The Relations Between the Smithsonian Institution and the Wright Brothers

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  • This piece was written by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Charles G. Abbot nine months after he became Secretary in an effort to bring an end to what he terms as the "so-called Langley-Wright Controversy." Abbot states that he first contacted Orville Wright in February 1928, within a month after becoming Secretary. When the two met in April, Wright explained the points regarding his belief that the Smithsonian had dealt unjustly with the Wright brothers, and stated that it was essential that the Smithsonian make what he termed a "correction of history."
  • Abbot states that all men agree that Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first sustained human flights in a power propelled heavier-than-air machine on December 17, 1903, which came as a culmination of their extensive laboratory experiments, numerous gliding flights during several years, and because of their original design and construction of their flying machine, engine and propellers.
  • He outlines seven actions already implemented by the Smithsonian to give recognition to the Wrights' achievements, such as printing some of their articles in the Smithsonian Institution's Annual Reports. He reports, however, that Orville Wright feels that the Smithsonian has appeared to be engaged in propaganda that exalts the exploits of Samuel P. Langley, the late Smithsonian Secretary and aeronautical experimenter, to the detriment of himself and his brother Wilbur.
  • Orville Wright enumerated six complaints: the predominant mention of Langley's achievements when the Wright brothers were given the Langley Medal in 1910; the publication of a misleading account of that 1910 medal ceremony in the Smithsonian Annual Report; the lack of cordiality in the late Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott's 1910 invitation to deposit the Kitty Hawk or other planes in the U. S. National Museum; the Smithsonian's contract for experiments with the Langley machine in 1914 with Glenn Curtiss, at that time a defendant in a patent suit brought by the Wrights; claims of the Langley machine's capacity to fly, based on the 1914 experiments, appearing in Smithsonian publications and display labels in the National Museum were unjustified and prejudicial to the Wright brothers; and the failure of the Smithsonian to properly recognize the Wrights as research men.
  • Abbot lists the complaints and details a response to each, utilizing exchanges of correspondence to clarify their backgrounds and merits. He concludes with expressions of regret on behalf of the Smithsonian, renews his invitation to Orville Wright to deposit the Kitty Hawk in the National Museum, and offers the goodwill gesture of directing that labels on the Langley machine be modified to state only factual information.


  • Abbot, C. G (Charles Greeley) b. 1872
  • Curtiss, Glenn Hammond 1878-1930
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Wright, Orville 1871-1948
  • Wright, Wilbur 1867-1912
  • United States National Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Citation information

Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections Vol. 81, No. 5 (Publication No. 2977)


The Prefatory Note states: "This statement represents an attempt on the part of the Smithsonian Institution to clarify an unfortunate controversy, and to correct errors where errors have been made, in order to do justice alike to three great pioneers of human flight -- Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Samuel Pierpont Langley -- as well as to the Smithsonian Institution."

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


September 29, 1928


  • Airplanes
  • Secretaries
  • Inventions
  • Aeronautics
  • Langley-Wright Controversy
  • Langley Aerodrome
  • Awards
  • Inventors
  • Langley Aerodrome Tests
  • Controversies
  • Wright Flyer (Airplane)
  • Langley Medal
  • Medals
  • Wright Brothers

Physical description

Number of pages : 27; Page numbers : 1-27

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