Once you're finished reading this - check out the wikipedia entry on GW for another telling of his life story!
Gustave Weisskopf, son of Karl Weisskopf, a carpenter, was born on January 1, 1874 in Leutershausen, Germany. He spent a part of his early youth and school years in Hochst on the Main River. It is said that from his youngest years, Gustave showed an interest in flight - so much so that early schoolmates called him "The Flyer" (likely for his fascination with trapping birds in order to study their flight and building model parachutes and gliders). At the age of 13 Gustave and his brothers Nicholas and John were orphaned and sent to live with their grandparents in Ansbach. It was here that Gustave enlisted the help of his grandmother in sewing glider wings and made his first flight attempt one moonlit night from the roof of his granparents home. Although this first flight was a failure and the wings did not hold up, the young inventor was not discouraged and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of his dream of flight.
At the age of 14, Gustave went to sea with the crew of an Australian ship and then emigrated to Brazil by 1889. From there he wandered back to the coast where he found work as a sailor and spent the next few years at sea. This period allowed him to further his bird observations and hone his mechanical skills, both of which came into use later in airplane construction.
The late 1890s were an inspiring time for young inventors, particularly those interested in powered and non-powered flight. In 1894, Weisskopf returned to Germany, to seek out the Lilienthal brothers. Otto Lilienthal had just published Bird Flight As Basis of Flying and his brother, Gustav, had returned from a five year stay in Australia. There, in the port city, Sydney, Lawrence Hargrave had publicly exhibited his first flying model. During this same year, in the USA, the first glider flight with a registered instrument took place, and the first American aviation club was founded. In England, Mr. Phillips had his vaulted wing profile patented, and from France came the news about M. Ader and his steam airplane.
In these years of passing from theoretical assertions to practical applications of human flight, Whitehead decided to travel to the United States, where he stayed for the rest of his days. In his estimation, the most favourable conditions for his inventors schemes existed there. In 1895, Whitehead immigrated to Boston where he immediately started at work on his problem of flight. For the just founded Boston Aeronautical Society, Whitehead built a percusion wing plane (imitation of a bird's flight) and a glider in Lilienthal's style. Only the latter was capable of flying. Already, in 1897, news of "the personal, artificial flight" of Gustave Whitehead reached Germany by way of newspaper reports. The manufacturer, Horsman, in New York, hired Whitehead as a specialist for hanggliders, aircraft models and motors for flying craft. At this time, Whitehead occupied himself with plans to provide a motor to drive one of his gliders.
At the end of 1897, Whitehead married the German-Hungarian, Louisa Tuba, in Buffalo, New York. At the time of his marriage, he listed his occupation as "Aeronaut". In the public library of the city of Buffalo, he found professional literature about the current developments of aircraft flight developments. With this, there began a period of his life whereby the study of relevant literature broadened and furthered his practical experiments.
Unfortunately, the life of a struggling inventor was often not compatible with the demands of a young family. The first child of the Louisa and Gustave was born in 1898 in Baltimore and within the year the family had moved to Pittsburg to join with friends. During this period he worked in part-time coal mine to make living expenses while continuing to build engines and prototypes and doing mechanical repair jobs for neighbours.
It is also rumoured (though never substantiated with documentation aside from a single affadavit) that in Pittsburg, Whitehead built an aircraft with a steam engine as drive. During the trials, the take off was successful with a "boilerman", as a passenger and a flight of some alititude. The distance traversed by this flight is not known. Altitude and distance were sufficient, in any case, to come to a crash landing on a roof, into the fourth floor of a house in a suburb of Pittsburg. Although Whitehead remained uninjured, his boiler man suffered scalding from the released steam. This steam machine constructed by Whitehead was so ingenious, that several years later, L. Hargrave used miniature designs of steam machines "Weisskopf Style" as well as "Weisskopf System" for his model trials in Australia.
