Wright Brothers' Patent Found in Cave Stack of Archives

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April 5, 2016

The patent for America’s first “flying machine” has not disappeared into the wild blue yonder.

The official permission for Orville and Wilbur Wright to proceed with their invention, patent number 821,393, issued in 1906, had gone missing in 2000. In that year, archivists at the National Archives had sought to include the patent in a commemoration of the Wrights’ famous flight, which occurred on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The commemoration proceeded without the patent in 2000 because the patent was missing. In fact, as archivists investigated, they discovered that the last time anyone had seen the patent was 20 years before, in 1980, when they put it back into the Archives storage fold after loaning it out to the Smithsonian Institution.

Such documents are not always on display. The National Archives has billions of pieces of paper and other forms of evidence that famous things happened and famous people did them. So it’s not surprising to people who work at the National Archives that they wouldn’t check in on things like the Wright Brothers’ patent on a regular basis.

Where was the patent? Well, it was in the National Archives, except it wasn’t onsite. As it turns out, the Archives stores things other places, including in a limestone cave outside Kansas City, Mo. And it was in that location that an archivist found the missing patent in March 2016. The archivist reported finding the patent inside a 15-foot-high stack of documents. The stack was one of many such stacks in the offsite storage location.

The patent will go on display in May, in the West Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Museum.

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David White