for the family of Ralph Johnstone, killed while demonstrating a Wright flying machine.

Letters also discuss the first female passenger of an aircraft, whether to take on a black student, how to guard the Wrights’ patents, and even how to skew aircraft part prices to favor the Wrights’ customers over competitors’.

The collection adds clarity to the Wrights’ years in the aviation industry. “The history books are often wrong,” says Parks. “There’s material for four or five new books in these documents.”

The papers refute, for instance, what appears in most aviation history books: that the Glenn L. Martin Company merged with the Wright Company in 1915. Instead, Parks says, records from both companies (the collection also includes early Martin and Curtiss Aeroplane Company materials) show their boards meeting separately a year later, an indication that the companies remained independent for some time after the supposed merger. The papers also reveal that the Wrights’ sister, Katharine, played a much more prominent role as secretary for the company’s executive committee than previously thought, and records of the dates and locations of flying exhibitions open a window on what had been the undocumented business of pre-1914 barnstorming.

Despite its obvious significance, the collection nearly met with an unremarkable end. For decades the papers were filed away at the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a descendant of the Wright Company and a business begun by Glenn Curtiss, the brothers’ one-time rival. Then, in the early 1990s, aviation collector Joseph Gertler got a call from a former Curtiss-Wright employee who had an amazing story: He’d saved boxes of documents signed by the Wrights from the garbage can when company offices had been cleaned out. Gertler was initially skeptical, but after a week he called back and asked to see the papers. When he did, he realized how important they likely were, and in 1993, after lengthy negotiations, acquired the collection.

Though he was determined to get the papers into public hands, museums balked when he floated his initial asking price of $900,000. According to Parks, however, that was a bargain; single letters could have easily fetched $1,000 (far more if they bore Orville or Wilbur’s signatures), and the entire collection, sold letter by letter, might have garnered close to $2 million. “Although I had had several offers to buy different items piecemeal, I had never offered them [that way],” says Gertler. “I only expressed hope that they could eventually be acquired by a major institution, as a unit.”

Finally, in 1999, with the centennial of the Wrights’ first flight approaching, the Museum of Flight, backed by anonymous donors, put together a still-undisclosed winning bid.

“It’s quite a coup for the Museum of Flight to have this collection,” says Crouch. “Everybody wanted it—the Library of Congress, Wright State, and others.” According to Crouch, the National Air and Space Museum was also interested, but found the collection too expensive.

In Seattle, the Museum of Flight is building an exhibit around the Wright papers. Opening in December 2003, “The Birth of an Industry” will illustrate the struggles and triumphs of aviation’s early years.

The industry eventually prospered, but not in time to help Orville. For three years after Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, he managed the company and devoted himself to legal battles protecting the Wright patent, which covered nearly all aspects of controlling a powered aircraft. Perhaps because Wilbur believed that changes to basic designs would invalidate their patent, the brothers’ airplanes failed to evolve. Europe seized the initiative, and by 1914 European manufacturers, supported by governments arming for war, were turning out 100-mph fighters and multi-engine bombers while the Wright Company was still marketing its relatively primitive Model C Flyer.

It was inevitable that the company would fail. On August 26, 1915, Orville sold it for $250,000, just one-quarter of its initial capitalization. Records of the sale can be found among the collection too—poignant reminders that success in the business of aviation has always been tough to achieve, even for the men who invented it.

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