Ohio Memory Madness 2015: The Wright Brothers and the First Flight Photograph

First powered flight photograph from the collections of Wright State University, via Ohio Memory.
First powered flight photograph from the collections of Wright State University, via Ohio Memory.

On Thursday, December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., Orville Wright succeeded in making the world’s first powered, controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air machine. The plane flew for 12 seconds, covering a distance of 120 feet (a speed of approximately 7-8 mph). Meanwhile, Wilbur Wright, Orville’s older brother and co-inventor of the machine, ran alongside. A local, John T. Daniels, captured the event in one of the world’s most famous photographs, seen above, using Orville’s camera. They did not even know if the photograph had been recorded until they returned home to Dayton, Ohio, and developed the film.

Younger brother Orville, who was at the helm for the first flight, via Ohio Memory.
Younger brother Orville, who was at the helm for the first flight, via Ohio Memory.

The First Powered Flight Photograph documents one of man’s greatest achievements. In addition, it is significant as an example of how the Wright Brothers’ interest in photography has provided the world with an extremely well-documented visual record of their flight experiments, as well as their lives.

The brothers made three more successful flights that day. Following the last and longest flight—852 feet and lasting nearly 1 full minute—a gust of wind damaged the plane, and they were unable to fly it again. Around 5:30 p.m. that same day, back in Dayton, Bishop Milton Wright received a telegram from his son Orville, sharing the good news of the successful flights:

Success four flights Thursday morning all against a twenty-one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through the air thirty one miles–longest 57 seconds. XXX home Christmas. Orville Wright.

As promised, Wilbur and Orville returned to their family in Dayton in time for Christmas, arriving on the evening of December 23.

Elder brother Wilbur, who was pictured running alongside, via Ohio Memory.
Elder brother Wilbur, who was pictured running alongside, via Ohio Memory.

The following account was written by Orville and Wilbur Wright and published as “The Wright Brothers’ Aëroplane” in the September 1908 issue of Century Magazine, to give people a first-person account of how they invented flight:

The first flights with the power-machine were made on the 17th of December, 1903. Only five persons besides ourselves were present. These were Messrs. John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, and A. D. Etheridge of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station ; Mr. W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Mr. John Ward of Naghead. Although a general invitation had been extended to the people living within five or six miles, not many were willing to face the rigors of a cold December wind in order to see, as they no doubt thought, another flying-machine not fly. The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was, nevertheless, the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked. The second and third flights were a little longer, and the fourth lasted fifty-nine seconds, covering a distance of 852 feet over the ground against a twenty-mile wind.

The First Powered Flight Photograph is part of the Wright Brothers Collection of Wright State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives in Dayton, Ohio. To learn more about the first flight or the Wright Brothers, please visit their web page about the Wright Brothers Collection, or visit their Out of the Box blog. There are additional photos of the first flight and over 2,000 more photos from the Wright Brothers Collection in CORE Scholar, Wright State University’s Campus Online Repository. To contact Wright State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, email archives@www.libraries.wright.edu or call (937) 775-2092.


Thank you to our friends at Wright State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, one of our partners on this year’s Ohio Memory Madness, for this post! Stay tuned to hear about more images still in the running to be this year’s champion.

Leave a Reply