Flights Past: The Wright Brothers' Legacy and Dayton, Ohio

During the early twentieth century, a decades long struggle took place between the Wright brothers and the Smithsonian Institution over who first invented an aircraft capable of powered flight. During the "Smithsonian controversy," the institution embarked on a long and dangerous path of using its status as the nation's museum in an attempt to rewrite history. The resulting battle with the Smithsonian Institution as well as other first flight claims left the Wright brothers' legacy in doubt. The Wrights faced a lengthy struggle over their recognition as the inventors of the airplane that lingers a century later. Even their hometown, Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers spent years engineering and perfecting the airplane, hesitated in acknowledging their success. The Smithsonian controversy and other first flight claims drove Wilbur and Orville to engage in a lifelong fight in protecting and assuring their place in history. The Wrights' drive to protect their legacy and Dayton's failure to recognize its aviation roots came together to leave aviation's birthplace without a focal point to commemorate the Wrights. Today, the Wrights' story is told in Dayton and North Carolina in part by the National Park Service, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. However, it took nearly a century before Dayton would finally fully recognize their historic links to the Wright brothers.

To analyze how the Wrights' concern over their legacy and Dayton's neglect of its heritage are linked, a chronological survey of the influencing events, trends, and ramifications is presented. The examined issues are often defined by political, social, cultural, and economic factors. How these factors shaped a definable evolutionary process in the connection between the Wrights' legacy and Dayton's commemoration of the Wrights are explored. The findings illustrate that the Smithsonian set a dangerous precedent by using its power as the nation's museum to advance its version of history. Repercussions from the Smithsonian controversy are seen in Dayton as Orville took the steps he felt were needed to assure the brothers' legacy in the United States.

An upcoming publication by Clay Johnson, Ph.D.

For more information, please contact Clay Johnson