1935 - Did Whitehead Precede Wright in World's First Powered Flight?

Popular Aviation, January 1935
By Stella Randolf and Harvey Phillips

Before 1901 had ended, Gustave Whitehead had built fifty-six airplanes. The first ones were turned out without numbers being assigned and that is why, in August, 1901, the machine under construction was only No. 21.
One day, it was pushed into the street from the backyard of the modest house, 241 Pine Street, which was then the Whitehead home. For weeks women in the neighborhood had been exclaiming about the fineness of the silk they were sewing into the wings of this airplane. Even a young man, loitering about the neighborhood, was pressed into service to help sew.
No labor unions or NRA set the wages, for the young man received twenty cents to the women's fifteen. Now, the wings were neatly folded back against the boat-shaped canvas-covered body as it was being pushed through the gate. Inside it, two engines were humming, one for propelling the wheels on which it was to get its start upon the ground, the other to turn the propellers when the machine was in the air. The small boys of the neighborhood came running, attracted by the unusual.

Little Alexander Gluck was there and so was an older friend of Mr. Whitehead, Louis Darvarich, who had worked with him long before they came to Bridgeport in 1900. Other spectators came flocking, shouting and exclaiming round-eyed at the monster. They drew excited breaths of awe, and whistled through their teeth as the creature dashed down the road, rose from the ground, not many feet higher than their heads, and flew above the dirt road that was then Pine Street.

But too many children running about add to the dangers of such tests. So, morning after morning, the plane tests were made before many of the little ones were up and about . or many of their elders either. Even then, one day Gustave Whitehead's heart was in his mouth as he barely missed striking a little boy who ran excitedly into the pathway of his moving plane.

On most of his test flights a mechanic-helper accompanied Gustave Whitehead. Anton Pruckner remembers well some of these flights. One of the longest was made in August, 1901, and was about a mile and a half in length, as Gustave Whitehead wrote the editor of the "American Inventor," who published the letter in the edition of April 1, 1902.

The Phillips Aeronautic Library furnished me the information that led me to this letter and also on the long trail which has not ended, but continues to broaden as it discloses the genius and ability of Gustave Whitehead.
The airplane used in 1901 had been constructed by Mr. Whitehead in its entirety; both engine and plane were his own idea. It was a monoplane with a four-cylinder two-cycle motor located forward. Ignition was of the make and break type and Columbia dry batteries were used. The gas tank was gravity-fed and held two gallons of petrol. The body of the machine was constructed of pine, spruce, and bamboo, reinforced with Shelby steel tubing and piano wires. The wing coverings were of Japanese silk, varnished and fastened to the bamboo struts with white tape. The wings spread out behind the two propellers, and were supported with wires running to a central mast. The entire thing weighed approximately 800 pounds. With Mr. Whitehead aboard the weight was increased to about 965 pounds.

The mile and a half flight, made August 14, 1901, occurred at Lordship Manor, now a suburb of Bridgeport and took place somewhere in the vicinity of the site of the present Sikorsky airplane factory. Junius Harworth, then a young boy assistant of Mr. Whitehead, remembers the flight distinctly and in detail.

Gustave Whitehead was modest about proclaiming his achievements. He sought perfection. When he had flown, this was not sufficient. He must do better. In fact, Gustave Whitehead was never satisfied. Ever since, at an early age, he had constructed his first pair of wings and attempted a secret flight with them, he had been dissatisfied with his own inventions.
The great Lillienthal was his friend and model; successful gliding was at that time his goal. When he could glide, Gustave Whitehead would not be content until a motor drove his glider. A steam motor did it, but it was too heavy to seem practical and it required too heavy a load of fuel to send it far. Gunpowder, ammonia, acetylene, gasoline and even kerosene served his purpose by turns.

And when he had mastered motor construction and had flown again and again, he knew he had not yet reached the desideratum of flight. Airplanes must rise vertically from the ground, declared Gustave Whitehead to his dying day, if they were to become practical and to that end he toiled on through the years.

