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The First Reporter

Wright Brothers homepage

Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you...

Almost as astonishing as the fact that a pair of bicycle shop owners invented the airplane is the fact that the first accurate reporting about some of their earliest powered flights appeared not in the New York Times or Scientific American but in an obscure journal for beekeepers. How did this happen? For one thing, the Wright Brothers were publicity shy and fiercely secretive about their invention and did not invite reporters to witness their historic first flights. For another, the press and the general public had a cried-wolf-too-often dismissiveness about any claims to have achieved sustained flight. In the end, however, it really came down to the fact that A. I. Root, who wrote three entries about the Wrights' accomplishments in his journal Gleanings in Bee Culture in 1904 and 1905, happened to be at the right place at the right time, with a burning fascination for what the "two Ohio boys" were up to.

Root first told his readers about how the Wrights had "outstripped the world in demonstrating that a flying machine can be constructed without the use of a balloon" in the March 1, 1904, issue of Gleanings, less than three months after the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Root didn't witness that groundbreaking launch, but the following September, Root was on hand at Huffman Prairie in Ohio when the Wrights made the first-ever flight in which a plane circled around and returned to its starting point. Here, we present Root's amazed yet considered assessment of that day and what it signaled as well as another short piece he published two weeks later. In both articles, Root's delightfully avuncular personality shines through, even as he struggles to find a way to describe what no one had ever seen before.—Peter Tyson

The following comes from the "Our Homes" section of Gleanings in Bee Culture, January 1, 1905, edition, pages 36 to 39, alongside articles such as "How I Manage Swarming" and "Judging Honey at Fairs." This excerpt, and the one that follows, has been edited for punctuation, to remove asides, and to break Root's very long paragraphs into more manageable ones; otherwise they appear as he wrote them nearly a century ago.

What hath God wrought?—NUM. 23:23.

Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you—a story that, in some respects, outrivals the Arabian Nights fables—a story, too, with a moral that I think many of the younger ones need, and perhaps some of the older ones too if they will heed it. God in his great mercy has permitted me to be, at least somewhat, instrumental in ushering in and introducing to the great wide world an invention that may outrank the electric cars, the automobiles, and all other methods of travel, and one which may fairly take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy. Am I claiming a good deal? Well, I will tell my story, and you shall be the judge. . . .

. . . I am now going to tell you something of two . . . boys, a minister's boys, who love machinery, and who are interested in the modern developments of science and art. Their names are Orville and Wilbur Wright, of Dayton, Ohio. I made mention of them and their work on page 241 of our issue for March 1 last. You may remember it. These two, perhaps by accident, or maybe as a matter of taste, began studying the flights of birds and insects. From this they turned their attention to what has been done in the way of enabling men to fly. They not only studied nature, but they procured the best books, and I think I may say all the papers, the world contains on this subject. When I first became acquainted with them, and expressed a wish to read up all there was on the subject, they showed me a library that astonished me; and I soon found they were thoroughly versed, not only in regard to our present knowledge, but everything that had been done in the past.

These boys (they are men now), instead of spending their summer vacation with crowds, and with such crowds as are often questionable, as so many do, went away by themselves to a desert place by the seacoast. You and I have in years past found enjoyment and health in sliding down hill on the snow; but these boys went off to that sandy waste on the Atlantic coast to slide down hill too; but instead of sliding on snow and ice they slid on air. With a gliding machine made of sticks and cloth they learned to glide and soar from the top of a hill to the bottom; and by making not only hundreds but more than a thousand experiments, they became so proficient in guiding these gliding machines that they could sail like a bird, and control its movements up and down as well as sidewise.

Now, this was not altogether for fun or boys' play.* [Footnote: *When I suggested that, even though sliding down hill on the air was very nice, it must have been quite a task to carry the machine back to the top of the hill every time, the reply was something like this: "Oh! no, Mr. Root—no task at all. Just remember that we always sail against the wind; and by a little shifting of the position, the wind does the greater part of the work in carrying it back." It just blows it back (whenever the wind is strong enough) up hill to the starting-point.] They had a purpose in view.

