To the vast majority of people, especially in America, the name Wright brothers and the first mechanically-propelled flight in a heavier-than-air craft have always been synonymous with each other. The reality is that the achievement of Orville and Wilbur’s “First Flight” has always been strongly contested from certain quarters within the aviation industry in the United States – and internationally as well.
Not long after the news spread about the momentous event at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903, the significance of what the Wrights’ had done found itself under challenge, especially as time went on from the European aviation community. French newspapers after 1903 described the celebrated American brothers as bluffeurs (bluffers). Doubts were raised about their achievements when the Wrights failed to release the photo of the Wright Flyer in flight at Kitty Hawk until nearly five years after the groundbreaking 1903 flight … newspapers acerbically asked: “Were they fliers or liars?”, Paris edition of the New York Herald (10 Feb 1906); ‘Wright Brothers: European skepticism’, www.spiritus-temporis.com.
The state of North Carolina has harboured no such doubts, proudly displaying the slogan First in Flight on its car number-plates. Whether you accept the Wrights’ claim to be first in flight, or some other contender (of which there are several), in a sense could depend on what is meant by manned, aeronautical flight. Orville Wright’s first successful if brief powered flight was by no measure the first human flight in history. The genesis of intentional manned air travel can be traced back to the late 18th century with the advent of large hot air balloons (starting with the Montgolfier brothers of France in 1783).
As well, in the 30 years preceding Kitty Hawk, there was a host of aviation pioneers experimenting with monoplanes, biplanes, box-kites and gliders including, 1874: Félix du Temple; 1894: Hiram Maxim; 1894: Lawrence Hargrave; 1898: Augustus Moore Herring [B Kampmark, ‘Wright Brothers: Right or Wrong?’, Montréal Review (April 2013]. These flights however were either pre-power ones, or if motorised, they have been largely discredited as having been either unsustained, uncontrolled or as at the least not sufficiently controlled [P Scott, The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919].
The achievements of Orville and Wilbur in their 1903 Wright Flyer moved beyond the brothers’ earlier experiments in motorless gilders, but there are at least two other rival claimants prior to December 1903 whose aeronautical experiments were also mechanically-driven and became airborne albeit briefly – Gustave Whitehead in 1901 and Richard Pearse in 1902/1903. The late 1890s and early 1900s were awash with would-be plane makers, there was a veritable aircraft mania world-wide with people all the way from Austria to Australasia trying to construct workable “flying machines”.
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The somewhat erratic Pearse’s aircraft experiments in New Zealand, far away from the salient aeronautical developments in the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe, largely flew under the radar (to invoke an obvious pun!). The evidence suggests that Canterbury farmer Pearse’s home-built glider (equipped with tricycle wheels and an air-compressed engine) made at least one (but probably more) flights, but with little control over the craft. What was to Pearse’s credit was that unlike the Wright Flyer which managed only to travel in a straight line on 17 December 1903, the New Zealander was able to turn right and left during his flight on 11 May 1903 [PS Ward, ‘Richard Pearse, First Flyer’ The Global Life of New Zealanders, www.nzedge.com].
Pearse’s low-key approach to his attempts meant that no photographs were taken, although Geoffrey Rodcliffe identifies over 40 witnesses to Pearce’s flights prior to July 1903 [http://avstop.com]. Pearse did not actively promote his own claims for a place in aviation history (unlike the consistently determined and even pathological efforts of the Wright brothers to consolidate their reputation), and he himself conceded that the Wrights’ flight achieved a “sustained and controlled” trajectory, something that he had not. But Pearse did contribute to aviation’s development nonetheless through the creation of a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel, and a propeller with variable-pitch blades driven by a unique double-acting horizontally opposed petrol engine [G Ogilvie, ‘Pearse, Richard William’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Te Ara) 7 Jan 2014].
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G A Whitehead was a German migrant (born Gustave Weisskopf) living in Connecticut who started experimenting with gliders (variations on the glider prototype design developed by aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal) in the mid-1890s, at a time when Wilbur and Orville were still making and repairing bicycles in Dayton, Ohio. The case in support of the flight made by Whitehead on 14 August 1901 in what must be noted was an improbable-looking, bat-shaped, engine-propelled glider at Fairfield near Bridgeport, was first taken up in 1935 (in an article in an industry magazine, Popular Aviation, entitled ‘Did Whitehead Precede Wright In World’s First Powered Flight?’)回. Whitehead’s claim lay dormant until the 1960s when army reservist William O’Dwyer, took up the German-American engine-maker’s cause and did his upmost to promote his “flying machine”.
