What were some early eyewitness accounts of airplanes?
July 16, 2019 11:21 AM   Subscribe

There were undoubtedly countless occasions when the Wright brothers flew over the heads of people who had no idea flight had been discovered. Do we have any eyewitness accounts of people who learned about flight only after seeing a Wright Flyer firsthand?
posted by jefficator to Technology (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My recollection is that the Wrights (initially) were very guarded and did not let the rest of the world know of their efforts. That being said, I think that the following book might be of assistance in chasing down some of the first person histories from people who only knew of airplanes after seeing one of them:

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.

Hope this helps!
posted by dfm500 at 11:34 AM on July 16, 2019

In 1904 and 1905 the Wright Brothers further developed and flew flying machines on pasture land 8 miles outside Dayton, Ohio. The field was called Huffman Prairie, named for the owner. A rail line ran along one side of the field and had a stop there. Crowds grew. It's possible Dayton newspapers printed accounts of first encounters at that time.
posted by Homer42 at 1:13 PM on July 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

It was a few years after Kitty Hawk when significant numbers of the public were finally able to witness a flight. By that time it wasn't a secret that great advances were being made in the US and France. I think it'll be difficult to find accounts from anyone who saw a plane for the first time, having no idea that powered flight was a thing. You'd probably have the most luck looking for sources outside the Anglosphere and Europe.

An inventor and beekeeper, Amos Root, visited the Wrights in 1904 while they continued to experiment following the Kitty Hawk flight. They asked him to hold off publishing his observations til the following year. After not receiving a reply from Scientific American, he published the story in Gleanings in Bee Culture. "Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you..."

Here's The Guardian on 19 October 1909, reporting from Blackpool at one of the first ever airshows in the UK.

By 1911, according to The Guardian, the public was "...now quite used to the sight of a heavy mechanical body travelling at a great height in the air..."

I think you might find a lot of early accounts from around 1908-1909 when the Wrights and others started making more public demonstrations of flight in the US and in France. Here's a report of one such demonstration, which resulted in the first fatal plane crash in September 1908. Orville Wright was injured and his passenger, Thomas Selfridge, was killed.

Maybe look for people who witnessed early flights made by Glenn Curtiss around various parts of New York State in 1908-1909?
posted by theory at 2:30 PM on July 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

It may not quite answer your question, but there are lots of eye-witness accounts of aircraft that almost certainly didn't exist in the two decades prior to the Wrights. (For Example; the references are largely crank UFOlogy, but they do include original quotes that describe what someone in the 1890s thought about when seeing something they believed to be an aircraft.)
posted by eotvos at 10:18 PM on July 16, 2019

Response by poster: I'd most like to understand what a person seeing an airplane (for the first time, without warnin) would have thought of the object in the sky.
posted by jefficator at 9:11 AM on July 17, 2019

Jefficator, you may be interested in the idea of a Cargo Cult

A cargo cult is a belief system among members of a relatively undeveloped society in which adherents practice superstitious rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society. These cults, millenarian in nature, were first described in Melanesia in the wake of contact with advanced Western cultures. The name derives from the belief which began among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth, particularly highly desirable Western goods (i.e., "cargo"), via Western airplanes.[1][2]-
posted by rebent at 11:29 AM on August 18, 2019

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