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THE WRIGHT BROTHERS: RIGHT OR WRONG

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By Binoy Kampmark

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The Montréal Review, April 2013

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Gustave Whitehead, 2nd from left, with visitors in front of his "No 21". At his feet the self built gas pressure motor. (Flight Historical Research Foundation Gustav Weisskopf)

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“Our license plate should say ‘firster in flight'.”

Bill Finch, Mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., Mar 19, 2013

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The controversy over whether the Wright Brothers were, in fact, the first humans to take to flight on December 17, 1903 in the famed Kitty Hawk in North Carolina has been an enduring one. Apart from Eden's Adam (if one is so inclined), it has been difficult to ascertain with certainty what, in terms of human achievement, happened first. The recent discussion by NPR (Mar 19) that a certain Gustave Whitehead may have pipped the Wright brothers to the post a few years prior to their flight experiment is not new, though deserving of attention. 

John Brown, an amateur historian who works at an aircraft construction company in northern Germany, found a picture while foraging through the contents of a museum attic in Bavaria.  It seemingly shows the world's first plane in flight – by one Gustave Whitehead (or Gustav Weisskopf), a German immigrant who settled in Connecticut.  There is a catch. The photo itself is of a 1906 exhibition featuring a suspected image of Whitehead's flight – the “No. 21” that appears on the back wall. The image itself is considerably enlarged – by 3500 percent. A news article on the event was published in the Bridgeport Herald in 1901, two years earlier than the effort by the Wrights. Other spread of articles followed. 

Paul Jackson, the editor of Jane's All the World's Aircraft is convinced by the report that on August 14, 1901, Whitehead's flight in Fairfield, Connecticut lasted for over a mile up to an altitude of 50 feet.  Chip's Family Restaurant needed little convincing, and have, according to the NPR report, a “No. 21” breakfast on the menu. 

Discussions of this sort often veer into alien territory, and one half expects the ancient alien theorist Erich von Dänagan to come up from behind with suggestions of extra-terrestrial fiddling.  Certainly, many Indians are happy to go along with the idea that flying was well and truly established with the Vimanas, made by humans or otherwise.  Arjuna had first bite of the cherry.  We are left none the wiser.  Museums, however, don't have that luxury.  They stake their finances on facts, and impeaching them can come at terrible cost.

The Smithsonian experts will certainly have none of this kerfuffle. They have a sacred cow to protect, and have called the photo of Whitehead's efforts “very, very indistinct”. Besides, numerous reports do not suggest evidence of much. “To my mind,” claimed Peter Jakab, the associate director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, “it's really trying to see what you want to see in the image” (NPR, Mar 19). And the more articles published on the same subject is not necessarily the merrier – “An AP story is written, and it goes out, and it appears in many, many publications.”

Jakab is not giving his audience the full picture. For one, Whitehead's achievement was given coverage in Popular Aviation magazine in 1935, but the article dates his flying achievements even before 1901.  In 1899, Whitehead is said to have flown a steam-powered plane before making a go of it with his gasoline powered Number 21. The story of Whitehead is given even more coverage in Stella Randolph's Before the Wrights Flew: The Story of Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead, in truth, has lurked in the background like a menace to the pioneering claim of the Wrights.  In 1986, an enthusiast from Fairfield, Connecticut William O'Dwyer produced his gathered clippings of Whitehead's exploits in the Scientific American describing the 1901 flight ( New York Times, May 4, 1986). Andrew Kosch, a high school teacher, threatened to build a model based on Whitehead's design.  In 1997, a model of the Number 21 did actually fly, refuting one of the key arguments made by Orville Wright himself in 1937 – that “the design of the machine is in itself enough to refute the statements that the machine flew.”

The Wright brothers certainly had a cranky history with the Smithsonian.  Orville and Wilbur took issue with the way the Smithsonian seemingly exalted the exploits of Samuel P. Langley, an aeronautical engineer in his own right and Smithsonian secretary.  The more one peers into the grievances, a picture of pettiness emerges.  Several of these are noted in a piece published by the Smithsonian Institution from September 29, 1928 by then secretary Charles Greeley Abbot. 

Orville Wright was a bundle of complaints, mentioning six in all.  Three are worth noting: that Langley's achievements seem to take precedence over those of the Wright brothers when they were awarded the Langley medal; the failure on the part of the Smithsonian to accept the Wrights as genuine men of research rather than enthusiastic amateurs; and a “lack of cordiality” shown by the late Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott's invitation in 1910 to place the Kitty Hawk or other planes in the U.S. National Museum.  It was left to Abbot to mend the bridges and renew the invitation to Orville to deposit the Kitty Hawk in the National Museum.

This behaviour certainly adds colour.  Interestingly enough, the Wrights sensed history might not be on their side, given their attempts to pioneer flying in an age of flying enthusiasts.  Félix du Temple de la Croix, a French naval officer and inventor to boot, is credited by some sources as being the first to have powered a flight when his Monoplane took off in 1874.  He was but one of several luminaries, among them Sir Hiram Maxim, who created the Maxim Flyer, which managed to break free of its restraint and achieve an altitude of five feet in July 1894. 

Then came Augustus Moore Herring, who sought a patent for a man supporting device that featured a glider and a compressed air engine. On October 22, 1899, Herring managed 73 feet from his test in St. Joseph, Michigan.  With policemen's fear and awareness, they made the Smithsonian vow that their account of who discovered flying would remain frozen in time, an assumption almost biblical in power as it was foolish.   Little wonder then that the executives at the Smithsonian are tiptoeing around the matter.  

The question, however, is out, and the stories of 1901 can't be dismissed as the fancies of some fantasist.  This, after all, is the age when the History Channel will broadcast a program called Ancient Aliens. The claim by the Wrights is still up for refutation, and the dossier against their case grows.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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