The First Visual Documentation of Flight



Photograph by: John T. Daniels Image Source: The Library of Congress

Orville and Wilbur Wright, brothers and aviation pioneers, held a longstanding interest in flying. They began their experiments in 1899, and in four short years, they manned their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, a place which with its oceanside dunes and breeze created a perfect environment for their tests. In 1903, the brothers built the Wright Flyer I, an airplane that was constructed of wooden propellers and had a gasoline engine. When their initial attempts at getting it to take off the ground were unsuccessful, they incorporated extra fabric to increase the stiffness of the wings. Finally, on 17 December of the same year, at 10:35am, they made history, when the airplane, with Orville manning it, took off for twelve seconds and 120 feet before landing. Prior to this, Orville had set up their camera, a Gundlach Korona V that used 5 x 7-inch glass plate negatives, on a tripod, pointed towards the direction that he thought the airplane would be in the air. John T. Daniels, a member of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station, who happened to be in the area, was requested by the brothers to squeeze the bulb to trigger the shutter as soon as he saw the plane in flight. This was Daniels’ first time photographing. At the time, both Daniels and the brothers had no idea whether the camera captured the airplane in flight. It was only after they returned to their home in Ohio and developed the negatives that they discovered their achievement immortalised by the camera.