Click_for_citation_informationWright Brothers Aeroplane Company: A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation

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http://www.first-to-fly.com/

Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By John S. Olszowka

On December 17, 1903, outside the remote, seaside village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two brothers huddled along side their homemade flying device. Strong, heavy winds gusted across the sandy dunes of the Outer Banks as the two made final preparations for what they hoped to be the first successful effort at powered flight. Finally, under the cloudy, grey winter sky, the younger brother settled into the machine, while the older brother held firm to the vehicle’s wing, maintaining the craft’s balance. When the engine started, the machine slowly descended down a makeshift rail track that enabled the craft to navigate the soft sand of the dunes. Suddenly, forty-five feet down the track, traveling at the modest seven miles per hour, the flying machine lifted ten feet into the air before settling to the ground one hundred-twenty feet away.(1)

And so it came to be on that fateful winter day that Orville and Wilbur Wright, two self-made bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, conquered what was once deemed the impossible--man powered flight. In the years that followed, their names became indelibly etched into the American consciousness, forever synonymous with ideals of hard work, perseverance, and, of course, aviation history.

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company (WBAC) is a site dedicated to chronicling Orville and Wilbur Wright’s achievements in the quest to be first in flight. The site is an extensive undertaking, tracing the brothers’ early history growing up in Dayton, to their eventual success at Kitty Hawk. In between it seemingly covers all the personal, scientific, and technical feats behind the Wrights’ endeavor to invent the airplane. The site provides a litany of photographs, mixed with a spattering of newspaper articles, personal reflections, letters, and other primary and secondary information, all of which are geared towards retelling the Wrights’ story. At the same time, it is also evident that the site follows in a hagiographic vein that seems to characterize much of aviation history, showing concern more with retelling the great accomplishments of the two Dayton bicycle mechanics than in engaging in productive and analytical scholarship surrounding the history of aviation.

BASIC CRITERIA:

Scope/Content: The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company (WBAC) is a virtual museum organized by “aviation enthusiasts” who, in their words, seek simply “to tell the story of the Wright brothers.” The target audience consists of aviators, historians, educators, and the general public--essentially anyone who is interested in the learning about the Wright brothers and the early history of the airplane. The virtual museum itself is broken into four distinct categories: History Wing, Adventure Wing, Information Desk, and Outreach Program. The amount and variety of materials available on the web site in several respects is simply staggering. It provides copies of personal correspondence, engineering blueprints and drawings, and photographs to name just a few of the diverse resources available. The end product is that the site is really much more elaborate than its simple message or goal suggests.

Authority/Bias: As far as first impressions are concerned, the name of the site, Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane Company, can be a little misleading, suggesting perhaps that the site bears some formal connection to an actual manufacturing facility engaged in airplane production. Once, however, the viewer begins to explore the WBAC’s virtual museum it becomes clear that the sites holds no connection whatsoever to any formal manufacturing enterprise. (Nor does the WBAC hold any official association with the Wright family or any former company connected with the two brothers). The WBAC is purely a non-profit organization driven by an admiration for early aviation history and geared towards promoting the technological accomplishments of the Wright brothers. Still, on a less formal level, one could make the case that the selection of the name Wright Brothers’ Aeronautical Company is apt given that the site’s major preoccupation, and expertise, centers in the area of re-creating the original Wright flyers.

The WBAC’s primary foray into aviation history focuses on the six experimental Wright aircraft its members have recreated, beginning with the 1899 Wright Kite and culminating with the 1905 Wright Flyer 3. These airplanes stand as the centerpiece of the WBAC’s expertise in aviation history, and they serve as the foundation for its virtual museum. In this capacity the WBAC and its members have gained recognition as authorities in the field of aviation technology. For example, according to the site, in 2000, WBAC members and their recreated aircraft appeared in the documentary film Kitty Hawk, produced by David Garrigus Productions. The following year, WBAC members and its 1902 replica of the Wright glider contributed to an episode of The Why? Files, a children's public television show produced through NASA Langley Office of Education. These initiatives, as well as several outreach programs, led the WBAC to develop a working relationship with the Boonshoff Museum of Discovery in Dayton, Ohio, where it operates “living exhibition of pioneer aviation.” From this, the WBAC’s goal is to create a permanent facility or “working museum” that will show and operate some of the early aircraft they recreated. Clearly, from these experiences alone it is evident that the WBAC are not only gifted craftsmen but also an authority when it comes to technical aspects of aviation history.

