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Scientific American Debunks Claim Gustave Whitehead Was “First in Flight”

It has been claimed (yet again) that Gustave Whitehead flew a powered, controlled airplane before the Wright brothers did
unpowered glider


At the Aeronautic Society’s first exhibition at Morris Park, Whitehead’s work was represented. The text says it is “an improved type of aeroplane, which was invented some three years ago by Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, Conn.,” and photographs of it were printed. It is an unpowered glider.

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Legislation introduced last year in Connecticut recognized Gustave Whitehead as “First in Flight.” North Carolina and Ohio briefly ceased their perennial squabbles about who had the best claim to the Wright brothers and joined to complain about Connecticut. Ohio state representative Rick Perales (R) said in October 2013 that it was wrong for one state to “distort history” whereas North Carolina state senator Bill Cook (R) said the Whitehead controversy was “more like a fairy tale told to a child.” In June 2014 the Royal Aeronautical Society published a paper noting that the most recent claims for a Whitehead flight have been “thoroughly discredited.”

Snippets of original text plucked from the old pages of Scientific American have been used to claim support for the thesis that Whitehead successfully flew a powered airplane in the first few years of the 20th century. The magazine has been around since 1845, and at the time in question it was one of the leading science and technology publications that reported on progress in aviation. As such, it is an authoritative source for settling the matter.

Knowledge, though, is built on data. For social sciences like history, data include primary sources such as news articles. But text works the way data does: one sentence, like a lone data point, holds little significance. Context is needed for the researcher to derive meaning, and a fuller presentation of surrounding text provides us with the context and the meaning. Digging a little deeper into the context of the articles from over 100 years ago confirms that Whitehead never succeeded in flying a powered, piloted, controlled airplane, and also confirms that the Wright brothers retain those laurels.

The following titles and quotes from the original text are not edited; any omissions are marked with ellipses (... or ....).

INTRODUCTION TO WHITEHEAD
Scientific American, June 8, 1901, page 357

Scientific American’s first article on Whitehead ran in June 1901. It is a curious fact that Whitehead, although he had previously claimed to have made a free flight in Pittsburgh in 1899, is introduced as not having made any free flights. Here is an early indication that Whitehead may have claimed flights that never happened. The photograph accompanying the article is one of the few images of Whitehead’s flying machines.

[Title and opening three sentences]
A New Flying Machine
A novel flying machine has just been completed by Mr. Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, Conn., and is now ready for the preliminary trials. Several experiments have been made, but as yet no free flights have been attempted. The machine is built after the model of a bird or bat.

Whitehead's flying machine
Photograph 1: Whitehead’s flying machine, published in Scientific American, June 8, 1901, page 357
 

PULLING AIRPLANES
Scientific American, September 19, 1903, page 204

A sentence fragment from a 1903 article has been used to claim that Whitehead flew a powered airplane: “the aeroplane was made to skim along above the ground.”

But a wider look at the context makes it clear that when Whitehead was “flying” gliders or powered airplanes, the machine was pulled aloft and steered by a man running along the ground and pulling a rope, which is different from successfully flying an airplane. Additionally, some confusion may stem from the word “aeroplane,” which in 1903 could mean an airplane, a glider, a working model airplane, or even just the wings on any of those.

Experiments with Motor-Driven Aeroplanes

[Paragraph 3 talks about Whitehead’s method]
The method of soaring used by Mr. Whitehead consists in running with the aeroplane against the wind, preceded by an assistant who draws it with a rope when it leaves the ground. When sufficient speed is attained, the operator, by tilting the aeroplanes slightly upward, can leave the ground and skim along in the air, as shown in one of the photographs.

[Paragraph 6 talks about specific experiments]
By running with the machine against the wind, after the motor had been started, the aeroplane was made to skim along above the ground at heights of from 3 to 16 feet for a distance, without the operator touching, of about 350 yards.

Whitehead flying machine
Photograph 2: published in Scientific American, September 19, 1903, page 204
 

There is no mention in this article of the flights that Whitehead supposedly made in Pittsburgh in 1899 or Bridgeport in 1901. The method he used helped to get his flying machines in the air but this kind of flight cannot be categorized as controlled, sustained or powered flight. These events may be the source of the memories dredged up thirty years later by people who claimed to remember Whitehead flying, to the extent that Whitehead was definitely airborne. By comparison, the Wrights’ fourth flight at Kitty Hawk was shorter than 350 yards, being about 284 yards, but against a headwind it was powered by an engine alone and piloted by Wilbur Wright without contact with the ground.

