Wright Brothers flew into a newspaper fog

Skepticism, errors marked coverage of flights - at first


A Century of Flight

December 14, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

One in a series of occasional articles

They may have appeared stiff and square in their starched white collars and bowler hats, but this week, the 100th anniversary of their first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wright brothers will be the toast of the party.

The brainy brothers have graced magazine covers, appeared in a General Electric television ad, been the subject of documentaries, and had their ingenuity paid homage to in newspaper headlines across the country in recent weeks.

"Takeoff! How the Wright Brothers Did What No One Else Could," The New York Times gushed on Tuesday. The Dec. 3 Arizona Republic raved: "Wright brothers' curiosity, skill changed the world."

Solving the age-old riddle of human flight tends to make you popular.

But when it came to media attention a century ago, the Wrights were, well, wronged. There was no instant celebrity. No worldwide recognition. Their historic flights over the sands at Kitty Hawk aboard their wood-and-cloth Flyer went largely unnoticed by the press.

A handful of newspapers gave the bicycle mechanics next-day coverage after they made man's first powered flights on Dec. 17, 1903. And though they sent a telegram from the Outer Banks announcing their success, few newspaper editors believed the news or understood its significance.

Indeed, the world at large would not realize the Wrights had flown until 1908 - five years after Kitty Hawk. The only people who believed the pair were "first in flight" were the Outer Banks lifeguards who witnessed the spectacle, family members and locals in their hometown of Dayton.

The disbelief by the media stemmed in part from the spectacular failure, just nine days before Kitty Hawk, of a $70,000 flying machine built by Samuel P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and prominent astrophysicist.

On Dec. 8, 1903, the press had gathered on a stretch of the Potomac River to watch Langley's Aerodrome A make its second attempt at heavier-than-air flight. Launched by catapult from a houseboat floating in the river, the 730-pound craft tumbled off its runway and sank in 60 feet of water, pinning pilot Charles Manly underneath.

Manly survived, but the press was less than forgiving. The headline in the New York Sun read: "Langley's Aerodrome Swoops into Potomac And Ducks Professor Manly." The Washington Post quipped: "Buzzard a Wreck."

"The only American widely credited with a real chance of flying - Langley - had just failed spectacularly. And how could this pair of unknowns claim to have inaugurated `the age of the flying machine' when [Brazilian aviator] Alberto Santos-Dumont already had done so with his [dirigibles]?" James Tobin wrote in To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight.

The skepticism was so great that when the Wrights' brother, Lorin, arrived in the offices of the Dayton Journal on the evening of Dec. 17 and showed his brothers' telegram announcing "SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ... LONGEST 57 SECONDS," city editor Frank Tunison dismissed it. Claims of flying machines were a dime a dozen, each as false as the last.

Lorin, acting as the Wrights' press agent, was crushed.

Imaginative accounts

To add insult to injury, the few Dec. 18 news accounts written about the Wrights were wrong.

The city editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot ordered a banner headline across the front page that read: "Flying Machine Soars 3 Miles in Teeth of High Wind Over Sand Hills and Waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina Coast."

Riveting reading, but wrong. The four flights the Wrights made that day were over sand, not waves. The longest was 852 feet, hardly close to three miles. (Even the Wrights' own dispatch was incorrect, due to an error in transmission. That fourth flight was 59 seconds, not 57.)

The list could go on.

The erroneous reports began with a Norfolk telegraph operator, who leaked the contents of the brothers' private telegram to a reporter. Unable to reach the Wrights, the newspaper cobbled together an imaginative story that appeared in the Dec. 18 editions of the New York American, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Dayton Evening Herald. The Associated Press soon began offering a 400-word version to subscribers.

The Wrights' hometown paper, the Dayton Daily News, carried an accurate six-inch item about the achievement based on the telegram, but buried it on Page 8 with an erroneous headline: "Dayton Boys Emulate Great Santos-DuMont." The comparison to Santos-Dumont was meant as a compliment, but the Wrights' heavier-than-air flights far surpassed the lighter-than-air jaunts the flamboyant Brazilian made in the skies over Paris.

Disturbed by the coverage, the brothers issued a statement to the AP on Jan. 5, 1904, setting the record straight and concluding that "the age of the flying machine had come, at last." The statement was published in newspapers across the country and abroad, but almost no one took it seriously.

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