History by Contract is a book by early aviation researchers Major William J. O'Dwyer, U.S. Air Force Reserve (ret.) and Stella Randolph about aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead. The book focuses on an agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the estate of Orville Wright, which stipulates that the Smithsonian, as a condition of owning and displaying the 1903 Wright Flyer, must recognize and label it as the first heavier-than-air machine to make a manned, powered, controlled and sustained flight.

The authors of the book offer evidence which they assert shows that the Smithsonian deliberately ignored Whitehead's aeronautical work in order not to violate the agreement with the Wright estate. The net result, they allege, made Whitehead a virtual nonentity in aviation history."[1] They and other researchers argue that Whitehead made the first successful airplane flight in August 1901, predating the Wright brothers by more than two years. History By Contract reviews evidence and material available in two earlier books about Whitehead by Randolph and added statements and affidavits from self-described witnesses to Whitehead flights.[2]

O'Dwyer alleged that secrecy and denial by the Smithsonian kept the agreement with the Wright estate from public knowledge for years. He obtained a copy of the agreement in 1976 with help of then-Senator Lowell Weicker.[3] The Smithsonian has said the agreement was put in place not to hide Whitehead's aviation experiments, but to prevent re-occurrence of a mistaken emphasis by the Smithsonian on the 1903 Langley Aerodrome, which the Institution wrongly identified for years as the first airplane "capable" of flight, even though it had not actually flown when Langley's workers tested it.[4] The Smithsonian based its claim on test flights of the heavily modified Aerodrome in 1914 by Glenn Curtiss and his team.

The title's meaning

Excerpt of the Agreement seen in its original form

The "contract" of the book title refers to the agreement between the estate of Orville Wright and the United States, represented by the Smithsonian Institution. The agreement, dated 23 November 1948, stipulated:[5][6][7]

  • The Estate of Orville Wright agrees to sell the 1903 Wright Flyer to the United States (represented by the Smithsonian) for $1.
  • In return, the United States guarantees the aircraft to be displayed prominently in the nation’s capital and to be identified as the first heavier-than-air flying machine in which men made a controlled and powered flight.
  • The airplane is to be valued at $1 for tax purposes.
  • Should the United States not prominently display the airplane, display it without the agreed-upon identification, or identify another airplane as being capable of controlled and powered manned flight before December 17, 1903, the ownership of the airplane reverts to the Estate.
  • Additionally, if the airplane is valued at more than $1 and the Estate assessed for taxes, the United States will pay those taxes. If it does not, the title reverts.
  • If the United States forfeits its title to the airplane for any of these reasons, it has five years to comply with the agreement to regain title.
  • The required labeling: There shall at all times be prominently displayed with said Aeroplane a label in the following form and language:
The Original Wright Brothers Aeroplane

The World's First Power-Driven Heavier-than-Air Machine
in Which Man Made Free, Controlled, and
Sustained Flight
Invented and Built by Wilbur and Orville Wright
Flown by Them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
December 17, 1903
By Original Scientific Research the Wright Brothers Discovered
the Principles of Human Flight
As Inventors, Builders and Flyers They Further Developed the Aeroplane
Taught Man to Fly and Opened the Era of Aviation
Deposited by the Estate of Orville Wright.

"The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked. The second and third flights were a little longer, and the fourth lasted 59 seconds covering a distance of 852 feet over the ground against a 20 mile wind."

Wilbur and Orville Wright
(From Century Magazine, Vol. 76 September 1908, p. 649)

Key provisions

The most controversial clause in the agreement is Paragraph 2(d): "Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities, administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming In effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."[8]

O'Dwyer and Randolph asserted this clause presents a strong incentive to keep the Smithsonian from officially recognizing any manned, powered, controlled airplane flight before that of the Wright brothers on 17 December 1903.

History behind the agreement

The agreement ended a bitter feud that existed between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian over credit for developing the first man-carrying airplane to achieve controlled, sustained powered flight. After short test flights of the heavily modified Langley Aerodrome by Glenn Curtiss in 1914, the Smithsonian claimed that the Aerodrome, created by former Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley and unsuccessfully tested shortly before the 1903 Kitty Hawk flights, was "the first man-carrying airplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight," according to the plaque displayed with the Aerodrome. Orville believed that claim "perverted" the history of flying machines and refused to donate the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer to the Smithsonian, loaning it instead to the Science Museum, London in 1928.[9] When the Smithsonian recanted its claim in 1942, Orville agreed to have the Flyer returned to the United States. The airplane remained in protective storage in Britain during World War II and was not returned to the U.S. until 1948, when the agreement was signed by Orville Wright's executors following his death.[10]

Critics of the agreement contend that it is a conflict of interest that continues to interfere with the Smithsonian's willingness to research and recognize anyone who might have made successful powered flights before December 17, 1903.[11]

The controversy reignited in 2013 when Jane's All the World's Aircraft editorialized that Whitehead, not the Wright brothers, was first to make a successful airplane flight. A month later, however, Jane's stated that the editorial reflected the opinion of the editorialist and not Jane's.[12]

In response to resulting negative publicity about the agreement, National Air and Space Museum senior curator Tom Crouch issued a statement, which said: "The contract remains in force today, a healthy reminder of a less than exemplary moment in Smithsonian history. Over the years individuals who argue for other claimants to the honor of having made the first flight have claimed that the contract is secret . It is not. I have sent many copies upon request. Critics have also charged that no Smithsonian staff member would ever be willing to entertain such a possibility and risk losing a national treasure. I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer."[13]

See also


  1. ^ Delear, Frank. " Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy." History Net, June 12, 2006. (originally published in Aviation History, March 1996.) Retrieved: July, 2012.
  2. ^ History by Contract, O'Dwyer and Randolph (1978)
  3. ^ History by Contract", O'Dwyer and Randolph (1978) p. 140-240
  4. ^ Smithsonian releases Wright brothers contract detailing 'first in flight' claims http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/04/01/contract-forcing-smithsonian-to-call-wright-bros-first-in-flight/
  5. ^ The Smithsonian Contract Wright-Brothers.org. Retrieved April 15, 2013
  6. ^ "Contract signed 1948-11-23 by Smithsonian and Wright heirs". Gustave Whitehead - Aviation Pioneer. Retrieved 22 September 2016. 
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-05-06. Retrieved 2013-04-15. 
  8. ^ http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history-of-whitehead-critics/contract-signed-1948-11-23-by-smithsonian-and-wright-heirs/
  9. ^ "Wright Flyer" p788 Flight 11 December 1953
  10. ^ "The Bishop's Boys, Tom Crouch, pps.525-527, WW Norton & Co., 1989
  11. ^ 'The Who Flew First' Debate, O'Dwyer, Flight Journal (1998) http://cdn6.flightjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/whitehead.pdf?83a8bd
  12. ^ "Jane's backs off Gustave Whitehead claim". National Aviation Heritage Area. 2015-04-17. Retrieved 2016-03-20. The publisher of a column that prompted Connecticut to declare itself “first in flight” has distanced itself from the claim in a statement it issued in response to a query by the New York Times. 
  13. ^ http://newsdesk.si.edu/sites/default/files/Wright-Contract.pdf
  • Brinchman, Susan O’Dwyer. Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight. San Diego, CA: Apex Educational Media, 2015
  • O'Dwyer, Major William J. History by Contract. Leutershausen, Germany: Fritz Majer & Sohn, 1978. ISBN 3-922175-00-7.
  • Randolph, Stella. Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead. New York: Places, Inc., 1937.
  • Randolph, Stella. The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966.

External links

  • Wright/Smithsonian Agreement pdf [1]