March 8, 2013
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’
Five editions ago, these pages reviewed a century (1909-2009) of powered aeroplane flight, making particular reference to how its most significant events were both predicted and interpreted by the Jane’s editors of the day. For the present analytical exercise, a different approach is proposed. Namely: What misconceptions come to be accepted as fact when Jane’s is not there to chronicle events?
Nine years before Fred Jane launched his aviation annual, the 20th Century was
dawning and it was clear that someone, somewhere, would demonstrate sustained, powered flight in a navigable aeroplane within the near future. Aviation pioneers in several countries were working on the problem, and history records that their goal was achieved on 17 December 1903 when the Wright Brothers’ Flyer rose into the air at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur and Orville later and graciously acknowledged the contributions of many others who had nearly succeeded before them, but were less impressed with the supposed achievements of a fellow US resident (though never naturalised), the German immigrant, Gustave Whitehead (born Gustav Weisskopf).
Unafraid of ‘getting his hands dirty’, Whitehead (1874-1927) had amassed considerable knowledge of practical aircraft construction and was also gifted in design and production of the item then most prized by aspiring aviators: the light, yet powerful and reliable engine. He also knew a good propeller when he saw one, and was able to combine the best of these skills and features into a series of aeroplanes built for himself and others.
Even at this length of time, Whitehead still has his supporters, audaciously
claiming that he flew a practical aeroplane at least two years before the Wrights. For a definitive opinion of this lèse majesté, we need go no farther than Orville Wright’s comments on what he termed “The Whitehead Legend” when writing in the magazine US Air Services in August 1945: Only one local newspaper bothered to report the alleged flight, asserted Wright, and even that was on its back page, four days later. Orville cited
these points as “evidence” that no-one took the report seriously.
One who did — over a century later — was Australian aviation historian John Brown. In the best traditions of original research, Brown became involved in the controversy when looking for something else, and most kindly kept Jane’s informed. Commissioned to produce a history of the roadable aircraft (or ‘flying car’ — which is not quite the same thing), Brown found himself having to look farther back than he had imagined would have been necessary. Even beyond the time that Fred Jane had begun to record the particulars of the World’s aircraft. Even beyond Kitty Hawk 1903.
Here, it is necessary to pause for a moment of lateral thinking. Most of the aviation pioneers appear to have given little consideration to the consequences of their succeeding in delivering an airworthy aeroplane into the World. For them, flight was an end in itself; for Whitehead, it was one step in the building of a business. He was among the few who realised that once the novelty of soaring above the ground had worn off, sustained — and profitable —sales of the aeroplane to the public could only be perpetuated if it were integrated into daily life.
Pardonably, not having deduced that invention of the practical aeroplane would be followed in short order by ‘invention’ of the aerodrome and hangar, Whitehead was one of the first to provide it with the autonomy which he believed would be demanded by the private owner. That meant an aeroplane which could be kept in the garage of a town house, then make its own way — with a power drive to the landing wheels and with wings folded or dismantled — along the highway to a convenient meadow or park for take-off. Were this to be a businessman making a call, he would undertake a similar road journey on arriving by air at a suitable field in the vicinity of his customer.
Whitehead equipped his aircraft No. 21, known as the Condor, with two acetylene-fuelled engines of his own design: 10 hp for the road wheels and 20 hp as the main source of forward flight. ‘Main’ because at an appropriate moment during take-off, the flick of a lever would transfer the road engine’s output to augment the motor driving the twin propellers. He was by no means the only aviator to incorporate powered wheels into his designs, but by the time Jane began compiling his annuals, the practice was in decline and soon became lost in the mists of history, to be reborn in different form later.
In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor’s wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated.
This, it must be stressed, was more than two years before the Wrights manhandled their Flyer from its shed and flew a couple of hundred feet in a straight line
after lifting off from an adjacent wooden rail hammered into the ground. And, obviously, because of his demonstrated expertise in manoeuvring, Whitehead had flown missions like this before, suggesting his lead was even greater. (Two months earlier, his No. 20 was reported to have flown from the same field, albeit weighted with sandbags in lieu of an occupant.)
Could this have been a hoax, as Orville Wright was later to imply? How can it be inferred with such certainty that Whitehead had flown similarly before? The answers to both questions are simple and identical: His invited guest was the Chief Editor of the Bridgeport Herald.
Because of the cost of reproducing photographs in journals of the day, the weekly Herald used the editor’s picture of the Condor in flight as the basis of a lithograph which illustrated a full-page feature article in its next edition, published on 18 August. Such substitution was common newspaper practice — and, indeed, producing exactly this type of engraved image was Fred Jane’s first known employment. There is written evidence that the original photograph (blurred because of the poor dawn light) was shown at indoor exhibitions of early aviation imagery and artifacts in both 1904 and 1906. Its current whereabouts are shrouded in mystery.
Whitehead’s No. 22, the next machine, this time powered by a 40 hp Diesel engine, was similarly reported in flight on 17 January 1902 and confirmed as having
executed a circular course over the shallows between Charles Island and Bridgeport, demonstrating its navigability and practicality. That manoeuvre was made possible by the roll control technique of wing-warping — the fact confirmed by a technical article in Aeronautical World for December 1902, well ahead of the Wrights patenting the method as their own. Affidavits and statements by 17 people, some of them recorded on tape and film or video, bear witness to the many powered flights made by Whitehead between August 1901 and January 1902.
