The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph of the First Flight of an Airplane


Yesterday marked the 109th anniversary of the first aviation photograph ever snapped. Back on December 17th, 1903, an amateur photographer named John Thomas Daniels Jr. captured the now-iconic photograph above showing the Wright brothers’ first flight.

“Amateur photographer” is used quite loosely when discussing Daniels’ role in creating this particular photograph — it was actually the very first photograph Daniels’ had ever taken!

When the Wright brothers traveled to the small town of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina to test their glider, Daniels was one of three men from the Life-Saving Station (think “coast guard”) in that town to help out with the test.

A bronze sculpture of John Daniels located at the Wright Brothers Memorial

A bronze sculpture of John Daniels located at the Wright Brothers Memorial

The camera, a Gundlach Korona 5×7-inch glass plate view camera, was actually owned by the Wright brothers. Prior to launching the Flyer, Orville Wright set up his tripod, focused the camera to the correct distance, and prepared the film holder. He then gave Daniels instructions on how to trigger the camera’s shutter by squeezing the shutter release bulb.

The Wright brothers flipped a coin to see who would pilot the first flight. Wilbur won but botched his attempt, so Orville’s the pilot in the iconic photograph, while his brother is seen running at the wingtip.

Daniels' iconic photo was recently used as North Carolina's design in the 50 State Quarters program

Daniels’ iconic photo was recently used as North Carolina’s design in the 50 State Quarters program

Daniels had never used (or even seen) a camera prior to capturing the historic shot. When the Flyer went airborne just minutes after he was taught how to operate it, Daniels was so excited that he almost forgot to squeeze the bulb. Luckily for the Wright brothers (and for all of us), he didn’t forget.

This all happened way before the days of digital photography, so neither the Wright brothers nor Daniels had any idea how the photos turned out (a total of three plates were exposed that day) on the day of the flight, and it would be some time until they would find out. Weeks passed before the Wright brothers returned to their home in Dayton, Ohio and developed the plates in their darkroom.

We’re guessing the brothers were very pleased with the job Daniels had done.

P.S. If you’d like some further reading, Ohio public radio station WYSO has published a great article and audio commentary that provides a closer look at the camera used for this photograph. Vintage Aircraft also has a much closer examination of the photograph itself.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Howard!

Image credits: Sculpture photo by RadioFan/Wikimedia Commons

  • Bill Keel


  • Duke Shin

    No duckfaces, no horrendous filters here. If your 110 years newer camera can take better pictures, why ruin the shot with instagram?

  • Carlos Ramirez Fotografias

    Ok… They forget that the true first flight in the world was made by Santos Dumont… We have to look for the story behind the picture of an airplane called 14 bis

  • Brock

    Actually, Wilbur won the toss and had the first attempt but he came to grief and landed after only a short hop. The brothers decided that didn’t count and it was Orville’s turn, and he made the historic hop

  • Brock

    That’s only if you disqualify the Wright brothers for using a track, but considering the 14bis didn’t fly for over two more years I think you can hand it to the Wrights.

  • Jeremy Madore

    So I ask: was it even Daniel’s photograph? The camera, education on how to operate and set it up, the developing responsibilities… all the Wright brothers’ jobs. All he did was squeeze a bulb as instructed. In modern day, who would technically own the IP to this image, assuming no contract or wage?

  • Christopher King

    I would ask the same question about the photos Usain Bolt took. Shouldn’t he own those and the wire should give him money for the sales? Would you argue the exposure settings were chosen by the wire photographer but the frame was chosen by Usain. In this case Daniels didn’t do either…

    …but, the photo would never exist if Daniels didn’t take it, that should be the final answer, he owns it in 2012. Maybe not in 1903. Likewise, if Usain didn’t take those photos then who did? And why on earth would anyone else get ownership rights?

  • Michael Zhang

    Hmmm. Now sure how I mixed this up, but thanks for the correction, Brock! :)

  • Nan

    Let’s not forget that those quarters have the wrong slogan — it’s “First in Flight” not “First Flight.” The standard NC license plate even has it on there. Way to go, quarter designers!

  • John Adkins

    It seems ironic that Daniels gets credit for the photograph, when the Wright brothers actually set up everything. Daniels really just pushed the button. IMHO I’d say it was the Wright brothers photo.

  • Alfredo Gayou

    it wasnt a track it was more likely a catapult

  • AdminHarald

    Well, all I can say is that I’ve been there (Outer Banks, NC), and it’s really a cool place. They have this awesome monument, plus the huge sculpture that includes the plane, and markers showing exactly where the different attempts landed. With the wind blowing, you can really imagine yourself being there. And I don’t care who thinks did it first, my hat’s off to two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who did this. And had the foresight to have it photographed. (Hey, why doesn’t the image here show the missing corner? I’ve never seen it without the corner missing. A little help from Photoshop? ;-)

  • Jim Colburn

    If only this were true. The problem is that the first flight (heavier-than-air winged craft, motorized, human control) was by Gustave Whitehead on Connecticut on August 14, 1901. The whole “Wright Brothers First” thing is because the Smithsonian agreed (in 1948) to pimp the idea in exchange for their getting the Brothers first airplane. The Wrights just had better PR (including a photographer).