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Collection Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress

Photography and the Wright Brothers

Among the materials acquired by the Library of Congress in 1949 from the estate of Orville Wright were 303 negative photographic plates. Nearly all these glass plate negatives were taken and developed by the Wrights themselves between 1898 and 1911. The images are as important as the Wrights' diaries, notebooks, and letters to knowledge and understanding of the brothers' historic accomplishments. Rarely in the history of science and technology is it possible to see, analyze, and study a crucial technology as it was developed, and the value of the Wrights' materials can be judged by imagining how historical understanding would be enlarged if photographs existed of ancient Roman, Renaissance, or even eighteenth-century technologies as they were being developed.

It is no accident that there is a photographic account of the Wrights' work, for the brothers' use of a camera to record their experimentation was consistent with their deliberate scientific methods. Wilbur and Orville were aware of photography's importance to their work, both scientifically and historically. They purchased their first camera about the same time that they began their kite and gliding experiments, in order to build a visual record of their failures and successes. The camera, a Korona-V, was one of the finest and most expensive cameras of its time, costing eighty-five dollars--a considerable sum a century ago. It is presently displayed at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.

With photography as with nearly everything, the Wrights taught themselves all they needed to know. They set up a darkroom in a tiny backyard shed of their Hawthorn Street home in Dayton, where they developed their glass plate negatives and made prints. Their camera was nothing like a twenty-first-century camera-it was so large and bulky that it had to be mounted on a tripod and it took only one exposure at a time. They made long exposures when they shot outdoors and frequently used some sort of flash technique indoors. Orville was so meticulous about his photography that he often recorded in his notebook the time, date, and place of an exposure, as well as the f-stop setting, subject matter, and type of plate used.

An examination of the Library's collection of Wright glass plate negatives reveals that the brothers' documentation of their Kitty Hawk work began with only a few images of the 1900 glider. There are more photographs of the improved 1901 version, some of which show Wilbur actually gliding. And there are many more images of the larger and more capable 1902 glider--often showing both brothers in gliding or soaring flight. The photographs of the 1903-powered machine include the famous first flight image, but they are far surpassed in quantity by the large number of images that the Wrights took of their flights at Huffman Prairie in Ohio during 1904 and 1905. Digitization allows today's researchers to see technical details and hardware specifics that were formerly unclear.

The Wrights' glass plate negatives show that the brothers used their camera to document other subjects besides their experiments. In fact, only about one-third of the more than three hundred photographs are images of their machines. Nearly two hundred photographs are of people and places, allowing a look at Kitty Hawk and the surrounding area as it was then and is no more: the open, honest faces of the hardworking men of the lifesaving crews; the Tate family up close; the interior and exterior of the brothers' Dayton home; the inside of their hangar/home at Kitty Hawk; and the members of their own family.

Some of the glass photographic plates are not in good condition, but few, if any, of the cracks and blemishes were caused by the Wrights themselves. Instead, they are the result of the Dayton flood of 1913, which caused considerable damage to the Wright home as well as to the wooden shed where the negatives were stored. This makes the date that a photograph was printed from the glass plate negative significant, since any print made before the flood-March 25-27, 1913-might be in better condition than the existing negative.

Finally, in addition to the glass plate negatives, the Wright collection contains several other photographs not taken or made by the Wrights themselves. By far the most significant are the photographs taken by their friend and mentor Octave Chanute during the important gliding years of 1901 and 1902. Chanute and two associates stayed with the Wrights at Kitty Hawk during August 4-11, 1901 and again during October 5-14, 1902. During that time, Chanute or his assistants took the only other photographs known to have been made of the historic gliding experiments on the Outer Banks. Most of these photographs are in the Wright Papers because they were mailed to the Wrights by Chanute.

That the Wright brothers truly delighted in photography and did not use it only as a means to document their work is revealed in a lecture Wilbur delivered in 1901 before the Western Society of Engineers. Using lantern slides of his gliding photographs to illustrate his talk, Wilbur discussed the difficulty of capturing a moving target on film-and detoured into a brief discussion of the pleasures of photography:

"In looking at this picture you will readily understand that the excitement of gliding experiments does not entirely cease with the breaking up of camp. In the photographic darkroom at home we pass moments of as thrilling interest as any in the field, when the image begins to appear on the plate and it is yet an open question whether we have a picture of a flying machine, or merely a patch of open sky."

[Side view of glider flying as a kite near the ground, Wilbur at left and Orville at right . . . [1901]. Glass negatives from the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-W851-121
[Captain William J. Tate, the Wrights' first host in Kitty Hawk, and family on porch of their home, the Kitty Hawk Post Office] [1900]. Glass negatives from the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-W85- 87
An example of flood damage to the Wrights' collection of glass plate negatives. [Kitchen of the camp building at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with neatly arranged wall shelves holding dishes, canned foods, and other provisions] [1902]. Glass negatives from the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-W861-5
Octave Chanute lamented the inferior quality of his photographs compared to the Wrights'. However, the scarcity of images of the 1901 glider give value to his documentation. [1901 Wright glider, photographed by Octave Chanute during his visit to witness Wright gliding experiments at Kitty Hawk, August 4-11, 1901]. Subject File: Chanute, Octave --Photographs, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Originals, 1901.
[1901 glider being flown as a kite, Wilbur at left side, Orville at right; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina] [1901]. Glass negatives from the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-W851-112