American Memory | The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers

The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers: About the Collection

-- The Archival Collection -- The Online Collection -- The Glass Plate Negatives

The Archival Collection

The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers are housed in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. The Wright Papers were given to the Library of Congress by the executors of Orville Wright's estate in 1949. Other items were added to the collection through purchase, transfer, and gift between 1949 and 1999.

The Wright Papers consist primarily of correspondence but also include diaries and notebooks, scrapbooks, printed matter, drawings, and other miscellaneous materials. The manuscripts span the years 1809 through 1979, but the bulk of the papers dates from 1900 to 1948. They document the lives of Wilbur and Orville Wright as well as their development of and flight of the first powered machine.

The Wright Papers are arranged into seven series: Diaries and Notebooks, Family Papers, General Correspondence, Subject File, Scrapbooks, Marvin W. McFarland File, and Oversize. The part of the collection that was microfilmed consists of fifteen reels.

In addition, letters from Wilbur and Orville Wright to Octave Chanute (1832-1910) from the Octave Chanute Papers, also housed in the Manuscript Division, were selected and scanned. That collection was given to the Library of Congress by Elizabeth and Octavia Chanute in 1950. The Wright letters are from the Special Correspondence Series in the Chanute Papers.

The Online Collection

The collection presented online is a selection of the original Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers. The online presentation of the Wright Papers totals about 10,121 library items, or approximately 49,084 digital images. Dates span from 1881 to 1952, with the bulk of the papers covering the years 1900 to 1940.

Materials from six of the seven series were digitized. The Diaries and Notebooks Series are among the most significant of the papers because they record many of their glides and powered flights at Kitty Hawk and elsewhere as well as their scientific experiments and data. The Family Papers Series provide the necessary family context, as Wilbur and Orville corresponded extensively with their family, especially their father, Bishop Milton Wright, and their sister, Katharine. The General Correspondence Series contains letters from many correspondents who are significant in the field of aeronautics or well known to the general public. The most significant materials in the Subject File Series, covering the Wrights' research, work, and business pursuits, also were selected for digitization. The scrapbooks document the Wrights, their flights and other activities, and their family and friends. The first five reels of scrapbooks cover the most interesting period and presented the lesser burden of copyright permissions work. Selected items from the Oversize Series, such as charts and blueprints, were scanned as well.

As noted, the Wrights' letters to Octave Chanute in the Chanute Papers are also included in this online collection. Chanute, a civil engineer and aviation pioneer, was the Wrights' mentor and friend. These letters give a first-person account of their problems and progress in inventing the airplane.

This online presentation of the Wright Papers contains the most significant and best portions of the original collection. Several factors influenced the selection of materials for digitization–particularly limited staff, resources, and time necessary for processing of the collection. A large amount of material either too difficult to read or to understand were omitted; examples include illegible letterbooks and laboratory notebooks filled with unintelligible notes. Duplicates, notes inserted by Library staff, and exhibit captions were not scanned. A significant number of clippings and other printed matter were not selected in order to reduce time spent on copyright clearance work. Additionally, in some folders, only Wright response correspondence was selected for scanning.

Peculiarities appear throughout the Wright Papers. For instance, in the Fred C. Kelly files in the General Correspondence Series, Kelly's letters were often written on unusual stationery as well as the versos of forms, letterhead stationery, or certificates. Among the George A. Spratt files in the same series there are a large number of photocopies of letters, which were supplied by a donor in place of the originals that the Library does not own. For a few bound volumes, large series of blank pages were not scanned; therefore, some page numbers have been skipped. Occasionally, items in a folder are not in chronological order. All the materials were placed in proper order during reprocessing; but, since the collection remained open during the project, the disorder is most likely a result of researcher use just before the scanning of that folder.

The Glass Plate Negatives

Among the Wright Papers acquired by the Library of Congress were 303 glass plate negatives, most taken by the Wright brothers themselves between 1896 and 1911 to document successes and failures with their new flying machines. These photographs provide an excellent pictorial record of the Wright brothers' laboratory, engines, kites, gliders, powered machines, flights, and even their accidents. There are also individual and group portraits of the Wright brothers and their family and friends, as well as views of their homes, other buildings, towns, and landscapes. The glass plate negatives are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library.

The Wright brothers' use of photography to record their experiments was consistent with their deliberate scientific methods. The Wright brothers were aware of the importance of photography to their work, both scientifically and historically. They maintained a notebook in which they listed the time of exposure, stop setting, date, place, type of plate used, and subject matter for each photograph. Their notes show that they used standard plates of the period-- orthochromatic, nonhalation, and Stanley plates--and that they occasionally employed flashlight techniques for interior views.

All 303 glass plate negatives were scanned, producing 1,212 images. The original glass plate negatives are of two sizes: 4x5 inch (LC-W85 series) and 5x7 inch (LC-W86 series). The scarring visible on some photos occurred when the glass plates were submerged for several days in the 1913 Dayton, Ohio, flood.

The most well-known negative is, of course, "First Flight" at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The brothers arranged to have John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, who was among the spectators, snap their camera for them just at the moment that the machine had reached the end of the take-off rail and had risen two feet into the air. Before attempting the flight, Orville had placed the camera on a tripod and aimed it at a point he hoped the machine would attain when it left the track. The shot was successful and the negative was developed by Orville on his return to Dayton. The reproduction number for this negative is LC-W861-35 (digital file: LC-DIG-ppprs- 00626).

American Memory | The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers