Wrights fly first airplane, 1903
“Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”, “they go up diddley up-up, they go down diddley down-down”, up, down, flying around, impressing the ladies and defying the ground”. Those are the lyrics from the theme song of the 1965 British comedy of the same title, about a 1910 air race, sponsored by a Newspaper. In the movie, “aeronauts” as they were called, from many countries, competed to see who had the best “flying machine”, design and piloting skills. It is truly a great film even now, and I couldn’t help but think of it as I browsed articles and looked for something on the Wright Brothers historical December 17, 1903 flight. I found many articles about many different flying machines, and many of the pioneering people in avionics, as I searched the S.F. Chronicle and the New York Times from 1901 to 1909. The funny thing is that until 1908, when the Wrights started successfully testing an airplane they had built for the U.S. government, there was not much coverage of their 1903 flight at all. The “Newseum Top News Stories of the Century List” has the “Wrights fly first airplane” ranked a solid # 4, so one might expect to find a lot of media coverage, which did happen years latter, but when they made the breakthrough flight at Kitty Hawk they were virtually ignored by the press. The New York Times reported nothing, while the S.F. Chronicle had one small article (page 7) on Dec. 18th and one small slanted article (page 6) on Dec. 19th. In real life, just like in the movie, there was a big air race being held at the Worlds Fair in St Louis in 1904, and the prize was $100,000.00, a lot of money in those days. The press was into reporting about it but the Wrights were not competing, probably because they weren’t ready at that time. The only airships that had a chance were the lighter-than-air “dirigibles”, and even they didn’t do vary well. The problem was in not being able to control and navigate the aircraft in any wind. Since the only things that had been able to sustain flight were lighter-than-air, the air just pushed them around like the big balloons that they were. Brave inventers from many countries were all trying to solve the problem of navigation. Dirigibles and heavier-than-air flying machines of all shapes and sizes were being experimented with and the Newspapers had a lot to choose from but were skeptical because of the many failures. However there was good public interest in the stories of mans attempts at what some articles called “unnatural” or “artificial” flight. People were starting to become more interested in things scientific and investigative reporting was becoming more popular at that time. Yellow Journalism had been common in the1890s and by this time Newspapers were trying to be more accurate with the facts and build credibility. It was the beginning of the "Progressive Era" in Journalism. The Times and Chronicle had many articles about more prominent aeronautical pioneers such as the Brazilian dirigible pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, Alexander Graham Bell and his box kites, and Samuel P. Langley Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution among others. As Johnathon Briggs of the Baltimore Sun puts it, Part of the disbelief in the Wrights accomplishment came from Samuel P. Langley’s failure with his $70,000.00 “Aerodrome” just nine days before. If Dr. Langley of the Smithsonian couldn’t do it, how could these Wrights pull it off? Also the idea of man flying was new and mostly only accepted as possible by the scientific community. The Church was saying things like “if God had meant for man to fly, he would have given him wings”. And journalists were also critical with quotes like: “Flying machines are evidently nothing better than dangerous toys, and probably never will be anything else”, from an article titled “An Aerial Tragedy” S.F. Chronicle (Jul. 20 1905). For the Wright Brothers though the press, who were critical already, was down right cold. The second article by the Chronicle on Dec. 19th titled “New Flying Machine Record”, calls their flying machine a “novelty in aeronautics”, and ends by saying “it cannot ascend or move through the air in any direction except against the wind. It is therefore, of no value as an airship.” The Wright Brothers advances were just not understood yet by the press.
Modern News coverage of the aviation industry is subjected to limeted or edited access to information as developments are usually kept secret and the Press is managed by P.R. people. Of course as new developments like the unmanned radio controlled airplanes are being tested in the field it becomes easier to get the story. The problem is that the test field for new aircraft has historically been the battlefield. Like now it's Iraq. In times of war you can't expect the whole truth about sensitive things like weapons systems.
Schudson, Michael, “Discovering the News”, (1978), Basic Books, Inc.
JOUR> 301 sp.2009, course materials and lectures
New York Times Historical articles on ProQuest at SFPL, News Dated 1901 to 1909
San Francisco Chronicle Historical on ProQuest at SFPL, News Dated 1901 to 1909
Briggs, Johnathon E. “Writes Flew into a Newspaper Fog” (2003) Baltimore Sun
“Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” film, 1965, produced by Stan Marguiles, written and directed by Ken Annalakin