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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.

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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