For the better part of 35 years, an agreement - "The Agreement" - between the executors of the Orville Wright Estate and the Smithsonian Institution has spawned strident debate and accusations of bad faith. The Agreement concerns the custody of the 1903 Wright Flyer, its labeling and conditions of display. Over the years, a complex mythology has developed around The Agreement. It has become a touchstone for people who have, for one reason or another, felt hostility toward the accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville Wright, as well as those people who have advocated for the claims of Gustave Whitehead. Gustave Whitehead's most prominent advocates of former years, Major William J. O'Dwyer and Stella Randolph, offered up a bitter and hostile analysis of The Agreement in their 1978 book History by Contract. To O'Dwyer and Randolph "The Agreement" was a "Contract" and that "Contract" was the reason why Whitehead was being denied recognition as having flown before the Wrights. History by Contract is a jumble of reprinted documents, photographs and chopped up narrative, and reading the book can be a tiresome and daunting task, often involving searching for where text resumes and wading through personal narratives of the co-authors' hunt for information. The lack of a true index makes the book a very difficult book to use as a reference. However, for all the lack of clarity, one thing is clear, O'Dwyer and Randolph were using History by Contract as a weapon against the Smithsonian Institution and the legacy of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Misrepresentations of fact, blustery language and unsupported assertions make History by Contract more a polemic than a book. Such shenanigans as appeared in History by Contract continue to this day. In his version of events, John Brown injects the fantasy of a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) suit into the mix, saying the Smithsonian released the text of the Agreement only after then-US Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr., (of Connecticut) filed an FOIA suit. When challenged to produce a copy of that FOIA filing, John Brown remained silent. This fantasy is repeated in the foreword to the current edition of Jane's All The World's Aircraft," as Editor-in-Chief Paul Jackson wrote The Agreement was made public "…under sanction of a Freedom of Information request by Senator Lowell Weicker Jr,…" That is, apparently, a falsehood. There is no evidence that a FOIA was ever filed, and certainly, John Brown has failed to produce a copy. The simple facts are Sen. Weicker sent a request to the Smithsonian, on behalf of and at the request of his constituent, William J. O'Dwyer, asking that a copy of The Agreement be released. It was. O'Dwyer then requested that a copy of the signed Agreement be released (the first version lacked signatures), so Sen. Weicker sent another request, to which the Smithsonian responded by sending a signed copy of The Agreement. Pushing mundane events - such as a US Senator requesting information from an agency and then receiving the requested information - to dramatic heights was a recurring activity by O'Dwyer as it is now with Brown. This willingness to exaggerate and mis-state draws followers and generates attention, but it is not honest and appears intentionally deceitful - and it ought to cause anyone interested in the topic to wonder what else has been fantasized and tossed about for effect. The Agreement, which has prompted this long controversy, is attached as a .pdf file, and can be read by clicking HERE. This is the best available copy. There are several worthwhile points of discussion regarding The Agreement, but first, consider four other "agreements"…
The Whitehead Family and Stella Randolph signed an agreement on July 29, 1934, giving Stella Randolph custodial rights to
The agreement between Randolph and O'Dwyer set the tone of how Whitehead material would be handled. Everything possible would be done to keep the research material from being available to people deemed, by Randolph and O'Dwyer, to be unsympathetic or hostile to Whitehead and the claims made by and for him. In addition, various requirements of the Randolph and O'Dwyer agreement appear to have been subsequently violated, such as the agreement (paragraphs "6" and "8") that all of the files and other material, including hardware and photographs and memorabilia, were to remain in Connecticut. Also, the New England Air Museum (as the successor organization to C.A.H.A.) did not become the sole repository of the Whitehead material, as required by paragraph "8." It's clear from this agreement and the subsequent agreements, that the desire of Stella Randolph was that the Whitehead material gathered by herself and by O'Dwyer and the 9315th Squadron, and C.A.H.A. be located in one repository and kept from the prying eyes of people who were not supportive of Whitehead.
