Pop Quiz: In honor of Black History Month, who was the first African American Baseball player in the Major Leagues? Answer: Jackie Robinson. Which famous Abolitionist orator and writer taught himself to read and write after he escaped from slavery? Answer: Fredrick Douglas. Who was the first person to achieve controlled, sustained, heavier than air flight? Answer: Wilber Wright.
Ok, well that last question didn’t have anything to do with Black History Month, but that’s ok. I’m not so sure that last answer was Wright anyway.
I’m serious. Here is a list of a few things I am reasonably sure of:
- Neil Armstrong was the first Human Being who walked on the moon. (Assurance Factor: 100%)
- Julius Ceasar was assisanated by a group of conspitors on March 15, 44 B.C. (Assurance Factor 100%)
- Of my 3 children, it is my son who consistantly forgets to flush the toilet after he drops a duce. (Assurance Factor: 94.5%)
Here are a few things I used to be reasonably sure of, but upon further review…not so much:
- JFK was killed by a conspiracy of at least 2 gunmen, one of whom was on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas. (Previous Assurance Factor: 95%. Current Assurance Factor: 22.3%)
- The NBA secretly conspired to keep Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks from winning an NBA title by any means necessary. (Previous Assurance Factor: 89.4%. Current Assurance Factor: 0%)
- The Wright Brothers were the first Human Beings to achieve sustained, controlled heavier than air flight in 1903. (Previous Assurance Factor: 99.6%. Current Assurance Factor: 33.8%)
I have been doing a little digging and have come to learn something fascinating: All of our history books might be very, very wrong. Someone else might have beat the Wright Brothers by as much as 2 years!
This is a big deal for me. This would almost be on the level as discovering that Shakespeare didn’t really write all of those plays around the turn of the seventeenth century.
First of all, everyone knows the official story in the history books: in 1903 the Wright brothers achieved heavier than air flight that lasted for a few seconds and traveled a few hundred feet. Whoopti Doo, I know, but keep in mind that a few years before, we were still trying to get off the ground in contraptions like this:
So, this was kinda a big deal.
The beautiful thing that the Wright Brothers had going for them was that one of the witnesses they asked to verify their attempt in 1903 was techno-savvy enough to haul a camera out to the beach with him. Now, this was a relatively new invention to carry around outside in the middle of winter, so kudos to the Wrights for recognizing how powerful this image would become in the psyche of the American conscious.
It’s clean. It’s crystal clear. It is visual proof. There is a human being laying on his belly on a craft that is obviously off the ground.
The Wright Brothers flew in 1903. No one can argue with that.
But they might not have been the first.
That honor possibly goes to Gustave Alvin Weisskoph. Unfortunately, that doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as Orville and Wilber though.
Besides, Weisskoph sounds more like a sneeze.
This is probably why Gustave changed his name after he immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century and just started calling himself “Whitehead” instead.
Gustave didn’t have much money. He didn’t own a bicycle shop, or receive financing from wealthy donors. He worked in a coal mine to support his inventions and quirky engineering habits. His neighbors didn’t like him much because he kept blowing things up in his little shed in the middle of the night. But he liked to tinker around with steam engines and attach them to ship-like hulls that he envisioned would sail through the air like a ship at sea.
And in 1901, Gustave Whitehead believed he actually flew and a lot of people claim they saw him too.
Gustave didn’t name his invention anything as grand as “The Wright Flyer” or “The Spirit of St. Louis.” No, in typical German efficiency, he simply called it “Airplane No 21”
Not to be confused with Airplane No 1-20 that evidently didn’t turn out so good.
Here is Gustave’s Airplane No 21.
In 1901 there were only two accepted methods for confirming an eye witness account of an event. You could hire a fancy-pants photographer to set up a camera outside and hope he snapped it at the right moment or you could drag some cheap artist with you who would just kinda sketch out what he saw. Both views were accepted in the newspapers of the day as proof and since Gustave didn’t have much money, he had to go with the cheaper Plan B.
Besides, things like “legacy” and “fame” didn’t mean as much to Gustave. He just liked to fly. And dozens of people swore to their dying day that they saw him do it…2 years before the Wright Brothers took off.
