First powered flight – controversy solved by law?

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, http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/.

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.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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5 Responses to First powered flight – controversy solved by law?

  1. Innominata says:

    There were a lot of inventors who succeded before the wrights, but is it not easier to just keep it controversial and lacking in irrefutable evidence? We KNOW the wrights flew. Everything else is secondhand heresay, which while may be true, isn’t how science works.
    And this is from a kiwi who has seen Richard Pearse’s wright beating plane in the Timaru museum 2hrs south of where I live, complete with alledged photographic proof

  2. big stu says:

    TG the senators are focusing on important issues like this.

  3. busterggi says:

    Of course, the Wrights did have a contract with the Smithsonian to promote them as first in flight and that has been the party line ever since. Whitehead’s design has been tested and it works. Don’t believe everything the established authorities want you to.

    • Richard in AL says:

      If that’s true then why did the smithsonian recognize Samuel Pierpoint Langley and his “Aerodrome” as the first manned object capable of contrlled powered flight until 1948 when they finally admitted that Aerodrome as built wasn’t capable of controlled flight? The Wrights greatly embarrassed the Smithsonian, which had backed Langley and even gotten the War Department to bankroll his efforts.

  4. deceneu28 says:

    There are many technical problems with Flyer I 1903. The plane was unstable, underpowered and had propellers that appeared only in 1908, exactly in the same year when the Wright brothers flew for the first time in front of credible witnesses. The brothers simply lied about their flights in 1903-1905. They built their planes in France in 1908 with french engines (Bariquand et Marre), french propellers and using the entire French flight experience of 1908.

    see: http://wright-brothers.wikidot.com

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