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Collection Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress

First Flight

Photograph of First Flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 10:35 AM, December 17, 1903

One of the most famous photographs of all time, this image was made from one of the five-by-seven- inch glass-plate negatives deposited in the Library of Congress in 1949. The camera had been set on a tripod by Orville, who instructed John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Hill Lifesaving Station how and when to snap the shutter. Daniels did exactly as he was told and the result captures with clarity and drama the world's first airplane flight at the exact moment of liftoff. Orville is at the controls, lying on the lower wing with his hips in a movable cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur, running alongside to steady the machine, has just released his hold on the upright strut of the wing and probably stepped back to get a better view. This first flight lasted only twelve seconds and went 120 feet; it was followed by three more flights that day, each longer than the previous flight.

Entry from Diary of Orville Wright, December 17, 1903

In about six pages of his small pocket diary, Orville set down the details of all four flights that the brothers made that day. Rather than reveling in their making history and achieving a dream of mankind, Orville instead provides a matter-of-fact account packed with what he considered the necessary and important details. Thus his retelling of that day's events contains not a hint of emotion nor hardly anything subjective, but concentrates on setting the record straight and getting all the facts down. The only suggestion of drama in Orville's telling is his description of how the wind-tossed machine nearly killed John T. Daniels, who had become tangled in its engine and chains.

Telegram, Orville Wright to Milton Wright, December 17, 1903

Following their eventful and highly successful morning, the Wrights had an unhurried lunch and then walked the few miles to the town of Kitty Hawk to send a telegram to their father. With their machine wrecked by the wind and flying done for the season, the Wrights immediately thought of going home for Christmas. The only telegraph equipment in Kitty Hawk was a government wire at the weather bureau office connected to Norfolk, which passed the message on to Western Union. The telegraph operator at Kitty Hawk was John T. Dosher, with whom the Wrights had corresponded more than three years before. Two errors in transmission were made: Orville's name was misspelled and the time of their longest flight was incorrect (fifty-seven instead of fifty-nine seconds). The telegram reached Dayton, Ohio, at 5:25 P.M. and the brothers returned home with their broken machine on the evening of December 23.

[First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina] [1903 Dec. 17].
Glass negatives from the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-W861-35
[Diary, Orville Wright, 1903]. Diaries and Notebooks: 1903, Orville Wright. Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
[Telegram, Orville Wright to Milton Wright, 17 December 1903]. Family Papers: Correspondence--Wright, Orville, 1903. Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
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