He was one of the few men who made both his own airplane and motors. So able was he at motor construction that he might have made a small fortune from the manufacture of motors alone, had he been willing to confine himself to this, but an inventor's genius cannot be confined so readily. He constructed revolving motors, motors of two and more cylinders, motors of increasing horsepower and a tester for determining the thrust they would afford.

His tester, crude though it is, remains today as additional evidence of the genius of this remarkable man. Much of his construction was done by his own hands. Occasionally, a wooden pattern would be sent to some shop to be made up into metal. Even his house, in which his widow lives today, was constructed by his own hands with the aid of his then small son.
He was essentially the mechanic type, better able to carry out his ideas in wood and metal than to work them out on paper or with blueprints. So it was that Gustave Whitehead, instead of broadcasting his flight of August 14, 1901, or any of his others previous to that, confined himself to his self-appointed task. While he was striving for perfection in the United States, Santos Dumont, in France, was steadily pushing ahead toward his goal of constructing a petrol-driven airship, or "'blimp" as it would be characterized today.

The afternoon of October 19, 1901, a group of frock-coated, silk-batted, bearded officials importantly appeared at the Pare d'Aerostation at St. Cloud. They represented the French Aero Club. In addition to the officials, a considerable crowd had gathered. They had come to watch Santos Dumont rise into the air, which he did at 2:43 P. M. in his sixth airship, and take-off in the direction of Eiffel Tower.

Santos Dumont's interest in the Eiffel Tower lay in the offer of 100,000 francs that M. Henry Deutsch had offered as the prize for the first petrol-driven airship that rose from the Pare d'Aerostation at St. Cloud and circled the tower, returning to its starting point, all this to be accomplished within the unheard of brief period of not more than a half hour. Santos Dumont won the prize with 29 seconds to spare.

Above England floated a balloon in which rode the Hen. C. S. Rolls, Frank Hedges Butler and Miss Hedges Butler of the United Kngdom, As they floated they thought, and their thoughts resulted in the creation of an Aero Club for their native isle. Promptly it was formed, and from this beginning in 1901 the present Royal Aero Club traces its ancestry.

Throughout that same year, 1901, Captain Ferber, in France, and Octave Chanute, in the United States, were continuing their research with gliders and seeking means of turning them in circular movements in the air. In the fall, at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights were also trying out a glider, a biplane with the enormous wing area of 308 square feet. This was larger than they had used when making their glider flight at Kill Devil Hill, July 27, 1901.
Before winter had come, they could say they had learned one thing that year, namely, that by shifting the position of the body while operating the glider, the pilot could make his machine travel a distance of as much as 300 feet. But they were not greatly encouraged. Said Wilbur, "'Man will never fly in a thousand years." Chanute's encouragement, however, did much to keep the brothers at work with their research during the winter.
It was also the year 1901 that Samuel Pierpont Langley, having made and flown steam-propelled airplane models and thus demonstrated the necessary laws of aerodynamics, remarked, "I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed specifically mine . the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight-and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others."

That winter of 1901-02 was a busy one for Gustave Whitehead. On the afternoon of January 17, 1902, the weather looked promising. It was the day he and his helpers had been seeking, so they quietly took their new avion, No. 22, to the beach outside Bridgeport and started its kerosene motor. The intention was to make some short trial flights, out over the Sound.

Gustave Whitehead took his place at the controls of the machine, the men gave it a preliminary push, and it trundled away on its three wheels and was off! The plane performed so admirably that its owner continued his flight for a distance of two miles over the Sound, following the shore line of the beach, although he had intended to make only short flights of not more than half a mile. The men pulled it ashore, and now Gustave Whitehead proposed to fly across the Sound.

He took off again, and at a height of 200 feet, was steadily progressing out across the Sound and out of the view of his helpers, when it occurred to him that it might be interesting to see if he could make his machine turn about and go back to its starting place. He turned the rudder slowly and drove one propeller faster than the other. With a thrill he realized his scheme was working.

