Science history: the disinterested flight pioneer

The story of human flight is filled with many daring characters, and even more provisos: was it manned, powered, heavier-than-air, controlled, sustained, with a pilot on board?

Many flying pioneers were keen to claim the honour of being the first to take to skies – or at the very least of having left the ground. But one early aviator was equally adamant that he was not the first man to achieve powered flight: Richard William Pearse, born on December 3, 1877, at Waitohi Flat, Temuka, New Zealand.

A 2003 History Channel documentary, Heavier Than Air, by filmmaker Simone Keith, focuses on Brazilian-born aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who lived most of his life in France. On October 23, 1906, flew his aircraft, the “14-bis”, in what was the first powered, heavier-than-air flight in Europe to be certified by the Aero Club de France, for a distance of 60 metres at a height of about five.

According to the online magazine LiveScience, however, America’s renowned Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, in a field near Kitty Hawk, in North Carolina, achieved what is “properly called ‘the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air and (to some degree) controlled’ flight”, on December 17, 1903. With Orville at the controls, their machine was in the air for 12 seconds and travelled 37 metres.

Simone Keith, writing in the North Carolina State University magazine Perspectives, says the debate over who was first in the air is centred on whether the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight had additional help to get airborne. “Supporters of Santos-Dumont say the Wrights used a rudimentary catapult system on an inclined plane to throw their machine into the air,” she says.{%recommended 8267%}

And then there’s Pearse.

Te Ara, the encyclopedia of New Zealand, says the inventor claimed his first patent in 1902, for a bamboo-framed bicycle.

But flying was his main interest. The encyclopaedia says he followed overseas developments through the Scientific American magazine, and “there is evidence he was working on ideas for powered flight from 1899 and had built his first two-cylinder petrol engine by 1902”. 

Using bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas, he built a monoplane, “a remarkable invention embodying several far-sighted concepts” of “prophetic design”, that “closely resembled a modern microlight aircraft”. 

The article cites as its main sources the biographies The Riddle of Richard Pearse, from 2003, by Gordon Ogilvie, and 1997’s Wings over Waitohi: The Story of Richard Pearse, by C. Geoffrey Rodliffe. 

It says Pearse “made his first public flight attempt down Main Waitohi Road, adjacent to his farm. After a short distance aloft, perhaps 50 yards (45 metres), he crashed on top of his own gorse fence”. 

Pearse said it was February or March 1904 when he “set out to solve the problem of aerial navigation”. 

“He also states that he did not achieve proper flight and did not beat the American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright.”

But others disputed Pearse’s recollection, and there was reportedly “a good deal of eyewitness testimony, able to be dated circumstantially”, that March 31, 1903, “was the likely date of this first flight attempt”. 

If the witness reports are correct, his flight pre-dated both Santos-Dumont and the Wrights, but the New Zealander never attempted to claim the crown. 

Along with his interest in aviation, Pearse came up with several non-flying – and non-patented – inventions, including a needle threader, potato planter, top-dresser, and motorised disking machine.

But he also continued to experiment with flight, applying for a patent in November 1943, which was approved in 1949, “which anticipated the main feature of the Harrier jump jet and other similar aircraft with a tilting engine to allow for vertical take-off and landing”.

However, his innovations were largely ignored and Pearse became “embittered, disillusioned”. He was admitted in June 1951 to Sunnyside Mental Hospital, where he died on July 29, 1953.

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