Friday, June 28, 2013

Connecticut - First In Flight?

Whitehead (2nd left) in front of No. 21 "The Condor"
Most students learn in school, as I did, that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully make a sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air human flight in an aircraft they built. Most also know this flight took place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. The string of adjectives is important because they were not the first to invent human flight, nor the first to even create controlled human flight. Still, the Wrights are so well known that the North Carolina license plate announces "First in Flight" to anyone taking a look. However, according to the state of Connecticut, this statement is no longer true.

Earlier this month the Connecticut State Senate passed House Bill No. 6671. Essentially, this bill paves the way for an annual holiday celebrating the Connecticut aviation industry. The bill is also designed to celebrate the achievements of a German immigrant named Gustave Whitehead, who some now claim was the true originator of the powered fixed wing aircraft and truly the first in flight. 

Although supporters of Whitehead have claimed for decades that his flight preceded that of the Wright brothers, recently the argument has been rekindled by the evidence and website of an Australian researcher named John Brown. According to Brown, Gustave Whitehead first successfully flew an aircraft, design No. 21, which he called the Condor near Bridgeport, Connecticut in the early morning of August 1901. If correct, he beat the Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight by more than two years.

Brown presents several pieces of evidence to support the case for Whitehead. First, he claims to have uncovered at least 110 newspaper articles between 1901 and 1902 which reported Whitehead’s flying success. One of the most well known of these articles was published in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. The author, Richard Howell, describes witnessing Whitehead’s first manned flight on the Condor. Further, he lists at least three other witnesses to the event, Andrew Cellie, James Dickie, and a local milkman.

The Herald article did include a photo of Whitehead and a drawing of the Condor in flight, which was supposed to have been based on a photograph taken at the scene. Of this original picture, Brown says it has been lost. Still, he claims to have now uncovered a copy of this visual evidence by examining the background of a separate panorama photo taken in 1906 at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America. This photo shows a glider hanging from the ceiling in front of a wall containing photographs of what appear to be other aircraft. Several of these photos, according to Brown and other researchers, show aircraft built by Whitehead. One of them, Brown insists, shows the Condor in flight.

Drawing from the Bridgeport Sunday Herald
Though most of these background photos are unrecognizably blurred, Brown sites two articles, one published in a 1906 edition of Scientific American as evidence that he has found the correct picture. The articles describe the same wall of photos shown in the picture. According to the author, one of the wall photos showed “A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air . .constructed by Whitehead in 1901.” The author also goes on to say that this was the only photo of an airplane in flight.

Panorama of the Aero Club Exhibition - Whitehead section enlarged
On his website, Brown compares several of these photos with pictures of aircraft known to have been built by Whitehead. Indeed, he seems to prove that the majority of the pictures are not those referenced in the Scientific American article. However, Brown next examines one of the most blurred images to the drawing created for the Bridgeport Herald in 1901. Ultimately, Brown concluded that there were remarkable similarities between the two images. Enough similarities, in fact, to conclude the blurred image in the panorama photo is the long lost photo taken in Connecticut in 1901.

John Brown's comparison - Do these images show the same event?
Though the image Brown compares to the Bridgeport drawing is very unclear, Brown points out that it does seem to be situated with other Whitehead pictures, it does seems to show an aircraft above the ground, looks vaguely similar to other picture of the Condor, and is located pretty much in the same place as the mystery photo described in Scientific American. Therefore, he deduces that this blurred image must be the picture described in the article. Based on the evidence given, he surmises that Whitehead did fly before the Wright brothers.

Additionally, Brown goes on to explain that Whitehead next built an aircraft he called No. 22, with which he performed even longer flights. Brown sites the affidavits and statements from at least 17 witnesses to support the flights of No. 22. Replicas of this plane have been flown in both Germany and the US in more recent times.

Though there seems to be substantial evidence that Whitehead actually flew in 1901, others disagree. Tom Crouch, at the Smithsonian Magazine site critiques the Whitehead case. According to Crouch, who is the director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, there is not enough evidence to support that the 1901 flight actually took place.

First, Crouch examined the written account published in the Bridgeport Herald. In the article, the author listed at least three witnesses to Whitehead’s flight. However, in 1936 a researcher from Harvard University named John Crane returned to Bridgeport in order to investigate the 1901 event. Crane could only find a single person who claimed to remember Whitehead’s sustained flight as reported in the Herald.

Furthermore, no relation, neighbor, or friend of Whitehead could remember to have even heard of the prolonged flight Whitehead claimed to have made in August of 1901. The one witness who claimed to have seen this flight was deemed less than credible by Crane due to the profit the witness was set to receive upon the publication of a book about Whitehead.

According to Crouch, the 1936 investigators even attempted to interview the witnesses referenced in the Bridgeport Herald. One witness could not be found, nor did anyone remember him. The other witness denied having ever seen Whitehead fly in August of 1901. He even went as far as to suggest that the Herald invented the story.

Crane did seem to attempt investigate the Whitehead’s case fairly. He did find several witnesses in the village who claimed to have seen Whitehead actually fly. What they could not agree upon was the duration and height of the flights they saw. Therefore, Crane concluded that Gustave Whitehead might have actually made several short, un-sustained, manned flights. Based on eye witness accounts these flights ranged from as low as 4 feet to as high as 25 feet and lasted anywhere from several yards to over 60 yards. However, they were not the sustained, controlled, powered flight as described in the original article.

At this point, despite the bill the Connecticut legislature has passed, whether or not Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wright brothers is pretty unclear. There are conflicting witness reports, no real conclusive photographic evidence, and other pieces of historic evidence don’t lend credence to the August 1901 event. For instance, though Whitehead went on to become a designer of airplane engines, no other aircraft designed by Whitehead ever actually flew until recently.

Still others point to the conduct of Orville and Wilbur Wright as evidence of a conspiracy. The brothers were secretive and were embattled in lawsuits against competitors. Critics point out that the Smithsonian currently holds a contract with the estate of Orville Wright. The contract dictates that the Smithsonian would lose custody of the aircraft of the Wright brother’s should they ever declare that another was actually first to fly. I must agree, on the surface that does not give me confidence in the unbiased historic opinion of the Smithsonian Institution on this matter.

However, I personally love this controversy. It demonstrates how history is constructed, de-constructed, and re-constructed. The very essence of this conflict stems from differing interpretations of the same sources, the sense of which I try to impart to my students all the time. Aspects of the arguments used on both sides of the issue are fascinating and at least sound enough to convince the law makers in Connecticut to legislate the recognition of Gustave Whitehead as the father of aviation. Perhaps the missing original photograph taken by the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, key to the entire argument, will eventually turn up. Until then, I am not convinced New England was first in flight. That honor remains with the Wright brothers and with the state of North Carolina.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happier Than Paul Revere With a Cell Phone

I love this commercial. But I'm guessing it wasn't that easy to warn "every Middlesex village and farm." Still, even the wife thinks this one is funny.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wampanoag Language Reclamation

Douglas Pocknett - from Boston Globe
It is now graduation season throughout our country. Thousands of our nation’s youth are completing one part of their lives and moving toward the next with pomp and circumstance. For most, graduation is a simple secular ceremony signifying the beginning of adulthood in our culture. It is repeated with minor variation year after year. However, on the Cape, the 2013 graduation at Mashpee High School has made history.

Earlier this month, a Mashpee Wompanoag student named Douglas Pocknett graduated from Mashpee High School wearing the ceremonial dress of the Wampanoag. Although Douglas is only the second Mashpee student to have done this, he is the first to have delivered a traditional Wampanoag prayer to the assembly in his own native language called Wôpanàak.

According to the documentary We Still Live Here, no one can say for sure when the last native speaker of Wôpanàak died. However, certainly the language was near extinction by the mid 1800's. Although Wôpanàak is an Algonquian language, it is distinct and separate from similar languages like Abenaki or Narragansett.

Remnants of the language exists in colonial documents and in Bibles written for Praying Indians. In 1993, the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project began under the direction of a linguist named Jesse "little doe" Baird. Baird began earning a Masters Degree in Algonquian linguistics at MIT. Through the cooperation of the various Wampanoag groups of the Cape and Islands, the project reconstructed a nearly lost language and began teaching the language to tribe members. It’s amazing to think that Cape Cod missionaries like Richard Bourne, who helped to translate Christian payers into the Wampanoag language, have now helped reconstruct that language.

Jesse "little doe" Baird
What is even more amazing is that Douglas Pocknett is a student of Jesse Baird. Pocknett was also the first Mashpee student to earn foreign language credits by studying his ancestral language, which is a practice I hope the Mashpee school system continues to expand.

I have been following the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project for a few years now. I totally respect the work of Jesse Baird and the Wampanoag groups that took part in the continuing reclamation of the Wampanoag language. I consistently remind any of my Wampanoag students of the project. Like any young student, I find they have varying levels of interest in their own ancestry. I did have one student this year who was interested in attending one of the language immersion summer camps though and another who was totally fascinated when I shared the news about the Mashpee graduation and Douglas Pocknett.

I must admit, I am also totally jealous. There hasn’t been a native speaker of Irish Gaelic in my family in at least three generations. Also, my maternal grandmother and her parents spoke French asa first language, which has now completely died out in my generation. Like I said, jealous. The difference, however, is that those languages continue to exist and are still used in large parts of the world. Certainly, I wish the Wmpanoag luck in the re-establishment of their native language in their native land. One day I would love to walk the lands of Cape Cod and hear the same language our Yankee ancestors did.