Well, these two men spent several summers in that wild place, secure from intrusion, with their gliding machine. When they became experts they brought in, as they had planned to do, a gasoline-engine to furnish power, and made a little success with their apparatus before winter set [in]. As soon as the weather would permit, their experiments were resumed the past season. You may have seen something in regard to it in the papers; but as their purpose has been from the beginning to the end to avoid publicity, the great outside world has had but very little opportunity of knowing what is going on. The conditions were so different after applying power that it seemed at first, to a great extent, as if they would have to learn the trade of guiding their little ship all over again. At first they went only a few hundred feet; and as the opportunity for practice in guiding and controlling it was only a few seconds at a time, their progress was necessarily very slow. . . .

“I recognized at once they were really scientific explorers who were serving the world in much the same way that Columbus did when he discovered America.”

. . . I found them in a pasture lot of 87 acres, a little over half a mile long and nearly as broad. The few people who occasionally got a glimpse of the experiments, evidently considered it only another Darius Green [a youth in a famous poem by John Townsend Trowbridge who tries but fails to fly], but I recognized at once they were really scientific explorers who were serving the world in much the same way that Columbus did when he discovered America, and just the same way that Edison, Marconi, and a host of others have done all along through the ages.

In running an automobile or a bicycle you have to manage the steering only to the right and left; but an air-ship has to be steered up and down also. When I first saw the apparatus it persisted in going up and down like the waves of the sea. Sometimes it would dig its nose in the dirt, almost in spite of the engineer. After repeated experiments it was finally cured of its foolish tricks, and was made to go like a steady old horse. This work, mind you, was all new. Nobody living could give them any advice. It was like exploring a new and unknown domain.

Shall I tell you how they cured it of bobbing up and down? Simply by loading its nose or front steering-apparatus with cast iron. In my ignorance I thought the engine was not large enough; but when fifty pounds of iron was fastened to its "nose" (as I will persist in calling it), it came down to a tolerably straight line and carried the burden with ease. There was a reason for this that I cannot explain here. Other experiments had to be made in turning from right to left; and, to make the matter short, it was my privilege, on the 20th day of September, 1904, to see the first successful trip of an airship, without a balloon to sustain it, that the world has ever made, that is, to turn the corners and come back to the starting-point.

During all of these experiments they have kept so near the soft marshy ground that a fall would be no serious accident, either to the machine or its occupant. In fact, so carefully have they managed, that, during these years of experimenting, nothing has happened to do any serious damage to the machine nor to give the boys more than what might be called a severe scratch. I think great praise is due them along this very line. They have been prudent and cautious. I told you there was not another machine equal to such a task as I have mentioned, on the face of the earth; and, furthermore, just now as I dictate there is probably not another man besides these two who has learned the trick of controlling it.

In making this last trip of rounding the circle, the machine was kept near the ground, except in making the turns. If you will watch a large bird when it swings around in a circle you will see its wings are tipped up at an incline. This machine must follow the same rule; and to clear the tip of the inside wing it was found necessary to rise to a height of perhaps 20 or 25 feet. When the engine is shut off the apparatus glides to the ground very quietly, and alights on something much like a pair of light sled-runners, sliding over the grassy surface perhaps a rod or more. Whenever it is necessary to slow up the speed before alighting, you turn the nose up hill. It will then climb right up on the air until the momentum is exhausted, when, by skillful management, it can be dropped as lightly as a feather.

Since the above was written they have twice succeeded in making four complete circles without alighting, each circle passing the starting-point. These circles are nearly a mile in circumference each; and the last flight made, Dec. 1, could have been prolonged indefinitely had it not been that the rudder was in such position it cramped the hand of the operator so he was obliged to alight. The longest flight took only five minutes and four seconds by the watch. Over 100 flights have been made during the past summer. Some of them reached perhaps 50 or 60 feet above ground. On both these long trips seventy pounds instead of fifty of cast iron was carried on the "nose."

“This great progressive world cannot afford to take the risk of losing the life of either of these two men.”

Everybody is ready to say, "Well, what use it? What good will it do?" These are questions no man can answer yet. However, I will give you a suggestion or two. The man who made this last trip said there was no difficulty whatever in going above the trees or anywhere he chose; but perhaps wisdom would dictate he should have still more experience a little nearer the ground. The machine easily made 30 or 40 miles an hour, and this in going only a little more than half a mile straight ahead. No doubt it would get up a greater speed if allowed to do so—perhaps, with the wind, a mile a minute after the first mile. The manager could doubtless go outside of the field and bring it back safely, to be put in the little house where it is kept nights.

