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I Have Today Seen Wilbur Wright and his Great White Bird

The airplane debuted to rave reviews.

Dayton Evening Herald, January 6, 1904 In 1904 and 1905, the brothers took the trolley to Huffman Prairie, a field outside Dayton, every day but Sunday to work ontheir Flyer. The locals had their own opinions about what the Wrights were up to.

“I felt sort of sorry for them. They seemed like well-meaning decent young men. Yet there they were, neglecting their business to waste their time day after day on that ridiculous flying machine. I had an idea they must worry their father.”

—Luther Beard, part-time school teacher, who often saw them on the trolley

How fitting for the publicity-shy Wrights that the most accurate published account by a witness of their flights appeared in an obscure journal called Gleanings of Bee Culture. The editor, a beekeeper, wanted to find out for himself if the rumors of the Wrights’ flying machine were true. On September 19, 1904, he drove 175 miles from Fairfield to Dayton, Ohio; the next day he walked over to Huffman Prairie and watched as the two brothers went to work.

“When it first turned that circle and came near the starting point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and it is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead.... Well, now imagine that locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw... I tell you friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.”

—Amos Root, Gleanings of Bee Culture, January 1, 1905

SKEPTICS Afraid that others would steal their technology, the Wright brothers stopped test flights by 1905 and focused instead on securing patents for their control system and contracts with the U.S. and French military. For three years they refused to fly their machines, and their secrecy left them vulnerable to naysayers’ lambasting.

“It seems that [the Wrights’] alleged experiments were made at Dayton, Ohio, and that the newspapers of the United States, alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances to escape their notice. When it is considered that...Langley’s experimental model never flew more than a mile, and that Wright’s [sic] mysterious aeroplane covered a reputed distance of 38 kilometers at the rate of one kilometer a minute, we have the right to exact further information before we place reliance on these French reports. Unfortunately, the Wright brothers are hardly disposed to publish any substantiation or to make public experiments, for reasons best known to themselves.”

Scientific American, January 13, 1905

WORLD’S FIRST AIRPLANE PASSENGERS Some brave souls had to be the first people to sit as passengers in the fragile-looking Flyer. A view from coach:

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