A rare glimpse into the intimate world of the Wright brothers
A collection of candid letters belonging to a journalist who won the friendship of the aviation pioneers reveals previously unknown details about their extraordinary lives
Earl Nelson Findley (1878-1956) holds the distinction of being one the few journalists who enjoyed the trust and confidence of aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright. He became one of a small number of writers in the United States willing to publicly challenge the Smithsonian's decades-long refusal to credit the Wright brothers as the inventors of the first heavier-than-air flying machine.
Findley's vocal advocacy on behalf of the Wrights, and his great discretion, earned him the enduring confidence and friendship of both brothers, as well as their sister Katharine, until the ends of their lives. While it appears that most of Findley's interactions with Wilbur were primarily verbal, his relationships with Orville and Katharine resulted in an intimate, decades-long correspondence.
Orville valued his privacy and guarded his public image closely, but felt comfortable venting his frustrations to Findley
For more than 30 years Earl Findley and Orville Wright exchanged numerous, frank letters concerning a variety of subjects, ranging from the Smithsonian controversy to international politics. Orville valued his privacy and guarded his public image closely, but felt comfortable venting his frustrations to Findley.
On 14 December in New York, Christie’s Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, including Americana auction will feature the first of two instalments of this remarkable correspondence, portions of which specialist Peter Klarnet showcases below. (For detailed information about each lot please click on the images).
Signed gifts to the ambitious reporter
Findley made an impression on Wilbur Wright on the occasion of his flight over New York Harbor during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, marking the 300th anniversary of the discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th birthday of Robert Fulton’s paddle steamer. Findley was so eager to obtain an interview that he crossed a police cordon to approach the hangar where Wright was preparing his plane. He was arrested, and escorted off Governor’s Island. Fortunately well-connected executives at the Tribune managed to restore his press credentials, and he returned the following day.
‘From that time on until his death, I never failed to reach Wilbur by phone, or in person, on his trips to New York’ Earl Findley
Wilbur Wright caught wind of the incident, and invited Findley to dine with him alone — a journalistic coup for the young reporter. ‘From that time on until his death, I never failed to reach Wilbur by phone, or in person, on his trips to New York,’ Findley recalled. ‘He said, “If I can't see you for any reason, I will always talk to you on the phone when you call me”.’
As a token of his confidence, Wilbur inscribed the above photograph to Findley. Although Wilbur died in 1912, Findley remained in contact with the family — a relationship that only strengthened with time.
Findley’s doomed biography of the Wright brothers
In 1915, Orville and Katharine Wright asked if Findley would author a biography of the Wright Brothers and the invention of the airplane. In January 1915, Katharine Wright, on behalf of Orville, wrote to Findley: ‘I've been talking to Orville about it and he says that he would only be interested in a carefully written, accurate account of their work… We are now of the opinion that you could write such a book, if you had time enough to devote to the work.’
Within a few months, with the help of a co-author, Findley was busy at work. Ultimately, however, Orville did not approve of the work, and it was shelved. (A version of the biography would appear more than a decade later, in an unauthorized version by Findley’s co-author.)
Orville’s heartbreak at his sister’s marriage
Katharine Wright toiled ceaselessly to assist her brother in his professional and personal affairs. Her letters to Findley run the gamut, ranging from discussions of the Curtiss lawsuit (see below) to her witnessing the passage of women's suffrage in the Ohio legislature.
Orville remained a bachelor his entire life, and he relied on Katharine to help manage his household and business affairs. In 1926, when Katharine married her old school chum Harry Haskell, the editor of the Kansas City Star newspaper, Orville accused her of abandoning him and never spoke to her again. Writing to Findley shortly before the wedding, she hoped he would ‘...understand how unendurable it is for Orv and me. I count on your understanding and sympathy for us both. Please don’t write to Orv now for he can’t bear it.’
Orville’s long battle for recognition from the Smithsonian
From 1918 to 1956, Earl Findley ran U.S. Air Services, an aviation trade magazine. Although he wrote and published articles on a wide variety of aviation topics, Findley's cause célèbre was Orville Wright’s long battle for recognition from the Smithsonian Institution as the inventor of the first working aeroplane. The venerable Washington institution had long sponsored and championed the work of Samuel P. Langley — crediting him as the first to build a successful powered aircraft: the 1903 Aerodrome.