But no matter how much time it takes, I am sure all the world will commend the policy so far pursued—go slowly and carefully, and avoid any risk that might cause the loss of a human life. This great progressive world cannot afford to take the risk of losing the life of either of these two men.* [Footnote: *If these two men should be taken away by accident or otherwise, there is probably no one living who could manage the machine. With these men to teach them "the trade," however, there are plenty who could doubtless learn it in a few weeks.]

I have suggested before, friends, that the time may be near at hand when we shall not need to fuss with good roads nor railway tracks, bridges, etc., at such an enormous expense. With these machines we can bid adieu to all these things. God's free air, that extends all over the earth, and perhaps miles above us, is our training field. Rubber tires, and the price of rubber, are no longer "in it." The thousand and one parts of the automobile that go to make its construction, and to give it strength, can all be dispensed with.

You can set your basket of eggs almost anywhere on the upper or lower deck, they will not even rattle unless it be when they come to alight. There are hundreds of queer things coming to light in regard to this new method of travel; and I confess it is not clear to me, even yet, how that little aluminum engine, with four paddles, does the work. I asked the question, "Boys, would that engine and these two propellers raise the machine from the ground if placed horizontally above it?"

"Certainly not, Mr. Root. They would not lift a quarter of its weight."

"Then how is it possible that it sustains it in the air as it is?"

The answer involves a strange point in the wonderful discovery of air navigation. When some large bird or butterfly is soaring with motionless wings, a very little power from behind will keep it moving. Well, if this motion is kept up, a very little incline of the wings will keep it from falling. A little more incline, and a little more push from behind, and the bird or the butterfly, or the machine created by human hands, will gradually rise in the air. I was surprised at the speed, and I was astonished at the wonderful lifting power of this comparatively small apparatus. When I saw it pick up the 50 pounds of iron so readily I asked if I might ride in place of the iron. I received, by way of assurance, the answer that the machine would no doubt carry me easily. You see then I would have the "front seat"; and even if it is customary (or used to be in olden times) to accord the front seat to the ladies, I think the greater part of them would say, "Oh! Sit still, Mr. Root. Do not think of getting up to give us your seat."

“Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you.”

At first there was considerable trouble about getting the machine up in the air and the engine well up to speed. They did this by running along a single-rail track perhaps 200 feet long. It was also, in the early experiments, found advisable to run against the wind, because they could then have a greater time to practice in the air and not get so far away from the building where it was stored. Since they can come around to the starting-point, however, they can start with the wind even behind them; and with a strong wind behind it is an easy matter to make even more than a mile a minute. The operator takes his place lying flat on his face. This position offers less resistance to the wind. The engine is started and got up to speed. The machine is held until ready to start by a sort of trap to be sprung when all is ready; then with a tremendous flapping and snapping of the four-cylinder engine, the huge machine springs aloft.

When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say—a locomotive made of aluminum. Well, now, imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw. The younger brother bade me move to one side for fear it might come down suddenly; but I tell you, friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.

The attendant at one time, when the rope came off that started it, said he was shaking from head to foot as if he had a fit of ague. His shaking was uncalled for, however, for the intrepid manager succeeded in righting up his raft, and she made one of her very best flights. I may add, however, that the apparatus is secured by patents, both in this and in foreign countries; and as nobody else has as yet succeeded in doing anything like what they have done I hope no millionaire or syndicate will try to rob them of the invention or laurels they have so fairly and honestly earned.

When Columbus discovered America he did not know what the outcome would be, and no one at that time knew; and I doubt if the wildest enthusiast caught a glimpse of what really did come from his discovery. In a like manner these two brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men. No one living can give a guess of what is coming along this line, much better than any one living could conjecture the final outcome of Columbus' experiment when he pushed off through the trackless waters. Possibly we may be able to fly over the north pole, even if we should not succeed in tacking the "stars and stripes" to its uppermost end.

A fortnight after the above entry appeared, Root published, in the January 15, 1905, issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, a pen-enhanced photograph of one of the Wright brothers flying one of their early gliders (see image at right), with this accompanying note:


I shall have to apologize a little, friends, for giving a picture of the gliding-machine instead of a flying-machine; and I shall have to apologize a little more because the rudder in the rear that guides it from right to left is not shown in the cut; neither are the diagonal wire braces shown. You will recollect the machine is made of white canvas. The wires are also white; and with the clear sky for a background it was very difficult to get a clearly defined picture. To make it a little plainer the outlines have been marked with ink, as you will observe.