Allegedly chased out of Pittsburg by the police on account of his "dangerous" experiments, Whitehead found employment in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1900 as a mechanic. His new home had space for a small workshop, and the neighbours (and local law enforcement) must have had more understanding for his inventors ways. Scientific American, reported in June, 1901, of Whitehead's motorized flying machine. Two months later, with this motorized "hang glider" - Number 21 - Whitehead completed a flying distance of about 2.5 km at about 10-15 meters altitude. In so doing, he had proof it was possible to start a flight without artificial aids from land and with two motor driven propellers, and to land without damage. Whitehead had recognized, that a successful takeoff requires a definite minimum speed other aviation pioneers were still using catapults for takeoffs.
News of Whitehead's flight spread quickly in the United States of America and Europe. Mr. Moedebeck from Germany, asked his friend, Octave Chanute, unbelievingly about this. Both experts had already waited a long time for an announcement of this sort. They found it hard to believe, that a plain factory worker alone could accomplish powered flight with little outside assistance.
At the end of September, 1901, Whitehead exhibited his successful "No. 21" in Atlantic City. In the certainty that he was on the right track, Weisskopf concentrated his energy towards the improvement of his motors. If he had been business orientated, he could have lived from the manufacture and sale of aircraft motors but unfortunately he had little sense for even the most basic price settings. Although he received orders for motors and prototypes from wealthy businessmen, he often charged so little as to not make a profit, or was driven so much to his own inventions, he left the paying order unfinished. Further compounding his situation, Gustave lacked the means to pay for patent protection on his inventions - and like many inventors had a penchant for sharing his ideas via his open workshop.
Just before the end 1901, Whitehead accomplished the first water landing by a motorized airplane. In the meantime, he had constructed and completed the first diesel motor for aircraft. He installed this diesel motor in his "No. 22" and on January 17, 1902, made a circular flight of about 11 kilometers in length and a height of about 60 meters. Again there were press reports in the United States, France and Germany. For the first time, Whitehead's accomplishment appeared in a German book as a speed record (1903). In October, 1904, Professor John J. Dvorak, Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in St. Louis, announced publicly, that Whitehead was more advanced with the development of aircraft than other persons who were engaged in the work.
One of his financial backers applied with him, in 1905, for a patent on a glider. In 1908, Ch. Wittemann, an American aircraft manufacturer, purchased a Whiteheadf motor. In the following year, Whitehead's motors were exhibited, offered in catalogs and installed in the aircraft of other manufacturers of aircraft. How many of his constructions under the name of benefactor, brought financial gain cannot be ascertained - but it clear that Gustave never did receive the fame nor remuneration for his inventions that he deserved.
In 1911, Whitehead's name came into the press again as he experimented with his own helicopter project which had little success. A customer during this time, who was working on his own helicopter, came to purchase a motor from Gustave during this time. For whatever reason, Gustave could not finish the motor within the time frame demanded by the customer who ended up suing. Of course the suit was lost by Whitehead who had his workshop and all his documents taken from him as a result. This destroyed his ability to earn a living, and curtailed all further activity as an aviation pioneer.
In poor health and blinded for years in one eye from an accident at work, Gustave never did recover from this blow. He never achieved American citizenship and was exposed to suspicion as a "hyphenated-American" for whom president Theodore Roosevelt sympathized.
On October 10, 1927, Gustave Whitehead, at the age of 53, died of a heart attack leaving his family with the self-built home and 8 dollars in cash. He was buried in a pauper's grave. In 1937, Stella Randolph published a first book about the inventor's life and work and went on to publish another book on the same subject in 1966. Another notable researcher and promoter of Whitehead's place in history is William J. O'Dwyer, a reserve officer of the U.S. Airforce, who discovered unknown photos of the airplanes in 1963 and dedicated himself to research on the subject for the rest of his life.
In 1964, Whitehead was posthumously honoured by the State of Connecticut, his chosen home and his grave received a stone. In the spring of 1980, the Gustave Weisskopf Museum in Leutershausen (Germany) opened which now provides the most comprehensive collection of the proof of the accomplishments of Gustave Whitehead as a pioneer of motorized flight. In the 1980s and 90s - replica-versions of Number 21 were flown in both the United States and Germany - proving that planes of the type created by Gustave were capable of flying and most likely did.