BLURRY PHOTOS, CLEAR HISTORY
Scientific American, January 27, 1906, page 93

A 1906 article has been used to advance claims that a photograph of a Whitehead man-carrying powered machine in flight existed at one point, with the attendant fuss over where such a photograph might now be hidden.

In reality the wider context of the article makes it clear that there was never a photograph of a Whitehead man-carrying powered machine in flight. The report on the Aero Club’s exhibit in 1906 has a sentence about an extensive collection of photographs. The first phrase of the sentence includes Whitehead’s name in a list of photographs of flying machines by various inventors. The second phrase of the sentence mentions (after a semicolon) “and other photographs showing airships and balloons in flight” (for instance, a photograph in the article shows, in the background, an Alberto Santos-Dumont airship rounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris). The implication is that the first phrase in the sentence (including Whitehead’s mention) shows machines that are not in flight, and the second phrase then goes on to talk about machines in flight.

The Aero Club of America's Exhibit of Aeronautical Apparatus

[Page 93, first paragraph]
The original Hargrave box kite was also shown, as well as numerous models designed by Herring and Chanute. Besides these very complete exhibits of apparatus, the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead, Berliner, and Santos-Dumont; and other photographs showing airships and balloons in flight, together with bird's-eye views taken from the same.

Lower down in the article, on page 94, a sentence fragment has been used to claim the existence of a photograph of one of Whitehead’s larger man-carrying machines in flight. However, the photograph in question specifies an unmanned model that was successfully airborne for long enough to have a photograph taken--a feat that does not seem to have extended to any of Whitehead’s larger man-carrying machines. Models were an accepted and traditional method used by aviation pioneers, including Whitehead, to experiment and demonstrate technology.

Text on page 94 has four interesting parts. The text: 1) mentions Langley’s successful airplane, an unpiloted scale model named the “Aerodrome” (there’s a nice clear photograph of it on the page as well) 2) mentions Herring’s model airplane 3) complains that there are no photographs of the Herring model in flight 4) continues the complaint with a note that there are no photographs of “larger man-carrying machines in flight” 5) mentions a model by Whitehead driven by compressed air (perhaps using technology similar to Victor Tatin’s 1879 airplane model that was driven by a cylinder of compressed air).

Because the text specifically states that there were no photographs of “larger man-carrying machines in flight,” it is doubtful that the exhibit ever contained a photograph of one of Whitehead’s larger man-carrying machines in flight.

[page 94, 2nd paragraph]
Among the model self-propelled aeroplanes shown, those of Prof. Langley should undoubtedly have first mention. The steam-driven machine flew about half a mile over the Potomac River at Quantico, Va., a little less than ten years ago, or on May 6, 1896. This was the first flight of a motor-driven aeroplane....

Another interesting model is that exhibited by Mr. Herring, and which he claims has made numerous successful flights. When tethered to a high pole with a long cord, this machine is said to have flown 15 miles in a circle in December, 1902, and to have stopped only when the gasoline supply gave out. A single-cylinder, air-cooled gasoline motor having mechanically-operated inlet and exhaust valves and a make-and-break igniter, all worked from a single cam, and carrying a small propeller on its crankshaft, was shown on this machine. The weight of the motor was said to be only 2 pounds, and its maximum horse-power 0.51 at 3,400 R.P.M. In flight, however, the engine only made about 850 R.P.M. and developed but 0.07 horse-power. The aeroplanes of this model (which is shown in the lower left-hand picture on the preceding page) were 5 1/2 feet long by 14 inches wide....

No photographs of this or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published. A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight.

THE SHORT END OF FLIGHT
Scientific American, November 24, 1906, page 379

After Alberto Santos-Dumont of Brazil had completed his first takeoff and flight in his 14-bis on October 23, 1906, in Paris (and thus won the laurels for first flight in a man-carrying, powered, heavier-than-air, just-barely-controlled, piloted, attached-wheel-undercarriage airplane that took off under its own power) the Scientific American, in a somewhat snippy editorial (and there are some nationalist undertones as well), pointed out:

[First paragraph]
In his enthusiasm the Brazilian aeronaut forgets also that at least three experimenters in America (Herring in 1898, Whitehead in 1901, and Wright brothers in 1903), Maxim in England (1896), and Ader in France (1897), have already flown for short distances with motor-driven aeroplanes, and yet no really practical machine of the kind has as yet been produced and demonstrated.

