March 18, 2013
Last week, the British aviation publication Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft declared that the Wright brother’s historic 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk was not the first to achieve sustained, heavier-than-air, controlled flight, but gave the title instead to aviator Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who purportedly flew his craft two years early. The journal’s editor cites the website of an Australian research John Brown and declares the case solved, writing: “The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.”
The National Air and Space Museum, which has held the Wright Flyer in its collections since 1948, has been challenged over the decades by a number of Whitehead enthusiasts, but have found all claims wanting. Complicating the issue is a contract held by the Smithsonian Institution with the Estate of Orville Wright, which is often cited as “evidence” that the Smithsonian Institution is unable or unwilling to declare any other first in flight contender. The contract stipulates that the museum would lose custody of the Wright Flyer should it ever state that another aircraft was first in flight. Curator of aeronautics and Wright biographer Tom Crouch has long studied the Whitehead claims and today, finds no merit in this most recent argument. The language in the contract, Crouch points out, is related to another Wright competitor, the Aerodrome built by the Smithsonian’s third secretary S.P.Langley (but that’s another story.) Of the contract, Crouch writes: “I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer.” Crouch has written the following to address the current claim.
John Brown, an Australian researcher living in Germany, has unveiled a website claiming that Gustave Whitehead (1874-1927), a native of Leutershausen, Bavaria, who immigrated to the United States, probably in 1894, made a sustained powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on August 14, 1901, two years before the Wright brothers. The standard arguments in favor of Whitehead’s flight claims were first put forward in a book published in 1937, and have been restated many times. With a new wave of interest in the Whitehead claims, the time has come for a fresh look.
What are the claims?
On August 18, 1901, Richard Howell, a reporter for the Bridgeport [CT] Sunday Herald, published an account of the early morning flight of August 14, in which he claimed that Whitehead traveled half a mile through the air at a maximum altitude of 50 feet. Thanks to the rise of newswire services, the story was picked up by a large number of American newspapers and a handful of overseas publications. In two letters published in the April 1, 1902, issue of American Inventor, Whitehead himself claimed to have made two more flights on January 17, 1902, on the best of which he said that he flew seven miles over Long Island Sound. During the months that followed, additional widely circulated stories reported that Whitehead was organizing a company to build airplanes and that he intended to enter one of his machines in the aeronautical competition being planned for the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition to be held in St. Louis in 1904. While his company failed and he did not fly at the St. Louis Fair, Whitehead did build a number of flying machines for other enthusiasts, several of whom were on view at the Morris Park air meet in November 1908. None of the post-1902 Whitehead powered machines ever left the ground, although he did build aeronautical motors that powered aircraft designed and built by other fliers.
What is the evidence?
The original Bridgeport Sunday Herald story, supposedly an eyewitness account, sounds impressive. It is important to note, however, that the editor did not rush into print with a front page story. The article appeared on page five, four days after the event, in a feature story headlined with four witches steering their brooms through the word–flying. In the story Howell notes two witnesses other than himself, James Dickie and Andrew Cellic. When an interviewer returned to Bridgeport to research the claims in 1936, he could not find anyone who remembered Cellic. He did find Dickie, however. “I believe the entire story of the Herald was imaginary and grew out of the comments Whitehead discussing what he hoped to get from his plane,” the supposed witness commented.
“I was not present and did not witness any airplane flight on August 14, 1901, I do not remember or recall ever hearing of a flight with this particular plane or any other that Whitehead ever built.”
Between 1934 and 1974 researchers supporting Whitehead’s claim interviewed 22 additional persons who said that they had seen him fly at one time or another during the period 1901 to 1902. In this day and age of DNA testing, we have learned that eyewitness testimony given just after an event occurred can be fatally flawed. The witnesses in the Whitehead case were being interviewed about an event that had occurred more than three decades before, by researchers who were anxious to prove that Whitehead had flown.
Many of the individuals who were most closely associated with Whitehead, or who were funding his efforts, doubted that he had flown. Stanley Yale Beach, the grandson of the editor of Scientific American and Whitehead’s principle backer, was unequivocal on this issue.
“I do not believe that any of his machines ever left the ground. . .in spite of the assertions of many people who think they saw them fly. I think I was in a better position during the nine years that I was giving Whitehead money to develop his ideas, to know what his machines could do than persons who were employed by him for a short period of time or those who remained silent for thirty-five years about what would have been an historic achievement in aviation.”