This agreement, dated January 27, 1968, established the relationship of the "National Air Museum, Smithsonian Institution," to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association. The main point of the agreement was to establish the terms for placement of Gustave Whitehead-related material in the archives of the National Air Museum. The full text of this single-page agreement reads…
The restriction means that anyone wanting to make use of the information in O'Dwyer's collection for a book or article would be paying O'Dwyer (now his estate, as he is deceased) 60% of their profits and that half of that 60% would go to the Fairfield Historical Society ("FHS") and half to the O'Dwyer Estate. This restriction effectively excludes professional historians from making use of the material. It appears as though O'Dwyer was, by this point, treating all the Whitehead material as his personal property, something which would have had no legal basis - he did not "own" any of the material. Under the terms of the financial restriction, even if material used from the O'Dwyer Collection constituted only a small percentage of a book, the author would be obligated to pay 60% of their total profits to O'Dwyer. This onerous restriction effectively prevents the 18 linear feet of material gathered together by O'Dwyer and his associates from being used in published works for which the author is paid. This writer was told that the required royalty can be waived on a case-by-case basis, depending on who is requesting access. However, that is not true. The restriction imposed by O'Dwyer has no such provision for waiving the royalty and the FHS cannot subvert or waive that restriction, under which terms it accepted the O'Dwyer Collection - if the Society did waive the royalty, it would be violating the terms imposed on it by O'Dwyer. There is considerable irony - perhaps even more than a whiff of hypocrisy - in the fact that O'Dwyer placed a severe restriction on use of his research material, and yet excoriated the Smithsonian for supposed secrecy. He might have had a good reason for restricting the material, however, since some of the information does not reflect well on him or on Whitehead. Beyond possible difficulties with some of the material in the Whitehead material, there is also the question of why William J. O'Dwyer chose to not enforce the provisions of the prior agreements, which, in their terms, still applied to the Whitehead material and were still binding on O'Dwyer. Most strikingly, given his energetic advocacy for Gustave Whitehead, it appears as though O'Dwyer chose to ignore and failed to honor the provision of his March 10, 1964, Agreement with Stella Randolph which provided an equal financial share for the Whitehead family…
There is a common thread that weaves through the four agreements cited above…keeping the information Randolph and O'Dwyer gathered on Gustave Whitehead hidden from anyone who might be critical of Whitehead. The term used in the C.A.H.A./Smithsonian agreement is "misuse" - "for purposes of sensationalism or bigotry." The first clause of the agreement between Randolph and O'Dwyer reads "1. No use, study, reproduction, publication, or transfer of any of the Whitehead memorabilia or files will be made by any group, groups, person or persons having the apparent intent of discrediting Whitehead or his work." Note that anyone having "the apparent intent of discrediting Whitehead or his work" cannot so much as "use" or "study" the material. The four agreements above all express concern that people who might not be Whitehead supporters might somehow gain access to the research material gathered on Whitehead. This smacks of propaganda - or, perhaps, something exists in the archive which is only intended to be seen by Whitehead supporters. Unless all of the Randolph and O'Dwyer material is readily available to all interested parties, that possibility will remain. After slogging through History by Contract, reading the hostility that O'Dwyer musters up to attack the Smithsonian and The Agreement, it is difficult to understand why O'Dwyer, who urged at every turn an open investigation of the Whitehead story, would also be so closed with the material Randolph and he and the Whitehead Research Committee had gathered. The New England Air Museum is the successor organization to C.A.H.A., and so has in its possession the original Whitehead material which was copied for deposit at NASM. It's not known why O'Dwyer chose the Fairfield Historical Society Library as the place to locate the Whitehead material he had in his possession. Also, it's difficult to understand how William J. O'Dwyer reconciled his restrictive approach to the material he ended up placing at the Fairfield Historical Society Library, with his many demands for openness and public review. There is a Stella Randolph Collection at the University of Texas, Dallas, History of Aviation Collection, and it is available to researchers, but judging from the finding aid, it might not be her complete archive. The material held at NASM's archives is still bound by the agreement with C.A.H.A., which requires permission from C.A.H.A.'s President to gain access to the C.A.H.A. Whitehead material deposited at NASM. The C.A.H.A. archive includes most - if not all - of the Randolph collection.
