Wrong With Wright: Smithsonian Under Fire For Wright Brothers Contract

Wright_Flyer_First_Flight 660There is an interesting contracts controversy brewing over at the Smithsonian. Yes, it is possible to have an interesting contracts controversy. In this case, the contract was signed in 1948 between the estate of Orville Wright and the Smithsonian. The contract required that, in exchange for the famed Wright flyer, the Smithsonian would never recognize that anyone else was first in flight. That does not sit well with historians who believe that the first in flight was actually German immigrant Gustav Whitehead. Putting aside the historical debate, a contract requiring the museum legally to deny historical claims is plainly unethical. Is it an unenforceable unconscionable contract?

The 1948 contract states:

“Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors, nor any museum or other agency … or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”

Unknown220px-Whitehead_woodcutAccordingly, the Smithsonian has long insisted the first flight occurred on Dec. 17, 1903 with the Wright Brothers on their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. However, a recently uncovered photograph has been cited to support the claim of Whitehead that he went airborne on Aug. 14, 1901. In the end, it does not matter. A contract remains in effect that contradicts the very foundation of museum ethics. Here is the code. This includes: “Curators are responsible for ensuring that all verbal and written interpretation is accurate and accessible, physically and cognitively, whether prepared by themselves or their subordinates.” Curators are also required to “ensure the integrity and objectivity of their scholarship and research projects by compiling reference materials and supporting documentation, keeping abreast of current scholarship.”

The question is whether this contract with the Wright family is enforceable. For example, the family could demand the plane back if the museum denies the required claim. The conflict presents a curator’s version of the “Rule Against Perpetuities” in property. That analogous rule in property states that a will cannot limit “future interests that do not vest within the time permitted and “limit[s] the testator’s power to earmark gifts for remote descendants.” In this case, the museum was given ownership for $1 but the family could claim that the sale was invalidated by the continuing condition. Even if this were true however it would be better to lose the plane than the integrity of the museum. My guess is that the Wright family would be responsible if asked to waive the condition. At least I hope they would be. If not, I would as interested to see the contract put on display in place of the plane.

Source: Fox

51 thoughts on “Wrong With Wright: Smithsonian Under Fire For Wright Brothers Contract

  1. The question of enforement of the contract is really irrelevant. The Smithsonian is not and has NEVER been concerned with the truth, accuracy, nor verifiable history. (I could point out that this is completely consistent with a typical leftist point of view, but I’m not going to go there this time.) The reality is that for those who have done genuine research into the great inventions, they know well that in a surprisingly large number of cases, the popular names asserted as the inventors, were not really the first. And the first flight is no exception.

    Similar things could be said about telephone. Alexander Graham Bell? Nope. Johann Philipp Reis, a German scientist created the first prototype in 1860, and coined the word “telephon” in 1862. Reis was probably erased from conventional history because he happened to be a Jew.

    Motion pictures? Thomas Edison? Nope. The credit for the idea should go to William Lincoln, who invented the zoopraxiscope, which made drawings appear to move. Then several inventors came up with the first motion picture technology, e.g., Auguste and Louis Lumiere, Birt Acres, Robert Paul, and others. And even when it came to Edison, it was his assistant, William Dickson, not Edison himself who developed the technology in America. But the name Edison sticks, probably because he hated Jews.

    However, when it comes to the Internet, the popular view is actually correct. For Al Gore did indeed invent the Internet, even though Google refuses to acknowledge him with a picture on their search engine on his birthday, March 31.

  2. P Smith,
    Kress’ contributions to aviation have not gone unrecognized; however his machine, the Drachenflieger. never actually flew. Kress made a few short hops in ground effect, but never made any kind of controlled flight. Kress’. In order to call it true flying, the flight has to be higher than one-half the wingspan of the airplane. Ground effect is an interesting phenomenon, and does not even require wings, just wing stubs. In ground effect, the machine rides on a bubble of air compressed under it by the fuselage and wing stubs. The Soviet Union even developed a giant ground effect transport, the Ekratoplan, that “flew” at high speed, but only a few feet above the water.

