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.
June 29, 2011
This Friday, the National Air and Space Museum will celebrate its 35th anniversary. Since it opened on July 1, 1976, the museum has been home home to the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft and is the Smithsonian Institution’s most-visited, having hosted a grand total of 303,674,128 visitors. At the ribbon cutting ceremony that summer day, President Gerald Ford called it “a perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.” To commemorate the museum’s anniversary, we compiled a list of five cool things you might not have known about the much-loved Air and Space Museum.
1) In 1946, President Harry Truman signed Public Law 722, establishing the National Air Museum, the predecessor to the Air and Space Museum. The museum’s collections were interspersed between the Arts and Industries building and various other locations until Congress appropriated the money to construct the current Air and Space Museum, which finally opened in 1976.
2) One of the most peculiar objects at Air and Space is no longer on display. An electric, moving sculpture called the S.S. Pussiewillow II, the piece was created by British artist Rowland Emett. It has been in storage for about 20 years, but people still call and ask about it, said senior curator Tom Crouch. “It was life-size, and it moved—it whirled, it clicked, it lit up. It was wonderful, it was supposed to be a whimsical kind of spaceship,” Crouch said. “We had to take it off exhibit because we had a power problem and a minor fire. It’s been in storage forever now, but people, even now, are still asking about Pussiewillow II.”
3) The 1976 ribbon-cutting began in true Air and Space fashion—with a signal from outer space. The Viking 1 spacecraft, which was in orbit around Mars at the time, sent a signal to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. That signal was then relayed to Washington, D.C., where it activated a mechanical arm that cut the ribbon in half. (But just in case it didn’t go as planned, museum officials did have a pair of scissors on hand.)
4) The Air and Space Museum is more than just a collection of exhibits and artifacts–museum scientists are involved in research and exploration both about Earth and the solar system. According to program manager Priscilla Strain, Smithsonian scientist John Grant is a part of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, the team that directed the Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity.”
5) Many museum employees bring real-world—or real-space—experience to the job. Two years after piloting the Apollo 11 command module and orbiting the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those first famous steps on the moon, in 1971, astronaut Michael Collins became the museum’s third director. Under his tenure, the museum consolidated its collections and moved into its current building on the National Mall.
6) Thirteen of the Air and Space’s original employees are still employed at the museum today, 35 years later. Among them are Priscilla Strain and Tom Crouch, the mastermind behind the June reenactment of Civil War ballooning on the National Mall.
June 13, 2011
Monday, June 13 Escape the Monday blues
Have you ever found yourself humming the Star-Spangled Banner tune and wondered where the inspiration came from? Well now you can find out and test your knowledge of the American Flag with an exciting interactive puzzle. Go to the Flag Hall of the American History Museum this Monday at 10:30 and meet Mary Pickersgill (played by actor Kate Guesman) , the seamstress who sewed the Star Spangled Banner in 1813. During the War of 1812, Pickersgill was commissioned by Major George Armistead to sew a flag so large that the approaching British soldiers would have no trouble seeing it from miles away. Pickersgill answered the call and was able to put the flag together in just six weeks with only the help of five others. The final product contained 400 yards of fabric and 15 stars and stripes. It was this flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that we now honor as our National Anthem, and now we need your help to assemble the flag again. You too can play a part in the historical Star-Spangled Banner by helping Pickersgill assemble the massive flag and learning about its history. Can’t make it at 10:30? You can catch it again at 12:30, 2:00 and 3:30 PM as well.
Lean more about the history in our video produced by Ryan Reed of a reenactment held in Baltimore.
Tuesday June 14 Sketch Your Way Around
Break out of your boring Tuesday routine by visiting the American Art Museum‘s Luce Foundation Center for American Art. Make your way to the 3rd floor of the West Wing of the museum at 3:00 p.m. to join a discussion about some of the works that line the walls of the museum. Then put your own spin on the masterpieces as you spend time sketching a few of your favorites. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the pickings are slim, there are more than 3,300 artworks on display in the Luce Foundation Center so branch out and find your favorite. Be sure to bring a small sketchbook and some pencils and enjoy the artwork as you spend an afternoon adrift in the Luce sea. The event is free and lasts until 4:30 PM.
Wednesday, June 15 Coral, Tigers, and Honeybees. Oh My!
What do tigers and honeybees have in common? If your answer is nothing you couldn’t be more wrong. Tigers and honeybees are two of the many species that are suffering catastrophic decline in our growing world. Joining coral, frogs and birds, these animals are disappearing at a disastrous rate. Conservationists estimate that one-fifth of mammal species, one-eighth of all bird species, and one-third of amphibian species are at risk of extinction. This could lead to devastating changes in the functioning of ecosystems and eliminate all the services they provide. Each loss signals a change that affects our world. Join Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; Brian Gratwicke, an amphibian conservation biologist, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project; Michael Henley, an invertebrate keeper at the National Zoo; Peter Marra, a conservation scientist at the Zoo; and Jeff Pettis, a researcher from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to discuss both efforts to preserve species and the ecological implications of extinction. Come on out, 6:45 PM to 8:45 PM at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, for this crucial discussion provided by Resident Associates.
Thursday, June 16 Never Complain About that Washer Again
Go back to a time when doing laundry consisted of more than pushing a button in this blast from the past. Twist and turn your way into this free laundry day that the whole family will love. Learn what it was really like to do laundry before the invention of washing machines! See if you can take the heat as you wash, rinse, wring and repeat your way through a batch of laundry just like Americans did at home during the 19th century. After the program, visit Within These Walls to learn more about the laundry life of families in the 1880s. So roll up your sleeves and start washing from 10:30 to 11:30 outside the American History Museum, on the South side Mall terrace.
Friday, June 17 A Bunch of Hot Air
After you have cooled off from the Friday heat, join Dr. Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator, as he chairs a panel of authorities on Civil War ballooning tonight at 7 p.m. at the Air and Space Museum. Listen as experts including Mike Boehme, Virginia Aviation Museum director; Dr. James Green, NASA; and Thomas Hilt, USN, (Ret.) talk about the role that balloon travel played in the Civil War. On June 18, 1861, Thaddeus. Lowe’s tethered ascent from the area in front of the present site of the National Air and Space Museum attracted the support of President Abraham Lincoln. Lowe’s demonstration of how a gas-filled balloon could be used to spy on the Confederate troops intrigued Lincoln and led to the creation of a Union Army Balloon Corps, becoming the first military air unit and it is now the oldest military aeronautical unit in American history. Hear this distinguished panel of scholars discuss the events leading up to this historic flight, ballooning during the Civil War, and the birth of aerial reconnaissance in America. While the event is free, do not let your chance float away. Be sure to make a reservation to hold your seat.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian Museum events and exhibitions visit the GoSmithsonian Visitors Guide.
June 14, 2010
In the early 1900s, before American pilots tried to fly airplanes across the Atlantic Ocean, there was another challenge taking place in the skies: flying across the ocean in airships.
Last week, the National Air and Space Museum acquired an artifact important to those early attempts—the Airship Akron lifeboat, which was attached to two of the early (though failed) dirigible flights across the ocean.
“It played an important role in two really interesting flight attempts,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the museum. “It reminds us of those early dreams of flying the Atlantic.”
The 27-foot lifeboat was purchased in 1910 by Walter Wellman, an American newspaper publisher who was funding an attempt to cross the ocean in the airship America. Lifeboats were attached to the bottom of the airships as a means to rescue the crews, Crouch said. But crews also climbed down into them to use them as a pantry, kitchen, smoking lounge and makeshift radio control center to communicate with the ground.
In fact, the first ever aerial radio message was sent from the lifeboat on that flight, Crouch says. Wellman’s navigator, Murray Simon, secretly brought a cat, named “Kiddo” onto the airship shortly before the crew took off on October 16, 1910. When the airship left the ground, Crouch says, the cat began to yelp, howl and run around—apparently creating an unbearable ruckus for Wellman, who made history by using the radio to contact his secretary and son-in-law, Leroy Chamberlin, on the ground with the phrase “Roy, come and get this @#$%^&* cat!”
Unfortunately, returning the cat to the ground was possible sooner than Wellman expected. About 38 hours into the trip, while flying above Bermuda, the airship began to have engine problems. The crew was rescued—in the lifeboat—by a steamer.
That was the last trip for Wellman, Crouch says. But Melvin Vaniman, Wellman’s chief engineer on the America flight, decided to retry the flight on his own.
Vaniman contacted the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, who agreed to help build a new airship for the journey: the Akron, Goodyear’s first airship, named after the company’s hometown in Ohio. Vaniman re-used the lifeboat from the failed America flight. There were several test flights before the Akron took off on July 12, 1912. Sadly, the Akron caught fire just 500 feet in the air. Neither Vaniman nor his crew survived the crash.
But the lifeboat did. It was recovered and sent back to Goodyear’s warehouse in Akron, Ohio, Crouch says. There, it remained for the next 98 years. Crouch has always known it was there, but didn’t get the chance to bring it to the Smithsonian until last year. Goodyear was cleaning out storage units, found the lifeboat and contacted Crouch to see if the museum wanted it.
So this past Thursday, Crouch waited eagerly as a large truck arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s warehouse in Chantilly, Virginia. After examining the lifeboat, he said it was in great condition. The boat won’t need to be restored, Crouch said, but it does need “quite a bit of cleanup.”
Though Crouch is not sure when the lifeboat will make its debut at the museum, he does know exactly where it will go—between the gondola of the the Double Eagle II, which made the first balloon flight to Europe in 1978, and the nose of the Concorde, an aircraft that helped pioneer supersonic travel.