Wrong about the Wrights

Aviation bible Jane’s has declared a little-known German pilot as the first to make a manned, powered, sustained, controlled flight. Steve Kealy reports on how history was rewritten.

Wright Brothers Historic First Flight Kitty Hawk, December 17, 1903
John T. Daniels

Every schoolchild knows the names of Orville and Wilbur Wright as the American brothers who were the first to conquer the skies with a controlled, powered flight in 1903. But history seems to have gotten it wrong.

For decades rumours that another American resident, German-born Gustave Whitehead, beat them to it in 1901, refused to die. This March, Australian-born aviation historian John Brown himself made history by providing evidence that supports the Whitehead claim. After digging through digitised newspaper archives and other material, Brown unearthed 132 newspaper articles and 17 testimonies from witnesses who observed the flight. He also discovered a long-lost fuzzy photograph that experts say is a real snapshot of a monoplane in the air, right where news reports said a photo of Whitehead’s 1901 plane could be seen in flight.

So weighty was the evidence that on 8 March, the 100th anniversary edition of the journal Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft replaced the Wright brothers with Whitehead as the first person to achieve a manned, powered, sustained, controlled heavier-than-air flight. “It’s been a major oversight – to have the highest aviation authority come down on the side of my findings was very encouraging,” says Brown with characteristic understatement.

How could history have gotten something so momentous so wrong? Surely the eyes of the world were peeled to watch every step of these magnificent men in their flying machines – the winner and the intricate details of their flight would have been unequivocally and indelibly inscribed in the annals of history.

The Wright brothers may not be the fathers of flight after all. – Bettmann/Corbis

Not so, says Brown. “You have to understand the context of the times.” The media at the turn of the century was far more dazzled by craft lifted by hydrogen than those lifted by wings. “The word ‘airplane’ didn’t exist; people believed airships represented the future of flight.” That lasted until 1937 when the Hindenburg, flying from Europe to the US, caught fire while docking at Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 of 97 people on board.

But back in 1901 airships dazzled the world. When Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his airship the 11 km from the Parc de Saint-Cloud around the Eiffel Tower and back, he won the 100,000-franc Deutsch Prize and his feat was splashed across the world’s newspapers.

“No one was interested in a half-mile hop in Fairfield, Connecticut,” says Brown, referring to the field where Gustav Whitehead performed his first test flight in 1901.

Though the media failed to distinguish between a machine that floats versus one that flies, that distinction is crucial for historians. To fulfil the definition of “flight in a heavier-than-air machine” requires the journey to be sustained, powered and controlled. Soaring like a baseball does not count, says Brown.

And while no one doubts the Wright brothers were extraordinary, with Wilbur wowing the world with figure eights performed in a field outside Paris in 1908, the issue for history is not who perfected the craft but who flew first.

Historians weigh evidence the way courts do. Eyewitness news reports, photos and the testimonial evidence of witnesses hold the greatest weight. Circumstantial evidence is important too. For instance, could the wings, motors and steering devices of the aircraft plausibly have done the job? According to Brown’s recent sleuthing, the weight of the evidence falls on Whitehead’s side.

You might expect Brown to have been on this case for decades, given the generally glacial pace at which historians retrace lost trails. Remarkably he only picked up the trail in January 2012 when, taking time off from his job as a project manager at an aircraft construction company in Germany, he was hired by the Smithsonian Channel to do a documentary on “roadable” aircraft — planes on wheels that can be driven as well as flown. Part of his research saw him stationed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, where he walked past the 1903 Wright Flyer every day. He often chatted with head historian Tom Crouch, author of four books on the Wright brothers.

Researching the history of roadable aircraft quickly led Brown to Gustave Whitehead, a name he dimly knew. The historian’s work was vastly aided by recent digitisation of newspaper libraries and dispersal through the internet. Searching the Library of Congress, he entered the name Gustave Whitehead and at the touch of a button found himself looking at 18 articles on the screen. It turned out to be six times more than what was generally known of at the time. Like most of the world, he’d had no idea of Whitehead’s claim to powered flight. Soon, Brown was hooked.

Over the next year he unearthed a total of 450 articles about Whitehead; 132 of them describing his several flights before that of the Wright brothers and reported in newspaper reports from Austria to Australia. He also uncovered sworn statements from 14 of 17 people who had either witnessed Whitehead’s flights in 1901 and 1902, or seen an original photo of one.