Supporters of Whitehead recently received a further boost through the research of Australian aviation historian John Brown who discovered a photo (lost since the 1906 Aero Club of America Exhibition) purporting to be of Whitehead’s Number 21 Gilder in flight. Largely on the basis of this, Brown was able to convince the premier aviation journal, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, to recognise Whitehead’s claim over that of the Wrights’ as the first powered and navigable flight in history [“An airtight case for Whitehead?”, www.fairfield-sun.com, 24 August 2013]. Doubts remain however about the Whitehead thesis. Brown’s reliance on the newly-discovered photo remains problematic, the image even ultra-magnified is indistinct and inconclusive of anything much. In any case the providence is questionable, there is no irrefutable evidence yet unearthed linking it to Whitehead’s 1901 flight. [“The case for Gustave Whitehead”, www.wright-brothers.org]
: The newly-acquired kudos of Connecticut arising from Jane’s recognition of Whitehead, has led to the amusing suggestion from some Connecticuters, that the state’s number-plates now be inscribed (at the risk of some serious grammatical mangling), Firster in Flight“, as a counterfoil to North Carolina’s “First in Flight”❈.
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A case has also been made for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator-inventor as the first to fly a mechanised aircraft – the 1906 Paris flight of his 14-bis biplane (Condor # 20). Supporters of the Brazilian aviator argue this on the grounds that it, not the Wrights 1903 flight, represented the first officially witnessed, unaided take-off and flight by a heavier-than-air craft. Brazilians, whilst acknowledging that the Wright Brothers conducted a successful flight earlier, argue that Santos-Dumont should be given pre-eminence because the 14-bis‘ take-off was made from fixed wheels (as was Pearse’s flight in NZ incidentally) rather than catapulted into the air from skids as happened with the Wright Flyer in 1903 [‘The case for Santos-Dumont’, www.wright-brothers.org]. The patriotic Brazilians, always ready to embrace a national hero, sporting or otherwise, have gone to great and amusing lengths to register their pride in Santos-Dumont’s achievement. Many Brazilian cities have an Avenida Santos Dumont named in honour of the aviator. In a characteristically Brazilian vein of jocularity, some Brazilians have taken a “stretch-limo” approach, rendering the street name into English thus,
Santos Dumont the True Inventor of the Airplane and Not the Wright Brothers Avenue [V Barbara, ‘Learning to Speak Brazinglish’, New York Times, 8 November 2013].
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More seriously, Santos-Dumont’s 1906 successful, powered flight in Paris (dismissed by the Wrights as a series of “long hops”) owed a large debt to Lawrence Hargrave, Santos’ Condor biplane being based on Hargrave’s box-kite construction. The Australian inventor has an under-recognised role in the history of aviation, but he contributed massively to the first successful airplane through the development of three critical aeronautical concepts – the cellular box-kite wing, the curved wing surface, and the thick leading wing edge (aerofoil). The world’s first commercial aircraft built by Frenchman Gabriel Voisin incorporated the stable lifting surfaces of Hargrave’s box kites. In addition, Hargrave invented the radial rotary engine, later used extensively in military aircraft [‘The Pioneers: Aviation and Aeromodelling – Independent Evolutions and Histories’ (Lawrence Hargrave 1850-1915), www.ctie.monash.edu.au].
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Jane’s magazine’s decision in 2013 to jettison the Wrights’ primacy and endorse Whitehead’s claim to be the first powered flight is in marked contrast to the position of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum‘s on the subject. The key to understanding the Smithsonian’s rigid, on-going refusal to countenance the Whitehead case, or even to have an open mind on it (the Smithsonian dismissively refers to it as the “Whitehead Myth”), has its roots in the testy relationship that prevailed between the Wrights and the Institution. From the start the Smithsonian did not immediately and unconditionally embrace the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk achievement. Instead, the Institute sought to elevate Samuel Pierpoint Langley‘s unsuccessful Aerodrome craft on an equal footing with the Wright Flyer (at one point Langley was Secretary of the Smithsonian – a clear suggestion of a conflict of interest within the Institution). In retaliation the Wrights refused to display their 1903 “First Flight” aircraft in the Smithsonian. Orville, after Wilbur’s early death, eventually shipped it off to England where it was exhibited in the Science Museum in South London instead [‘History of the 1903 Wright Flyer’, (Wright State University Libraries) www.libraries.wright.edu]
The intriguing twist in this story occurred in 1942 when the remaining Wright, Orville, relented on the Smithsonian ban, but only after a deal was struck. The Smithsonian recanted its long-standing statement that Langley’s Aerodrome was the first machine capable of flight in favour of the Wrights’ claim. In return the Washington DC Institution was allowed to hold and exhibit the 1903 Wright Flyer. The rider which contractually committed the Smithsonian stated that if the Institute ever deviated from its acknowledgement that the Flyer was the first craft to make a controlled, sustained powered flight, then control of the Flyer would fall into the hands of Orville’s heirs.