Still, if viewers entered the WBAC site seeking an engaging and analytical source, one that delves in to the actual history of aviation beyond the technology, they would come away disappointed. The WBAC offers minimal critical insight beyond the technological questions relating to the Wright’s achievements, and instead seems to follow the well-established hagiographic trend that defines much of aviation history (see comments below).

Timeliness/Permanence: Given that the Centennial anniversary of the historic flight at Kitty Hawk is just weeks away (at the time of this writing), the timeliness of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company web site is self-evident. The site claims that the majority of pages to have been published 1998-2002. There are also brief scatterings of pages that claim to have been updated as recently as July 2003. Yet, oddly it appears that the vast majority of the site has not undergone any major revisions or updates since early 2002. For example, the site contains a page entitled “Aviation Repositories,” which is listed as being under construction. At the bottom of the page, however, it mentions that the last update occurred on January 3, 2002. Similarly, the “Links” page, contained under the “Information Desk” section of the site, indicates that the page was last updated on February 23, 2002. Not surprisingly several of the links were no longer operable or have since moved in the twenty-one months since the page was last updated. This lack of development in the past year is somewhat surprising given the fact that the Wright brothers’ centennial flight is around the corner. One has to wonder if the site is on hiatus until after the centennial celebrations are over or, if this is site is merely designed with an idea of promoting the centennial and will not be sustained to any great degree once the memory of the Wrights’ anniversary begins to fade.

Value Added Features: The main page contains an accessible map providing an overview of the virtual museum, one that is quite helpful in navigating among the site’s various sections. Below the map, viewers are offered a useful table of contents that enables them, once they gain a familiarity with the site, to swiftly navigate the more than 200 pages that make up the WBAC. In addition, the site offers a search engine, allowing viewers to quickly navigate around the site using keyword searches. Also of benefit are timelines, chronicling the development of the Wrights’ achievements. Finally viewers are treated to an annotated Links section in which they can pursue other areas of aviation history available on the Internet; although, as mentioned above, some of the sites are no longer operational.

Technical Aspects: The site offers a plethora of photographs and illustrations, many of which are in the public domain, which serve as a nice visual aid in chronicling the Wright brothers’ achievements. The pictures are accessible in low and high resolution to accommodate different modem speeds. Additionally, the site offers a fascinating opportunity to view film footage (easily downloadable and viewable on QuickTime) showing several recreations of the Wright’s flyers and gliders in action, as well as a sound wave file where viewers can hear the whirling and spurting sounds of the original Wright engine.

Aesthetics/Visual Clarity & Appeal: Most of the photographs are of high quality, especially the enlarged versions. The print is readable, and the overall visual color scheme and layout design is aesthetically pleasing. Additionally viewers can opt to listen to period-piece background music from the turn-of-the-century as they scroll through the site’s many pages. The WBAC also does a nice job of organizing its resources, providing informative and concise articles/stories with hypertext links to other pages or sites in which the reader can pursue additional information. Yet, while this is clearly a plus, at times it can also be a distraction. On several pages, the virtual museum attempts to do too much from a visual standpoint. For instance, the main page can be a little overwhelming to the eye, as it seems to layout everything and anything that is available on the site. A clearer and more coherent organization, one that is more inviting, would perhaps be much more effective.

Overall Impression: Overall, the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company is an impressive site, in terms of the aesthetics, the scope of project, and technological advancements. Perhaps the greatest contribution the site makes rests with the information given on how they have recreated the early Wright fliers. In this area the viewer gains an appreciation of how difficult it was for the Wrights to create their original airplanes, and the degree of skill and craftsmanship involved in the process. Clearly, from a technical standpoint, it is apparent that creating the site was an enormous undertaking. From a scholarly perspective, however, the web site is limited, offering minimal resources beyond the technological history.

PUBLIC HISTORY CRITERIA

Interpretation of Materials: Upon entering the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, it is fairly easy to conclude that the site holds no connection with the Wright family or that it is not a formal manufacturing firm. Still, determining just who is responsible for the site is an entirely different matter.

On the main page, the site provides both e-mail and postal addresses to handle inquiries. Beyond this, however, determining the identity behind the WBAC is unclear, at least initially. The page entitled “About Us,” which gives the viewer an outline about the organization, indicates that it is a non-for-profit agency consisting of “aviators, historians, educators, and other people who share an interest in the history of the invention of the airplane.” Unfortunately this vague affirmation fails to clarify the exact credentials of these “aviators,” “historians,” “educators,” and “other people.”

