Step Back, Claudy, We’re Going
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully tested their flying machine at the Kitty Hawk airfield, launching the Age of Aviation. Seeing an opportunity to apply this technology in the battlefield, the United States government invited the Wright brothers to Fort Myer, Virginia to apply their innovation through a military flyer. The event became a spectacle and a young Carl Claudy, a future Grand Master of the District of Columbia working as a reporter for the New York Herald, was sent to cover the story.
Most Masons today know Claudy through his written work. Specifically, the series of educational booklets, informally known as “Claudy Books,” that are given to candidates for further instruction, but his publications outside of masonry have often been over shadowed, though they are just as notable. (He even wrote for D.C. comics!) After living in New York and working for the Herald, Claudy moved to the District and became a very active Freemason. He was initiated at Harmony Lodge No. 17, and after serving as the lodge's Master, he later served as Grand Master of the District in 1943.
Claudy arrived at the Fort Myer airfield on September 9, 1903 and immediately got to work photographing the event. His glass plate collection is available online via the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum’s Digital Archives. The test flight that day was well attended, to say the least.
In fact, President of the United States and Freemason, William Taft, as well as several members of congress made an appearance to see the new “areoplane” fly.
Unlike the first Wright flyer, their military prototype was smaller, but allowed for two pilots. Lt. Thomas Selfridge joined Orville Wright on the flight in Fort Meyer as an official observer. This was, unfortunately, Selfridge’s first and last flight as minutes after takeoff, a propeller shattered and sent the flyer hurtling out of control. It crashed several seconds later. Selfridge died hours later at the hospital. Orville suffered a broken leg and four broken ribs. According to Claudy, Selfridge’s last words to him were “Step back, Claudy, we’re going…”
And with these photos, a future Grand Master of D.C. captured a glimpse of history. Claudy’s photos dazzled generations of Americans interested in flight, science, and the new marvels of the 20th century. While in D.C., he jumped at the chance to cover other historic events including a little-known kite experiment conducted by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and founder of a little company called American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T).
So while Most Worshipful Brother Claudy may be best remembered for his engaging writing for new candidates and members, the larger world remembers the great historic events he covered in his life, and that will live on in his photographs.