At least one question cannot be easily or fully answered - did the material O'Dwyer deposited with the Fairfield Historical Society include the material he obtained from Randolph under the terms of their March 10, 1964, agreement ? It appears that it did, but since a complete and detailed inventory does not seem to have been made, no definitive answer can be given. After Stella Randolph passed away, it's unclear whether or not O'Dwyer met his obligations under the terms of the agreement he signed with Randolph on March 10, 1964. Certainly, at least one provision appears to have been ignored. If the material deposited with the Fairfield Historical Society has generated any funds over the decades from the "60%" provision of O'Dwyer's restriction, half of those funds ought to have been passed to the Whitehead family, in accordance with clause #3 of the March 10, 1964, agreement. It would be interesting to know whether funds have been generated, and if so, whether half of those funds ever ended up with Whitehead family members, as required.
What came to be known as "The Langley Affair" and the "Hammondsport Hoax" - among other names - began innocently enough as the notion of an exhibition aviator's manager, to generate a few days of publicity during a slow period. The manager was surprised, to say the least, when the suggestion to fly the Langley Large Aerodrome "A" became a major story. Newspaper editorials appeared and took the matter seriously, suggesting that a duplicate of the "Large Aerodrome 'A'" be built and tested, in place of the original machine. What had been meant to cause a brief mention in the press soon became a big story. By April of 1914, the 1903 Langley Large Aerodrome "A" was on its way to Hammondsport, New York, for assembly and "trials." This episode, involving Glenn H. Curtiss (at the time involved in a bitter legal fight brought by the Wright Patent holders over patent infringement), Charles D. Walcott (Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), Alexander Graham Bell (a Smithsonian Regent and associate of Curtiss in the Aeronautical Experiment Association - A.E.A.), Albert F. Zahm (the Smithsonian's official observer for the Hammondsport Langley Aerodrome trials, and later head of the Library of Congress Aeronautical Division), Charles M. Manly (chief engineer during the series of Aerodrome experiments, and operator of the Large Aerodrome "A" on its two ill-fated attempts at becoming airborne), exacerbated the rift between the Smithsonian and Orville Wright. The trials of the rebuilt and highly modified Langley Aerodrome "A" were meant to become evidence in the long and bitter patent infringement suit which the Wright Patent holders brought against Curtiss. If a "prior use" to the date of the Wright Patent, could be demonstrated, that could have been used as a defense against the charge of infringement. During the trials, which continued into 1915, the Large Aerodrome "A" did lift off Lake Keuka, with Glenn Curtiss and "Gink" Doherty operating the machine on different low-level flights. The fact that the Aerodrome did fly was meaningless, however, since the machine had been subjected to at least 35 modifications, including strengthening of the airframe and altered wing rigging. Importantly, changes to the wings' aspect ratio, their camber (aerofoil) and angle of incidence were significant differences from the Large Aerodrome as it had existed in 1903, and significantly altered the machine's aerodynamics. There are numerous questionable aspects to the whole affair, but a lengthy narrative on the matter is not within the scope of this article. Glenn Curtiss listed off at the controls of the highly modified and strengthened Large Aerodrome "A" on May 28, 1914, in a private event. The engine used on this trial was the original Manly-Balzer radial, although afterwards a Curtiss engine was mounted, and the Curtiss engine remained in place for the rest of the trials. Curtiss informed Alexander Graham Bell of the event in a brief telegram to which Bell replied…
The Langley Aerodrome "A" was up again on June 2, 1914, with press and the public invited, and the resulting news stories were largely celebratory - that Samuel P. Langley had been vindicated, that "Langley's Folly" had flown, and so on.
The Langley Aerodrome "A" - returned to its original configuration - went on display at the National Museum Smithsonian on January 15, 1918, and Secretary Walcott suggested that the Wright 1903 Flyer could be displayed next to the Langley Aerodrome "A" as the first practical aeroplane, while the Aerodrome "A" would carry the label…
To Orville Wright the label was wrong and an obvious insult and in 1928 he therefore sent the Wright 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum, South Kensington, London, England, where it remained for 20 years (except for the WWII years, when it was placed in safe storage away from London).
