|Whitehead (2nd left) in front of No. 21 "The Condor"|
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|
|Panorama of the Aero Club Exhibition - Whitehead section enlarged|
|John Brown's comparison - Do these images show the same event?|
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.