Aeronautical authorities certainly doubted the tale. Samuel Cabot, who had employed Whitehead in 1897, regarded him as “…a pure romancer and a supreme master of the gentle art of lying. ” Cabot told Octave Chanute, a Chicago engineer then widely regarded as the world’s authority on flying machine studies, that Whitehead was “completely unreliable.” Hermann Moedebeck, a German military officer and aviation authority, wrote to Chanute in September 1901, remarking that he believed Whitehead’s “experiences are Humbug.”
Perhaps the strongest argument against the Whitehead claims is to be found in the fact that not one of the powered machines that he built after 1902 ever left the ground. Nor did any of those machines resemble the aircraft that he claimed to have flown between 1901 to 1902. Why did he not follow up his early success? Why did he depart from a basic design that he claimed had been successful? Are we to assume that he forgot the secret of flight?
Then there is the missing photo. In an article describing an indoor New York aeronautical show in 1906, Scientific American noted that: “A single blurred photograph of a large bird-like machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph beside Langley’s machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight.” Another contemporary news article also mentions a photo of a powered Whitehead machine in the air displayed in a shop window. No such photograph has ever been located, in spite of the best efforts of Whitehead supporters to turn one up over the years. I have always assumed that the photo in question was actually one of the well-known photos of un-powered Whitehead gliders in the air.
Researcher John Brown now claims that he has found that photo.
The National Air and Space Museums’ William Hammer Collection contains a photo of the museum’s Lilienthal glider hanging in the 1906 exhibition. A display of photos is visible on the far wall in the image of the glider. While the photos in the photo are indistinct and blurry, it has always been apparent that some of them look like well-known photos of Whitehead craft. Over 30 years ago, I had NASM photographers enlarge the images seen on the wall to the extent possible at that time. Indeed, some of the photos could be identified as known Whitehead images. We could not find an image that looked like a machine in flight, however.
John Brown has used modern techniques to search once again for that photo in the photo, and claims to have found it. Readers can view the result of his research on his website and make the determination for themselves. From my point of view, it does not look anything like a machine in flight, certainly nothing to compare with the brilliant clarity of the images of the 1903 Wright airplane in the air, images that are among the most famous aviation history photos ever taken.
Whatever the anonymous reporter who penned the paragraph on the Whitehead photo at the 1906 exhibit thought, there can be no doubt as to whom the editors of that journal credited with having made the first flight. In an editorial in the issue of December 15, 1906, at a time when the Wright brothers had yet to fly in public, and when their claims to have developed a practical powered airplane between 1903 and 1905 were widely doubted, Scientific American offered one of the first definitive statements recognizing the magnitude of their achievement.
“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. . .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. . . .”
Following a thorough study of the Wright claims, the editors of Scientific American “. . .completely set to rest all doubts as to what had been accomplished.” Unlike the case of Gustave Whitehead, a careful investigation proved that Wilbur and Orville Wright had accomplished all that they claimed, and more.
Now, on the basis of biased information and unsupported assumptions offered in the new website, Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft: Development & Production, has decided to support the claims of Gustave Whitehead to have flown before the Wright brothers. Like the editors of Scientific American, Mr. Jackson would have been well advised to take a look at the historical record of the case, and not make his decision based on a flawed website. When it comes to the case of Gustave Whitehead, the decision must remain: not proven.
January 14, 2013
What Django Unchained Got Wrong: A Review From National Museum of African American History and Culture Director Lonnie Bunch
For more than two centuries slavery dominated American life, the shadow of slavery shaped everything from politics to the economy, from Westward expansion to foreign policy, from culture to commerce and from religion to America’s sense of self. And yet, contemporary America has little understanding or tolerance for discussions about the enslavement of millions. In many ways, slavery is the last great unmentionable in American public discourse. So I was hopeful and interested when I learned that Quentin Tarantino was to tackle the subject of slavery in his movie Django Unchained.
At nearly three hours long, Django Unchained is as much about slavery as a spaghetti Western is about the realities of the American West. Slavery is little more than a backdrop, a plot device for Tarantino’s musings on violence, loss, individual and collective evil, sex and retribution. The notion of a black man (Jamie Foxx as Django) willing to risk all to regain the wife (Kerry Washington as Broomhilda) who was taken from him when she was sold like chattel is a powerfully compelling narrative, one that is ripe with historical accuracy, drama and pain. Unfortunately, the richness of this story is obscured by the Sam Peckinpah-like violence and by the overly broad characterizations that reduce the character’s humanity to caricature. I understand the power of satire and the fact that it is “just a movie,” but the story of slavery deserves a much more nuanced, realistic and respectful depiction.
There are, however, aspects of the film that successfully illuminate the dark corners of the enslavement of African Americans. Tarantino captures the manner in which violence was an everpresent aspect of slave life that helped to maintain and protect the institution of slavery. The scenes where Broomhilda is viciously whipped or where Django removes his shirt to reveal a lifetime of scars are the movie’s most accurate and most painful moments. Tarantino also exposes the sexual abuse and the lack of control that enslaved women had over their bodies: to the movie’s credit, it does not shy away from the realities of sex across the color line. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s over-the-top depiction of plantation owner Calvin Candie often brought inappropriate chuckles from the audience, DiCaprio does capture the unchecked and capricious use of power that was at the heart of the plantation system. And Candie’s overly friendly and unrealistic relationship with the black head of his household (Stephen, wonderfully created by Samuel L. Jackson), nevertheless, does reflect the status that some enslaved garnered from their proximity to the master.
Yet these moments are far too fleeting in a three-hour movie. One of the biggest disappointments is the depiction of enslaved women. I had been quite impressed with Tarantino’s direction of Jackie Brown, a movie that allowed Pam Grier to explore the limits and the strength of a woman caught in a difficult situation. So I hoped that the women in Django Unchained would have a depth and a sense of completeness that would enhance the film. Unfortunately, the enslaved women are either sexual partners or cowering individuals waiting to be rescued. During slavery, many women struggled to define and to defend themselves in circumstances that sought to strip them of their humanity. Women found ways to maintain a sense of family and a belief in the possibilities of future that they could only imagine. These women do not appear in Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker but this is a flawed presentation. My only hope is that this film opens the Hollywood door that would encourage others to create movies that are much more respectful and provide a more nuanced interpretation of America’s greatest sin, the institution of slavery–an institution whose impact and legacy still color who we are today.
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, taught film history at the University of Massachusetts. The museum’s latest exhibition, “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation 1863 and the March on Washington 1963,” is on view through September 15, 2013, at the National Museum of American History.
October 16, 2012
This month on the Smithsonian Channel, the award-winning programming continues with a look behind a famous portrait of our first president, a momentous protest that began at a lunch counter and a newly discovered monster predator. The Channel’s program about the promise of youth hidden inside an enzyme, “Decoding Immortality,” recently took home an Emmy for outstanding science and technology programming. Be sure to catch the program about the findings of Nobel Prize-winning researcher Elizabeth Blackburn.
Picturing the President: George Washington
Monday, October 22nd, 9:30 P.M. EST
Tuesday, October 23, 12:30 A.M. EST
Friday, October 26, 5:00 P.M. EST
We all know the many stories of George Washington, but what about the story behind his portrait, one of the most famous paintings in American history? Examine Gilbert Stuart’s unforgettable portrait, which captures the spirit of this victorious general, stalwart leader, and pioneering president of the United States of America. The story of the painting reverberates to present times.
Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4
Monday, October 29th, 9 P.M. EST
Thursday, October 25, 5:00 A.M EST
Monday, October 29, 9:00 P.M. EST
In February of 1960, a simple coffee order at America’s favorite five-and-dime store sparked a series of events that would help put an end to segregation in the United States. Join us as we detail the extraordinary story of otherwise ordinary young men, four African-American college students whose nonviolent sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter started a revolution.
Titanoboa: Monster Snake
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
Saturday, October 20, 2:00 A.M. EST
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
In the pantheon of predators, it’s one of the greatest discoveries since the T-Rex: a snake 48 feet long, weighing in at 2,500 pounds. Uncovered from a treasure trove of fossils in a Colombian coal mine, this serpent is revealing a lost world of giant creatures. Travel back to the period following the extinction of dinosaurs and encounter this monster predator.
Sunday, October 21, 5:00 P.M. EST
Saturday, October 2, 2:00 A.M. EST
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
The Fountain of Youth may have just been discovered, not in a Florida spring, but in a murky Australian pond. Far from myth, the findings of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, an enzyme that can keep cells young, may just prove to be the key to immortality. Join us as we track Blackburn and molecular biologist Carol Greider’s decades-long journey to fully understand this enzyme, which is both amazing and paradoxical, for while it may prove to be an elixir of endless life, it also has the power to kill.
September 5, 2012
Smithsonian Channel September Highlights
Are you tired of Snooki birth announcements and dreading the possibility of watching Kirstie Allie dance the cha-cha again? Don’t worry! Smithsonian Channel’s award-winning programming comes to the rescue. This month, don’t forget to tune into:
Thursday, September 6th at 7 PM EST.
What’s it like to be at the bottom of the food chain, where the odds of survival are 1 in 20,000? In this World Premier feature, immerse yourself in a world of mud dwellers, bottom foragers, algae-eaters and expert predators all fighting for survival in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. Journey through this 156-mile inland waterway where Smithsonian biologists are working to unlock the secrets of a hidden world. Featuring Mary Rice and William Hoffman of the Smithsonian Marine Station (SMS).
Secret Life of the Rainforest
Thursday, September 6th at 8 PM EST, Wednesday, September 19th at 10 PM EST.
Rainforests cover just six percent of Earth’s surface yet contain almost half of the world’s plants and animals. On Barro Colorado Island in Panama, home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a perfect microcosm of nature exists that boasts a diversity of mammals, birds, and bugs that is unrivaled almost anywhere in the world. Follow Smithsonian researchers Ben Hirsch, Lars Markesteijn, and Leonor Álvarez Cansino as they explore how life thrives in one of the most complex habitats on Earth. Winner, CINE Golden Eagle.
9/11: Stories in Fragments
Sunday, September 9th at 9:35 PM EST, Tuesday, September 11th at 9:35 PM EST.
How do you grasp an event as enormous as September 11? You start small: A briefcase, a Blackberry, a victim’s sweatshirt, and a hero’s nametag. Simple objects that tell personal stories, recounted in the donors’ own words. Featuring Brent D. Glass, former director of National Museum of American History amd curators Peter Liebhold, Cedric Yeh, Bill Yeingst and David Allison. Winner, the Special Jury Award at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.
Mystery of the Hope Diamond
Thursday, September 13th at 9 PM EST, Sunday, September 30th at 10 PM EST.
A surprising look at the brilliant history and dark legacy of the world’s most famous jewel. Featuring gems curator Jeffrey Post of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian’s under secretary for history, art and culture Richard Kurin. Winner, Silver Parents’ Choice Foundation, Special Jury Award, WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.
Freud’s Naked Truths
Thursday, September 13th at 10 PM EST.
Lucian Freud’s paintings broke world records at auction, but for most of his career he was overlooked—a man out of step with his time. With exclusive studio footage, incredible artwork and rare photos, this film explores his life story and a remarkable body of work with those who knew him best–his models, children, lovers and friends. With curator Evelyn Hankins of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the museum’s former director James Demetrion.
Titanoboa: Monster Snake
Sunday, September 23rd at 8 PM EST.
Uncovered by scientists from Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, this monster predator is making headlines—and revealing a lost world of giant creatures. Featuring, researcher Carlos Jaramillo. A Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” is currently on view at the National Museum of Natural History runs through January 6th, 2013. Play the Titanoboa Monster Snake Game.
If you don’t currently receive the channel, you can check here to see if your local cable provider offers it. For additional airdates and schedules, please visit the channel’s website at www.smithsonianchannel.com. And for a limited time, Smithsonian Channel is offering free iTunes downloads of shows including Mystery of the Hope Diamond, America’s Hangar, and Stories From the Vaults. Log onto iTunes.com/SmithsonianChannel through October 2, 2012.
August 27, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites thoughts and commentary from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians. Roger Launius, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, shares his thoughts on the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong over the weekend. This post was originally posted on the museum’s blog.
I first heard the sad news while having a late lunch with friends at a seafood restaurant on the water in Annapolis, Maryland. Neil Armstrong passed away today, August 25, 2012, from complications resulting from heart bypass surgery. He was 82 years old. We will all miss him, not just because he was the first human being in the history of the world to set foot on another body in the Solar System, but perhaps especially because of the honor and dignity with which he lived his life as that first Moon walker. He sought neither fame nor riches, and he was always more comfortable with a small group of friends rather than the limelight before millions. When he might have done anything he wished after his completion of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission, Armstrong chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Imagine having the first person to walk on the Moon as your engineering professor!
Neil Alden Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, on his grandparents’ farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio. His parents were Stephen and Viola Armstrong. Because Stephen Armstrong was an auditor for the state of Ohio, Neil grew up in several Ohio communities, including Warren, Jefferson, Ravenna, St. Marys, and Upper Sandusky, before the family settled in Wapakoneta. He developed an interest in flying at age 2 when his father took him to the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. His interest intensified when he had his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor, a “Tin Goose,” in Warren, Ohio, at age 6. At age 15 Armstrong began learning to fly at an airport near Wapakoneta, working at various jobs to earn the money for his lessons. By age 16 he had his student pilot’s license; all before he could drive a car or had a high school diploma.
He then went to Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering, but in 1949 he went on active duty with the Navy, eventually becoming an aviator. In 1950 he was sent to Korea, where he flew 78 combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Essex.
After mustering out of the Navy in 1952, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). His first assignment was at NACA’s Lewis Research Center near Cleveland, Ohio. For the next 17 years he worked as an engineer, pilot, astronaut, and administrator for NACA and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In the mid-1950s Armstrong transferred to NASA’s Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, where he became a research pilot on many pioneering high-speed aircraft—including the famous X-15, which was capable of achieving a speed of 4,000 mph. He flew over 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters, and gliders. He also pursued graduate studies and received a M.S. degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
Armstrong transferred to astronaut status in 1962, one of nine NASA astronauts in the second class to be chosen. On March 16, 1966, Armstrong flew his first space mission as commander of Gemini VIII with David Scott. During that mission Armstrong piloted the Gemini VIII spacecraft to a successful docking with an Agena target spacecraft already in orbit. Although the docking went smoothly and the two craft orbited together, they began to pitch and roll wildly. Armstrong was able to undock the Gemini and used retro rockets to regain control of his craft, but the astronauts had to make an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean.
On Apollo 11, Armstrong flew with Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Armstrong completed the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969. As commander of Apollo 11, Armstrong piloted the lunar module to a safe landing on the Moon’s surface. On 20 July 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the Moon and made his famous statement, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two and one-half hours walking on the Moon collecting samples, doing experiments, and taking photographs. On July 24,1969, the module carrying the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. They were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
No question, the Moon landing unified a nation divided by political, social, racial, and economic tensions for a brief moment in the summer of 1969. Virtually everyone old enough recalls where they were when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface and Neil Armstrong said his immortal words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” Millions, myself included, identified with Neil Armstrong as he reached the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon. One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon”. His experiences proved typical; as a fifteen-year-old I sat with friends on the hood of a car on the night of July 20, 1969, looking at the Moon and listening to the astronauts on it. “One small step,” hardly; Neil Armstrong nailed it with the second phrase of his famous statement, “one giant leap for mankind”.
Since that euphoric event a lot has passed, the world has changed, and the future does not seem to hold quite the same possibilities as it once did. Yet, Neil Armstrong captured that sense of hopefulness so well until his last breath. He was an American hero, no doubt, but he was more. He lived a life of quiet grace, rarely embroiling himself in the day-to-day fights we see all around us even as he exemplified a unique merger of the “Right Stuff” with the self-reflection of a poet. Landing on the Moon was singular accomplishment, but not one to be remembered as an accomplishment of Neil Armstrong, as he so often said. It was the result of the labor of hundreds of thousands and the accomplishment of generation of humanity. Armstrong always recognized the honor he received from humanity in being allowed to participate in Apollo 11.
Armstrong would have agreed with legendary journalist Walter Cronkite, about the experience of reaching the Moon. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” Cronkite wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.” When those descendents do look back on that era when humanity first journeyed beyond Earth, I’m sure they will also remember the contributions of an unassuming engineer and pilot from Ohio in advancing the exploration of the cosmos. The most fitting tribute I can offer at this time of recollection was the same said on more than one occasion in the space program: “Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.”
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the museum’s Division of Space History.