The First Witness: Amos Root at Huffman Prairie
Presented by James Tobin
Ann Arbor, MI
Samuel Langley, the third secretary of the
Smithsonian Institution and one of the most distinguished scientists in
the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, designed and successfully
launched the first powered, heavier-than-air flying machines in 1896.
These machines flew without a pilot; nonetheless, Langley's achievement
was a milestone in aeronautics. Shortly afterward, he published an account
of his experiments in McClure's magazine. In conclusion he said:
"We may live to see airships a common sight, but habit has not dulled
the edge of wonder, and I wish that the reader could have witnessed the
For us, of course, "the edge of wonder" has been dulled by a century
of powered flight. It's especially hard to project ourselves back into
the early 20th century and imagine what it would have been like to see
the first flights. Even the films of the Wrights flying, however fascinating,
fail to generate the feelings in us that the first witnesses would have
had, simply because we are so accustomed to seeing airplanes fly. We look
at those films, or at a replica, and say to ourselves, in effect: "Ah.
An old airplane." The first witnesses, by contrast, were seeing a thing
for which they had no frame of reference, something no one had seen before,
a machine that seemed to defy physical laws and to bring ancient myths
and longings to life. These witnesses also were conditioned by a popular
culture that considered human flight to be impossible and flight experimenters
to be fools. As the historian Roger Bilstein has written: "For all the
evidence [of flight] . . . that accumulated in published reports before 1908
and after, most Americans had to see it to believe it."
Of the gaps in the Wright records, few are more regrettable than the
scarcity of accurate eyewitness accounts at Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie.
One wishes especially that Katharine Wright, an acute observer, had written
more about her brothers at their work. But there is one account, at least,
that can help us to imagine what it was like to see the Wrights at Huffman
Prairie in 1904.
It was written by Amos Ives Root, a successful and wealthy businessman
- a manufacturer of beekeeping equipment at a time when beekeeping was
a more important part of American agriculture than it is today. In that
field he was among the best known figures in the world. He invented equipment
that made beekeeping practical on a commercial basis. He was also a publisher,
a writer, a temperance crusader and promoter of the Sunday school movement,
a philanthropist, an inventor, a technology enthusiast, and the leading
citizen of Medina, Ohio, a prosperous farm town about 20 miles southwest
It's hard to be precise about Root's contribution to the history of the
Wright brothers. Others saw them in flight before Root, but did not write
detailed accounts. Accounts were published before Root's, but they were
second-hand and inaccurate. Nick Engler has it right on his website when
he says Root wrote "the first eyewitness account of a sustained, controlled,
The story hints at how it felt to watch the first airplane in flight.
And it was the first to recognize that these men were, so to speak, the
Wright brothers . . . as we think of them-that they were makers of history.
To use today's parlance, Amos Root got it, and he was the first to do
so. The Wrights' invention, he said, "may outrank the electric car, the
automobile, and all other methods of travel, and one which may fairly
take a place beside the telephone and wireless telegraphy." His judgment
was not only correct but way out in front. It would be nearly four more
years before mainstream journalists and engineers reached the conclusion
that Root reached at the end of 1904.
When Root died in 1923, a local editorialist said: "Amos I. Root was
one of the most remarkable men of the past two generations, remarkable
not in one way, but in many ways." He was born near Medina in December
1839; thus he was 64 when he met the Wrights. He was small and sickly
from childhood onward, so instead of helping his father with farm duties
he helped his mother in the truck garden and became an expert gardener.
He was intensely curious about the natural world and about science. He
was the sort of person who, when he takes an interest in a field, feels
compelled to learn everything there is to know about it. As a teenager
he took up chemistry and electricity as hobbies. For his trade he learned
how to repair jewelry and then manufacture it, which eventually made him
a good deal of money. He married a local girl, with whom he had several
In 1865, at the age of 26, he took up beekeeping as a hobby. His correspondence
led him to start a beekeeping trade journal which he called Gleanings
in Bee Culture. Gradually he shifted his business from jewelry to
beekeeping equipment. By 1880 he was selling his equipment to 150,000
customers and sending Gleanings in Bee Culture to roughly 4,000
subscribers-not very many, but enough to make Root feel that he addressed
a significant audience. In the 1880s he turned the business over to his
sons. He had plenty of money and could devote himself to his other interests,
which were many, and which he continued to write about at length in Gleanings
in Bee Culture.
