Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute

Dayton, January 29, 1910

Your letter of January 23rd is received. Until confirmed by you, the interview in the New York World of January 17 seemed incredible. We had never had the slightest ground for suspecting that when you repeatedly spoke to us in 1901 of the originality of our methods, you referred only to our methods of driving tacks, fastening wires, etc., and not to the novelty of our general systems. Neither in 1901, nor in the five years following, did you in any way intimate to us that our general system of lateral control had long been a part of the art, and, strangely enough, neither your books, addresses or articles, nor the writings of Lilienthal, Langley, Maxim, Hargrave, etc., made any mention whatever of the existence of such a system. Therefore it came to us with somewhat of a shock when you calmly announced that this system was already a feature of the art well known, and that you meant only the mechanical details when you referred to its novelty. If the idea was really old in the art, it is somewhat remarkable that a system so important that individual ownership of it is considered to threaten strangulation of the art was not considered worth mentioning then, nor embodied in any machine built prior to ours.

The patent of Mouillard, to which you refer, does not even mention the control of the lateral balance, nor disclose a system by which it is possible to attain it. I have read several of the books of Marey and Pettigrew, as well as what your book says on d'Esterno, Le Bris, etc., but I do not find in any of them any mention whatever of controlling lateral balance by adjustments of wings to respectively different angles of incidence on the right and left sides. Have you ever found such mention? It is not disputed that every person who is using this system today owes it to us and to us alone. The French aviators freely admit it. No legal disclosure of the system prior to us has yet been produced. Unless something as yet unknown to anybody is brought to light to prove the invention technically known to everybody prior to 1900, our warped judgment will probably continue to be confirmed by the other judges as it was by Judge Hazel at Buffalo.

As to inordinate desire for wealth, you are the only person acquainted with us who has ever made such an accusation. We believed that the physical and financial risks which we took, and the value of the service to the world, justified sufficient compensation to enable us to live modestly with enough surplus income to permit the devotion of our future time to scientific experimenting instead of business. We spent several years of valuable time trying to work out plans which would have made us independent without hampering the invention by the commercial exploitation of the patents. These efforts would have succeeded but for jealousy and envy. It was only when we found that the sale of the patents offered the only way to obtain compensation for our labors of 1900 1906 that we finally permitted the chance of making the invention free to the world to pass from our hands. You apparently concede to us no right to compensation for the solution of a problem ages old except such as is granted to persons who had no part in producing the invention. That is to say, we may compete with mountebanks for a chance to earn money in the mountebank business, but are entitled to nothing whatever for past work as inventors. If holding a different view constitutes us almost criminals, as some seem to think, we are not ashamed. We honestly think that our work of 1900 1906 has been and will be of value to the world, and that the world owes us something as inventors, regardless of whether we personally make Roman holidays for accident loving crowds.

You mention as a grievance that French papers some time ago attributed to me some disparaging remarks concerning your helpfulness to us. Without having seen the report I cannot affirm or deny its correctness. But we also have had grievances extending back as far as 1902, and on one occasion several years ago we complained to you that an impression was being spread broadcast by newspapers that we were mere pupils and dependants, of yours. You indignantly denied that you were responsible for it. When I went to France I found everywhere an impression that we had taken up aeronautical studies at your special instigation; that we obtained our first experience on one of your machines; that we were pupils of yours and put into material form a knowledge furnished by you; that you provided the funds; in short, that you furnished the science and money while we contributed a little mechanical skill, and that when success had been achieved you magnanimously stepped aside and permitted us to enjoy the rewards. I cannot remember that I ever spoke for publication regarding the matter. The difficulty of correcting the errors without seeming to disparage you and hurting your feelings kept me silent, though I sometimes restrained myself with difficulty. However, I several times said privately that we had taken up the study of aeronautics long before we had any acquaintance with you; that our ideas of control were radically different from yours both before and throughout our acquaintance; that the systems of control which we carried to success were absolutely our own, and had been embodied in a machine and tested before you knew anything about them and before our first meeting with you; that in 1900 and 1901 we used the tables and formulas found in books, but finding the results did not agree with the calculations, we made extensive laboratory experiments and prepared tables of our own which we used exclusively in all of our subsequent work; that the solution of the screw propeller problem was ours; that we designed all of our machines from first to last, originated and worked out the principles of control, constructed the machines, and made all the tests at our own cost; that you built several machines embodying your ideas in 1901 and 1902 which were tested at our camp by Mr. Herring, but that we had never made a flight on any of your machines, nor your men on any of ours, and that in the sense in which the expression was used in France we had never been pupils of yours, though we had been very close friends, had carried on very voluminous correspondence, and discussed our work very freely with you.