Oddly, it was only in searching through the section entitled “Help With Homework,” that this reviewer found first mention that the author of the web pages is Nick Engler. Still, Engler’s qualifications are far from clarified in this section. The only information provided is a statement notifying readers that Engler wrote most of the material, and this insight is only offered for the sake of helping students who need to acknowledge an author so as to provide proper citations for any potential research paper. Alas, it is not until searching through the fourth and final section of the virtual museum, “Outreach Programs,” under the heading “Return to Kitty Hawk,” that a link is provided to a site where Engler’s biographical information is accessible. It is here, that the convoluted process begins to come to an end, and the reviewer learns that Engler is an “aviation archaeologist.” Yet, what exactly this title or designation means, or how he came by it, is uncertain. In scanning Engler’s biographical sketch, it is evident that his expertise rests in the field of woodworking and overseeing the technical aspects of recreating the old Wright airplanes.

Still, these credentials remain somewhat vague, at least how they relate to the issue of being an authority in aviation history. A rudimentary search of several library databases indicated that Engler has published a great deal. The publications, however, are tied almost entirely to woodworking and furniture making. At no point was this reviewer able to discover the publication of a book or even an article by Engler relating to aviation history. As such it is clear that Engler is little more than an enthusiast or hobbyist as it relates to aviation history--a fact that stands out when one examines the site from an academic standpoint.

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, from a scholarly perspective, often times follows the typical trends evident in much of “aviation history.” Through the years an extensive body of literature has developed in which the focus is placed on heaping veneration and adulation on the early aviation pioneers. Critical analysis and investigation has been limited. Regrettably, the WBAC site seems to follow this well-established trend. The author(s) appear more concerned with extolling the virtues of the Wright’s and their achievement rather than offering insightful analytical information that would help readers gain a truer understanding of the struggles behind early aviation and the struggles that continued in the wake of Kitty Hawk. This is clearly evident in the site’s treatment over the legal battle concerning the Wright patents.

The patent struggles emerged in the years following the flight at Kitty Hawk. The brothers, after finding success on the sandy dunes of the Outer Banks, retreated to their Dayton workshop to begin the lengthy process of obtaining legal protection for their invention. Soon they received broad patent rights that essentially made it impossible for anyone to duplicate the Wright’s achievements without Orville and Wilbur’s consent--consent that only came if the brothers received compensation. From this point on, the two inventors spent a good portion of their remaining energies seeking legal recourse and financial restitution, against anyone who infringed upon these patent rights. And, basically, after 1903, after the Kitty Hawk flight, the Wright brothers never again made any real, significant scientific contribution to the field of aeronautics.

The ensuing legal battles that emerged over the Wright patents and the brothers’ role in the struggle has been a source of debate among scholars. The author(s) of the WBAC, to their credit, mention the “patent wars”, alluding to the existence of this struggle, even acknowledging that some “scholars” have suggested that the Wrights’ insistence in enforcing the patents may have retarded the development of aviation. Still, they make no real effort to engage in the subject in any meaningful way. Instead, it is simply left alone. Yet, at the same time, when offered an opportunity to defend the brothers’ actions, the WBAC appears willing to do so. This is evident, in the discussion in the “West Side News” section, under the Information category, where news is offered regarding the discovery of the Wright Company records. According to the site, the WBAC is helping to raise the $900,000 needed to purchase the materials so they can be placed at Wright State University. In discussing the relevance of the materials, the site lays claim that the records will help “fill in the gaps” in aviation history. Moreover, the author(s), one would assume it is Engler, suggests that the records will vindicate the Wright brothers in their struggle to enforce their patents.

In reading the limited selections of quotes supplied from these records, one could actually suggest the opposite; namely, the brothers clearly were guided by a desire to acquire wealth, placing the interests of aviation second. For instance, in the excerpt of the letter to a Mr. B. Fisher, dated March 23, 1910, the communication states, "...We of course cannot permit the sale and use of foreign made infringing machines in this country until an agreement as to royalties is made….” This is merely one of six other letters, or similar excerpts from the written correspondence the site provides that make some pointed reference to the Wrights’ struggle to realize a financial profit from their invention. All this is not to imply or suggest that the brothers were merely guided by greed or some other motivation. Rather, it is simply to point out that given the limited materials provided by the site it is difficult, and misleading to assign any interpretation either for or against the Wrights in this patent struggle. To suggest otherwise is poor scholarship.