Root was an eccentric and contrarian-deliberately so. He liked to be
the first to try new machines. That same editor wrote: "No amount of scoffing
or ridicule-and he endured it many times-could swerve him from his belief
or purpose, and he went straight to his work without faltering or swerving
from the path he had chosen." Until it began to pay, people thought Root's
beekeeping was odd. In the 1870s he became the first man in northern Ohio
to own a bicycle. He powered his machinery with a windmill of his own
design. According to one Medina resident, in Root's early career, "Everyone
thought he was a nut, and he did his best to prove them true."
In the 1870s Root became what evangelicals call a professing Christian,
and he seems to have professed his faith to practically everyone he spoke
to, including his employees, who were expected to attend daily prayer
meetings on the job. He embraced many of the Christian reform movements
of his day. He became a temperance activist, an anti-tobacco man and a
strict sabbatarian. He was one of the founding benefactors of the Anti-Saloon
League. He became a leader in the Sunday school movement.
All these enthusiasms-gardening, science, beekeeping, technology, Christian
reform-were grist for Root's column in Gleanings in Bee Culture,
which he wrote every two weeks for some fifty years. These columns were
lay sermons, each based on a biblical text. The column ran under the title
"Our Homes" and developed a following; many subscribers apparently took
Gleanings chiefly to read Root's offering. It was a blend of personal
anecdote, useful information, travelogue, news and advice, all delivered
to animate Root's core evangelical message.
One of his persistent themes was that Christians ought to welcome the
technological change washing over American society-the telephone, electric
power, the phonograph, and especially the automobile. Root bought his
first car, an Olds Runabout, in the spring of 1903, and it became, as
his wife said, "his pet." He drove it and tinkered with it constantly
and wrote about it often.
At the time, of course, most people outside the cities depended on horses
for local transportation, and the problem of automobiles frightening horses
was a lively controversy, especially among farmers. Class distinctions
also came into play. In the country, automobiles were seen to be playthings
of the rich. Thus they often stirred resentments among working people
and farmers, who rolled out whatever scriptural artillery they could muster
to denounce the new technology.
In this context, Root appointed himself the defender of the automobile
and took on the task of forging a reconciliation between the new technology
and rural Christians. Root believed in the gospel of social betterment
through technological progress-a faith that he easily reconciled with
his Christianity. He frequently told his readers that technology was as
much a gift from God as the natural world. "If God is a creator," he wrote,
"and man is made in his own image, then man must be a creator also; and
one who sees what man is doing just now many well stand . . . lost in wonder . . .
following in the footsteps of God as a creator . . ."
The automobile's place in American society was very much on Root's mind
when he learned about the Wright brothers.
Root first mentioned the Wrights in his "Our Homes" column of February
14, 1904, two months after the first powered flights at Kitty Hawk. He
told his readers how he had gotten the attention of unruly boys in his
Sunday school class by describing "two Ohio boys . . . [who] have outstripped
the world in demonstrating that a flying-machine can be constructed without
the use of a balloon. . ." From the details he included, some of which are
inaccurate, it's clear that Root had read one or more of the newspaper
stories published in late 1903 and early 1904, and that he had followed
developments in aviation closely enough to recognize the significance
of the Wrights' claims.
He wrote no more about them for several months. From his column, we know
know that from July 28 to August 13, 1904, he took a 400-mile automobile
trip through central and southwestern Ohio. In evidence of Root's fascination
with all things, general and specific, he told his readers that "this
trip was taken with the view of studying humanity, and also of considering
the question of automobiles on our public roads." He visited several towns
and cities, including Dayton. Probably he first contacted the Wrights
on this trip, asking to meet them or possibly asking merely for bibliographic
advice on aeronautics. He may have met with them on that trip, in August.
But we know for sure that he spent time with the Wrights the following
month and again in November. We don't know how many days Root spent at
Huffman Prairie. He said it was "many days that summer and fall." In Arthur
Renstrom's chronology of the Wrights' flights, based on their own diaries,
Root is noted as being present on only two days. But one of those days
was September 20th, 1904, the day when Wilbur Wright first flew in a complete
circle-a milestone in the achievement of three-axis control.
