In their January 6, 1904, press release, the Wright brothers said they flew 4 times on December, 17, 1903, and gave a short description of each trial (see the article below). However, the text ends with this statement: "we do not feel ready at present to give out any pictures or detailed description of the machine".

The question is: When did the Wright brothers made available to the public at least a photo showing their 1903 airplane?

“Wright Flyer. A Report of Late Tests Is Given by Messrs. Wright, Inventors of the Machine.”, Dayton Press, Ohio, US, January 6, 1904.

Wright Flyer

A Report Of Late Tests

Is Given by Messrs. Wright, Inventors of the Machine.

Interesting Description of the Trials Made at Kitty Hawk.

It had not been our intention to make any detailed public statement concerning the private trails of our power “Flyer” on the 17th of December last; but since the contents of a private telegram, announcing to our folks at home the success of our trials, was dishonestly communicated to newspaper men at the Norfolk office, and led to the imposition upon the public by persons who never saw the “Flyer” or its flights, of a fictitious story incorrect in almost every detail; and since this story, together with several pretended interviews or statements, which were fakes pure and simple, have been very widely disseminated, we feel impelled to make some corrections. The real facts were as follows:

On the morning of December 17, between the hours of 10:30 o’clock and noon, four flights were made, two by Orville Wright and two by Wilbur Wright. The starts were all made from a point on the level sand about 200 feet west of our camp, which is located a quarter of a mile north of the Kill Devil sand hill, in Dare county, North Carolina. The wind at the time of the flights had a velocity of 27 miles an hour at 10 o’clock, and 24 miles an hour at noon, as recorded by the anemometer at the Kitty Hawk weather bureau station. This anemometer is 30 feet from the ground. Our own measurements, made with a hand anemometer at a height of four feet from the ground, showed a velocity of about 22 miles when the first flight was made, and 20½ miles at the time of the last one. The flights were directly against the wind. Each time the machine started from the level ground by its own power alone with no assistance from gravity, or any other sources whatever. After a run of about 40 feet along a mono-rail track, which held the machine eight inches from the ground, it rose from the track and under the direction of the operator climbed upward on an inclined course till a height of eight or ten feet from the ground was reached, after which the course was kept as near horizontal as the wind gusts and the limited skill of the operator would permit. Into the teeth of a December gale the “Flyer” made its way forward with a speed of ten miles an hour over the ground and 30 to 35 miles an hour through the air. It had previously been decided that for reasons of personal safety these first trials should be made as close to the ground as possible. The height chosen was scarcely sufficient for maneuvering in so gusty a wind and with no previous acquaintance with the conduct of the machine and its controlling mechanisms. Consequently the first flight was short. The succeeding flights rapidly increased in length and at the fourth trial a flight of 59 seconds was made, in which time the machine flew a little more than a half mile through the air, and a distance of 852 feet over the ground. The landing was due to a slight error of judgment on the part of the operator. After passing over a little hummock of sand, in attempting to bring the machine down to the desired height, the operator turned the rudder too far, and the machine turned downward more quickly than had been expected. The reverse movement of the rudder was a fraction of a second too late to prevent the machine from touching the ground and thus ending the flight. The whole occurrence occupied little, if any more, than one second of time. Only those who are acquainted with practical aeronautics can appreciate the difficulties of attempting the first trials of a flying machine in a 25 mile gale.

As winter was already well set in, we should have postponed our trails to a more favorable season, but for the fact that we were determined, before returning home, to know whether the machine possessed sufficient power to fly, sufficient strength to withstand the shock of landings, and sufficient capacity of control to make flight safe in boisterous winds, as well as in calm air. When these points had been definitely established, we at once packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.

From the beginning we have employed entirely new principles of control; and as all the experiments have been conducted at our own expense, without assistance from any individual or institution, we do not feel ready at present to give out any pictures or detailed description of the machine."


