Stealing the Wright Flyer

Back in 1951, sci-fi author Jack Finney had a few questions for the Smithsonian, like: How exactly would someone break in?

Finney's story may have involved Civil War time travelers, but that didn't stop him from checking his facts. Collier's

In March 1951, Paul Garber was curator of what was then known as the National Air Museum. He had been with the Smithsonian for 31 years, and in that time had put together the most impressive collection of aeronautical artifacts in the world. So it was not surprising when a letter arrived from novelist and short story writer Jack Finney, asking about the collection.

Finney would go on to have great success with his 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (on which the 1956 and 1978 movies Invasion of the Body Snatchers were based), and the science fiction novel Time and Again, published in 1970. But in 1951 he made his living writing short stories for such popular magazines as Collier’s, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping.

Finney had in fact just finished a story for Collier’s when he wrote to the Museum: “In my story, which is pure fantasy, incidentally, I have two soldiers steal the Wright brothers’ first plane from the Smithsonian one night, fly it to Richmond and back, and return it about dawn unharmed, except for several bullet holes in the fabric of the wings.”

Before Collier’s would publish the story, the editors wanted Finney to verify various descriptions with the Museum’s curator. The list ran to 26 items. But it was items 4 (“I say that my two soldiers broke into the Institute one moonlit night by breaking a window at ground level, reaching inside to unlock the window, and then climbing into the building”), 11 (in which Finney has the two soldiers carry the Wright Flyer out through double doors at the end of the building since “the flying machine was lighter than it looked”), and 16 (“The motor starts, they hitch a couple of horses to the plane, and—with the horses galloping, pulling the plane along over the ground—it takes to the air”) that offended Garber.

We can’t know if Garber was mulling over a reply, but after a month passed with no response, Finney sent a second letter. He asked very politely if his first letter had been received, adding, “It was a long letter, and I don’t blame you if you have had to postpone answering it.” Finney included a shortened list of 13 statements he was hoping to verify: “The above list of questions, though long, is a good deal shorter than the list I sent you previously, since I have revised my story to eliminate the need for much of the information I asked you for originally.”

This second letter generated a reply, but not a happy one. “The implication,” wrote Garber on April 16, 1951, “that the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane of 1903 can be removed in its assembled form from its place of exhibition to the outside of the building and then flown to Richmond, Virginia, and return is not only preposterous but is resented as a derogatory criticism against the custodial trust which is the pride of the Museum staff.”

After dismissing 12 of Finney’s 13 facts as inaccurate, Garber moved on to the first letter, and concluded that those questions were also erroneous. “Disassembly to take the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane from its present exhibition through the doorway and then reassembly for flight would be a major operation involving several days work by two men unfamiliar with its construction…the ‘horse-pull’ method of launching an aircraft has been used for a glider but would be exceedingly impractical for the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane…. I appreciate your comment defining the Smithsonian collections as ‘fascinating’ but repeat my doubts that your story would bring any credit to this Institution because of its implication that visitors could make free with our exhibits which we endeavor in every way to protect and guard by a constant 24-hour patrol.”

A chastened Finney sent a reply two weeks later. “I was very sorry, upon reading your letter, to learn that I had offended you with references in my story to an exhibit being stolen from the Smithsonian,” Finney wrote on May 7. “I did not intend to do so and did not realize that I would, though I fully understand now why you were annoyed. As a result of your letter, I have been communicating with the Fiction Editor of Collier’s, by long-distance telephone and by mail, and have extensively revised and rewritten my story so that no reader, now, could possibly believe that such a thing could happen.”

There is no evidence that Garber replied to this letter. Finney’s extensively rewritten story, “Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands Through the Air,” appeared in the August 4, 1951 edition of Collier’s.

Read Jack Finney’s short story here. Then read the full correspondence between Finney and Garber; the letters are now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collection. Finney’s short story anticipated one of the plots of Night at the Museum, in which no less an aviation celebrity than Amelia Earhart steals the Flyer—without the assistance of horses—to escape from Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone. You can read about the making of the movie here.

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