Updated 12 Feb 2023
As a budding historian, I have been taught to look for contradictions between the various accounts of an event. To ask who wrote each account, what was their motivation and what information would have been available to them. Only then can one see through the propaganda "written by the winners" and catch some glimpse of the true state of affairs. This is what I try to do here.
Late one evening in 1901, a German migrant to the United States wheeled out his twenty-first attempt at a flying car. He trundled it down the road under its own power, accompanied by willing assistants, until they reached a likely takeoff spot. There, in the gathering gloom, he carried out a few trials before revving up the flight engine and calling for the ropes to be cast off. What happened next is clouded in controversy. Some say that he took off, flew at up to 50 ft (15 m) or so for about half a mile (2,600 ft or 800 m), rounded an obstacle in his path and landed neatly. Others believe that the whole thing was a failure, or an outright hoax and nothing happened at all that evening. Two similar events, in earlier and later years, suffer much the same problem.
There is a lot at stake; not only the Wright brothers' status as the first to fly a controlled, powered aeroplane, but also the Smithsonian Institution's right to display the Wright Flyer in its museum, along with the jobs and professional reputations of its many staff and associates. All these vested interests have been drawn, or have drawn themselves, into the debate and they all stand to suffer were any one of Whitehead's claims to become accepted. They represent a formidable team opponent.
The fight against Whitehead has been less than honourable, sordid even. Deceit, outright falsehoods and legal bondage have coloured the landscape for over a century, well larded with partisan rhetoric and posturing. Shockingly for such a respected national historical institution, the Smithsonian itself has been one of the worst offenders. And beyond, and in spite of, such direct shenanigans, its powerful reputation and influence still set the tone in respectable academia. For a professional historian to endorse Whitehead, and thereby defy the great Institution, is to bring down openly aggressive and emotive opprobrium from their peers, if not to outright destroy their career. Unfortunately, the pro-Whitehead lobby have over the years learned by example. They too are now apt to revile the opposition and bind everything up in legal knots. Any attempt at impartial assessment is jumped on and labelled according to its conclusions – by both sides. Most commentators choose to throw in their lot with one camp or the other. In the Whitehead affair, "If you are not with us then you are against us" has become a universal watchword. Well, I am seventy years old and a relative nobody, I have nothing to lose. I can afford to be impartial. To the extent that it affects the exposure and acceptance of the true facts, this impartiality must on occasion, in order to explain my preceding remarks, extend to commenting somewhat unfavourably on the behaviour of all concerned (as I have just done).
In all this, two of the few truly impartial commentators have been Roy Bongartz Jr. and G.K. Weissenborn. I make no apology for giving their analyses greater weight than the, at best thinly-veiled, partisans. However I still have more ground to cover; I have been updating this essay from time to time and hope to continue doing so.
Having said all that, let us go back to the beginning.
I will not recap the endless blow-by-blow arguments over the principal facts and innumerable details. Rather, I will do my best to provide a comprehensive bibliography of the documents in which all that may be found, and I credit my readers with the intelligence to check for themselves if they doubt my judgement. I will tell the story straight as I see it running along beneath, but woven through by, all the unprofessional shenanigans.
Three separate occasions have given rise to claims which centre around Whitehead.
First, in 1899, came a steam-powered aeroplane, a two-seater with a second crew member to mind the engine. It had no directional controls and, when it encountered a building in its path, Whitehead was unable to avoid hitting its wall. Darvarich, his engineer, was scalded by the steam and hot water badly enough to need hospital treatment. Whitehead never claimed that it was a true flyer, that was left to Darvarich.
Then, with aircraft No. 21, came the events of 1901 which began this essay. The machine took off well enough but its steering control system, a method of wing warping, proved ineffective. Luckily for Whitehead, he found that by leaning hard over to one side he could just tilt it enough in that direction to avoid an approaching clump of trees on a rise. Several people later signed affidavits that they had witnessed such a flight. But, partly because cameras were still very primitive in 1901 and partly because of the fading twilight, the only photograph thought to have been taken was blurred and indistinct. Why, then, go out so late? Two possible reasons are secrecy and flying conditions. Like many of his fellow pioneers, Whitehead was afraid that his secrets would be stolen. More pragmatically, earlier pioneers such as Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute had reported that the air was often calmest, and flying conditions hence the most favourable, around dawn and dusk.