The back side of the planes shows the outline as it really appears. The cotton is stretched over a light framework of light sticks, giving it somewhat the appearance of a bird's wing; for both planes, upper and lower, are concave to some extent. The front rudder, that changes the course of the machine up or down, is a small independent plane that can be raised or lowered out of its level by the operator. The back rudder that does not show in the picture consists of two vertical planes that can be revolved on a pivot so as to turn the machine either to the right or left. The operator, Mr. Wilbur Wright, if I am correct, is shown very plainly.

“No drinking man should ever be allowed to undertake to run a flying-machine.”

It has often been remarked that one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a ship under full sail, especially a new sailing vessel with clean white canvas. There is something especially exhilarating about the way in which the canvas catches the wind and sends the ship scudding through the waves. But to me the sight of a machine like the one I have pictured, with its white canvas planes and rudders subject to human control, is one of the grandest and most inspiring sights I have ever seen on earth; and when you see one of these graceful crafts sailing over your head, and possibly over your home, as I expect you will in the near future, see if you don't agree with me that the flying machine is one of God's most gracious and precious gifts.

I mention at the outset that the picture represents the gliding-machine. Well, the flying-machine is the same thing with the aluminum engine which stands right close to the operator and the pair of propellers, one each side of the back rudder. When in flight the propellers are invisible. Their action is very much like the motion of a bee's wing—perhaps not quite as rapid. But the picture as we give it gives you a very fair idea of the new vehicle that requires no macadam road, no iron rails, and no expensive bridges.

Its highway is God's free air; and as it has only the vaulted heavens above to fence off our domain, there surely should not be any dispute about the "right of way"; neither should there be any difficulty in the way of collisions or getting in each other's way. The automobile is largely restricted in making speed by other vehicles, especially where the driver does not wish to annoy or inconvenience any of his fellow men. If anybody gets in our way with the air-ship we not only have ample space to go around him to the right or to the left, but we can "duck under" or scoot over his head if it seems advisable. There does not seem to be much danger in the way of loss of life unless something happens to the front rudder; and that is one feature that should be made safe beyond the possibility of an accident. While up in the air there is but very little to injure or to put any great strain on any part of the machinery. If you run into a tree or a house, of course there would a smash-up. No drinking man should ever be allowed to undertake to run a flying-machine.

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Portrait of A.I. Root

A. I. Root, beekeeper and aviation's first true journalist

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Wright brothers

Wilbur (left) and Orville Wright at home in Dayton, Ohio, June 1909

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1901 glider

With help from local hands, Wilbur Wright pilots the 1901 glider at Kitty Hawk.

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1903 Flyer final flight

Perhaps the most famous image in aviation history: With his brother running alongside, Orville pilots the Wright Flyer in the first of its four historic flights on December 17, 1903.

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A. I. with plane

A. I. Root sits in the passenger seat of a Wright airplane at the county fair in Medina, Ohio, circa 1915.

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1903 Flyer broken

The Wright Flyer lies disabled by a rogue gust of wind after its fourth and final flight on December 17, 1903—the day the airplane age began.

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Gleanings in Bee Culture of January 15, 1905

The January 15, 1905, issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, like two previous issues that mention the Wrights' earliest accomplishments, has become an historic relic.

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Wright's flyer page

Ever concerned with accuracy, Root apologized to his readers for printing a photograph of the Wright Glider rather the Wright Flyer.

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Wright Brothers' Flying Machine
The Unlikely Inventors

The Unlikely Inventors
Tom Crouch on why the Wright brothers succeeded where so many others failed.

The First Reporter

The First Reporter
Amazingly, initial coverage of the Wrights' earliest flights appeared in a beekeeping journal.

Pilot the 1903 Flyer

Pilot the 1903 Flyer
In this interactive, see how the Wright brothers solved the problem of steering.

Getting Airborne

Getting Airborne
and Wing Designs

See how a plane achieves enough lift to take off and how airfoil shapes affect the way a plane flies.

Building Wright Replicas

Building Wright Replicas
View a collection of photos taken during the reconstruction of original Wright brothers aircraft.

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NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions