Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Wrong Brothers, Second in Flight

American History is filled with first. George Washington is America's first President, Lewis and Clark were the first Americans to traverse America, Thomas Edison invented the first light bulb, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and so on. However, there is one first that can be disputed and that is the first in flight. Every year children across America learn of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their historic feat at Kitty Hawk. What they don't learn is that they followed in someone else footsteps.That is right the Wright brothers may not be the first in flight but who could have been them to it? Mr. Gustave Whitehead, that is who.

 Gustave Whitehead was born Gustave Weisskopf in Bavaria around 1874. At a young age Whitehead was intrigued by flight. He constructed kites almost weekly and even captured birds in order to understand how they were able to fly. Whitehead was a trained mechanic and worked in Hamburg. He emigrated to Brazil in 1889 and earned a living working on ships. However, it was not all work for Whitehead. While on these ships he studied wind, weather, flight and how the three worked together. Whitehead made his way to the U.S. in 1893 and changed his name to "Americanize." His first break into the world of flight came in 1897 with the Aeronautical Club of Boston. He was then hired by a New York toy manufacture to produce, advertise and operate kites and gliders. While in New York, Whitehead began his plans to power his gliders with an engine.

It is in 1899 that history would be made. In Pittsburgh, PA's Schenley Park, man would take to the skies. The only record comes from a 1934 report from Louis Darvarich who was witness to the flight. Darvarich recalled that the flight reached a height of roughly 25 feet and length of about a half mile. He goes on to claim that the monoplane was powered by a steam motor. The flight was not successful as Whitehead crashed into a three story building, yet he walked away unharmed. Darvarich's own words can be found here, []. However, this was not the first flight for several reasons. First, Whitehead or Daravrich did not measure speed, altitude or distance. Second, the plane technically crashed. And third, Daravirch is the only person to record the event. The most important thing here is that Whitehead is claimed to have left the ground in a motorized glider four years before the Wright brothers did.

Whitehead continued to fly after the failed attempt in Pittsburgh. He moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut and 1901 had his first documented flight. It was witnessed by Bridgeport locals, Whitehead's assistants and several news publications. On that day, August 14, 1901, Whitehead made four different flights. The longest being recorded at a mile and a half and reaching 200 feet in altitude. These flights were made using Whitehead's model Number 21. He would continue flying in Connecticut in 1902. On January 17, 1902 Whitehead cemented himself as the first man in flight. Whitehead took his glider Number 22 out for two flights using a kerosene burning engine. The flights took place at Lordship Manor in Stratford with numerous witnesses. One of the flights that day cover two miles, the second an estimated seven miles out and over the Long Island Sound. Eat that Wright brothers, who still wouldn't fly their engine powered glider until December 17, 1903. But what happened? How could Whitehead be overshadowed by the Wright brothers? He did it, first in flight almost two years before anyone else did. How but more importantly why is Whitehead forgotten and overlooked?

How does Whitehead become lost to history? And why do the Wright brothers get all the credit? There are several explanations for this but there is one that is shockingly horrible but a sad part of our history. Part of the reason is Whiteheads own fault but it is also quite admirable. Whitehead was never satisfied with his work, because of this he never publicized his work or advertized his attempts at flight. This was bad for history but it was the drive which pushed Whitehead forward. Another problem for Whitehead was he was a scatter brain. Whitehead was very unorganized, losing recipes, records and even plans for engines and planes. He even lost the recordings from his witnesses. Whitehead never had the goal to immortalize himself but simply to fly. Because of his disorganization, Whitehead also lived paycheck to paycheck most of his life. He spent every dime he ever earned on advancing his gliders and engines. The fourth reason Whitehead is overlooked is because he was before his time. Flight during the time of Whitehead and the Wright brothers was seen as a mythical achievement. Even the Wright brothers were denied their first patent because "their invention contravened the known laws of science." It can be seen that the combination of these things is enough to lose Whitehead to history as many more have been lost too much less. But there is still one thing that keeps the achievements of Whitehead hidden and that is good old fashion American racism.

With every wave of immigrants comes an immediate backlash, Nativism. Germans were not exempt from this. They were targeted from the 1840s until the 1920s. German Americans were often treated poorly due to their cultural systems. They had a separate social structure from the American social structure. They trusted German run and German speak schools over the free public school systems. They held on to the German language and were not as likely to learn English as other immigrants did. Also was their love of beer, beer drinking and brewing which raised alarms with the more conservative Americans. German American culture was always a prime target and this hurt the legacy of Whitehead. Sure, Whitehead changed his name but that wasn't enough. He lived through several waves of anti-Germanism, all of which affected him. Whitehead was also hurt because he was unable to lose his accent and never made an attempt to become and American citizen. This then bumps the Wright brothers and their all American image into the spot light as the "first in flight." For Whitehead was never able to shake his "foreign born" status and cultural identity. These all combined is what pushes the legacy of Gustave Whitehead into the shadows of men that followed him.

Even though Whiteheads legacy would never receive the honors it deserves he continued on unknowingly. He flew again in 1903 and was featured in Scientific American. In it he discussed different engines and different flying techniques. In 1904 he featured his works at the St. Louis World's Fair where he displayed his "aeroplane" engine. Again in 1906, Whitehead's work was shown at the Second Annual Exhibit of the Aero Club of America, there they compare the Wright brothers and his own engine. He continued his work and in 1911 one of Whitehead's engines was placed in an unmanned helicopter which flew successfully. He continued his work in aviation while working as a mechanic to support his family. White passed away in 1927 while doing what he loved, working on an engine.

Where does Whitehead stand then in aviation history? Is he the first or simply a footnote? There is an argument on both sides. Many believe Whitehead took to the skies way before the Wright brothers ever came close. Others still hold the Wright brothers as "first in flight." There have been several attempts to give Whitehead his rightful title. In 1936, Stella Randolph published "The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead." In it she has 16 affidavits all claiming to see Whitehead fly across the Connecticut skies. In 1949 Harvard professor John B. Crane published an article in Air Affairs with evidence of Whiteheads flight. In 1966 USAF Major William O'Dwyer helped write The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew with Stella Randolph. He again wrote of Whitehead in 1978 in History by Contract which blasted the Smithsonian for not giving Whitehead the credit of first man to fly. So in the end we see that there are enough key witnesses, photo evidence of his later flights, people who are experts on the man and oh yea that thing called racism that discredits a man's entire lives work. In the end it is very possible that Whitehead flew before the Wrights, thus making his the father of modern aeronautics. As we have all seen in our lifetimes racism is a hurdle sometimes not jumped. It seems in the case of Whitehead, he falls victim to it not because he allowed so, but because he was a man with a dream, a man who ignored everything except failure which is what pushed him forward, pushing him to be the first in flight.


  1. Well Funny you should start out with Washington was the first President... He was the 9th. There were 8 Presidents of the United States all under the Articles of Confederation. Including John Hancock who was The President when we issued the Declaration of Independence, and that is why his signature is the largest.

    There is also a fair amount of mystery around your boy in the story. But things can be changed for the record but will almost never change in history. Like Marconi (Spelling?) is still listed as the inventor of Radio even though it was Tesla and and courts said so years after Tesla's death. He had RC boats in the late 1800's and sent audio messages via radio many years before Marconi.

    1. David, I love the point you bring up. It is an argument that seems disagreeable amongst historians and history buffs. Is Washington the first President? The way I see it and many others as well, is Washington is consider the first President of the US because he was granted the power by the Constitution as the nation was officially established. The gentlemen before him were Presidents of the Congress and oversaw the proceedings and kept order amongst the delegates from the colonies. Again, it one of those agree to disagree moments in our history.

      And the mystery surrounding Whitehead is what makes him and his place in history so interesting. And history is written by those who have the means, in most cases the history books will not be rewritten, but it's characters like Whitehead and the what ifs that are what continue to make history an interesting topic.

      Thanks for reading,

      Mike Maring