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Collection Wright Brothers Negatives

About this Collection

The first powered flight was made by Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on December 17, 1903, the result of years of experiments and design by the Wright brothers, who were operators of a bicycle repair shop and factory in Dayton, Ohio. The brothers continued their flying experiments in Ohio and in Fort Myer, Va., and were granted a patent for the plane in 1906. In 1908 and 1909 they traveled to Europe and drew attention to their invention by flying in France, Italy, England, and Germany. In that same year they started a company to manufacture Wright airplanes, and began their successful fight against patent suits by Glenn Curtiss and other competitors. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 and Orville sold his interest in the Wright airplane company in 1915.

Orville Wright, age 34, head and shoulders, with mustache
Orville Wright

After Orville's death in 1948, the majority of the Wright brothers papers were given by the estate to the Library of Congress. The rest are now at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library at the Wright State University.

Among the materials acquired by the Library of Congress were 300 glass plate negatives and two nitrate negatives, most taken by the Wright brothers themselves between 1897 and 1928. About 200 views from 1900 to 1911 document their successes and failures with their new flying machines. The collection provides an excellent pictorial record of the Wright brothers laboratory, engines, models, experimental planes, runways, flights, and even their accidents. The collection also contains individual portraits and group pictures of the Wright brothers and their family and friends, as well as photos of their homes, other buildings, towns, and landscapes.

Wilbur Wright, age 38, head and shoulders, about 1905; one of the earliest published photographs of him
Wilbur Wright

The use of photography by the Wrights to record their experiments was consistent with their deliberate scientific methods. The Wright brothers were aware of the important relationship of photography to their work, both scientifically and historically. They maintained a notebook (now in the Library's Manuscript Division) in which they listed the time of exposure, stop setting, date, place, type of plate used, and subject matter for each photograph. These notes show that they used standard plates of the period --orthochromatic, nonhalation, and Stanley plates-- and that they occasionally employed flashlight techniques for interior views.

The original negatives are of two sizes: 4x5 inch (LC-W85 series) and 5x7 inch (LC-W86 series). The Library of Congress made 8x10 inch prints from the negatives and re-photographed the prints. These preservation copy negatives made in the 1970's are in the LC-W851 and LC-W861 negative series. There are also some additional copy negatives in the LC-USZ62 series. The scarring visible on some photos occurred when the glass plates were submerged for several days in the 1913 Dayton, Ohio, flood.

first flight
First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,

The most well known negative is, of course, that showing the " First Flight" at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The brothers had arranged to have John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Life-Saving Station, who was among the spectators, snap their camera for them just at the moment the machine had reached the end of the take-off rail and had risen two feet into the air. Before attempting the flight, Orville had placed the camera on a tripod and had aimed it at a point he hoped the machine would attain when it left the track . The shot was successful and the negative was developed by Orville on his return to Dayton. The reproduction number for this negative is LC-W861-35 (digital file: LC-DIG-ppprs-00626).


The glass plate negatives have been digitized and are available in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. The negatives have also been printed and made available through several P&P groups of images, or LOTs:

  • LOT 11512 (F) 8x10 inch prints made by LC of 301 glass plate negatives have been made for reference and preservation purposes and are used in lieu of the original negatives. (The two excluded are of very poor quality and are near-duplicates of others.)
  • The prints in LOT 11512 were published as a microfiche publication, Photographs by the Wright Brothers: Prints from the Glass Negatives in the Library of Congress: a Micropublication Commemorating the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the First Flight by the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1978.
  • LOT 11512-A (H) Mabel Beck Collection of photographs related to the Wright Brothers (see Related Resources)
  • LOT 11512-B This LOT number was not assigned to any material.
  • LOT 11512-C (H) An album of photographic prints from 295 of the glass plate negatives. This album is fragile and cannot be served without special supervision, so patrons use the copy photographs in LOT 11512 instead. Images in the album duplicate prints in LOT 11512, and do not offer any additional information. Album prints are annotated with corresponding Wright negative numbers. Most of the prints show the effects of water damage to the original negative suggesting they were printed after 1913, the year in which the negatives were submerged in water from the Dayton, Ohio, floods.