These days, the trials of the Langley Aerodrome "A" at Hammondsport, New York, are generally regarded as serious errors of judgement by Smithsonian Secretary Walcott and Glenn Curtiss, among others, including Alexander Graham Bell. History has not been gentle to the "experiments" during which the remnants of the original Aerodrome "A" were assembled and the machine was rebuilt - highly modified and structurally strengthened. The Aerodrome "A" trials bring another set of trials to mind - the testing of the Nr.21B built by the German Historical Flight Research Committee Gustav Weißkopf - HFRC-GW. The Nr.21B was tested by the highly experienced and skilled German test pilot, Horst Philipp, between December 1993 and February 1998. During the course of testing many significant changes were made to the structure of the machine and to its structural integrity. The aeroelasticity of the wings was altered and the wing rigging was radically altered and improved. Flight controls - which the original No. 21 never had - were introduced, as was a modern stick and pedal bar arrangement. The Nr.21B was able to use ground effect to ride along within a few meters of the ground, but only after the many alterations. So, the obvious questions arises, if the Langley Aerodrome "A" trials were so discredited, shouldn't the Nr.21B tests be discredited, as well ? Neither episode proved anything at all as to whether the respective original machines flew or could have flown. Indeed, the type and number of necessary modifications and the degree to which the machines needed to be strengthened would lead to an opposite conclusion - the originals could not have flown successfully in their original configurations.
The Smithsonian ultimately retracted a 1914 publication which heralded the Large Aerodrome "A" as the first heavier-than-air, powered, human-carrying machine to fly, and which also stated that the trials at Hammodsport had been evidence of that. In 1942, after considerable effort behind the scenes by Charles A. Lindbergh, Fred C. Kelly and other notables, Smithsonian Secretary Charles Abbott approved the publication by the Smithsonian of a report admitting the false statements made in 1914, and documenting the substantial changes that had been made in the Langley Aerodrome "A" while it was at Hammondsport.
The result was that the '03 Flyer was returned to the US in 1948, after Orville Wright passed away on January 30, 1948, but with his prior approval. The final step before the '03 Flyer was accorded the place of honor in the Smithsonian National Museum, was to transfer the machine from the Estate of Orville Wright to the Smithsonian. Clear title was not given to the Smithsonian, but rather "title and possession" - i.e. custody - with restrictions as to how the machine was to be labeled and the terms and conditions under which it was to be displayed. If the conditions of The Agreement were violated, the '03 Flyer would revert to the Wright family. On February 10, 1948, Montgomery County (Ohio) Probate Court Judge Rodney M. Love named the appraisers and the two executors of Orville Wright's estate and instructed them to make arrangements to return the '03 Flyer to the US. The final conditions were reviewed and approved by the Judge Love.
In the course of settling the estate, The Agreement, which detailed the 1903 Flyer's acceptable labeling and display, was signed on November 23, 1948, by the two estate executors, Harold S. Miller and Harold W. Steeper, and by Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore, under order of Judge Love. Soon thereafter the '03 Flyer was returned to the US and was placed on public display, December 17, 1948, in the Science and Industry Building of the National Museum, labeled as agreed in The Agreement.
Contrary to assertions made by O'Dwyer and Randolph in History by Contract, The Agreement was public knowledge from the moment it was approved by the Montgomery County Probate Court and signed by the parties, as one document in the public record of settling Orville Wright's estate. The Agreement received very little attention, of course, until O'Dwyer and Randolph's book appeared in 1978.
There is very little to admire in History by Contract. As noted above, it is a difficult book to read or to use as a reference. History by Contract inflamed Whitehead supporters with its portrayal of what The Agreement was and how it affected Gustave Whitehead's place in aviation history. O'Dwyer and Randolph thought that The Agreement had been signed as a way to keep Whitehead from receiving his due recognition, and so read the worst possible motives into the document and took the worst possible meaning from its language. Thirty-five years after History by Contract, the exaggerated arguments made by O'Dwyer and Randolph still resonate with Whitehead advocates, such as John Brown, who appears to have adopted and embraced - whole hog - the O'Dwyer and Randolph version of The Agreement.
An unbiased reading of The Agreement, coupled with knowledge and understanding of the context within which The Agreement came to be signed, puts The Agreement in a different light from the harsh glaring light cast by History by Contract. Without the historical abuse perpetrated by the 1914-15 trials of the Langley Aerodrome "A" and the anti-historical 1914 publication of the Smithsonian giving false credit to the Aerodrome "A," The Agreement would not have been needed and would not have existed.
