Strange as it may sound, we used to be in the habit of saying that if a thing were true, it would be reported in the press. That still echoes in complaints that the news media is not covering whatever one partisan or another wants to see. Yet, it was possible more than a century ago for people to see an extraordinary thing plainly and repeatedly with their own eyes, a technological marvel, and to have the competitive press ignore it because its doyens believed it could not be true.
Wilbur and Orville Wright knew they could fly for the perfectly good reason that they had flown, in a heavier-than-air machine (as opposed to a balloon or a dirigible), and with a motor propelling it. Even more to the point, many people had seen them do it. Yet for years, those in the know – newspaper editors, heads of institutions – said, invariably, “If the Lord intended man to fly he would have given him wings.”
But then, why did he give a man imagination?
Flight was no small prize. The object of the Wrights and others was world-changing. This was one of the instances when practically no one was wrong: Powered flight would change transportation, war and the world. It was hard to overstate, although some tried, inferring it would mean an end to war, and poverty.
The Wrights had demonstrated the practicability of human flight with their glider in 1901 over the sand at Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Then they took the train back to Dayton, Ohio, with photographs to prove it. They refined their design and built the Wright Flyer, with a 180-pound gasoline engine, which they successfully flew in North Carolina at the end of 1903. Again, they took photos – and sent a telegram to their father, asking him to inform the press.
The Dayton Journal refused to cover it, saying the flights were too short to be important.
By the middle of 1904, they had built an improved powered airplane they began to test and fly eight miles east of Dayton, at the site that came to be known as Huffman Prairie. They were really flying now, and many passersby, including lots of interurban trolley passengers, saw them doing it, describing perfect half-circles, maneuvering the plane in wind, at speeds above 30 mph – but the press in Dayton and beyond did not budge.
Dan Kumler, the city editor of the Dayton Daily News, heard the talk and said later, “Frankly, none of us believed it.” Luther Beard, the managing editor of the Journal, who saw them fly, said, “They seemed like well-meaning, decent enough young men. Yet there they were, neglecting their business (at their bicycle shop) to waste their time day after day on that ridiculous flying machine. I had an idea that it must worry their father.” One day, Beard said to Orville, the aeronaut, “If you ever do something unusual, be sure to let us know.”
In 1905, the Huffman Prairie flights got still longer and more intricately controlled. The Wrights had global competitors, many of them in France, who were racing for the prize, and some to beat the Wrights to it – yet the thing had been done and there were loads of eyewitnesses. They had applied for patents.
That year, the august journal Scientific American weighed in: “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country,” it asked, “on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter ... would not have ascertained all about them and published ... long ago?”
The Wrights stopped flying altogether in 1906 and 1907. Finally, late in summer 1908, Wilbur gave a public demonstration of their machine at a racetrack near Le Mans, France, thrilling the press and the public alike. Spectators in the grandstand erupted with unnameable emotions.
In the ultimate we-told-you-so moment, modest, forthright Wilbur kept his feelings close to his vest; and if he allowed himself some slight cynicism, was it any wonder?