It’s famous; a document so historic, it was supposed to be in the National Archives. But the Wright brothers original 1906 patent that gave them sole claim not only to a flying machine, but to the only system devised for in-air control of a flying machine, was missing.
For thirty-six years.
On March 22, 2016, the patent was found in a limestone cave, part of storage facility for the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), in Lenexa, Kansas. It had been missing since at least 1979.
U.S. Patent No. 821,393 was originally supposed to have been kept in a special NARA vault in Washington, D.C., with other historic documents. But it got around. In 1969, the patent and other documents were moved to a federal records facility in Maryland. Some of the documents were loaned to the Smithsonian Institution for an exhibition honoring the 75th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first flight, and were returned to the Maryland storage facility in 1979 or 1980.
And in 2000 when archivists went to the storage facility in Maryland to collect the Wright brother’s patent for an exhibition, they could not locate the document.
There are billions of documents in the National Archives, stored in 18 NARA facilities located throughout the United States. The volume of the records totals 27 million cubic feet. The 13 million annual requests for records and references are handled by a staff of 1,100 federal clerks and archivists.
One archivist, Chris Abraham, working for a NARA record recovery program, had a special interest in the Wright brothers, and had a hunch the patent was being stored with other patents in the Kansas facility. Abrahams asked Kansas City NARA archivist Bob Beebe, to check.
After an extended search, Beebe found the document. In a recycled manilla envelope. In a box. In a 15-foot-tall stack of paper. (That was a lot of work. He’s just a volunteer with the National Archives.)
Now that the Wright patent has been located, it won’t stay hidden. The National Archives celebrates the 110th anniversary of the original patent award with a special display in the National Archives Museum West Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The exhibition opens to the public on May 20, 2016.