A reporter for the Bridgeport Sunday Herald testified that on August 18, 1901, almost 2 ½ years BEFORE the Wright Brothers flew in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Gustave Whitehead flew ½ a mile and included a change of direction to avoid a cluster of chestnut trees and a safe landing.
A variety of photographs still exist that have been verified as dating to 1901 that show Gustave with his “Airplane No. 21” as an aerodynamically correct monoplane that is capable of flight.
In 1901 the periodical “Scientific American” published an illustrated article about Whitehead’s machine and in 1906-’08 a reporter published a series of articles all claiming that Whitehead had indeed flown in 1901. (Orville Wright published an article in 1945 in which he quotes this same reporter, but evidently this guy had changed his mind and supported Orville’s claim that they had flown first. So, either this guy lied between 1906-’08 when he was publishing multiple articles directly crediting Whitehead with sustained flight, or he was lying in 1945 when he backed up Orville Wright…or he was simply suffering from dementia and was just confused)
In 1937, Stella Randolph published a book called “The Lost Flight of Gustave Whitehead”, but no one really cared. What did women know of anything in 1937? Besides, some man called Walt Disney had just released a cartoon called “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and that was way cooler to talk about than some chick obsessed with some poor immigrant’s attempt at flight.
American’s had their hereos and “Wright” was a whole lot easier to spell. So Stella Randolph’s book went largely unnoticed.
Of an estimated 30 people who had been interviewed with sworn affidavits concerning Whitehead’s flight, 20 confirmed that they had actually seen him fly in 1901, 8 claimed that they had heard he had flown in 1901 and only 2 felt that he didn’t really fly.
What is almost as fascinating as the possibility that someone beat the Wright brothers by almost 2 ½ years is the cover-up since 1903 to keep this story quiet. The motives for this conspiracy are wrapped up in a little pride, a whole lot of greed and some good ‘ol fashioned American racism tossed in on the side.
You see, around the turn of the century there were a lot of people trying to figure out how to fly. Some had some good ideas. Most were pretty loony, but everyone knew that there would be a lot of money flying around (nice punn) if anyone could just figure it out.
Well, almost everybody. Someone forgot to tell poor Gustave, or if they did he didn’t seem to care.
However, there was one man who happened to be the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in 1903 that cared a great deal. Samuel Langley received about $50,000 from Congress to design an airplane, but he failed and his design crashed into the Potomac and a whole lot of the government’s money sunk to the bottom of the river.
Now, it’s not that the government is so frugile that they hate wasting money. They do that quite easily all the time, but most polititians don’t enjoy looking like fools and when a government agency becomes the laughing stock of the entire country. This becomes rather embarrassing for a lot of powerful people.
But history is not always written by the victors…just those who can get it in print first and tell the most tourists what they are looking at. So, while the Wright Brothers spent 3 years keeping quiet about their achievement waiting for approval to patent their invention (by the U.S. Patent Office…a government run agency, by the way) and Gustave Whitehead continued to shovel coal 50 hours a week, the Smithsonian seized the lull by claiming that Langley had actually flown first. In 1914, 11 years after the Wright Brothers historic flight, the Smithsonian sponsored a test of Langley’s original designed craft to prove that it could have flown. However, they modified the original design with state of the art improvements to kinda give it a boost in the air. When it flew, the Smithsonian declared it valid proof and proclaimed Langley a hero as the “Father of Flight.”
They even went on to name an Air Force Base after him.
The Wright Brothers were furious and in protest packed up their original 1903 flyer and shipped it to a museum in England. If the greatest collection of American treasures wouldn’t recognize them as the first in flight, than they couldn’t have their plane.
During this time there were numerous lawsuits flying around over who was first in flight and since the Wright Brothers had wisely spent those first precious few years after 1903 quietly waiting for patents, by the time they were granted, they were able to effectively campaign for their rights in court case after court case, receiving funds not only for their invention but also for back money that was due to them for those who infringed on their design.
