The Smithsonian literally has millions of objects in its vast collections. Everything from specimens of flora and fauna from around the globe, to machines that have shaped the modern world, to cultural artifacts that reflect our rich diversity, to important works of art. Even live animals at the National Zoo. Every aspect of human endeavor and creativity and the natural world can be found at the Smithsonian. Among this great store of history, science, and art objects, some stand above the rest for their uniqueness, historical importance, and cultural value. In addition, they are objects that are powerfully associated with the Smithsonian. I like to call these “signature Smithsonian objects.” Things such as the Hope Diamond, the Star Spangled Banner, the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane are good examples—one-of-a-kind items, familiar to all, and widely known to reside at the Smithsonian. Also in this subset of signature objects is one of the most significant in the entire Smithsonian collection—the Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane.
The flying machine with which Wilbur and Orville Wright made those historic first flights at Kitty Hawk on a cold December morning in 1903 represents a moment when the world changed. The ability to fly has so dramatically refashioned human existence that the achievement of the Wright brothers defies measure. When the Wright Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian in 1948, a visiting dignitary at the ceremony remarked, “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.” For the last 25 years, I have had the great privilege to be the curator of the Wright Flyer. During that quarter century I have pored over every detail of the airplane, studied every aspect of its design, written three books about the Wright brothers, mounted a major exhibition, and given countless lectures about this artifact. I have spent a career with this object and at this point have a very personal connection with the Flyer. I’ll even admit to a bit of an emotional attachment to this machine. Needless to say, I never tire of talking about the Flyer and sharing its wonderful story. But there is one thing that always frustrates me when I hear it—when people say the airplane in the Smithsonian is not the real Wright Flyer! Let me assure you, the airplane on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is indeed the actual machine with which the Wrights made their pathbreaking first flights at Kitty Hawk. IT IS THE REAL WRIGHT FLYER. So how could anyone doubt this? Most of the reasons are simple. First, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old. The near pristine white fabric on its wooden framework doesn’t look to be a century old. Well, it isn’t. In 1984 and 1985, the museum did conservation work on the Flyer. It was disassembled, inspected, cleaned, and documented inside and out. The most important decision we had to make was whether or not to save the tattered fabric. There was much internal debate about this, but in the end we put new fabric on the Flyer. Critical to that decision was that the fabric then on the airplane was not on it when it flew in 1903. In 1928, Orville Wright loaned the Flyer to the London Science Museum, where it stayed for 20 years. In preparation for the trip to England, Orville recovered the Flyer entirely. So when the Smithsonian received the airplane in 1948, none of the fabric on it dated from 1903. Considering its condition and that the airplane never flew with that fabric, for the long-term preservation interest of the artifact, new fabric was put on in 1985, precisely to the specifications of 1903. So to the uninitiated, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old and people sometimes make the assumption that it is not the original airframe.
Another reason visitors sometimes think the Wright Flyer in the Smithsonian is not real is because so many modern reproductions of the Flyer are on view in other museums. Especially leading up to the centennial of the first flights in 2003, many reproduction Flyers have been built. With so many copies out there and the real Wright Flyer having relatively new fabric on it, one can see how visitors might get confused. Finally, many people know that after the Wrights made their last flight on December 17, 1903, the Flyer was upturned by a strong gust of wind and severely damaged. Thinking the airplane was destroyed, some of these folks are under the impression that the original 1903 Wright Flyer doesn’t exist at all. So let me make clear for all, when you visit the National Air and Space Museum and stand before the Wright Flyer you will be just a few feet away from the original, real, world-changing 1903 Wright Flyer—not a copy. There is also a good chance you’ll find me in the gallery spending time with my old friend, the endlessly fascinating world’s first airplane—a signature Smithsonian object.