Critics of The Agreement sometimes manage to create historical havoc of their own, assigning The Agreement to "The Wright brothers" when both Wilbur and Orville Wright were deceased by the time the agreement was approved by the Ohio probate court. Crass commercial interest on the part of "The Wrights" is sometimes cast as the reason for The Agreement, when, by November 1948, any commercial value had long since been gained or lost, decades before.
The one sub-section of The Agreement which has caused the greatest furor is 2(d), which reads…
"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."
There are several points that can be made about sub-section 2(d), one of which - an absurd one - is that the phrase "such aircraft" includes lighter-than-air dirigibles and balloons. The context of The Agreement makes it clear that what is being discussed are heavier-than-air machines.
Another item is the use of the phrase "… or design of earlier date that the Wright Aeroplane of 1903…" The Agreement does not preclude a machine of later date than the '03 Flyer from being chosen as first to fly. For example, if the condition of making a flight in public view is added, then Alberto Santos=Dumont's flight in November of 1906 could be argued to have been the first. However, the language in this sub-section is clearly aimed straight at the claim that the Langley Aerodrome "A" had been the first machine capable of powered, controlled, sustained, mechanical, human flight.
A favorite - and wrong - interpretation of The Agreement by Whitehead advocates is that The Agreement prevents the Smithsonian Institution from recognizing another flight, predating the December 17, 1903, flights, as being first.
Simply said, The Agreement does no such thing.
It does provide that the '03 Flyer would be returned to the Wright family, if that recognition should happen, but The Agreement does not prevent such recognition from being made.
Another item… The Agreement was signed by Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore on behalf of the United States of America, yet there never was legislation enacted by the US Congress and signed into law by any President empowering the Smithsonian Secretary to act on behalf of the USA.
The Agreement is not as it has been portrayed by Whitehead advocates and the point of all the fuss and furor over The Agreement was to pressure the Smithsonian Institution into giving Whitehead official recognition. This strategy was flawed from the start, since it required a mis-reading of a simple document, a mis-characterization of the motives of those who entered into The Agreement, and hype and exaggeration to sustain interest.
Although the following three points ought to be self-evident, they are worth stating…
1) The reason why Gustave Whitehead never received recognition by the Smithsonian Institution as being first to fly is that he was not first to fly; 2) The reason why Gustave Whitehead never received recognition by the Smithsonian Institution as having flown is that he did not ever fly in the modern meaning of that word; 3) The Agreement was not and is not the reason for that lack of recognition.
The hypocrisy of Whitehead advocates bludgeoning the Smithsonian Institution and the Wright family over The Agreement is the "real story" in all this. While O'Dwyer was raging against The Agreement he was agreeing with and signing agreements that restricted access to material which supposedly would help prove Gustave Whitehead's claims. The restrictions O'Dwyer and Randolph placed on their Whitehead files and material have been every bit as onerous as Whitehead advocates believe The Agreement has been, perhaps even more so, since that very limited access prevents an honest, full and open consideration of Whitehead's activities, while at the same time encouraging only research and study that is supportive of the Whitehead claims. The hypocrisy involved seems clear enough without further comment.
Where are the items of Whitehead "hardware and memorabilia" currently located ? These items, including tools and a propeller built by Whitehead for the 1911 Burridge helicopter, passed into the care and control of William J. O'Dwyer from Stella Randolph who received them from the Whitehead family… where are they ? Are they on display as they are supposed to be under the terms of the Randolph & O'Dwyer agreement ?
In 1974, O'Dwyer and Randolph traveled to Leutershausen, Bavaria (aboard a US military flight) - were the items given to the Deutsche Flugpioniermuseum Gustav-Weißkopf in Leutershausen, Bavaria, Germany ?
Finally, who currently has custody of the books checked out during November 1897 by Gustave Whitehead from the Buffalo New York Public Library ? According to History by Contract, in 1964 Gustave Whitehead's daughter Rose gave them to O'Dwyer, yet they were included in the material that Randolph took into her care in 1934 and so were subject to the various agreements signed by O'Dwyer and Randolph. Have these books been returned to their rightful owner, the Buffalo Public Library ? If not, why not ?
UPDATE: We are reliably informed that the books which are the rightful property of the Buffalo Public Library are on display at the Gustav Weißkopf Museum in Leutershausen, Germany. They ought to be returned, they are long overdue.