First in Flight?

March, 2010 by Ray Bendici
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One of the great things about starting this website is that it seems as though I’ve learned more about the unusual aspects of Connecticut in the past year or two than I did in previous 40 or so I’ve lived here. Not only have I discovered lots of new things through writing about damned-type stuff, but I’ve been lucky enough to have lots of people now sending me anything they think might qualify for inclusion here. The good news is that I have lots and lots of things to write about, the only problem is finding time to cover it all properly.

I've also learned a bit about some of the more interesting characters in Connecticut history, including The Old Leather Man, Hanna Cranna and the Jewett City Vampires, to name a few.

Along those lines, I recently came across the story of Gustave Whitehead, with whom some of you history buffs may already be familiar, especially since there’s a significant amount of evidence that he was the first to achieve motorized flight in 1901, two full years before the Wright Brothers took wing at Kitty Hawk, South Carolina.

So why isn't Whitehead's name plastered in all the history books, you ask? Good question.

whitehead

courtesy of gustavewhitehead.org

Here's his official biography.

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Here's the greatly abridged version -- Whitehead (originally Weisskopf) was a German immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1895, and then to Connecticut in 1900. He was a mechanic by trade but an inventor by heart, and spent countless hours, days and weeks pursuing his lifelong dream of flight. (While a boy, he even tried to launch himself off the roof of his house with a pair of wings his grandmother had sewn for him.) He was constantly tinkering with gliders, engines and aircraft prototypes.

On August 14, 1901, Whitehead took an aircraft made of canvas, pine and bamboo he called "No. 21" to Tunxis Hill on the Fairfield-Bridgeport border, and supposedly made a half-mile flight in front of numerous witnesses, followed by three other successful flights that day. His exploits were chronicled in the New York Herald,  Boston Transcript and other publications of the time.

Making modifications from this success, on Jan. 17, 1902 at Lordship Manor -- again, two full years before the Wrights' efforts at Kittyhawk -- Whitehead took to the sky again, this time in "No. 22," a plane that was powered by a kerosene-burning engine. One of his flights, which was purported to be seven (!)  miles, was detailed in Scientific American and Aeronautic World.

Unfortunately for Whitehead, as great as he was at engineering, he was that poor in recording his efforts. He never had any of his flights timed or measured, nor did he ever have any of his planes photographed while in the air. Everything was based on eyewitness accounts, and although there were plenty of objective people who reported his successes, there were even more who scoffed at the idea that a simple mechanic -- especially a German immigrant, no less! -- could have achieved such an amazing feat. Like many inventors, the disorganized Whitehead only thought of his work and had no head for business or self-promotion, so when the better-documented (and more American) Wrights came along, ol' Gustave found himself on the outside of history looking in. (For the record, people were also skeptical of the Wrights at first, but they were able to persevere and eventually gain "official" recognition.)

Sadly for Whitehead, even though his engine designs were widely used at the beginning of the aviation era, he never really profited -- again, his immigrant background and lack of business sense made him an easy target, and he was taken advantage of repeatedly. He died of a heart attack at age 52, broke, and was buried in a pauper's grave. His story only came to light years later, and his work has finally gained some acceptance. In 1874, a museum dedicated to his exploits was opened in his hometown of Leutershausen, Germany.

For more about Whitehead, Wikipedia has a nice overview. To read more about the controversy between him and Wrights, this is a good place to start.

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