Meanwhile, Gustave just kept shoveling coal. He didn’t have money for a patent or a lawyer anyway. In 1927, Gustave Whitehead died of a heart attack. He missed the crossing of the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh by just a few weeks. However, “Aviation Mania” was sweeping the world and everybody wanted to be the “First” at something since there were so many things to be the first at. The first to fly, the first to cross the Atlantic, the first to cross the Atlantic backwards…well, maybe not that one, but everybody was doing something for the first time and Americans loved to collect trophies of our accomplishments.
The only embarrassing thing was that the Wright Flyer was still over in Jolly ‘Ol England, and that didn’t seem right to most folks.
So, there arose a large public outcry to bring the Wright Flyer home.
The only thing that politicians hate more than being embarrassed publically is when the public has an outcry and since the Smithsonian is a government agency, things were moving toward an impass.
The Smithsonian asked Orville to ask for his plane back so they could set it up in the growing aviation wing.
“Are you still claiming that Langley flew first?” Orville asked.
“Well, yes,” they replied.
“Then forget it,” was Orville’s answer.
“Please,” they begged. “Lindbergh gave us his plane!”
“No,” he said stubbornly.
Then came World War II and it wasn’t the best time to try to get a precious piece of history out of England while Hitler and the Germans were dropping bombs all over London. But when the bombs stopped falling, Americans still wanted that plane back.
Finally, the Smithsonian agreed to remove the plaque to Langley in exchange for the Wright Flyer.
Now the Wright family employed a curious tactic. They were in a position to really squeeze the Smithsonian for all kinds of concessions such as:
1) The Wright Flyer would always be displayed in a prominent location. (What history teacher would take his class to see a plane if it’s shoved in the basement somewhere next to the mop closet)
2) The Wright Flyer would always have a proper label declaring their plane was the first heavier than air machine to achieve sustained, controlled flight. (That wording was very important to the Wright Family because their whole patent was based on the control of the airplane)
And 3) If the Smithsonian EVER credited any other machine or inventor as achieving sustained, controlled flight prior to 1903, the Smithsonian would be forced to give the Wright Flyer back to the heirs of the Wright estate.
And that contract is legally binding to this day.
So, the Smithsonian took a moment to consider their options. They could refuse and suffer the wrath of a bunch of angry politicians who had to answer to a torqued off public, or they could agree to the relatively mild concessions the Wright family demanded. Really, it boiled down to a little Quid Pro Quo: You want our family plane, and we want to get the credit for flying it.
Besides, in 1948…who really wanted to hear that some German Kraut might have been the first person to fly?
Americans had their lily white heros. The names were easy to remember, so school children and teachers were happy. The Smithsonian had the Wright Flyer hanging attractivly next to The Spirit of St. Louis so the Government was happy, and the Smithsonian agreed to never ever ever admit that anyone achieved sustained, controlled flight prior to 1903 (Not even the Egyptians) so the Wright Family was happy.
And since Gustave Whitehead had died 20 years before, no one even knew about him.
Except for possibly the Wright Brother’s themselves. Never mind the testimony that exists claiming that the Wright brothers actually visited Whitehead’s shop in 1901 and 1902 and had several discussions with him. I doubt they just wanted to exchange New England clam chowder recipes. Among the witnesses were two men named Anton Pruckner, and Cecil Steeves. In a recorded interview in 1937, Steeves said he remembered a visit by the Wright’s. “They came from Ohio and under the guise of offering to help finance Whitehead’s invention, but actually received inside information about his work…after they had gone away, Mr. Whitehead turned to me and said, “Now that I have given them the secrets of my invention they will probably never do anything in the way of financing me.”
Nope, never mind that testimony.
I just find it curious: Why would the Wright brothers find it necessary to state in a contract that the Smithsonian would never cite any credit for sustained flight to any machine or man prior to 1903? I find it odd don’t you…unless Orville knew that there was in fact a machine that had flown a few years before his brother did.
But tourists only believe what they read on plaques, and tourists are the ones who will go home to write the history books.
“What has not been examined impartially has not been well examined. Skepticism is therefore the first step toward the truth.” Dennis Diderot, philosopher (1713-1784)