The next January brought aircraft No. 22. It had a "rudder" of some form and featured twin propellers, with some kind of facility to vary their relative speeds, either separately or differentially, thus varying the relative amount of thrust provided by each (this mechanism may even be the "rudder" alluded to). Whitehead was able to steer this craft and on one occasion flew almost a full circle out over a nearby river, before coming down in the shallows. But supporting evidence for these flights is poor: we have only his account, one witness to being told about it, and a photograph of an unidentified machine said to have been retrieved from a watery crash-landing.
Many claims against Whitehead and his supporters are so obviously partisan that they serve only to confirm the intense feelings aroused, and to discredit the claimant. Others are perhaps more realistic in tone but nevertheless unfounded. There remains a hard core of criticisms which do stand up to scrutiny, though none of these is directed against the primary claims of flight. I present a very short illustrative selection here, for to be exhaustive would, well, exhaust the poor reader.
It has been said that Whitehead was non-technical and made no advance from one machine to the next. Yet he built highly innovative and often successful aero engines of a wide variety of types, at a time when almost nobody else could get even one to work. And his flying machines did indeed advance, for example from no steering in 1898 to a system in 1901 that failed without assistance to a system in 1902 that was at least viable and is said to have worked.
It has been said that none of the supporting legal affidavits collected from witnesses are believable. Yet this cuts both ways. Why should those who denied being involved in any such thing be any more believable, especially when pressured by an aggressive and threatening sceptic? The weight of numbers is definitively on Whitehead's side.
It has been suggested by Wright advocates that even if Whitehead left the ground, he would not have escaped the ground effect that helps lift a low-skimming plane, and that therefore it would not be true flight. Yet Whitehead's No. 21 flew higher than the Wright Flyer on its first flights, which are acknowledged to have remained within ground effect yet still won the laurels. The advocates' argument is stronger against the Wrights than Whitehead.
It has been argued that leaning over in the No. 21 would have had negligible effect and so could not have been used for steering. Certainly it could not be a sensitive or authoritative method of steering, but Whitehead never claimed that it was anything more than a marginal effect which augmented the ineffectual wing-warping just enough to skirt a fairly narrow obstacle in his path. Technical evidence offered by the critic relates to higher-powered types and is not directly relevant to Whitehead's circumstances. His very limited claim remains perfectly plausible.
With the support of Stanley Y. Beach, the managing editor's son, the journal Scientific American had been following Whitehead's progress and had endorsed several of his claims. Later, Beach Jr. and the journal turned against Whitehead. Some commentators argue that Beach realised that he had been duped, others are equally adamant that he was pressured into the change in order to protect his career. We do know that around 1908-9 Whitehead built an aeroplane and engine to Beach's ideas, but it failed to fly and some acrimony developed between them. All we can really say is that Beach turned out to be unreliable. Similarly, Beach's generations-later successor Daniel Schlenoff based his analysis around these reports, in a similar atmosphere of institutional hostility, and so must inevitably be tarred with the same brush of unreliability.
In the extreme, it is claimed that the whole thing is a deliberate hoax, perpetrated by Whitehead's followers if not the man himself. Eyewitness accounts are declared to be either similar hoaxes or false memories induced by pushy interviewers. To be fair, such hoaxes and confusions are not without precedent. But this is where the judgements of impartial investigators are crucial, and their general verdict is that the body of evidence appears to be sounder than its criticisms.
That is about enough examples. It is clear from the above that the majority of criticisms, even technical arguments proffered by apparently neutral experts, are inadequately thought through and fundamentally unfounded. The same can usually be said of the points made by Whitehead supporters who respond to the critics, but enough is enough – well, almost.
There is one criticism of Whitehead's case which demands particular attention because it has been said by some to be the biggest reason why they do not accept his claims. No photograph of a Whitehead machine in the air has survived. Even the blurred and indistinct one, reported at the time, has never been seen since. There was a fine flurry not so long ago when John Brown, a Whitehead convert, mistook an unrelated photograph for it and was promptly debunked by vocal critic Carroll F. Gray. The episode gave many such critics a chance to prove a point, but then to go too far and claim that it proved the whole Whitehead case wrong. Of course it proved nothing either way, it was a side issue which led nowhere. The lack of photographic evidence remains, but that really should not be made an issue. Ever since the Wrights' first flight was captured on camera, similar evidence has been demanded for every subsequent claim. Whitehead fails this test. But wait a minute. Nobody photographed the first manned balloon, the first compression-ignition engine, the first automatic machine gun, several glides and hops by earlier pioneer airmen, yet nobody doubts the claims of the Montgolfier brothers, Diesel, Maxim, Cayley or Ader's first Éole. The "camera obscura" was just not yet sophisticated enough to be useful for these inventors and, for reasons already mentioned, nor was it yet sophisticated enough in 1901 to rise to Whitehead's circumstances. Moreover, as we shall see in a moment, photographs cannot be trusted anyway. There can also be little doubt that, should the genuine low-quality image turn up, it would be roundly attacked by the critical partisans and deemed to prove nothing; those sceptics who had for so long demanded it would now refuse to accept it for what it was. They would either deny that it was anything more than a hop, or that it was the No.21 at all. The issue of the missing photograph is truly an irrelevance to the main argument, and the arguments around it "entirely spurious" as one commentator remarked. No other inventor of Whitehead's day needed a camera for confirmation, and nor should Whitehead.
The Smithsonian Institution has played a key role in the controversy and this has earned it not only a section all its own here, but also a share of the title. Shockingly for such a respectable academic institution, its long meddling has been devious and disreputable, sometimes even outright dishonest. By its own admission in recent years, its past has been "less than exemplary". But that has not entirely damped its arrogance.
In 1903 the Smithsonian's Director, Samuel Pierpoint Langley, twice launched his Aerodrome from the roof of a houseboat, only for his test pilot to receive an immediate and severe ducking on each occasion. Following his death, the institute tried to make out that his failed waterplane, now on display in their museum, had in fact flown. Some years later it went so far in the deception as to secretly rope in the rather more successful pioneer Glenn Curtiss, to modify the wreck and make it flyable. Curtiss was at that time embroiled in a legal spat with the Wrights because he was infringing their patents and refusing to pay the licence fee demanded; he had a strong financial interest in debunking their credentials. He put floats on the Aerodrome and tweaked it in various ways until by 1914 it could make brief hops on the water. A photograph of one such hop was then produced as incontrovertible proof that it was flying.
This had the unforeseen effect that cognizance of any other claim, besides Langley's and including Whitehead's, would awaken the terms of that contract and be forbidden. It would be another half century and more of unedifying squabbling before the institution even recognised publicly that this was the case, and that it created a conflict of interest.
The contract remains in force today. That the Smithsonian remains contracted to dismiss the evidence does not appear to worry it in the least. It protests to the effect that, "Yes there is a contract but there is no evidence for it to conflict with," a sentiment it is bound by its contract to assert. It adds by way of apologia that if there were such evidence then it would "hope" to treat it impartially. Despite having been caught with its pants down for a second time, a mere expression of contrition and of "hope" to change its habits and pull its pants up again, should the need arise, is the best it can offer even now.
Frankly, that is not enough. The Institution's academic reputation is suffering. Researchers are no longer automatically taking its pronouncements on trust. If it wishes to remain at the apex of academia it has to not only clean up its act but also be seen to clean up its act. My advice to the Smithsonian is unequivocal: end your conflict of interest. Follow the path set out by the likes of Sue Brinchman and publicly renounce your contract with the Wright estate. Tear it up now. Take the risk on the chin that you might lose your nice status symbol. Until you do that, your word in this high-profile matter will always remain untrustworthy, and the longer you dither, the more that will knock on to everything you ever say about anything.
Well, the pro-Whitehead camp certainly learned from the Smithsonian and its ilk. If you want to see their document collection nowadays, you have to sign a similar contract agreeing to promote the Whitehead claims. This includes many of the original source documents – surviving papers, eyewitness accounts backed up by signed affidavits, and so forth. Unfortunately, that rules out any chance of the Smithsonian ever seeing any of the evidence it "hopes" it would be honest enough to admit might be genuine, as well as any chance of an independent-minded researcher from confirming the Whitehead evidence at first hand. What a shambles!
The evidence of Beach, the Smithsonian and its associates, and other commentators bound by contract, must be dismissed as unreliable due to their various conflicts of interest, compounded by their overtly partisan presentation. Similarly, any other commentary dotted with obvious bias such as emotive value judgements or disparaging personal remarks must be discarded. Most original documents are lost or similarly bound by contract. All this comprises the vast majority of documents produced by both sides.