Further complicating these problems concerning authority and interpretation is the fact that the site openly solicits information from “Wright scholars” and “enthusiasts.” While this in and of itself is not a problem, it does raise several concerns or questions as to the authority behind the information provided on the website. First, at no point does the site attempt to distinguish what information came from Engler or the WBAC and what material came from individuals not associated with the virtual museum. If one were to use this site for information, it would be good to know the authorship and their qualifications if any. Second, the site also fails to provide any written criterion establishing their guidelines for authenticating information garnered from the general public. Given these circumstances, and Engler’s limited historical background, one has to approach the information relating to aviation history, at least beyond the technological aspects, with a certain degree of caution.

Primary Source Documents: Beyond the many photographs of the early Wright brothers’ airplanes, the site offers minimal in terms of traditional primary sources. Furthermore, what is offered is poorly organized and often provided without any historical context, or citations. Moreover, most of what is provided is actually done, or so it seems, with the intent of building on the iconoclastic image of the two brothers. For instance, on the page entitled, “How it All Began,” contained within the History Wing section, the page has a 1920 document of Orville Wright explaining how he and his brother first became interested in flight. The account, according to the information provided, came from a legal deposition given in a case entitled Regina Montgomery et al v. the United States. What the site fails to explain is that the testimony was part of a legal suit claiming the brothers infringed upon another inventor’s patent claim. Instead, the author(s) embrace the image of Orville and Wilbur as two self-taught mechanics drawn to the scientific allure of conquering the skies.

At the same time, in all fairness, it should be mentioned that providing online primary sources is not the major objective of this site. Furthermore, it does offer one assemblage of non-traditional information that could be useful to scholars. At the heart of the site is an attempt to build six of the Wrights’ original experimental airplanes. Here viewers can see the process of experimentation recreated, gaining a sense of the uncertainty, pitfalls, and of course technological innovations. This area is without question the most significant strength of the web site.

Education: While the site offers instructors minimal in terms of intellectual or historical sources, it does offer good material relating to technological history. The site provides a variety of engaging hands on instructional activities suited for educators and students on or below the secondary school level. For instance, viewers can download blueprints that will allow for the re-creation of the Wrights 1899 Kite or their 1902 Glider. If, however, that is too ambitious of an endeavor for teachers, the authors operate a “portable museum,” where they will bring replicas of the kite and glider, and organize a variety of activities targeted for science and social studies classes; of course these visits come with an unspecified fee.

In addition, for students on the secondary school level or lower, the site offers a good starting point for those interested in developing a research paper on the Wrights or early aviation history. Students can find a list of suggested primary sources, historic timelines tracing the history of the Wrights and America between 1861 and 1947, photographs, and original airplane blueprints and drawings.

Promotion of a Community of Interests: While the site promotes online participation, encouraging and soliciting users to pass along information that might be helpful to the site’s development, there is no evidence of listerservs, bulletin boards, or conferences. The WBAC, however, operates a program called the “The Bishop’s Kids,” where children, ages 7 to 17, living in the Dayton, Ohio, are invited to come together and celebrate the Wrights’ achievements. The program serves to teach members about the Wrights’ accomplishments, and invites them not only to learn but also to serve as docents at local air shows. Finally, in October 2002, the site sponsored a program entitled “Return to Kitty Hawk,” where participants were encouraged to travel to the site of the Wrights first flight to recreate the 1902 flight of their glider. Whether such activities have continued remains uncertain, as the site has offered minimal updates since 2002.

End Notes

1. Stephen Kirk, First in Flight: The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair Publisher, 1995), 162-82; Thomas Crouch, The Bishop’s Boys (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 253-72; Fred C. Kelly, ed., Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951), 103-24. Return to Text

Point Assessment for Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company: A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Scope/Content12/15
Authority/Bias10/15
Permanence and Timeliness10/15
Value Added Features12/15
Technical Aspects12/15
Aesthetics/Clarity12/15
Overall Impression6/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials10/40
Primary Source Documents6/20
Education10/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest12/20

Total: 112 points -- 3 Earths

John S. Olszowka (olszowka@maine.edu) is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maine at Farmington. He earned his Ph.D. in 2000 from Binghamton University. His dissertation, “From Shop Floor to Flight; Work and Labor in the Aircraft Industry, 1908-1946,” examines changing roles of work and the rise of organized labor at the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company. At the present, he is revising the manuscript for publication through the Smithsonian Institution Press.

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