After a mysterious and lengthy disappearance, the historic patent documents for the Wright Brothers’ groundbreaking flying machine have finally resurfaced and are now at home in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Last seen there in 1980, the hefty file tells the story of the Wrights’ first successful patent for the world’s first fully controllable aircraft that was heavier than air. Its more than 200 pages include a petition, oaths, photographs and specifications of the machine, and letters of correspondence between the brothers and the US Patent Office.
The Washington Post‘s Michael E. Ruane wrote a riveting account of the patent file’s rediscovery in March in “a special records storage cave” in Lenexa, Kansas, where an archivist found it stuffed in a manila envelope with a White House logo. The search was part of the Archival Recovery Program, which NARA initiated last year to track down US government documents that have been lost or stolen. The disappearance of the Wright Brothers’ file stemmed from a misfile that saw the documents tucked in with a later Wright patent concerning improvements to the machine, as NARA spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman told Hyperallergic. Fortunately, it remains well-preserved.
“No full copy of the file was made before it went missing, so we can’t do a page-by-page comparison,” Kleiman said. “However, it is our understanding that the file is intact, given that the entire file was misfiled as a unit. The file is in ‘original’ condition except for an early, non-plastic lamination process that was applied to a few pages.”
Submitted in 1903, the patent — application #821,393 — describes and illustrates the mechanics of the Wright 1902 Glider. The flying machine the brothers designed in 1903 is likely their most famous, representing the first successful airplane: it had a power source, rather than simply relying on air currents. But the 1902 glider was a feat of engineering just as significant. Wilbur Wright described it as “a very great improvement over anything … anyone has built. Everything is so much more satisfactory that we now believe that the [mechanical] flying problem is really nearing its solution.”
As the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) explains, this creation “had a much thinner airfoil and longer and narrower wings, which their wind tunnel tests had shown to be more efficient. To improve lateral control, [the brothers] added a fixed vertical rudder to the rear of the glider. They retained the reliable forward elevator for pitch control but made it elliptical in shape.”
It was only in 1906, however, that the Wrights also tasted success with their patent: the Patent Office rejected their initial application, but after hiring attorney Harry A. Toulmin in 1904, on the advice of their examiner, the pair resubmitted their patent, which was granted on May 22, 1906, for “new and useful improvement in Flying Machines.”
The documents are now in NARA’s Conservation Lab undergoing assessment and minor treatment, and a number of pages, including the patent drawing of the glider, will go on display in the National Archives Museum on May 20 to mark the 110th anniversary of patent awarding. The last time they were in the public eye was in 1979, when NASM had a display of portions of the file, before returning them to NARA.
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