The Bridgeport Herald in 1937 reproduced its original report from 18 August 1901 that Gustave Whitehead flew two years before the Wright brothers. – www.gustave-whitehead.com

One of those was Richard Howell, a reporter for the Bridgeport Herald. In his article published on Sunday 18 August 1901, he described how shortly after midnight the previous Tuesday, Whitehead’s plane, the Condor, drove on four wobbly wooden wheels to a field in nearby Fairfield. After unfurling its wings and watched by a knot of five onlookers, Whitehead took off at sunrise, “looking for all the world like a great white goose rising from the feeding grounds in the early morning dawn”. He reportedly flew 800 metres at a height of 12-15 metres, making a shallow turn along the way to avoid a clump of chestnut trees.

Howell’s article proclaimed that Whitehead and his colleague, W. D. Custead were “now working on a flying machine that is expected to revolutionise the world of aeronautics”. The article was accompanied by a picture of the great white bird in flight, apparently a lithograph made from a photo taken that day by Howell. This was standard newspaper practice at the time since a grainy photo of a moving object taken in dim light would have been too indistinct.

It was a weird-looking picture, like something out of a vintage science-fiction comic – a fact that no doubt helped later claims, by Orville Wright among others, that the whole thing was hoax. But 36 years later the Bridgeport Herald stood by its story, republishing the original article in a 1937 edition and reaffirming that the feat was achieved two years earlier than that of the Wright brothers.

It is true that the Condor was a weird-looking machine; something between a great white bat and a goose, with white silk wings stretched across nine bamboo ribs and mounted atop a boat-shaped hull. But for all its wacky appearance it was closely modelled on a design that had been shown to fly well – the gliders built by German engineer Otto Lilienthal. The Condor was powered by two acetylene-fed engines designed by Whitehead with a total output of 30 horsepower (22.4 kilowatts), designed by Whitehead. One engine powered the wheels and the other the propeller. Once airborne, with the flick of a lever, the 10 hp road engine would augment the 20 hp propeller engine.

One of the few photographs of the Condor. – www.gustave-whitehead.com

Whitehead knew a thing or two about engines. Born Gustav Weisskopf, he had trained as an engine-builder in Germany before working his passage around the world as a sailor. He arrived in the United States in 1893. He put his understanding of sails, wind and airflow to good use, taking jobs building gliders for Harvard’s Professor William Pickering and industrialist James Means. His language skills in engineering terms were useful as Means communicated with Lilienthal.

Whitehead eventually put his two skill-sets together and started fitting his gliders with engines. As Paul Jackson, editor-in-chief of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft put it, “Whitehead had amassed considerable knowledge of practical aircraft construction and was also gifted in the design and construction of the item then most prized by aspiring aviators: the light yet powerful and reliable engine.”

Brown’s research shows that at the time, aviators were well aware of Whitehead’s place in history. In 1906 the Aero Club of America held its first exhibition at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, housed in a single room. Suspended from the ceiling were gliders including one of Lilienthal’s. But at eye-level the visitors viewed material on boards, walking clockwise. The first item they saw were photos of Whitehead’s Condor.

Photographs at the Aero Club of America’s first exhibition in 1906, purportedly showing Whitehead’s plane in action. – Forschungsgemeinschaft Gustav Weisskopf

Those photos no longer exist but an eyewitness account from Scientific American tells us what was in them. An article in its 27 January 1906 edition states that “the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead … in flight…. A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air… constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only photograph … of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight.”

Decades later, the Smithsonian’s Tom Crouch found a panoramic photo of the exhibition and used it as an illustration for his 1981 book A Dream of Wings. Technology in 1981 allowed researchers to enlarge a section carrying four photos on the left-hand edge of the exhibition. According to the analysts, two of the photos showed Whiteheads’ plane on the ground. But the photo at the top right showed a blurred airborne object. Was it The Bridgeport Herald’s original picture? It was impossible to say.

But in June 2012, Brown’s sleuthing scored another trophy. As he records on his blog, while rummaging in the 400-year-old, cobweb-strewn attic of the Gustave Whitehead Museum in Germany, he came across an illustrated 1907 report by a German magazine about the same exhibition with better quality photos.

He made use of image recognition software used by German forensic police to identify drivers caught by speed cameras in poor weather conditions on fast-moving autobahns. Their analysis compared the airborne object in the picture with the reported features of the Condor’s 1901 flight.

Evidence of the brothers’ Kitty Hawk flights is hardly watertight. There were no reporters present and none of the five witnesses took sworn oaths.

The forensic analysts reported five out of six matches. One thing the photo could not reveal was the motor. But given that the photo was part of a display on Whitehead’s 1901 motor-driven airplane, it establishes that an aerial photo did indeed exist. As Brown elaborates, “At the time, I was examining the credibility of the journalists who wrote that they had seen a photo of Whitehead flying his 1901 machine. Was there a photo there on the wall that could have been the one they saw? The answer is ‘yes’. That’s all I was out to prove.”