To return to the matter of the missing photograph once more, as it is so central to many a sceptic's doubts. The claim, that the above photograph of the Aerodrome shows it flying, demonstrates that photographs cannot be trusted as evidence of flight. Another example is provided by a widely circulated image of the Edwards Rhomboidal in the UK; it had been suspended from the ceiling for the shot, and the cable subsequently retouched out. No, photographs are not the proof of flight that the Wright advocates would have us believe. If they were, the Wrights would have to hand the laurels to Langley after all. It is at best hypocritical to debunk one photograph but then to debunk a claim because there is no similar photograph. Basing the balance of doubt on such a dubious evidence base is highly unsound.
What are we left with? Besides any cogent points which might be discerned in the unreliable material and cleansed of bias, there remain a small number of accounts written by authors not bound by contract, and who criticise based only on researched fact and not on personal qualities. Those who saw the primary evidence, before it was lost or locked away, deserve the greatest credence. I would single out:
Although their (often tentative) conclusions differ, I believe that these secondary sources together present a reasonably cogent body of evidence. In their time they unearthed and evaluated enough primary evidence for any impartial investigator to reach a fairly clear conclusion. In this respect, what I present here may be thought of as a meta-analysis of the data.
We may discount any significance to the 1889 steamer, as it was uncontrolled. If Maxim in the UK had not held his earlier and equally uncontrolled steamer down with safety rails, he might well have suffered a similar fate.
The evidence these sources present on the No. 21 and No. 22 would in any normal circumstance be enough to establish a viable claim to flight. By far the greater part of it supports the suggestion that the No. 21 aeroplane did indeed perform as claimed. In particular I would draw attention to the large number of photographs of the No.21 on the ground while in broad daylight. No other Whitehead machine was so attractive to photographers, nor his posing with friends and family alongside it, and one has to ask why. The most reasonable explanation is that it was special, it achieved something that its twenty predecessors had not – it flew. Discounting the lack of low-light photographic technology and the many hollow partisan criticisms of Whitehead, I have found no significant and impartial criticism which stands up against this main body of evidence. The body supporting the No. 22 claim is weaker but, if we accept the No. 21 as factual, then that in itself strengthens the case for accepting the No. 22 evidence.
Finally, what do we mean by "fly"? It is partly subjective. How controllable, how far, how high do you want? Opinions differ. Rather than struggle with the details, it is easier and safer to compare Whitehead's figures with other accepted fliers. The first European flight was by Alberto Santos-Dumont in his 14-bis. He wobbled badly and had to land because he was losing stability and control. He really did not stay airborne for any distance, either. Nevertheless his flight is accepted by the FAI, and especially by Brazil who even disqualify the Wrights because their Flyer took off along assistive rails. Whitehead maintained at least marginally better control (and did not need rails), so we cannot disqualify him on that score. The Wrights' first day of flying ended with a flight of 852 feet (260 m) at a height of about 10 ft (3 m) and lasting 59 seconds. Previous flights that day had been much shorter. Whitehead flew the No. 21 farther and higher, and the No. 22 a great deal farther. On his last long flight of the day, Wilbur Wright crash-landed and damaged his machine. Whitehead landed his No. 21 undamaged and No. 22 in shallow water. Nevertheless the Wrights' flight is accepted, so we cannot disqualify the No. 22 on any such score either. Whitehead's claims for the Nos. 21 and 22 are definitely for true flights, more so even than those of the Wrights or Santos-Dumont.
All in all, I can find no cause for significant doubt. A little more evidence would be needed for a confident verdict, but the existing accumulated body is as strong as the evidence supporting many claims we have long accepted. What we have seen is a strong case for Whitehead's No. 21 flying car as the first aeroplane to make a powered, controlled flight, back in 1901. Whether the No. 22 followed it into the air then becomes of secondary significance, but there appears no reason to doubt people whose evidence one has already accepted over the previous machine.
But let's face it, as long as Whitehead's supporters continue to muck about with biased contracts which suppress objectivity, nobody is ever going to believe them: the case is made in spite of them and not because of them. So here is my advice to them, in parallel with that which I gave earlier. Give up on the stupid contract, it was a lousy idea. Carroll F. Gray made this same call in 2015 and I endorse his as heartily I endorse Brinchman's.
