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Wright Brothers flew into a newspaper fog

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.

In May 1904, about a dozen reporters showed at Huffman Prairie Field, an 85-acre cow pasture outside Dayton, to watch the brothers fly. But the airplane motor wouldn't start and when reporters returned three days later, the Wrights managed to fly only 25 feet.

Later that year, they figured out how to make their airplane turn, but made no effort to publicize their experiments at Huffman. That may explain why the sole witness to the Wrights' first successful flying of a full circle was beekeeper Amos I. Root, editor of Gleanings in Bee Culture, who ventured out to the field in September 1904 and witnessed the sight. The Wrights asked that he embargo the scoop until the next year.

"When it turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it ... [it was] the grandest sight of my life," Root reported in the Jan. 1, 1905, issue. "Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you - a locomotive without any wheels ... "

Reporters challenged

By 1908, however, the Wrights were perceived by much of the press as "better liars than flyers" as they had made no public flights to showcase their pioneering work, even as aviators in Europe were showered with praise. But with a patent for their flying machine in hand and a contract from the U.S. government to build a military plane, they began preparing for their first public demonstrations.

They returned to Kitty Hawk in April that year to prepare, and reporters followed. Among them were two Norfolk newspapermen, D.B. Salley and J. Frederick Essary, who later became Washington bureau chief for The Sun.

The correspondents made friends with the life-saving personnel in whom the Wrights confided, and followed their flights with binoculars. For nine days in May they filed daily dispatches of the flights, which appeared in The Sun, with surprisingly accurate estimates of speed, wind velocity and full descriptions of the double-winged plane.

Even so, the editors were in disbelief that a man could fly through the air for miles and land safely. The editor of the New York Herald questioned the veracity of the reporting.

In a telegraph from Manteo, N.C., near Kitty Hawk, Essary insisted: "Stories you are getting from Manteo are accurate ... "

Salley was told by the Cleveland Leader to "cut out the wildcat stuff." He replied: "Where did you get the idea that I have been filing you wildcat stuff? Am not in the habit of filing such matter."

After the Wrights crashed their plane on May 14, Salley reported that they were bound for Europe.

On Aug. 8, 1908, Wilbur Wright took Europe by storm with a two-minute flight near LeMans, France. In those 120 seconds, he rewrote the European notion of flight, executing graceful turns and landings under full control. Europe's elite lined up at his airstrip for rides. Two days later, the Dayton Daily News declared: "Daytonians Heralded As Conquerors of Air; French Monoplanist Declares Wright Machine Superior to Anything Yet Invented."

And 100 years later, it seems the headlines have, much like the Wrights' plane, come full circle.

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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