It is one of the most famous and iconic images of the 20th century. Probably everyone alive has seen it. But the photograph of the Wright Brothers’ flying machine lifting off the ground at Kitty Hawk NC in December 1903 was snapped by a bystander who had never seen a camera before–and it was the only photograph he would ever take.
The camera that took the most famous photo in the world
By 1903, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, had been spending time each year at Kitty Hawk. Their effort to design and build a flying machine had been thorough, systematic, and secretive. Back in their Dayton OH bicycle shop, they had designed and built their own wind tunnel to test wing shapes. They had constructed successively larger models, flying them first as hand-held kites and then as unpowered manned gliders, launched from the top of a hill on the North Carolina beach. Once they could reliably launch the gliders and control them in flight, they designed and built their own aircraft engine, mounted it on their Flyer, and took it to Kitty Hawk for testing. They were so confident that it would work that the brothers had already cabled their father in Ohio: “Success is certain.”
Afraid that someone would steal their ideas and copy their designs, the brothers had done all their work entirely in secret; part of the reason why they had chosen Kitty Hawk for their tests was because it provided steady winds for the gliders, but also because the remote little hamlet offered the isolation and secrecy that they wanted. But the Wrights also knew that nobody would believe that their machine had actually flown unless they could prove it–and they were also anxious to demonstrate their patent rights. And so the brothers systematically documented their whole process, using the new medium of photography.
Their interest in photography long pre-dated their interest in flying. Their father had often taken portraits of the four Wright brothers (and one sister) as children. When Wilbur and Orville took up the printing business, one of the magazines they published was a photographic journal called “Snap Shots”. So when they began their aeronautical work in 1899, they shot numerous pictures, some 2000 in all. Instead of making blueprints or engineering drawings of their wind tunnel and glider designs, they took photographs. These were shot with a number of cameras using 4×5 glass plate negatives, and were developed and printed in a darkroom that the brothers built for themselves in the shed behind their house.
In 1902, as they were preparing to test their last unpowered glider, the Wrights decided that they needed a better camera, and purchased a Gundlach Korona V, manufactured in Rochester NY. At a price of $85, it was one of the best cameras available at the time, and shot large 5×7 glass-plate negatives. They took photos of their glider, the handbuilt cabin they were staying in, the dune landscape at the beach, and each other. And in 1903, when the powered Flyer was ready for its flight tests, the Gundlach camera went along with it to Kitty Hawk.
The Flyer was much heavier than the previous gliders had been, and the brothers needed help to move it around. Luckily, there was a lifeguard station at the nearby beach, and three of the young men there volunteered, along with a few curious locals. One of them was John Daniels Jr, who happened to be a cousin of North Carolina Senator Melvin Daniels. On the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville Wright set up the Korona V camera on a tripod, aimed and focused it at the spot were he thought the Flyer would become airborne, and stationed John Daniels next to it, with instructions to squeeze the air bulb that would trigger the shutter “if anything interesting happened”. Daniels had never seen a camera before.
Orville then climbed aboard the Flyer, started up the engine–and changed the world by flying 120 feet in the next 12 seconds.
Immediately upon landing, Orville asked Daniels if he had gotten the shot. To his horror, Daniels answered that he didn’t know–he had been so excited by seeing the machine fly through the air that he did not remember if he had squeezed the shutter or not. Orville loaded the camera again, and the brothers made three more flights, this time operating the shutter themselves to take shots of the last two launches.
The fourth flight had lasted almost a full minute and had traveled over 800 feet. As the local volunteers carried the Flyer back for another attempt, however, a sudden gust of wind caught the machine and flipped it over. Daniels, holding one wing, was entangled in the wires. He emerged unhurt, but the Flyer had been fatally damaged–the homemade engine had broken into pieces. The world’s first airplane would never fly again.
The Wrights took the wreckage of the Flyer–and their camera–back to Dayton. They knew they had flown, but they did not know if their photographic efforts had been as successful. This was not the Digital Age: there was no “preview” button on their camera, and they would not know what they had until they had developed their glass negatives. Many of their own attempts to photograph their gliders in flight had failed, producing either blurry blobs or shots of empty sky with no glider in frame. They did not even know if Daniels had taken any photo at all. And, building up the suspense even further, they had returned to Ohio in late December: the water pipes were frozen from the cold, and it was not until January that they were able to develop their negatives.
As it turned out, both of the flight photos taken by the Wrights that day were unfocused and blurred. But the third, the one snapped by John Daniels of the first flight, was perfectly framed and crystal sharp. It became one of the most famous photographs in history. And as far as anyone has been able to tell, it was the only photo Daniels ever shot.
Today, the Korona V camera that Daniels used that day is on display at the Carillon Historical Park, in Dayton OH.