If we can seize on the idea that Whitehead had “flown” for a “short distance” in 1901, we would need to cut out the mentions of Maxim, Ader and Herring to stretch the text enough to claim the first-in-flight laurels for Whitehead. It is particularly significant that Whitehead is included with these other aviation pioneers in a list from 1906 because at that date none of them were proved to have achieved powered, controlled, piloted flights. The article even says so: “no really practical machine of the kind has as yet been produced and demonstrated.” Here’s a list of the impractical machines:

Hiram Maxim’s airplane from 1896 is listed first. A massive machine of 3 1/2 tons, held by rails, the craft produced enough lift to wreck its rail system. Maxim is credited with lift, but lift is only one component of flying, so he is not credited with a controlled flight.

Clement Ader’s Avion III is credited here with one of the flights for “short distances” in 1897, but we now know, after the veil of French military secrecy was lifted, it was the Avion I in 1890 that made a “flight”: altitude about 8 inches, distance about 150 feet.

Augustus Moore Herring worked with both Samuel P. Langley, who made the machine for the first successful heavier-than-air flight (unpiloted), and Octave Chanute, the aviation author. Herring is sometimes credited with a first flight on October 22, 1898, of perhaps 60 feet, based on thinly substantiated claims. It is possible his machine was briefly airborne, but the engine, driven by compressed air, was limited to 30 seconds of power. If we are to accept a 60-foot hop as a flight, Whitehead is now fourth in line after Maxim, Ader and Herring.

The Wright Brothers are listed here as having made a “short flight” in 1903. Does the article therefore show that the Wrights only made a powered hop in 1903, no better than anything demonstrated by Whitehead, Ader, Maxim or Herring? Bear in mind that in 1906 the Scientific American was still skeptical of the Wright claims, as were many of the public. And the Wrights were just as secretive about their work as Whitehead was opaque. So how do we come to a conclusion that the Wrights were pilots and inventors of the airplane after flights of “short distances” and Whitehead was not?

Aviation research by the Wrights between 1901 and 1903 included hundreds of well known and successful free-flight (untethered) gliding experiments while they worked out a method of controlling their aircraft. As an aside, it is worth looking at the long development and practical use of three-axis control in gliders and airplanes by the Wrights and contrasting that work with Whitehead’s description of ad hoc aircraft control by having one engine go slightly faster than the other one, and then leaning over in the cockpit. Following the Wrights work at Kitty Hawk, they largely retreated from the public eye and conducted experiments in secret for the next four years, leaving a large gap in the public’s knowledge and Scientific American’s coverage of their work. There were rumors, some mentions within military and aviation circles, letters by the Wrights to aeronautical societies, even an article in Gleanings in Bee Culture (circulation 25,000).

However, we are now able to fill that knowledge gap with notes, reports, photographs (there’s a splendid series of clear photos of the powered Wright machine in the air above Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905 in the collection of the Library of Congress), letters between all of the participants involved, physical artifacts (surviving airplanes and components), eyewitnesses (most of whom were re-interviewed by Scientific American within a year of the events they claimed seeing), and old movies that consistently corroborate every step they claimed or claimed for them in the development of their powered, piloted airplanes.

There is as yet no good proof that Whitehead moved beyond the ability to make flights of “short distances.” But bear in mind that Carl Sagan said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”--in other words even if there is no mention of an event, it is hard to prove that the event never occurred. If, on the other hand, you consider the placement of Whitehead with Maxim, Ader and Herring in the pantheon of aviation pioneers who did not fly a powered, controlled airplane, this article comes very close to proving that up to 1906 Whitehead never flew a powered, piloted and controlled airplane.

EDITORIAL COMMENT ON THE WRIGHTS
Scientific American, December 15, 1906, page 442

The best proof of the Wright precedence was their first public flight on August 8, 1908, near Le Mans, France, that showed how far ahead of the competition they were (even if that lead did not last long). They did not achieve that lead except after several years of experimentation on developing a workable airplane.

