Wright Is Wrong?

The authoritative Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft has reversed course and now recognizes Gustave Whitehead’s 1901 flight in the Condor as the first successful powered flight in history, not the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk.

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.)

John Brown uncovered the evidence relied on by Jane’s while researching the earliest “roadable airplane.” (It was Whitehead’s concept that an airplane owner would keep it in a private garage, and drive it to a convenient meadow for takeoff.) That led Brown to a Bridgeport Herald report – dismissed by Orville Wright himself late in life. And with many newspaper archives now digitized, Brown’s search of the internet yielded another 85 articles about Whitehead’s flights published in 1901 and 1902.

Brown posted all of these articles on his www.gustave-whitehead.com website, explaining the need for redundancy —

Orville Wright’s main argument in his attempt to discredit what he called “The Whitehead Legend” (August 1945, “US Air Services”, p.9) was his claim Whitehead’s flight was only reported on a back page of a local newspaper. Wright also questioned why that paper had waited four days before reporting the story, oblivious to the fact that it was a weekly newspaper which reported the flight in a special section of its very next edition. Orville cited these points as “evidence” no-one took the report seriously.

There’s also an extensive photo exhibit and analysis and reams of other material at the site.

Fred Jane’s successors now have a different notion why his Foreward to the original 1910 edition discussed the Wrights without any special deference –

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.

Jane probably read the coverage of Whitehead’s flight in his local paper, the Portsmouth Evening News, in 1901 and already knew the Wrights weren’t first.

Good grief! First Pluto, now this! The Firesign Theatre was prescient in naming one of their albums

Everything You Know Is Wrong.

[Via Petréa Mitchell.]

5 thoughts on “Wright Is Wrong?

  1. The story is typical of early 20th. century business/scientific innovations, where the search for truth never went any farther than the laws of nature. Beyond that, bury your potential business rivals in lies and propaganda. If that doesn’t work … buy them out. It created the myth that Edison invented the first camera, phonograph and electric light bulb. It created the myth that Ford made the first mass production line. Now, massaging the truth seems to have been the process behind how the Wright Bros. flew the first heavier-than-air flying machine. What next? That an Italian first discovered nuclear fission? That the English built the first computer? That a Canadian sent the first radio signal? That the French shot the first motion pictures? The Germans made the first automobiles? Well, it still leaves the invention of cocktail beverages and the cigarette, and without those, how would there ever have been Film Noir? But, I’m being a little unfair (and not very serious). Remember when Lt. Chechof used to say, “It was inwented in Wussia?” all the time? You’d get a pretty stiff argument over exactly who invented the still camera, as the French, English and Americas all have valid claims to one sort of still camera or other. And exactly who sent that first radio signal — Fessendon or Marconni, depends on how you split hairs. But, this reality shift is a really big one. Almost as bad as when it was discovered that Cro Magnon kids had a sort of spinner that created the illusion of animation, beating Walt Disney by tens of thousands of years…

  2. There’s still a pretty good case that an American restaurant served the first Caesar salad….

  3. I remember reading some time ago about how a New Zealander also beat the Wright Bros with a powered flight (sorry, don’t remember his name). This is like finding out Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball. What’s that you say – it evolved from an English game called ‘stickball’ that came over with the colonists? Next thing you tell me is that the moon isn’t made of cheese . . .

  4. I think Stan is thinking of a man made “famous” in a documentary by Peter Jackson, “Forgotten Silver”. The documentary was about a New Zealand filmmaker who had created color motion pictures among other things and had filmed a powered flight before the Wright Brothers. The documentary was shown on New Zealand’s BBC/PBS equivalent and created quite a stir there, boosting national pride over both Australia and the US — until it was revealed the whole thing was a hoax. No Silver, no early color films, no flight.

  5. Anyone curious should also check Major William J. O’Dwyer’s “History by Contact” for the possible reasons why the Smithsonian Institution cannot acknowledge any powered flight claims that precede the Wright brothers. The original 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer might have to be returned to the London Science Museum if another claim was substantiated.

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