By Steve Goldman
NCSA Member #9
Undoubtedly, one of the twentieth century's most important and far-reaching events occurred on Thursday, December 17, 1903. This was the first successful powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. For better, and at times for worse, this momentous achievement literally changed the world as it existed up until that day.
Building upon knowledge developed by numerous other people before them, Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to achieve free, controlled, and sustained flight in a power driven heavier-than-air machine. These were two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, had come to Kitty Hawk on the coast of North Carolina to test their idea of powered flight. Their experiments with gliders would lead to four successful flights with their powered airplane on December 17, 1903. These four test flights took place from 10:35 a.m. to 12:00 noon, the longest flight being 59 seconds and 852 feet. These flights were witnessed by five local people from the coastal North Carolina area known as the Outer Banks.
The first report of the beginning of the aviation age was printed by the Virginian-Pilo on December 18, 1903. Just how this particular newspaper "scooped" the others is a story in itself and began in the later afternoon of December 17 after the four successful test flights. The Wright brothers were very aware of the importance of the events of that day and were determined that their hometown Dayton newspapers would announce it to the world. As there were no commercial telegraph or telephone lines on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Wrights walked four miles to Kitty Hawk intending to send a telegram to their father in Dayton. At Kitty Hawk, the news could only be sent one of two ways. There was a telegraph line owned by the U.S. Weather Bureau and a telephone line operated by the Coast Guard. Both of these lines connected in Norfolk, Virginia to commercial lines. Orville's message read as follows:
"Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest flight fifty nine seconds inform press home Christmas."
The telegraph operator at Kitty Hawk, Joseph Dosher, sent the message at 3:00 p.m.. After finishing the transmission Dosher told the Wrights that the Norfolk telegraph operator, Charles Grant, asked if he (Grant) could inform a newspaper friend in Norfolk of the story. The Wright's answer was "No!" and Dosher telegraphed this answer to Grant.
While Orville's message was on its way through commercial telegraph channels, the Virginian-Pilot learned of the Wright's flight and were trying to develop the story. Exactly how the Virginia-Pilot learned of the story is still shrouded in mystery but what is certain is that the story from the December 18th edition was written by Keville Glennan, the 23 year old city editor. The Wright's believed that the Norfolk telegraph operator, Grant, passed on the privileged information to the Pilot. Others at the paper insisted that the news came from some of the local eyewitnesses to the flight. Whatever the truth about the source of the story, there were only four newspapers that printed it on December 18th. Three papers printed the story originating from the Virginian-Pilot. They were the Pilot, the New York American, and the Cincinnati Enquirer. The fourth newspaper to report the story on December 18th was the Dayton Evening Herald which used Orville's telegram as the basis of its article.
After December 18th numerous newspapers picked up the story and developed a more accurate version of events that was previously published that first day. Even though the Virginian-Pilot story was quite inaccurate in its details it did have one fact that was correct -- There had been a flight!