Although Langley failed to conduct a successful test at the time, in 1914 Glenn Curtiss successfully flew the Aerodrome in a series of demonstration flights. Citing Curtiss’s demonstrations, the Smithsonian credited Langley's machine as the first powered craft capable of piloted flight — despite two failed test flights on 7 October and 8 December 1903. (The Wrights successfully tested their biplane at Kitty Hawk on 17 December 1903.)
‘People from all over the world will learn that it was not a gimcrack accident which flew to begin with, but a machine on which all modern aeroplanes are fundamentally based’ Griffith Brewer on the 1903 Kitty Hawk
The problem with Curtiss’s tests lay in the fact that he was allowed to make modifications to Langley’s machine prior to the 1914 tests. The Smithsonian argued that Langley’s machine simply hadn't been constructed properly in 1903, and had it been, it would have beaten the Wright brothers’ first successful flight.
In his letter enclosing the Langley-Curtiss comparison shown above, Orville Wright observes, ‘The most vital change was one that few would have noticed’, before adding technical detail about how a ‘fatal fault in Langley’s design’ had been corrected. ‘Without the change,' Wright insisted, ‘the Langley plane of 1903 would have collapsed in every attempt to fly it.’
The first Englishman to fly in an aeroplane
Griffith Brewer, the London businessman who became the first Englishman to fly in an aeroplane (courtesy of Wilbur in 1908 while in Pau, France), also corresponded with Findley.
In 1928 Orville decided to send the 1903 Kitty Hawk plane to London, rather than Washington, due to the ongoing dispute with the Smithsonian. Brewer took charge of the plane’s installation at the Science Museum in South Kensington, and regularly updated Findley on his work. ‘I believe that this exhibition in the South Kensington Museum will have a good educational effect, because people from all over the world including America will come to the Museum and there learn that it was not a gimcrack accident which flew to begin with, but a machine on which all modern aeroplanes are fundamentally based,’ he wrote. The 1903 Wright Flyer would not return to the United States until 1948, after the Smithsonian had finally acknowledged the Wrights’ place as the inventors of the aeroplane.
Suspicions over the political motives of Charles Lindbergh
Findley counted Charles Lindbergh among his correspondents as well. The collection includes several revealing letters from the aviator, including a three-page letter written in 1937, marvelling at the state of German military aviation after he completed an inspection tour on behalf of the United States government.
‘When I was in Bremen,’ wrote Lindbergh, ‘I saw the Focke-Wulf helicopter demonstrated... It landed and took off vertically, and was able to hover without any apparent movement, either a metre or a hundred metres off the ground. It could fly either backward or forward and had reasonably good manoeuvrability in turning. I have never seen a more successful demonstration of an experimental machine.’
‘It begins to look as though Lindbergh is more than a mere pacifist. He apparently is a pro-Nazist and Hitlerite propagandist’ Orville Wright
More ominously, as war clouds gathered across Europe, Lindbergh observed, ‘The German aviation development is extremely interesting to me, and great progress has been made since my visit of a year ago last July. Their designs are excellent... one cannot help thinking about the effect of these developments in case of a major war. The destructive capacity of European aviation is already tremendous and it is increasing every day.’
Lindbergh’s praise of German air superiority, not to mention his acceptance of a German aviation award for his 1927 transatlantic flight, presented by its commander, Hermann Göring, bred popular suspicion of his true motives. In late 1939 he spoke publicly on the radio urging the United States to remain neutral.
Orville Wright was among those with doubts, confiding to Findley in October 1939: ‘It begins to look as though Lindbergh is more than a mere pacifist. He apparently is a pronazist and Hitlerite propagandist. I even begin to suspect that the Germans may have had something to do with his going to England to report on German preparedness and Russian unpreparedness last year. The effect is just what Hitler wanted. Lindbergh's first speech was weak; his second vicious.’
The second part of this important and extensive archive will be offered at auction in New York on 15 June 2017