Steadily and rapidly the machine came about until he was facing his starting point. As he neared his rejoicing helpers on the shore, he slowed the speed of the plane and again dropped it gently into the water. It had traveled a distance of approximately seven miles, not across the Sound, but it had made the first turn in the air so far as has been recorded. Thus, on January 17, 1902, Gustave Whitehead carried out the suggestion of Langley that others should demonstrate the practicability of mechanical flight.

That he accomplished this feat, Gustave Whitehead testified himself in a letter to the editor of the "American Inventor," to which the editor gave sufficient credence to publish it. This fact is further substantiated by affidavit of Whitehead's assistant, present upon this occasion. Once more Gustave Whitehead had set out to travel a given distance in the air and had exceeded all expectations.

The machine used upon this occasion was similar to the one used in August of 1901. The thrill of the experience exceeded any within memory except that early one in the Oakland suburb of Pittsburgh in the Spring of 1899, when much cruder, steam-driven model had carried him and his assistant a distance of almost a mile.

Firemen from the nearby No. 24 Engine Company had lent their assistance that time to start the machine, while the assistant fed charcoal to the flame which heated water in the ordinary kitchen boiler which they were using. The firebox had a sheet of asbestos at its base, then a sheet of iron over that, while the walls were made of clay. The engine itself was a two-cylinder one with a 4-inch bore and 10-inch stroke.

No one expected the machine to go far on that eventful day. A distance of a few rods would have been sufficiently convincing in those days. But as they went onward and upward, steered by Gustave Whitehead at the controls in the front, they exceeded the distance originally planned and found themselves headed for a three-story brick house. Afraid to attempt to swerve, there was but one hope, namely that they might clear the top of the house. But they failed. Down fell the machine, all but demolished, while the agonized fireman in the back writhed with the pain of a scalded leg. The glasses for indicating water-level in the boilers had broken, permitting steam to envelop the man.

While all this unusual performance was taking place in Pittsburgh in 1899, two young men were zealously testing glider models in their home in Dayton, Ohio. Orville and Wilbur Wright had not solved to their satisfaction a problem which troubled them, a problem of controlling and balancing winged machines in the air, and their first man-carrying glider was nothing but a dream as yet. In Germany Graf von Zeppelin was busily overseeing the construction of his rigid airship, while in France Santos Dumont was testing petrol-driven airships and Captain Ferber was experimenting with heavier-than-air machines.

Spring went by, then summer and one rainy day in October of that year, 1899, a crowd stood in the rain at Stanford Park, near Market Harborough, in England, to see Percy Pilcher make his first test of a power-driven glider. Percy Pilcher looked at the sky and shook his head. The weather was not to be trusted. But the crowd grew restless. The long wait and the rain were fast convincing them of the soundness of logic they had often repeated, "If man had been intended to fly, God would have given him wings."
Not to disappoint the crowd utterly, Pilcher prepared to make a glider flight in his tried and trusty "Hawk" as he had done many times before. All was ready. Pilcher took his place and the machine was being towed rapidly over the ground when the tow-rope broke. The crowd murmured in disgust. Hastily the rope was repaired and another start was made.
Breathlessly, they saw Pilcher sailing splendidly into the air, up and up to a height of nearly thirty feet--suddenly a guide wire in the tail snapped. The tail collapsed. And before the eyes of the crowd could credit what they saw, down came Pilcher and his "Hawk" in a heap upon the crowd. Two days later Pilcher passed away without regaining consciousness, one of the earliest martyrs to aviation.

