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.

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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’.

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