Brown raises these arguments in support of Whitehead’s claim to have flown in 1901 and 1902. The photographic evidence is imperfect; but there are 17 witnesses to the flights, with 14 giving sworn statements of having seen Whitehead fly in 1901 and 1902 or of seeing the photo of the 1901 flight. They include justices of the peace, policemen and journalists. There is also the evidence of Whitehead’s credentials as an airplane designer.

Brown argues that exactly this type of evidence underpins the basis for the Wrights’ claim of their first flight in dunes near the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. From a patenting point of view, it was a crucial claim. By then many people were demonstrating controlled flight in various designs of aeroplane.

But the evidence of the brothers’ Kitty Hawk flights is hardly watertight. There were no reporters present and none of the five witnesses took sworn oaths. There is a famous photo that claims to capture the 1903 flight, although it was only made available on 20 May 1908. But how does one ascertain from a photo that a craft is gliding rather than flying under its own power? Until 1903, the Wrights were experimenting with gliders on skids launched from rails, and taking advantage of strong head winds to lift into the air.

Brown believes there is reasonable room for doubt that the famous 1903 flight was truly powered and sustained. Indeed those doubts start to look more plausible given that a year later in May 1904, with plenty of reporters to document the fact, the Wrights failed to prove they could achieve sustained, powered flight over a three-day effort at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio.

“The quality of evidence on Whitehead’s side is stronger, and Whitehead’s claim is two years ahead,” says Brown.

Whitehead poses with his goose-like aircraft. – www.gustave-whitehead.com

But a burning question remains. Why did Whitehead himself not contest the Wright brothers’ claims? For instance, quite apart from the claim to the first flight, he published a system of “wing-warping”, a technique for controlling the roll of a fixed-wing aircraft, four months before the Wright’s applied for their patent on a similar system. Yet Whitehead failed to contest it. Why?

Here Brown can only speculate. After three disastrous partnerships to try and commercialise his aeroplanes, he found himself penniless with a wife and two young children to support. “He wasn’t the only broke person to abandon flying, but he was probably the first,” says Brown. Whitehead gave up his flight ambitions and began a successful business manufacturing engines for other flying machines.

The Wrights had a commercial instinct that Whitehead lacked and they were extremely litigious. “They successfully impeded most progress in aviation in the USA until 1917,” says Brown. “They sued everyone and confiscated entire factories.” In 1909, all aeroplanes in America were grounded by injunctions. If anyone wished to fly his own aeroplane, he was obliged to buy a licence from them at a cost of $25,000, or buy the Wrights’ invention. This was only brought to an end in 1917 when, the United States entered World War I and the government pressed the industry to form a cross-licencing arrangement.

So is the debate resolved at last? Hardly. In an ironic twist, the Smithsonian Institution is one of the major antagonists to the Whitehead claim, even though the Smithsonian Channel, which is half-owned by the museum, commissioned Brown’s work in the first place.

When it comes to the Wright brothers, the Smithsonian has long found itself in an awkward position. In November 1948 the executors of Orville’s estate signed an agreement allowing the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to purchase the original Wright Flyer for one dollar. But for 30 years, one part of the agreement was kept secret. It reads, “Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors ... shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the 1903 Wright Aeroplane, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.” If this contract is broken, Smithsonian stands to lose a valuable centrepiece exhibit.

It is an extraordinary arrangement for an institution charged with the impartial recording of US history. Especially given that up to the 1940s, the Smithsonian insisted there was no evidence the Wrights flew first. “But after signing a contract with the Wright family, it insisted the evidence was overwhelming,” says Brown. “Even people who disagree with the Whitehead claims agree this contract is an outrage.” Tom Crouch from the Smithsonian remains circumspect about Whitehead’s claim. “It isn’t just the lack of a photo,” he says. “The Wright brothers left letters, notebooks, pages and pages of calculation, so that you can follow their thought process step by step. Whitehead left no letters, no journals, no drawings or calculations of those aeroplanes whatsoever.”

This year, the state of Connecticut proclaimed its resident, Whitehead, as the first aviator. But the state of North Carolina, home to the Kitty Hawk flights, still claims that honour on behalf of the Wrights, even though the brothers were “sons of Ohio”. And while some revile Brown for dethroning the Wright brothers, others have given him rock star status. In August the Discovery Channel organised a sold-out speaking tour in Connecticut. “People were spilling out of the doorway; I had to fight my way past satellite dishes to my seat,” says Brown.

But even that does not compare to what he experienced at 1pm on 8 March this year. He sat through a gruelling session with the editors of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, at which he was asked 22 hardball questions over a session that took two hours. “I thought they were ripping my work to shreds. But after that editor-in-chief Paul Jackson got up, shook my hand and said, ‘Congratulations Mr Brown, you’ve changed history’.”

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