Orevelle Wright telegram

Did you know that in December 1903, Christmas shopping was more important news than the Wright brothers first flight?

The telegram from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, went like this:

“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 57 seconds inform Press
home Christmas .   Orevelle Wright.”

An unbelievable story, just a week before Christmas. Bishop Milton Wright could not believe his eyes—his youngest sons made four short flights on a windy beach in North Carolina. The Bishop had his daughter Katherine confirm the contents of the telegram, then followed Orville’s instructions; he informed the press. Lorin Wright, Wilbur and Orville’s older brother, took the telegram to the Associated Press at the Dayton Journal.

And the news had a hard time getting the story right, right before Christmas.

The local representative of the Associated Press, Frank Tunison, was unmoved. “Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been 57 minutes then it would have been a news item.” So, the day after this epic, history-making event, the Dayton Journal ran this epic, history-making headline: Stores are Filled With Christmas Shoppers.

Other news outlets had an even harder time getting the story correct. H.P. Moore, reporter with The Virginian-Pilot, was tipped off by a telegraph operator in Norfolk, but could not confirm any eyewitness accounts, so he fabricated a story about a machine with two 6-bladed propellers (one for lift, the other for thrust) that achieved an altitude of 60 feet and flew a distance of three miles. And Orville was seen running around shouting “Eureka.”

Orville later describes The Virginian-Pilot story. “It was an amazing piece of work. Though ninety-nine percent wrong, it did contain one fact that was correct. There had been a flight.”

On December 18th, the Dayton afternoon papers did eventually print accounts of the Wrights’ first flights. Technically incorrect, unpolished, embellished accounts of the story. Man flying was too unbelievable.

And the brothers, true to their telegraphed communication, arrived home the evening of December 23. Their timing was right, too. Along with their powerful inquisitive, engineering, problem-solving minds that made them printers and mechanics and inventors, Orville and Wilbur were great cooks. They made it home in time for Wilbur to stuff the Christmas turkey, and Orville to make his cranberry bunny the Wrights served at their holiday meals.

(We know there are historical errors in the telegram—let us explain. There was no Western Union office in Kitty Hawk, so the local weather station called the weather bureau office in Norfolk, who in turn contacted Western Union to send the telegram to Dayton. Errors in transmission caused the errors in time, wind speed, and sender. We know the last flight of the day was actually 59 seconds long, the wind speed was probably 26–27 miles per hour, and the telegram was sent by Orville, not Orevelle. Thanks for paying attention.)

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