Like Gustave Whitehead, Pilcher designed and constructed his own motor and plane. His plane, in which the motor was to be used, had been a triplane, while the plane used by Gustave Whitehead in Pittsburgh the preceding spring had been a monoplane. Gustave Whitehead's flight had been brief too, not over a half-mile--less than 2,640 feet. Yet it was more than four years later that the Kittyhawk flight of 852 feet, lasting only 59 seconds, took place and eventually won the acclaim of the world.
The realization that he had flown was all the mechanic-engineer had over which to rejoice as he lay for weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds. Poor comfort it was without a doubt, but it spurred on the enthusiasm he had shared with his inventor-friend, Gustave Whitehead. They had been taking turns working in a coal mine at Wilcox, Pennsylvania, while in spare time Whitehead repaired guns and did like odd jobs to help earn the extra pennies his experiments required. With a young family to support, money was not too plentiful, but true inventive enthusiasm is not easily downed.

Misinformed by so-called scientists of the day regarding comparative strengths of different metals under steam pressure, these two men had tested out boiler after boiler of different metals. And boiler after boiler had been blown to bits as they tried and tried for the mathematical and scientific exactness they required.

The neighbors had not always shared the enthusiasm of their inventive friends during this stage of their labors, particularly as much of the experimental work had to be done after working hours at night, and many a neighboring window pane went hurtling into the darkness along with the bursting boilers. But the tests resulted in the finding of a boiler that would somewhere nearly meet the requirements of the inventor.

A test model had been made first, then the one that really flew. Today, the model looks a little odd to be adapted to airplane propulsion, but it is apparently as sturdy and ready to demonstrate as the day on which Gustave Whitehead turned it out in his workshop.

When Gustave Whitehead's friend and assistant had recovered sufficiently to leave the hospital, still carrying the scar of his scalding which was to be for life his only medal of honor for the first airplane flight, the two men agreed to go to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they hoped to find more suitable employment in a factory. Together, they traveled to Bridgeport on bicycles and found the desired employment.

Gustave Whitehead sent for his family to join him. Although the employment was better in Bridgeport, spare time for indulging inventive ambitions was even more scarce. Louis Darvarich, the mechanic friend, married and the demands of growing families compelled both men to devote less of their time and funds to the inventions Gustave Whitehead's busy brain could devise.

Often, however, the demands of genius were too strong. Both Mrs. Whitehead and the children found it necessary to seek employment, while in a fever of the certainty of success that would compensate for all privations, Gustave Whitehead devoted time and money without stint to his experiments.

Almost any of the local machine shops were glad enough to employ him when the need for more funds drove him to them, for he was a master mechanic. But he remained only long enough to acquire what his immediate needs demanded and he was gone, back to his beloved inventions.

Men of means, fired with his enthusiasm, came, saw, listened, contributed for a time to his experiments, then grew discouraged and disgusted when his insistence upon perfection caused Gustave Whitehead to destroy one after another of his airships and start anew.

To the promoter it seemed well enough that his invention flew. To a public that could not then vision a flight much beyond a quarter of a mile, such demonstrations would have been convincing enough. But brief flights, running starts, too heavy materials and half-realized dreams were not for Gustave Whitehead. There were quarrels. Charges of unfairness by promoter and inventor were sometimes hurled. But through it all Gustave Whitehead remained steadfast in his search for the perfect airplane.
Young boys and men, mechanically inclined but lacking means, were his most eager assistants. It was nothing for them to linger over their work until early morning hours, absorbed with the same interest that drove their inventor friend, while they gleaned unforgettable lessons in mechanics from him.

Gustave Whitehead did not fly any more after his circle over Long Island Sound that 17th day of January, 1902. The weather was becoming threatening, the day was nearing its close, and in spite of the enthusiasm of his workers, the plane was returned to the Pine Street back yard.
Winter come in earnest. Through its storms the plane rested unprotected in the yard; there was no money to secure a shelter for it, because only a short time before, Whitehead and his financial backer had quarreled. Spring came and the motor had been ruined; the plane itself was not thought trustworthy in view of the ravages of winter. There was nothing for it but to construct another.

In April, 1902, John Whitehead, a brother, arrived from California and volunteered to assist his brother in his construction of airplanes. Neither had sufficient money, however, so both found employment and continued the labors at night as best they could. When there was not sufficient money for airplane construction, gliding could still be accomplished and Gustave Whitehead became a very proficient glider.

