Path-breaking Exhibit Explores the World’s First Discovery of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1908

     If you asked most Americans (or at least Americans in North Carolina and Ohio) when the world went aloft—i.e., started flying—the answer would almost surely point to the historic flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. After all, the Wright brothers’ “first flight” was indelibly recorded that morning in one of the most famous photographs ever to come from a camera. And it has been ossified by both states associated with the Wright brothers in license plates, commemorative quarters, and lavish centennial celebrations at Dayton and at Kitty Hawk in 2003.
     But if you asked people almost anywhere else in the world—especially France, Brazil, and New Zealand—where other heroes are recognized for accomplishing the “first flight”—Wilbur and Orville Wright would be just two pioneer aeronauts among many. Indeed, outside of the United States the most important date in Wright brothers’ history was May 1908—not December 1903. That is because it was not until May 1908—one hundred years ago this month—that the Wright brothers were first observed by credible witnesses who could affirm their abilities; that journalists got their first glimpse at the wily and secretive brothers; and that the first photograph of a Wright brothers’ airplane flight was published. And that first published photograph was not the classic image of Wilbur chasing after Orville on December 17, 1903. It was rather a photograph taken on May 14, 1908, by one of the world’s most famous photojournalists of the period.
     These are just a few of the little known facets of the Wright brothers’ story that are explored in a new centennial exhibit that has just opened at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. Researched and organized by Dr. Larry E. Tise, Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University, the exhibit “World Aloft 1908” charts the sequence of events during April & May 1908 that led to the discovery of the Wright brothers by the press and the recording of the first published photograph of a Wright flight. With the assistance of students in Thomas Harriot College and colleagues in the University Multimedia Center at ECU, Tise assembled more than 100 photographs and newspaper scans to explain for the first time the year in which the world first discovered the Wright brothers and when the brothers first came out of secrecy to show the world how well they could fly. From their exploits at Kitty Hawk in May 1908 the brothers separated for the first time ever—Wilbur to astound Europe with incredible feats of flight beginning in LeMans, France, on August 8, 1908 and Orville in like manner at Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to Washington, DC, beginning on September 3.
     “World Aloft 1908” explains several events surrounding the Wright brothers’ secret test flights at Kitty Hawk in 1908 and presents for the first time a number of photographs surrounding those happenings. At the core of the exhibit is a set of photographs taken by famed photojournalist James H. Hare sent by Collier’s Weekly magazine to capture the first photograph of a Wright flight. Also included in the exhibit are explanations of a heretofore inscrutable sketch map prepared by Orville Wright of their flights, fictitious newspaper articles on those flights, cartoons about the Wrights from the period, and the publication of the first Wright photographs—including the famous 1903 photograph which was not published until after the Wrights’ 1908 flights.
     The centennial exhibit “World Aloft 1908” is supplemented by a website also created by Tise and the University Multimedia Center and providing extensive documentation on the 1908 and 1909 activities of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, at Fort Myer, in LeMans and Pau, France, and in Rome, Italy. The website contains photo images and documents which have been collected by Tise from each of these locations over the past several years. It also contains information about newly discovered Wright objects, artifacts, and papers—including the kitchen table recently discovered at Kitty Hawk and authenticated by Professor Tise. The website is intended to be a place where Wright scholars and enthusiasts can explore many facets of the Wright brothers’ history—particularly those relating to North Carolina.
     The exhibit at the Wright Brothers Memorial is located in the Pavilion Building at the national historic site which is open on a daily basis. There is no admission to see the exhibit. For more information on the hours and access to the Wright Brothers Memorial consult the National Parks website on line ( or call the Wright Brothers National Memorial 252.473.2111. Dr. Tise can also be contacted at, by phone at 252.328.1026, or through the website at
Related Images