one of history’s great reference requests

I’m glancing through this book Almost History, full of documents from US history of times that very nearly went another way or look, in retrospect, ironic — Grant’s apology to Lincoln for not being able to take him up on the theater invitation, Eisenhower’s apology for the failure of D-Day, things like that. (Particularly interesting in light of another book I’m reading right now, Connie Willis’s All Clear — it centers on time travelers and her theory is that history is a chaotic system, where tiny changes can have huge, unpredicted effects; well, here are some examples.)

In this book I encounter the following — it’s the second half of a letter to the Smithsonian in 1899:

The works on the subject to which I have access are Marey’s and Jamieson’s books published by Appleton’s and various magazines and cyclopaedic articles. I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language. I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known, and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success. I do not know the terms on which you send out your publications but if you will inform me of the cost I will remit the price.

Yours truly,
Wilbur Wright

4 thoughts on “one of history’s great reference requests

  1. Thanks for posting about this book. I hadn’t heard of it, and I find these kinds of letters, documents, and photographs fascinating. Perhaps I should have become an archivist instead.

    One of the reasons I left my previous career was because the industry was so entirely unnecessary and, in fact, wasteful. On days I would be completely stressed out I would have to tell myself, “It’s not like you’re curing cancer.” One of the things I really love about being a librarian now is that I never get stressed out, yet I may be helping someone cure cancer! I read passages like this one from Wilbur Wright and love that so many reference transactions are important.


    1. *g* Yeah, my friend John liked that too. I had been wondering whether a sentence like that made it more, or less, likely that letter-writers were cranks (although the next few lines do bolster his enthusiast case; and hey, if he’s willing to pay for the books, may as well send them…)


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