A young reporter, name MacNamara, found Gustave Whitehead and "his delightful Weber and Fields dialect" interesting copy. Now editor of the Bridgeport "Times," he tells me he once called upon Whitehead just in time to see a young assistant make a flight in a glider. MacNamara asked to be permitted to do likewise, and his wish was granted. A triplane glider was one of the most interesting of Whitehead's inventions.

In September and October, 1902, the Wright brothers were ready to believe they had pretty well mastered the art of gliding, for during those months they had completed nearly a thousand glides, some of them more than 600 feet in length. A motor for their plane was the next step.

Meanwhile, in Bridgeport, there appeared a picturesque figure. He was Colonel Buffalo Jones, characterized so well by Zane Grey. Buffalo Jones had his own ideas of inventions and he had his ideas concerning who could construct the type of engine he had in mind, to his satisfaction. Gustave Whitehead's genius appealed to him, and as neither knew the probable cost of such work, the figure agreed upon was too small for Gustave Whitehead to realize any profit by the time the work was completed.

He then took up building motors for others for a time, hoping thus to secure funds for his own work. But his profits were small and progress with his own engine was slow. When he had completed his new type engine, for the also newly constructed airplane, although it was a forty horsepower, four cylinder, four-cycle gasoline motor, it was not sufficiently powerful to lift the plane. To determine the thrust required, he tested the plane by attaching it to a Locomobile car and having it towed for a distance. Finding that a motor of sixty horsepower was required, the brothers set to work again.

To make sure of plenty of power to spare, they designed a 200 horsepower, eight-cylinder, four-cycle, V-shaped motor. They were encouraged now, for a new backer from New York had sought them out and, assured of funds, they felt success was within their reach. But the new backer proved their undoing, for he insisted upon testing the new motor in a boat on the Sound, and in his eagerness he advanced the spark too rapidly, the boat capsized and lost the motor.

Again, Gustave Whitehead started construction, but now 1903 had more than half run its course, and Professor Langley, encouraged by the War Department to renewed effort, was busily attempting to launch a large duplicate of his flying models, a duplicate large enough to carry a man from a houseboat on the Potomac. The means of launching was by a catapult. Unfortunately, the catapult failed to operate satisfactorily and the plane caught and was thrown into the water on each of the two attempts Langley made to launch it. The public, always ready to doubt if the Deity actually intended man to fly, could not heap enough abuse upon him.
When December 17th came, there was activity in the Wright Brothers' camp at Kitty Hawk. A few days later came reports of flights, not at first generally accepted, flights the brothers had succeeded in making in a power-driven man-carrying, heavier-than-air flying machine.
The Wright Brothers had much in their favor at all times. They had independent means, they had the encouragement of others working in the same field, they belonged to organizations where their work would find reception and publicity, they spoke English fluently and their background was such that they knew how to use it skillfully to carry their audience with them.

They took out patents promptly and had every means of establishing their claims. And so, to the Wright Brothers, after years of bitter controversy with those who believe in the efficiency of Professor Langley's plane, has been generally conceded the palm of having been the first to fly.
Disheartened and discouraged, Gustave Whitehead had still not lost sight of the fact that an airplane would never be really practical until it could rise vertically from the ground. He had always been in the forefront of those who could foresee what were the needs of practical aviation. He had been early in putting wheels under his planes to Wrights were still using a pylon and derrick arrangement several years after their first accredited flight.
Gustave Whitehead was among the earliest to seek light weight and strength through the use of aluminum and silk. He was one of the few who made both motor and plane for his airplanes. But now he turned to his ideal, a helicopter. One such helicopter was completed but, although his engine lifted it, he saw a more powerful one was needed, so he started construction of another larger helicopter along the same lines and a more effective engine. But once more he and his backers disagreed. The law was with the latter and all his shops and equipment were seized. It was the final blow to a long-suffering genius. Gustave Whitehead never lost his interest in aviation, but he died without completing his helicopter.


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