The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is well known for preserving the first written records of our nation. People come from around the world to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. But what about the first government films? The oldest known government-produced film in our holdings is First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia, which captured daring test flights of the Wright Military Flyer.
We were aware that Hermine Baumhofer, writing in The American Archivist journal in 1952, identified a recording of a 1908 Wright Military Flyer test flight as the first government-produced film. At that time, the U.S. Army Signal Corps was looking for aircraft that could be added to its newly-established Aeronautical Division. Wilbur and Orville Wright, several years out from their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, decided to make a bid for the government contract. Among other things, the Signal Corps required a plane to reach speeds of 40 m.p.h., fly a distance of 125 miles, and carry a passenger. Tests of the Wright Flyer were first held at Fort Myer, Virginia, in September 1908, ending with a tragic crash that killed Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and gravely injured Orville Wright. A recovered Orville resumed tests at Fort Myer with a new aircraft in July 1909.
Baumhofer names United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee Winfield Scott Clime, later a famous landscape painter, as the cameraman who filmed the 1908 test. A 1943 article in Business Screen Magazine confirms Clime as the photographer and notes that this was the first film shot with the USDA’s newly-acquired motion picture camera, which the article identifies as the first motion picture camera purchased by any government agency. According to Agriculture Department lore, this early filmmaking was done with a degree of secrecy. Secretary of Agriculture James “Tama Jim” Wilson was of the opinion that movies were “of the devil” and it wasn’t until several years later that the USDA had an officially sanctioned motion picture department. The Business Screen article also notes that the negative of the 1908 test film had been turned over to the Army Signal Corps and by 1943 was likely in the holdings of the National Archives.
First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia is found in the Historical Film Series of the Army Signal Corps and we recently digitized it as part of a multi-year project to scan the whole series for public access. At some point in the past, the date July 27, 1909, was attached to the film in its archival description. The Signal Corps did shoot footage at Fort Myer in 1909 and we hold a paper production file that tells us a little more. At some point, an unknown person added a note in pencil reading, “Winfield Scott Clime s’posed to be photographer.” That hint, along with how the film is edited together, led us to consider that it might contain 1908 footage. Sadly it appears that the Signal Corps may not have retained Clime’s footage and did not include it in the edited film. However, the film does contain scenes filmed at the very beginning of July 1909.
This film, like other films in the Historical Film Series, was compiled by Signal Corps staff to consolidate the older films in the Signal Corps’ holdings. Beginning in 1935, they sorted through hundreds of thousands of feet of footage to select and edit together films on different historical topics, with the bulk of them focused on World War I. Looking at how the film is edited together, you can see that the Signal Corps was trying to create a coherent narrative for a test flight using the disparate footage they had. It begins with the plane being removed from the hangar. This footage it appears to be from three different days, based on the number and location of the spectators, one of whom is President William Howard Taft. The most dramatic sequence is the plane’s take-off. The Signal Corps cut together footage filmed weeks apart to provide reverse shots for what is made to look like a single launch.
Once the plane is in the air, we see shots from several flights around Fort Myer. The film ends with the plane back on the ground.
There is much that remains to be learned about the early history of government filmmaking. Although the USDA claims it had the very first motion picture camera in the federal government, there is evidence that the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation was already shooting its own films in the summer of 1908. In the Business Screen Magazine article, the USDA itself notes that Bureau of Reclamation photographers E.B. Thompson and Carl Louis Gregory were also present at Fort Myer to film the 1908 test flights.
Although the September 1908 Wright Flyer tests ended in tragedy, the 1909 test flights were a resounding success. The Army purchased the plane from the Wright brothers and designated it Signal Corps No. 1. The Signal Corps immediately set up a training ground and airport in College Park, Maryland, and then established a military aviation school there in 1911. In that same year, the Signal Corps acquired a number of newer-model airplanes, nudging Signal Corps No. 1 toward obsolescence. Recognizing its importance in the story of American aviation, the War Department donated the aircraft to the Smithsonian Institution, where it now resides in the collections of the National Air and Space Museum.
November 18, 2022–This post has been edited to reflect new information.