Critics of the Institute believe that the Smithsonian’s indebtedness to the Wrights’ legacy (the fear of losing the historic Flyer to the estate executors) prevents it from recognising the merits of Whitehead’s pioneering achievement irrespective of the weight of evidence put forward [J Liotta, ‘Wright Brothers Flight Legacy Hits New Turbulence’, www.news.nationalgeographic.com]. Clearly this is a powerful disincentive to the Smithsonian objectively assessing the merits and new evidence for any rival claims to the Wrights (not just Whitehead’s) which may be unearthed.
There were numerous aviation pioneers, engineers and technologists experimenting with new forms of aircraft at the turn of the 20th century, so what was it that made the Wright brothers stand out from the others? The preservation of identifiable photographic evidence and documentation of the December 1903 attempts certainly contributed to the strengthening of the brothers’ argument for being “First”. Another factor is that the brothers scrupulously consolidated and cultivated their reputation as the foremost air pioneers. Clearly the Wrights had an eye on history which contrasts with the less calculated approach of their rivals (especially Whitehead and Pearse). The Wrights vigorously defended the accomplishments of their Flyer against that of competing airships. They also went to great efforts to protect their technologies against intellectual theft … the propensity of the Wrights to resort to lawsuits when they felt their interests (eg, patent preservation) was threatened, pays testimony to this.
The Wrights, unlike most of the competition, kept on improving the quality and capability of their airplanes (at least up until they got bogged down in patent litigation), eg, the development of “wing warping” helped control the aircraft through enhanced aerodynamic balance. [D Schneider, ‘First in Flight?’, American Scientist, 91(6), Nov-Dec 2003]. The patents issue and the brothers’ preparedness to play “hardball” with their rivals led them into questionable ethical terrain, eg, their refusal to acknowledge the influence on their designs of pioneers who came before them, such as the Anglo-Australian Hargrave [‘The Pioneers’ op.cit.].
The credence given to the Wright brothers’ claim to be the first successful flyers should perhaps come with an asterisk, signifying it as heavily qualified, as in David Schneider’s all-inclusive, tongue-in-cheek description: “First in Sustained, Piloted, Controlled, Powered, Heavier-than-air Flight of Lasting Technological Significance” [ibid].
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Can we really say, in this era of start-up aeronautics, that any one of the countless attempts by aviation pioneers was definitive when it came to the question of the flight being sustained or controlled? The differences between what Herring, Whitehead, Pearse and the brothers Wright achieved with their best efforts seems to be one of degree, not kind. Moore Herring, the darling of Michigan aviation enthusiasts, managed a flight of only 73 feet and no more than 10 seconds in duration, no more than an extended hop according to National Air and Space Museum curator, Tom Crouch, but it registered as a lift-off nonetheless [TD Crouch, A Dream of Wings]. “Bamboo Dick” Pearse’s optimal flight in Temuka, NZ, travelled a mere 50 feet or so and abruptly ended 15 feet up in a gorse-hedge! The last and best attempt of Orville in the Wright Flyer lasted 59 seconds and travelled some 852 feet in distance. Gus Whitehead’s best try on 14 August 1901 was half a mile according to him, but it was poorly documented, lacked verification and pellucid images. Given the gaping lack of clearcut proof for Whitehead’s claims, the Wright Flyer on Kill Devil Hills in 1903 achieved something resembling sustained and controlled flight, but did this really amount to a quantum leap in and of itself?
Whilst many in the public would hold with the tradition and still associate the key breakthrough in aerial navigation with the Wright brothers, the embryonic phase of aeronautics brings home just how arbitrary and unsatisfactory the notion of “first in flight” really is. It is more meaningful to see the development of viable flying machines as something that happened incrementally, an aerodynamic puzzle put together piece-by-piece. It was an international effort, the culmination of the accumulated efforts of gifted pioneering aeronautical designers such as George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Lawrence Hargrave and Otto Lilienthal whose experiments made it possible for the Wrights and others to take one more step, coming closer each time to the realisation of successful manned, powered flight.
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In a documentary shown on national ABC television (Australia) John Brown made the case for an even earlier attempt at powered flight by Gus Whitehead, which occurred in the city of Pittsburg in 1899. Brown does not contend that this flight by the German-American should be recognised as the first successful attempt because it was not controlled – to the point that the aircraft actually crash-landed into a brick building, Who Flew First: Challenging the Wright Brothers, (DTV 21, ABC 2016).
回 freelance writer Stella Randolph was responsible for maintaining interest in Whitehead’s aviation pursuits, researching and writing The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead in the 1930s
❈ then there’s the claims of Ohio and specifically Dayton to their part in aviation history, the Wright Flyer being manufactured in Dayton
◖◗ See also the related article on this blogsite – “The Wright Way, the Only Way: the Aviation ‘Patent Wars’ and Glenn Curtiss”