    There were no aerodynamic controls, although he could control it while taxiing it. The engine was far too heavy, and he was never able to solve the power-to- weight ratio problem. Controlling direction on water was old technology, since boats have used rudders since before recorded history. He tried to use auger type propellers, which are grossly inefficient, despite the fact this type of propeller was “invented” by Leonardo DaVinci. Kress never seemed to understand that a propeller was a rotating wing, instead of a screw. Maxim designed Whitehead’s propeller, and understood the cross section should be an airfoil. However Maxim did not do the extensive testing the Wright brothers did and his propellers were very low aspect ratio, that is, short fat blades. The Wrights discovered, through extensive testing, the most efficient lifting shape is a high aspect ratio. That meant wings and propellers both were long and narrow.

    Had Kress used a more efficient propeller instead or an auger, he would not have needed a larger engine. The Wright engine developed only 12 horsepower, but the propellers were efficient even by modern day standards. Kress would have still faced the problem of controlled flight. The Wrights had more controlled manned flights in their logbook than the rest of the early aviation pioneers put together. They used gliders and controllable kites to solve the problem of aerodynamic controls instead of weight shifting.

    Kress appears to have invented the joystick, but never patented it. That patent went to a Frenchman in 1907.

  3. Even if someone manages to avoid mentioning Gustav Whitehead, one cannot ignore Wilhelm Kress who flew only two months after Whitehead.

    Wright advocates deny that Kress flew. A lack of power from Kress’s gas powered motor limited his test flight to hops instead of continuous distance. His design was capable of flight.

    Or does Kress not count because he did it outside the US?

  4. Last fall, I went to the Air& Space Museum. I asked the tour guide about Whiteheads claim and he nearly blew a gasket “Those are lies that have repeatedly debunked” he said.

    • If you wanted a real heart attack. you should have asked about the Smithsonians past crediting Langley with inventing the first airplane and first flight. I had a similar thing happen when I visited the Lenin Museum in Lvov and I asked through an acquaintance who spoke Ukrainian about the lack of any mention of the Zimmerwald manifesto that Lenin was in part responsible for writing. The museum docent had a fit, and went into a diatribe. in defense of the Smithsonian folks, I have to say that they have corrected their ways, and acknowledge their past errors. I am not so sure of the ones at the Lenin Museum since I guess that they are unemployed at present.

  5. I’m taking the Wright heirs’ case on this one. I don’t believe there was a “contract” between the Wrights and the Smithsonian. I’ll argue that what we have here is a conditional gift. The Smithsonian may display the original Wright plane under the condition that it will never gainsay the Wright’s claim to have been first in powered flight. If the Smithsonian ever does do, the plane reverts to the Wright’s heirs. The Smithsonian received and has displayed the plane fully aware of the condition and can hardly cry foul now.

  6. I am on vacation in Vegas and am only commenting because you made reference to my planet. We never set foot on the Moon.

  7. The plaintiffs here, the Wright Bros heirs, would be estopped to assert some falsehood. Estoppel is a fine defense. I dont think that there would be a lawsuit. The family would not have privity of contract to assert the claim. This means that just because HumpinDog was my Pa that I get the right to assert HumpinDog’s assertion that he was the first to pork SusieQ the ChiWowWow. Some apCray goes down hill but not BS.

    Now what happens if we find out that some other creatures, who call themselves Man, stepped on the Moon before the American guys did in 1969. The Smithsonian would be asserting One Small Step For Man, One Giant Step For Mankind. And the Museum in Remulak would be asserting, One Big Layover on That Piddlin Stop On The Way, One Damn Nusiance For RemulakKind.

    And so it goes.

  8. randyjet,
    The fabric swatch I have is authenticated by the Smithsonian. I have the paper.

    As for the Pancho Barnes docudrama, I too was rather taken aback by the casting. I never had the honor of meeting Pancho Barnes, but have seen photos of her and some who did know her. As a young women, I can see Bertenelli as Pancho, but not later in life. Pancho Barnes did not age well.

  9. I am sure that the Henry Ford Museum aviation section would love to have this attraction…. However, if the RAP is held in effect….. Things could get a little tricky….

    • OS I agree that this flight should be made into a TV series since it is so incredible. I loved the TV film about Pancho Barnes, but that was so scrubbed that it lost some of the outrageous behavior, and to cast a beautiful woman like Bertenelli as Pancho would have startled Pancho herself, since she was anything but beautiful.

  10. ARE,
    I have thought of that. Reading about the Cal Roger’s three month trip is better than anything the producers of the TV Survivors show could come up with. Also, the FAI now rules that what you start out with, you have to bring back. That is why the Rutan/Yeager around the world flight, they even brought back the contents of the airplanes “waste management” system.