If the remarks you complain of exceeded mere corrections of such errors as I have enumerated above, and the mention of features peculiarly our own such as I have cited, I can safely say that the reported remarks are not correct. We have had too much appreciation of your real helpfulness to us to wish to deny it, and have suffered much rather than risk hurting your feelings by attempting to publicly correct gross errors which did us great injustice. I cannot understand your objection to what I said at the Boston dinner about your visit to Dayton in 1901. 1 certainly never had a thought of intimating either that you had or had not been the first to seek an acquaintance between us. You also object to my expressing an appreciation of the influence which your friendship had on our work and lives. One of the World articles said that you had felt hurt because we had been silent regarding our indebtedness to you. I confess that I have found it most difficult to formulate a precise statement of what you contributed to our success. General statements do not seem to be very satisfactory to you or to us. We on our part have been much hurt by your apparent backwardness in correcting mistaken impressions, but we have assumed that you too have found it difficult to substitute for the erroneous reports a really satisfactory precise statement of the truth. If such a statement could be prepared it would relieve a situation very painful both to you and to us.

I have written with great frankness because I feel that such frankness is really more healthful to friendship than the secretly nursed bitterness which has been allowed to grow for so long a time. I expect that we will always continue to disagree in many of our opinions just as we have done ever since our first acquaintance began and even before, but such differences need not disturb a friendship which has existed so long. We do not insist that friends shall always agree with us.

As for the real source of bitterness, I may say that we endured it many years in silence, before you had occasion to experience any pain on account of it. We restrained ourselves from requesting you to make a public correction of the erroneous impressions so widespread both in America and in Europe, because we appreciated how difficult and embarrassing it would be for you to modify all the things credited to you, without appearing to disclaim some things really your due. If we should ourselves attempt to make such corrections and modifications, the general effect would be the same, with the added drawback of making us appear to disparage you. We have never desired to give you less credit than you have deserved for your helpfulness to us and to other experimenters, and we have no such desire now. We do object to some erroneous impressions which have gradually grown up with regard to our relations to each other. If anything can be done to straighten matters out to the satisfaction of both you and us, we are not only willing, but anxious to do our part. There is no pleasure to us in the situation which has existed for several years past, and a solution of the difficulties would be most welcome. We have no wish to quarrel with a man toward whom we ought to preserve a feeling of gratitude.

P.S. I enclose a sample of the class of misrepresentations connected with your name. It just came in today. We had nothing whatever to do with ordering a machine from Lamson. Our sole connection with the matter consisted in providing you camp facillties for testing it. It was a Chanute machine. The story ought to be corrected.1

1 The story, clipped from the Los Angeles Express, was datelined Pasadena, January 19, and stated that Lamson, who asserted that he was the first to patent the "airship feature" in dispute in the suit between the Wrights and Curtiss, had interviewed Curtiss, and that Curtiss would avail himself of the Lamson patent which would probably render the Wrights' claims ineffectual. It further stated that Lamson, in 1901 [1902], through the agency of Chanute, had built a glider for the Wrights and shipped it to them at Kitty Hawk.

Something of Chanute's reactions to Wilbur Wright's letters of January 10 and 20, 1910, may be judged from two of his letters to George A. Spratt: Jan. 25: ". . . I have made no statement at all to the Phila. Ledger. That which you saw may have been a reproduction of an interview in the N.Y. World of Jan. 17th, concerning which Wilbur Wright took me to task, thus giving me an opportunity to partly free my mind concerning the mistakes which I believe he is making. He has greatly changed his attitude within the last three years.

"If you still have the Phila. Ledger article, please send it to me to be read and returned."

Feb. 2: I return the Ledger clipping of Jan. 19, but that of 17th I retain until I get a duplicate from Philadelphia which I have sent for, as I propose to send it to Wilbur Wright.

"He wrote me an angry letter, taking exceptions to what I said about the warping of the wings in an interview published in the N.Y. World of Jan. 17th, which I enclose and which I beg you to return. I answered reiterating the opinion and giving the basis on pages 97 and 106 of my book, as well as the Mouillard patent, and now have a violent letter from him in which he disputes my opinion, brings up various grievances and quite loses his temper. I will answer him in a few days, but the prospects are that we will have a row. I am reluctant to engage in this, but I think I am entitled to some consideration for such aid as I may have furnished."

Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, April 28, 1910