The Wrights-who, of course, were anxious to keep their secrets from competitors-asked
Root not to write about what he had seen until they were finished with
their experiments for the 1904 season. Root could not resist dropping
a couple of hints in his column that fall, but he withheld his full account
until the Wrights advised him in December to go ahead and publish. He
did so in the issue of Gleanings of January 1, 1905. The next issue
contained a short follow-up article, with a photograph of the 1902 glider,
and over the next several years he published occasional brief updates
about the Wrights' activities.
(An aside: Fred Kelly, in his authorized biography, reported that Root
sent his article to Scientific American and offered to let the
magazine reprint it, but was turned down.)
Root's column on January 1, 1905 runs about 3,500 words. It's rambling
and idiosyncratic, not at all a conventional piece of journalism. I hope
you'll read it for yourself. You may see things in it that I've missed.
I want to make several points about it.
The Wrights were anxious to keep their secrets and they were not easy
nuts to crack. Their first instinct with strangers was to distrust them,
especially when it came to the flying machine. Yet they welcomed Root
into their small circle and trusted him. Why?
Surely they did not regard Gleanings in Bee Culture as the perfect
medium for publicizing their successes. It's possible that when they got
to know Root, they considered him to be a possible future investor. Wilbur
mentions this possibility in a 1908 letter to Octave Chanute. They did
not ultimately invite Root or any other American to invest. But in 1904,
when their plans for developing the machine were in flux, Root may have
struck them as a man worth cultivating-a wealthy man with more than a
purely commercial interest in their work, like Chanute himself.
Another explanation strikes me as more likely. Much has been written
about the early failure of the press to understand the significance of
the Wrights' work. Of course, the Wrights' own preference for secrecy
had much to do with that. Still, we ought to consider how it felt to the
Wrights in 1904 to be almost universally unrecognized. They were notoriously
patient. Yet even for them, it must have been hard, at times, not to crow.
And here, by accident, was a good fellow to crow to. Root had much in
common with the Wrights-his intense curiosity; his enthusiasm for technology,
including bicycling; his go-against-the-flow nature. He was the antithesis
of a hurried reporter looking for a superficial scoop. He was also openly
pious, like their father, and thus he was of a certain type whom the Wrights
knew well-a churchman of the old school-and though they did not trust
a churchman simply because he was a churchman, they were comfortable with
men of Root's type and more inclined to trust than to distrust them.
Most important, Root already had some inkling of the significance of
what they were doing. Few people in 1904 knew enough about aeronautics
to recognize the import of a powered machine that could fly without a
balloon. Root was one who did. So it is not hard to imagine the Wrights
feeling some relief, even exhilaration, in sharing their news with someone
who really could appreciate it and wonder at it. Nor is it hard to imagine,
knowing their particular sense of humor, that they enjoyed the prospect
of seeing Gleanings in Bee Culture scoop the world.
What was it like to watch the Wrights at Huffman Prairie-and to watch
them with turn-of-the-century eyes, not knowing the future of flight?
The historian John Kasson tells us that 19th-century Americans actually
sought and celebrated experiences of awe and dread in the presence of
machinery. The mood of such experiences is a mood of the sublime, of aesthetic
appreciation of transcendent power and strength, not unlike the appreciation
of a great natural spectacle such as Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.
Root's account is very much in this tradition. Here's the key passage
from the January 1st article:
"The machine is held until ready to start by a sort of trap to be sprung
when all is ready; then with a tremendous flapping and snapping of the
four-cylinder engine, the huge machine springs aloft. When it first turned
that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front [of]
it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights,
if not the grandest sight, of my life. [Here it's interesting to see Root
grope for a comparison to help his readers.] Imagine a locomotive that
has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you-a locomotive
without any wheels we will say, but with white wings instead . . . Well, now
imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way,
coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and
you will have something like what I saw. The younger brother bade me move
to one side for fear it might come down suddenly; but I tell you, friends,
the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.
The attendant at one time [probably Charles Taylor], when the rope came
off that started it, said he was shaking from head to foot as if he had
a fit of ague."
