36 years ago, the original patent for Wilbur and Orville Wright’s “Flying Machine” was lost in a paperwork shuffle. Now, it’s been re-discovered, securing the historic document once more for posterity.
A number of documents were transported from the National Archives, the depository for all important historical documents in the United States located in Washington, DC, to the nearby Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1978. The Wright brothers’ patent was among the documents which were supposed to be returned in 1980, but it never made it back to the National Archives. At first, it was suspected that the document had been stolen on behalf of a private collector, as the black market in historical items is brisk. However, with the National Archives large enough to contain more than 107,000 cubic feet of patent files alone, things can and often do go missing.
Apparently it took just one file clerk 36 years ago to mistakenly place the patent in the incorrect storage box, according to a press release from the National Archives announcing the document’s re-discovery. According to the Washington Post, the box in question had been moved to an off-site storage facility nicknamed the “cave” in Lexana, Kansas maintained by the National Archives, conjuring images of cavernous, dimly-lit underground warehouses lined with crates and boxes of priceless historical treasures. Whether the Ark of the Covenant was also stored in the same facility is unknown at this time.
The patent document is somewhat worse for wear after its long sojourn in an obscure corner of a federal storage facility. However, with the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers receiving their patent number approaching, it will soon be on display starting May 20th at the West Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Museum.
The two famous brothers originally filed for their patent in March of 1903. The documents sent included their patent registry form, their approval petition, and a diagram of their flying machine. The application also included their affirmation that they were the original and joint inventors of the device. Nine months later, well before they received their patent grant, Orville and Wilbur launched their invention at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, sending one of the brothers soaring 120 feet over 12 seconds and representing the first successful flight of a powered heavier-than-air craft. Three years after their pioneering flight, they received their patent, numbered 821,393, on May 22nd.
The historical patent isn’t the only item that’s gone missing from the National Archives over the years. A perusal of the Missing Historical Documents and Items list, which the Archive maintains, includes several types of documents such as a collection of telegrams penned by President Lincoln, a collection of presidential pardons also dated to the nineteenth century, and the patent drawing that accompanied the application for Eli Whitney’s invention, the cotton gin. Additionally, an item once presented to President Harry S. Truman, a diamond-studded dagger, has also gone missing from the National Archives.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user S.Steve.Adkins