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The beat-up manila envelope sat on a table in the National Archives office in Kansas City, Mo. It had just been fetched from a limestone cave outside of town, and conservator Lauren Varga had been sent with a security escort from Maryland to bring it home.
First, she had to check the contents. She opened the envelope and examined one of the folders inside. There, on the cover, was the famous patent No. 821,393. There were the famous names Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright.
And next to the word invention, the cover form read: “Flying Machine.”
There was the possibility the Wright patent file had been stolen, as other documents have been, such as telegrams from Abraham Lincoln, Yockelson said in an interview Wednesday at the College Park facility.
“But . . . we felt, I guess, all along . . . that it was probably misfiled,” he said. “And figuring out where is that misfile,” among the millions of patent papers, was the challenge.
The Wrights, tinkerers and bicycle mechanics, had applied for a patent for their airplane on March 23, 1903, less than a month after they started building it. The craft was made mostly out of fabric and wood.
It was nine months before they got their “flyer” into the air on Dec. 17, 1903, at windblown Kill Devil Hills, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet.
It was the world’s first heavier-than-air, powered, controlled flight, according to the National Park Service, which maintains a historic site there.
By the time the patent was granted in 1906, the file was filled with letters, affidavits, fee receipts, drawings, photos and examiner’s notes, among other things.
“We had a pull slip from our files saying that the document was returned to the National Archives in 1980,” Abraham said. “But . . . that’s where the trail goes cold.”
“I was stunned,” Yockelson said. “If I had to pick one [crucial] document . . . that’s missing, this was it . . . It’s the holy grail.”
He said he thinks the file hasn’t been seen by archivists or historians since 1980.
Abraham said he did not know why no one had thought to check the other Wright patent files before. “It was just one of those things,” he said.
Though it is much more efficient, a strutted wing structure is quite a different concept from a brace and wire biwing.