The reader is invited to consider the difference between the brief treatment of Whitehead and the other inventors in the above excerpt from November 1906 and the lead editorial below from December 15, 1906 that explicitly states where the magazine stood on the question of who flew first. The editorial does not mention Whitehead.

There is no need for laborious, intricate text interpretation, the text is very straightforward. As an aside, the reader is invited to think about qualitative differences in another kind of supporting evidence: witnesses. The veracity of the 17 witnesses of the Wright flights that are mentioned in the Scientific American article below has been used to bolster the claimed veracity of Whitehead witnesses. The difference lies in the fact that Whitehead’s witnesses made their statements three decades after the supposed events (readers of Scientific American Mind will be quite familiar with the kinds of tricks that memory can play, especially over such a long time span), but the Wrights’ witnesses were interviewed within one year; in addition the magazine was able to send follow-up questions to the Wright witnesses.

GENESIS OF THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL AEROPLANE
In all the history of invention there is probably no parallel to the unostentatious manner in which the Wright brothers, of Dayton, Ohio, ushered into the world their epoch-making invention of the first successful aeroplane flying machine. At a time when the various experimentalists in the field of aeronautics were dumfounded by the failure of the deservedly renowned Langley to make a practical flight with his government backed $50,000 machine, it was suddenly announced that two young machinists had produced an aeroplane which had made a continuous flight, with one of the inventors on board, of over twenty miles at a high speed and under perfect control.

Their success marked such an enormous stride forward in the art, was so completely unheralded, and was so brilliant that doubt as to the truth of the story was freely entertained; especially as the inventors refused either to give access to the machine or to make any statement as to its broad details.

The SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, however, wrote to the seventeen eye witnesses who were mentioned as having seen the various flights and received letters from these reputable local residents, and published extracts therefrom, which completely set at rest all doubt as to what had been accomplished.

STILL COMING UP SHORT
Scientific American, December 15, 1906, page 447

It is tempting to seize on the word “flight” in such articles as this next one and use it as a battering ram over objections that Whitehead was not first in flight. Context, however, proves yet again that Whitehead did not make the long-distance piloted flights that elsewhere have been attributed to him. The key is not the single word “flight” but the fact that the flights here are specifically designated as “short flights”-- powered hops, like the kind that a frog makes. These aviation hops were fairly common (and largely unremarkable) at the turn of the century. The Wrights’ longest flight on December 17, 1903, lasted just short of one minute and covered 284 yards. Scholars of the Wrights note that later in the evening, when their brother Lorin went to give the story to the Dayton Journal, the editor on duty yawned and said “Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item.” And if the Wrights had never made another flight of that length, they would never have been credited with inventing the airplane. As it is, that last flight at Kitty Hawk was the first stumbling, imperfect step of the world's first true airplane.

The Second Annual Exhibition of the Aero Club of America

[Third paragraph]
The body framework of Gustave Whitehead's latest bat-like aeroplane was shown mounted on pneumatic-tired, ball bearing wire wheels and containing a 3-cylinder, 2-cycle, air-cooled motor of 15 horse-power direct connected to a 6-foot propeller placed in front. This machine ran along the road at a speed of 25 miles an hour in tests made with it last summer. When held stationary, it produced a thrust of 75 pounds. The engine is a 4 1/4 x 4 of an improved type. Whitehead also exhibited the 2-cylinder steam engine that revolved the road wheels of his former bat machine, with which he made a number of short flights in 1901.

[In the 7th paragraph, for comparison, we have this note on the Wrights]
The most interesting motor on exhibition was the new 4-cylinder, four-cycle, water-cooled engine built by Messrs. Orville and Wilbur Wright, of Dayton, Ohio, and intended for use on their new aeroplane.... The Wright brothers' original motor, with which they made a flight three years ago, was much heavier than the new one.

WHAT DID OCTAVE CHANUTE THINK?
Scientific American Supplement, March 26, 1904, page 23,599

A few days after the Wright success at Kitty Hawk, Octave Chanute, one of the leading aviation researchers of the day, gave a presentation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His December 30, 1903, report was published, with a byline, in the Scientific American Supplement three months later, and confirmed that Chanute believed (apparently with some reservations) the Wright flights at Kitty Hawk were the first successful use of an airplane. Nowhere in the lengthy article does Chanute mention Whitehead, even though it has been claimed that he was aware of Whitehead’s work:

Aerial Navigation
By O. Chanute, Chicago, Ill.

