Science Art: Gustave Whitehead on the #21, by Dick Howell

Gustave Whitehead was a Bavarian immigrant to Connecticut who in all likelihood made a steam-powered machine fly for more than half a mile in 1899 – not only a longer distance than the Wright Brothers’ flight, but also four years earlier.

Whitehead was a factory worker whose English wasn’t the greatest, and no one had a camera handy for any of his aeronautics experiments. The closest we have is this sketch by Bridgeport Herald sports writer Dick Howell, depicting a flight on August 14, 1901. That’s Whitehead’s #21, a silk-and-bamboo contraption powered like a welding torch by acetylene and compressed air, which was said to have flown more than 800 meters at a height of 15 meters above the ground.

Howell wasn’t the only one to see Whitehead fly. Other eyewitnesses came forward in the 1930s to attest that Whitehead deserved the credit the Wright Brothers were getting:

“I, Junius W. Harworth, residing at Detroit, Michigan do depose and say that I was associated with Gustave Whitehead during his experiments with heavier than air flying machines. On August, fourteenth, Nineteen Hundred and One I was present and assisted on the occasion when Mr. Whitehead succeeded in flying his machine, propelled by a motor, to a height of two-hundred feet off the ground or sea beach at Lordship Manor, Connecticut. The distance flown was approximately one mile and a half and lasted to the best of my knowledge for four minutes.”

When Whitehead couldn’t afford engines, he built gliders, and became known around New England as a glider pilot with a knack for mechanics.

Whitehead died of a heart attack in 1927. He was lifting an engine out of one of an automobile he was repairing, then staggered to his porch and collapsed.

So why would the Wright Brothers get all the credit for flying first? They had apparently had a contract with the Smithsonian Museum:

O’Dwyer also wrote a book, History by Contract, published in 1978. In it, he emphasized that a 1948 “contract” between the Smithsonian Institution and heirs of the Wright brothers unfairly withheld official recognition of Whitehead’s achievements. The existence of the “contract” was not publicly known until 1975.

The Wright-Smithsonian “contract,” which the Institution refers to as an “agreement,” prohibits the Smithsonian from saying that anyone made a manned, powered, controlled airplane flight before the Wright brothers. It reads, in part:

Paragraph 2 (d)
“Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight”.

If the Smithsonian fails to abide by the agreement, Paragraph 4 specifies, “possession of said airplane shall automatically revert to the Vendors”—the Wright heirs, who sold it for a nominal one dollar.

The agreement ended a lengthy and bitter feud between the Wright family and the Smithsonian over credit for the first controlled powered flight.