2 Answers 2


According to The Wright brothers’ patents (full text) and their importance for aviation (see the three citations below):

  • the first picture of the 1903 plane was published in September 1908 in The Century Magazine together with the first pictures of the 1904 and 1905 machines,
  • the first clear images showing a Wright airplane appeared in print on August 12, 1908, in French newspapers,
  • the first ever photos, unfortunately unclear, of a Wright airplane were published simultaneously by Collier's and The Scientific American on May 30, 1908.


" Pictures claimed by Orville Wright as made between December 17, 1903, and October 5, 1905, and showing three different planes (the 1903, 1904 and 1905 models) first appeared in print quite late, in “The Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane” by Orville and Wilbur Wright (The Century Magazine, New York, September 1908, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, pp. 641-650). "


“No technical drawing, detailed description or clear picture showing a Wright plane, on the ground or in the air, were made available to the general public before August 8, 1908, so none of the powered apparatuses constructed and flown before the above mentioned date, according to what the two inventors pretended, could have been a source of inspiration for other aviation pioneers because nobody knew exactly what those machines looked like. The French newspapers (see the examples listed below) started to show pictures of Wilbur’s biplane on August 12, 1908.

1908-08-12, “De nouveau, Wilbur Wright à volé”, L’Auto, Paris, August 12, 1908, col. 3-4, p. 1.

1908-08-12, Raoul Sabatier, “L’homme volant. Wilbur Wright a fait hier à 25 mètres de hauteur plus de Quatre kilomètres en 3 minutes 43 secondes.”, Le Journal, Paris, August 12, 1908, col. 3-4, p. 1.

1908-08-12, “Les expériences de Wright. Supériorité de l’aéroplane américain.”, Le Petit Parisien, Paris, August 12, 1908, col. 3-4, p. 2.

1908-08-12, “La conquête de l’air. L’Aéroplane Wright.”, Le Radical, Paris, August 12, 1908, col. 3-4, p. 2.

All these papers contain at least one clear photo showing the Wright machine. “


“ Another note would be about the May 1908 alleged flights and authentic pictures showing a Wright powered machine in the air. These photos, published on May 30, 1908, and taken by James H. Hare from the American magazine Collier’s, do not reveal anything new. They are apparently shot from a great distance and show a slightly modified 1902 glider. The engine and propellers are not visible. In their May 30, 1908, issues, Collier’s published one such image and the Scientific American two, in the following articles:

1908-05-30, Arthur Ruhl, “History at Kill Devil Hill. A Description of the First Flight of the Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane Witnessed by an Uninvited and Impartial Jury Representing the World at Large.”, Collier’s, New York, May 30, 1908, Vol. XLI, No. 10, pp. 18-19 and 26.

1908-05-30, “The Wright Aeroplane Test in North Carolina”, Scientific American, New York, May 30, 1908, Vol. XCVIII, No. 22, cover and p. 393. "

Source: The Wright brothers' patents - a book about all patents and some articles of the two American inventors.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @quietflyer, Read the paragraph starting with "A close study of the photographs which we reproduce shows ..." (the middle column of the May 30, 1908, article in the Scientific American). The text says the flying machine in the picture has a motor and propellers. $\endgroup$
    – Simplex11
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I was clearly wrong to believe the photo showed the aircraft sitting on the hill. Fantastic research there. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 0:56

A quick google search of "first published photo Wright flyer" reveals that the iconic photo of the 1903 Flyer in flight was first published in 1908. This photo was in possession of the Wrights and this publication date undoubtedly corresponds to their actual release of the photo for publication. All photos of the 1903 Flyer were in possession of the Wrights and it seems unlikely that they would have released any of these photos for publication before this date, since that would only reveal technical details of construction-- which they were trying to keep under wraps-- without even establishing proof of flight. (This photo, of the fourth flight, would be one possible exception to that observation, since the quality is so poor.)

Many photos were also taken by the Wrights or by persons authorized by them of the 1904 Flyer II and the 1905 Flyer III at Huffman Prairie near Dayton Ohio.

Here is one website that shows many photos of the Wright aircraft from the 1903 to 1905 time period, as well as later.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a great website! Got that bookmarked :) $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 2:04

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