    At first, the FAI refused to recognize Yuri Gagarin as the first human space flight because he ejected from the Vostok space capsule before landing. The FAI later relented.

    The piece of fabric I have is from the collection of “parts flying in close formation” Cal Rogers made it to Long Beach with.

    • OS I think it is safe to say that the fabric made it all the way across the country with the plane, Just when and where it was during the whole trip is probably unknowable. It may have been on the plane the whole trip, or it may have been added along the way. In any case, I am sure that you can authenticate it if it came off the plane after it landed at Long Beach.

  11. OS I am surprised that such a thing could be authenticated since I thought the only original thing that made the whole trip was the pilot. There were so many crashes and rebuilding of the plane and they did not have to have yellow tagged parts or logbook entries, I wonder how this was authenticated.

  12. OS,

    To tell the truth, I’d never heard of Santos-Dumont until he was mentioned on a documentary I saw in the middle of the night on the Military Channel last week (insomnia).

  13. Gene,
    That is an argument that could go on forever, however, the Wright aircraft took off from a dolly, gained altitude and flew for a distance years before Santos-Dumont. The December 3, 1903 flyer made five flights, the last being 852 feet into an 18 knot headwind. In 1905, the third flyer made a circling flight of 24 miles and was aloft 39 minutes. Santos-Dumont did not get off the ground until a year later.

    Glenn Curtiss designed the first airplane capable of true aerobatics in 1911.

    The whole mess started with the curator of the Smithsonian, Charles Wolcott, who was a close friend of Samuel Langley. Wolcott was adamant about refusing to recognize the Wright’s success, despite the highly publicized total failure of Langley’s Aerodrome to fly. Orville Wright tried to persuade the Smithsonian to take the Flyer, but Wolcott refused to budge. Orville told Wolcott he was going to send the Flyer to London, but even that could not get Wolcott to come off his position that Langley had invented the airplane. The Wright estate had to wait for Wolcott to die in 1927. A new curator, Charles Abbot took over, and in 1942, Abbot published a list of the extensive modifications Glenn Curtiss had made to Langley’s machine in order to get it to fly. With that publication, Abbot also withdrew the claim that Langley was the inventor of the airplane. Once the 1942 retraction of Wolcott’s claims was published, Orville began negotiations to return the Flyer to the US. The result was the return of the Flyer, provided the Smithsonian did not resurrect the claims Wolcott had made. That was the real purpose of the agreement.

    The British had taken it from display and placed in an underground storage facility some distance from London to protect it and other historical treasures.

    After the war, the Flyer was returned in 1948. Orville died that same year. In 1985, it underwent a full restoration, which is expected to be good for 75 years. It is scheduled for another restoration in 2060 if needed.

    I love this stuff. I have an authenticated swatch of fabric from the original Wright Flyer called the “Vin Fiz,” which Cal Rogers flew from coast to coast in 1911.

  14. OS,

    It was my understanding that Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis was a fixed wing aircraft – while not as manuerverable as the Kitty Hawk in the air – was far superior in its powered take off and landing capabilities and that is why his supporters contend it is the first practical fixed wing aircraft. Emphasis on practical.

  15. Gene,
    Santos-Dumont was the first to fly a controllable lighter than air machine; e.g., a balloon. Before that, all balloons were just hot air and not controllable. Santos-Dumont did not build and fly a heavier than air aircraft until late 1906, a full three years after the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk.

    You might say that Santos-Dumont was the inventor of the prototype dirigible and blimp.

  16. Jeff, The Smithsonian had NO problem denying historical reality for over 45 years and ignoring US court decisions. So I don’t think that they will be too put out over this latest flap. At least the Wrights had to PROVE their claims in court, and Whitehead is given a pass on such a rigorous procedure. Guess which most rational people will rely on?

  17. Michael Val
    If one goes back and reads the whole history of the Smithsonian and their involvement (or perhaps “investment” is a better word) with Langley and his invention, it is clear why the Wright estate did not trust the Smithsonian.

    As for Whitehead and Langley, I don’t think either of those machines were capable of flying, even on a good day. Langley’s machine did eventually fly, but just barely, and only after extensive modifications by Glenn Curtiss. As far as I can tell, even the Smithsonian has now come around.

    There has never been an issue with people flying a heavier than air machine before the Wrights. Otto Lillienthal flew what we would now call a hang glider. He controlled it by weight shifting, and it had no power other than gravity. There is no documented evidence that anyone, anywhere, took off and flew under power before December 1903.

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