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Found: The Wright Brothers’ Lost ‘Flying Machine’ Patent

Misplaced for 36 years, the patent was in a cave in Missouri all along.

First flight. (Photo: Library of Congress/ppprs.00626)

The last time anyone at the National Archives knew for sure where the Wright Brothers’ patent for their “flying machine” was, it was 1980. The patent had gone on display at the Smithsonian, and had been returned to the Archive. But in 2000, the next time anyone went to look for it, the document was nowhere to be found, the Washington Post reports.

Even in the best libraries, important pieces of art or history get lost. Sometimes they’re stolen; often they’re simply misfiled or misplaced. The Wright Brothers patent was supposed to be a National Archives “treasure” vault in D.C., where some of the country’s most valuable documents are kept. Instead, it was found in a limestone cave outside of Kansas City, Mo., among piles of other patent records.

Finding it wasn’t actually that complicated. As the Post writes, the National Archives has recently put a team on its cold cases, and one of those archivists took a particular interest in the Wright Brothers patent. The archive keeps most of its patent records in that Missouri cave, and the Wright Brothers had other patents. Perhaps, the flying machine patent was there.

An archivist in Kansas started looking through boxes of patents, until he was ready to declare the search a failure. But then he looked in one more box, and there it was: patent No. 821,393. Because, of course, you always find what you’re searching for in the last place you look.

Bonus finds: The head of a decapitated Junipero Serra statue

Every day, we highlight one newly found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscu