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First powered flight - controversy solved by law?

by Bruno Van de Casteele

June 9, 2013

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Donate A somehow odd news item came to my attention this week. The Connecticut State Senate voted in favour of a bill that gives recognition to Gustave Whitehead for being the first human being to fly a heavier-than-air and powered aircraft. This would have happened in 1901, more than two years before the Wright brothers managed it.

The controversy is not new, as this year a well-regarded publication "Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft", also recognized Whitehead for being first. This despite a majority opinion of most researchers that the Wright Brothers were the first to pull it off. It also seems that the Whitehead-first theory is pushed almost exclusively by Australian researcher John Brown. Most, if not all of the arguments for this theory come from his website,

However, evidence is lacking. There is no photographic evidence that remains, and no reliable witness account. According to Wikipedia, named witnesses later changed their mind or where unclear in later testimony on what they saw. Furthermore, when I read the article I mentioned above (on FoxNews, but rather well written), I got a bit skeptical too. According to the article, Whitehead would have flown 1.5 miles, an astonishing feat given that the Wright Brothers on their first attempts only got a couple of hunderd feet. Even more so, it seems Whitehead did not have the three-axis control like the Wright brothers, indispensable to keep an aircraft that long in the air.

So in all, it seems that the Connecticut senate was probably more interested in pushing a local guy (Whitehead lived there after immigrating from Germany). I was reminded of the 1897 bill from Indiana, that attempted to legislate that Pi equals 3.

Probably Whitehead was one of those interesting pioneers working on powered flight, and perhaps he was indeed on the right track. Maybe he even flew first (although it seems unlikely until more evidence surfaces). But it can't be established by a law. If the Connecticut legislation was so keen on promoting a local hero (which is their right), they could have instigated and funded more research in the topic. That is in the interest of all, and especially good for science. Now it only seems a waste of public effort, without any real advancement.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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