Object of the Month

100th Anniversary of First Flight

Letter from Godfrey L. Cabot to Henry Cabot Lodge (retained copy), 31 December 1903

Letter from Godfrey L. Cabot to Henry Cabot Lodge (retained copy), 31 December 1903

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This December , we celebrate the 100th anniversary of first flight. At 10:35am on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright's "Flyer" completed the first heavier-than-air, powered flight -- a distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds. Two days later, the Wrights' friend and mentor, engineer Octave Chanute, wrote to Massachusetts aviation enthusiastSamuel Cabot to share the news of the success. This letter (right) details the technical specifications of the Wrights' aircraft, a 40-foot-wide machine powered by a ten horsepower engine and two Letter from Godfrey L. Cabot to Henry Cabot Lodge, 31 December 1903 propellers. Its average air speed was 31 miles per hour and, as Chanute writes to Cabot, the Wrights had managed on December 17 to fly it four successful times, the longest flight recorded at 57 seconds.

Upon hearing of the Wright brothers' achievement, Massachusetts businessman, inventor, and aviation pioneer Godfrey Lowell Cabot wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge informing him of the successful trial and suggesting that "it would be eminently desirable for the United States Government to interest itself in this invention with a view for a war-like purpose." Lodge forwarded this letter (left) to the War Department, but it would be five years before the Wright brothers sold an aircraft to the United States Army.

Octave Chanute also photographed some of the Wright brothers' early experimentations with flight. He took the three photographs below of their glider experiments at Kill Devil Hills at Outer Banks, North Carolina during October 5-14, 1903. Besides the Wright brothers' own photographs of their experiments, now located at the Library of Congress, Chanute's photographs are the only other photographs known to have been made of the historic gliding experiments at the Outer Banks.


These three photographs and the letter to Henry Cabot Lodge are taken from the Massachusetts Historical Society's collection of the photographs and papers of Godfrey Lowell Cabot, who was the brother of Chanute's correspondent, Samuel Cabot. The Cabot brothers inherited their fascination with aviation from their father, Dr. Samuel Cabot. Godfrey Lowell Cabot later patented a device for picking objects from the ground while in flight and an innovative method of in-flight refueling. For more information about this collection, please search ABIGAIL, the MHS online catalog.

Sources for Further Research

For more of Octave Chanute's photographs of the Wright brothers' experiments with flight, visit "The Wright Brothers in Photographs," an online collection of digital images from the Wright Brothers Collection at the Special Collections & Archives of Wright State University.

"The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers," an online collection of the Wrights' papers, drawings, glass-plate negatives, and other material at the Library of Congress.

Tom D. Crouch. First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2002.

Fred E. C. Culick and Spencer Dunmore. On Great White Wings: The Wright Brothers and the Race for Flight. New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Ronald R. Geibertand Patrick B. Nolan. Kitty Hawk and Beyond: The Wright Brothers and the Early Years of Aviation: A Photographic History. Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University Press, 1990.

Peter L. Jakab. Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Peter L. Jakab and Rick Young, eds. The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Marvin W. McFarland, ed. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: including the Chanute-Wright letters and the Papers of Octave Chanute. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

In this letter, Godfrey L. Cabot reports to Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge about the first successful flight trials in North Carolina by the Wright brothers and urges Lodge to consider this new technology as having potential for "war-like purposes."