The original Bridgeport Herald report is the article dismissed by Orville Wright. It was easily relocated by John Brown during his researches but, thanks to the recent drive to digitalise newspaper archives, only a few hours of on-line research were needed to locate 85 (eighty-five) more press reports of Whitehead’s flights on several occasions during 1901 and 1902, many of them making front-page news. The search concerned only free-use archives; clearly, there are many more articles available in subscription services.
Syndicated reports of Whitehead’s exploits contemporaneously appeared around the Globe, from Australia to Austria. One, mentioned here not entirely at random, appeared on page 3 of the Portsmouth Evening News of 21 August 1901. At the time, this was the local newspaper of Southsea resident, Fred Jane. As a man keenly interested in technology (and author of four published science fiction novels) it is difficult to imagine Jane not reading the report with utmost interest. However, it would be stretching credibility beyond its limits to suggest that this was the Genesis of the annual now achieving its hundredth volume.
There is further danger in reading between lines — especially when the lines do not exist. All that can be said for certain is that the first Foreword to what is now All the World’s Aircraft is notable in that it does not pay homage to the Wright Brothers for initiating the age of aeroplane flight. Perhaps more from a position of knowledge than ignorance, Jane appears to have considered them to be no more than equal to many others in their contribution. Wright is, simply, one of the companies whose more recent aircraft are described in the first edition; Whitehead (for reasons shortly to be given) is not.
Today, it seems impossible that a vast cache of documentary evidence, such as those newspaper reports, can be overlooked by the World at large. True, there are small museums to Whitehead in both his homeland and adopted homeland (and gratitude is expressed to Flughistorische Forschungsgemeinschaft Gustav Weisskopfat Leutershausen for copyright photographs used here) but it is too easy to dismiss them as municipal monuments to a local boy. The reasons for the vanished recognition are several. The first is that critical examination of the Wrights’ legacy is deflected by a non-sequitur of elephantine proportions: That because they were the most successful of the early aeroplane pioneers, they must have been ‘the first to fly’.
Secondly, as was only disclosed much later, under sanction of a Freedom of Information request by Senator Lowell Weicker Jr, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington — undisputed repository of American aviation history — secured possession of the precious Wright Flyer No. 1 from surviving brother, Orville only after agreeing in a legally-binding document that “the Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft…earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903…was capable of carrying a man under its own power in
controlled flight”. History is normally written by researchers who have dispassionately analysed all relevant data and not, as here, by the lawyers of interested parties. (Strictly, the document is also nonsense, since the wording contrives to prohibit the Smithsonian from mentioning numerous prior dirigible airships — which are ‘aircraft’ too.)
Thirdly, when selecting a partner to commercialise his invention, Whitehead exhibited catastrophic misjudgement….three times over. After two false starts, his third investor proved to be the serial convicted criminal (and, subsequently, lunatic asylum patient) Herman Linde who, early in 1902, attempted to appropriate the venture and had Whitehead locked out of the factory containing his production line of between four and six aeroplanes. To recover solvency, Whitehead turned all attentions to his other great skill: the manufacture of light-and-powerful engines, which became much in demand by a growing number of aspiring aviators. It is as such that he has been remembered.
The fourth and final reason is hypothetical, in that it was overtaken by events described above. However, it would have proved critical had Whitehead’s business progressed for a few more years. Inspired by Otto Lilienthal, for whom he had worked before leaving Germany, Whitehead designed his aircraft with a bird-shaped wing structure of a single, stretched surface with stiffening ribs, which would now be described as similar to the Rogallo employed by hang-gliders and trikes. It worked — and still does, as proved by two latter-day replicas — but it is not a structure on which commercial and military aviation can be built. At some stage, Whitehead would have been forced into radical redesign to retain the initiative, which the Wrights already had.
While it is often the case that ‘the second mouse gets the cheese’, history is
capricious in its decision to record the first or the second inventor’s or (discoverer’s) name. To take but one example, John Logie Baird is still lauded as the ‘inventor of television’, but his electromechanical system was a technological dead-end which was rapidly overtaken by an entirely different and more practical method, omitting a mechanical scan. Whitehead was in Baird’s category, except that his recognition has been, largely, withheld. The Wrights, with their more tractable wing design, were ‘the second mouse’ and, perhaps, one of the things they learned from Whitehead’s misfortune was the need for rigorous protection of their patents and wide avoidance of offers of business partnerships from characters of unproven honesty.
If this were to be the 110th Foreword, instead of the hundredth, Fred Jane would
have recorded Whitehead’s flying machines and their achievements in his early editions, probably securing for this underrated pioneer a full paragraph in the annals of aviation history, rather than his present, dismissive footnote.
Having occurred before Jane’s first edition, the matter cannot be regarded as unfinished business for Fred Jane or his successors but, most certainly, we are convinced he would have approved of any efforts made to get the facts right, whatever the delay. Thanks to the meticulous researches of John Brown — to whose website www.gustave-whitehead.com we earnestly recommend readers seeking greater detail — an injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville’s reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.