To watch the Wrights in 1904 may have been exhilarating, but it was also
downright unnerving, whether out of fear for the pilot or sheer shock
at the sight, or both. We also get a sense of how utterly strange the
Wrights' machine seemed to turn-of-the-century eyes. After all, the 1904
flyer looked nothing like a locomotive, yet the locomotive was what came
to Root's mind as he tried to convey what he had seen. Possibly he had
in mind not so much of the actual appearance of the flyer as its emotional
impact. Like a locomotive, the flyer was technological power in motion.
Though both machines obeyed their pilots, they could do things their pilots
could not do. Both were creatures of man, yet far more powerful than man.
Root's response is like that of the historian Henry Adams when he confronted
the giant electrical generators on display at the Great Paris Exposition
of 1900. Writing in the third person, he said that "to Adams the dynamo
became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery
of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force,
much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed
less impressive. . . than this huge wheel. . . [O]ne began to pray to it; inherited
instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite
In the next issue of Gleanings, on January 15th, Root published
a photo of Wilbur in the 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk and told a bit more
about his experience. In the January 1st piece he had expressed a sense
of awe or dread. Here he introduced a new comparison, and his remarks
were more clearly aesthetic, with an emphasis on the airplane's grace
"It has often been remarked that one of the most beautiful sights in
the world is a ship under full sail, especially a new sailing vessel with
clean white canvas. There is something especially exhilarating about the
way in which the canvas catches the wind and sends the ship scudding through
the waves. But to me the sight of a machine like the one I have pictured,
with its white canvas planes and rudders subject to human control, is
one of the grandest and most inspiring sights I have ever seen on earth;
and when you see one of these graceful crafts sailing over your head,
and possibly over your home, as I expect you will in the near future,
see if you don't agree with me that the flying machine is one of God's
most gracious and precious gifts."
In the Wright literature, Root's article is most often mentioned not
for its contents but for the apparent strangeness of the fact that the
first eyewitness account was published in an obscure trade journal, not
in a big newspaper or magazine. This critique of journalists of the day
began with Fred Kelly, who devoted an entire chapter of his authorized
biography to the point.
In fact, the journalists' silence is not so strange. Skepticism about
the possibility of flight is only part of the explanation. The other is
the difficulty of distinguishing the Wrights' claims from many others.
They were only two among many flight experimenters-both legitimate ones
and cranks-whose experiments attracted coverage in the press. Reports
of the flights at Kitty Hawk were lost in the noise of other news about
flying machines-especially, of course, Langley's much-publicized failures
just a few days earlier. The journalists who failed to cover the Wrights
weren't stupid. In their shoes we likely would have committed the same
oversight. In an era of rapid technological change-whether in 1903 or
in 2001-it's difficult to know which events are truly significant.
Even a comparatively well-informed layman like Root was ignorant of basic
aeronautical principles. He had to ask the Wrights whether their propellers,
if placed horizontally-that is, like a helicopter blade-would lift the
flyer. The Wrights said no-in that position the propeller would lift only
one-quarter of the machine's weight. Root asked why. "The answer involves
a strange point in the wonderful discovery of air navigation. When some
large bird or butterfly is soaring with motionless wings, a very little
power from behind will keep it moving . . .. [I]f this motion is kept up, a
very little incline of the wings will keep it from falling. . . I was astonished
at the wonderful lifting power of this comparatively small apparatus."
In other words, public understanding of flight was in its infancy when
Root wrote those words. Given this state of understanding, it's hardly
surprising that years would pass before the nature of the Wrights' accomplishment
penetrated public consciousness.
One more thing about Root: The dream of wings, to use Tom Crouch's phrase,
is not the dream merely of witnessing another human flying, but a dream
of flying oneself. This was as true of Amos Root as it was of the Wrights.
In Gleanings in Bee Culture of April 1, 1905, three months after his historic
article, Root included this short note: "From a letter just received from
the Wright Brothers we are pleased to learn they are planning a machine
for 1905 that will carry a passenger besides the operator. They did not
say the passenger might possibly be A.I. Root (for, say, 'one trip'),
but my imagination caught on to it nevertheless."