[Opening paragraph, second sentence]
Navigable balloons have recently been developed to what is believed to be nearly the limit of their efficiency, and after three intelligent but unfortunate attempts by others, a successful dynamic flying machine seems to have been produced by the Messrs. Wright.

 [Paragraph 29 outlines the steps the Wrights took to be successful pilots]
This was the kind of practical efficiency acquired by the Wright Brothers, whose flying machine was successfully tested on the seventeenth of December. For three years they experimented with gliding machines, as will be described farther on, and it was only after they had obtained thorough command of their movements in the air that they ventured to add a motor. How they accomplished this must be reserved for them to explain, as they are not yet ready to make known the construction of their machine nor its mode of operation. Too much praise cannot be awarded to these gentlemen. Being accomplished mechanics, they designed and built the apparatus, applying thereto a new and effective mode of control of their own. They learned its use at considerable personal risk of accident. They planned and built the motor, having found none in the market deemed suitable. They evolved a novel and superior form of propeller; and all this was done with their own hands, without financial help from anybody.

STILL STRUGGLING ON
Scientific American, November 14, 1908, page 338

Two years after Alberto Santos-Dumont’s public powered takeoffs in a wheeled aircraft in October 1906, ten months after Henri Farman flew a one-kilometer circle in France, three months after the news of the Wrights triumphant flights near Le Mans, France, four months after Glenn Curtiss’s first public flight in the U.S. flying the June Bug (he won the Scientific American Prize for the flight), Election Day was held in the United States, on 3 November, 1908. At the Aeronautic Society’s first exhibition at Morris Park, Whitehead’s work was represented. The text says it is “an improved type of aeroplane, which was invented some three years ago by Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, Conn.,” and photographs of it were printed. It is an unpowered glider.

unpowered glider
Photograph 3, published in Scientific American, November 14, 1908, page 338
 

WHO WAS FIRST IN FLIGHT?
Scientific American, January 24, 1914, page 76

Following the end of the legal battle between the Wrights and the Curtiss company, the lead editorial for the issue confirms the Wrights as the first in flight. The editorial does not mention Whitehead (although it does mention other aviation pioneers). The text opens with:

The decision which has been handed down by the Circuit Court of Appeals in the infringement suit brought by the Wright Company settles once and for all, in this country at least, the question: Who invented the flying machine? To be sure, there was never any doubt in the popular mind. Practical achievement counts for so much and paper discussion for so little, that the inventor who rises above the mere theoretical presentation of his ideas is inevitably glorified. The decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals stamps the popular verdict with approval and recognizes Orville and Wilbur Wright as the inventors of the man-carrying, motor-driven aeroplane.

ONE NOTE: FOLLOW THE MONEY
Stanley Y. Beach, the author of many articles on aviation--quite probably the author of some of the above articles (articles back then rarely included bylines)--was the son of the Editor in Chief of the magazine. He saw to it that over several years some funds were provided to Whitehead to continue his flight experiments. There was therefore a closer relation between journalist and subject than usual. I leave it up to future historians to determine whether this relationship led to the creeping introduction of any kind of bias--pro-Whitehead or anti-Whitehead--in these articles.

CONCLUSION
In determining whether the Wright Brothers or Gustave Whitehead first successfully piloted an airplane, I have enough data--the original text within its original context--at hand, (and now, dear reader, so do you) to show that Scientific American quite clearly gives the priority to the Wright brothers. The data show that not only was Whitehead not first in flight, but that he may never have made a controlled, powered flight at any time. This one strand in the complex web of history lends weight to the argument that Connecticut is wasting time and effort by legislating the erroneous history that Whitehead deserves to be recognized as first in flight.

This article is updated and edited from the one originally written for Carroll F. Gray’s Web site http://www.flyingmachines.org/ in November 2013.

See the Scientific American article from June 2013 on the misguided Whitehead legislative effort: Connecticut Proclaims Gustave Whitehead Flew before the Wright Brothers

For readers who would like to read some of the original stories on aviation from our magazine, take a look at “The Birth of Flight,” part of the Scientific American Classics series, available for purchase here.

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