I would strongly recommend to both parties: fight the good fight, but fight it square and open.
Now here's the heart of it: I call on both parties to Go to the enemy camp and agree a joint public revocation of your lousy contracts. Open your doors to them and share all your objects, documents and information freely. What you risk losing in material toys you will regain a thousandfold in truth and respectability.
What if the other party refuses, insiting on clinging to their partisan contracts, broken arguments and vehement rhetoric? Then go ahead unilaterally. Make the case for your own openness - well, wide open. You have nothing to lose but the bad smell in your underclothes.
And may the best evidence win.
Many of these items are reference sources for this essay, others are included for the sake of completeness. I have not felt it worth noting specific references, as the emotive hyperbole surrounding the affair is so intense that none may be regarded as wholly reliable.
Listed in historical order of publication.
Scientific American, 1901 ff., various pieces on Whitehead.
Stella Randolph and Harvey Phillips; "Did Whitehead Precede Wright In World's First Powered Flight?", Popular Aviation, January 1935, pp. 22-24, 55-57.
Prof. John B. Crane; "Did Whitehead Actually Fly?", National Aeronautic Magazine, December 1936, pp. 11-14.
Stella Randolph; "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead," Places, 1937.
A. Zahm; Early Powerplane Fathers, 1944, Chapter on "Whitehead First To Fly With Petrol Power."
John B. Crane; "Early Airplane Flights Before the Wrights", Air Affairs 2. (Winter 1949): pp.508-522.
Stella Randolph, Before the Wrights Flew: The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Putnam, 1966.
William O'Dwyer and Stella Randolph; History by Contract, Majer, 1978.
Roy Bongartz Jr.; "Was Whitehead First?", Popular Mechanics, December 1981, pages 68-76.
Weissenborn, G.K.; "Did Whitehead fly?", Air Enthusiast 35, Pilot Press (1988), Pages 19-21 and 74-75.
Frank Delear; "Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy", Aviation History, March 1996.
O'Dwyer, W.; "The "Who Flew First" Debate," Flight Journal, Oct 1998, pp 22-23, 50-55.
Albert Wüst; Ich Flog vor den Wrights (in German), Majer, 1999.
Paul Jackson, "Justice delayed is justice denied" (Foreword), Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 8 March, 2013.
Tom Crouch, "The Wright-Smithsonian Contract", Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, 15 March, 2013. Archive copy
M. Oakey; "History or Hogwash?", The Aviation Historian, No. 4, 2013, pp. 82-89.
Daniel C. Schlenoff; "Scientific American Debunks Claim Gustave Whitehead Was 'First in Flight'", Scientific American website, 8 July 2014.
Carroll F. Gray: "Gustave Whitehead and the Case of the Fallacious Photo", Huffington Post, 22 October 2013, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/carroll-f-gray/gustave-whitehead-the-cas_b_4125695.html
Carroll F. Gray (Ed.); Flying Machines (flyingmachies.org) "Gustave Whitehead" pages
Sue Brinchman, https://www.flightjournal.com/a-new-player-new-demands/
To be read and factored in:
As Gray says, "In 'The Strange Case of Gustave Whitehead' nothing seems to be what it appears to be." https://www.huffingtonpost.com/carroll-f-gray/gustave-whitehead-the-cas_b_4125695.html
2012 Brown working at the Smithsonian, where he came across the photo-in-a-photo. https://www.weisskopf.de/mediapool/93/932814/data/DGLR_BROWN_John_English_Why_Gustave_Whitehead_was_Recognized_as_First_in_flig.pdf Brown, Why Gustave Whitehead was Recognized as First in Flight
Mar 8, 2013 Jane's editorial published. https://www.weisskopf.de/mediapool/93/932814/data/DGLR_BROWN_John_English_Why_Gustave_Whitehead_was_Recognized_as_First_in_flig.pdf Brown, Why Gustave Whitehead was Recognized as First in Flight
March 22, 2013 Paul Jackson – Excerpt, Response to Journalist, https://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history/paul-jackson-explains-reasoning/ "Too many debates about Whitehead have been kicked into the 'long grass' by diversionary wrangling ... And that entirely spurious "Where's the photograph?" argument."
June 26, 2013 Connecticut lawmakers write Wright Brothers out of history as ‘first in flight’
National Geographic commentary.
"The Court's Decision on Whitehead", Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company (www.wright-brothers.org)