Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Kristin Szyvian

Second Advisor

Dr. Michael Chiarappa

Third Advisor

Dr. R. Patrick Norris

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Michael S. Nassaney


During the early twentieth century, Wilbur and Orville Wright faced a lengthy struggle over their recognition as the inventors of the airplane. This controversy still lingers today. Even their hometown, Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers spent years engineering and perfecting the airplane, hesitated in acknowledging their success. Promoted by a small group of individuals from the Smithsonian Institution, a decades long struggle ensued over who first invented an aircraft capable of powered flight. During the "Smithsonian controversy," the institution embarked on a long and dangerous path of using its status as the nation's museum in an attempt to rewrite history. The ensuing battle with the Smithsonian Institution as well as other first flight claims left the Wright brothers' legacy in doubt. As a result, the Wright brothers engaged in a lifelong fight to protect and assure their rightful place in history. The brothers' drive to protect their legacy and Dayton's failure to recognize its aviation roots came together to leave aviation's birthplace without a focal point to commemorate the Wrights. Today, the Wrights' story is told in Dayton and North Carolina in part by the National Park Service, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. However, preoccupied with its industrial development and recovery from a devastating 1913 flood, Dayton took nearly a century to fully recognize its historic links to the Wright brothers and its aviation history.

To analyze how the Wrights' concern over their legacy and Dayton's neglect of its heritage are linked, a chronological survey of the influencing events, trends, and ramifications is presented. The examined issues are often defined by political, social, cultural, and economic factors. How these factors shaped a definable evolutionary process in the connection between the Wrights' legacy and Dayton's commemoration of the Wrights are explored. The findings illustrate that the Smithsonian set a dangerous precedent by using its power as the nation's museum to advance its version of history. Repercussions from the Smithsonian controversy are seen in Dayton as Orville took the steps he felt were needed to assure the brothers' legacy in the United States.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access