I talk about things I find interesting. I find a lot of things interesting…

First Powered Flight: Gustave Whitehead

by Ken Arnold on Tue 19 March 2013

Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft (a premier source) has accepted that the first powered heavier-than-air flight was by Gustave Whitehead in 1901. The Wright brothers were filers-come-latelies in 1903.

In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor’s wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated.

(Note the 15-mile drive; the plane’s wings collapsed so it could be driven on the road.)

There has always been controversy about the Wrights’ claims, and with anyone else’s for the title. But the evidence for Whitehead’s 1901 ½-mile flight now seems to be very strong indeed. If you just want an overview you can listen to the NPR story.

But if you really want to know the current claim, you should read the web site of John Brown, the historian who nailed it down.

In short, there has long been a claim for Whitehead’s 1901 flight, but there was little documentation: A local news story with a hand-drawn picture, and a couple of later mentions. What Brown did was go back to the claim with modern research tools, including online searchable archives. He has found 86 contemporary news stories. Some may be republications of others, but not all are. This already shifts the preponderance of evidence considerably.

But the most interesting bit to me is the search for the picture that was said to have been taken. This picture was the source of the published lithograph drawing, and has long been lost. Brown did not find it. But he did find a 1906 picture of a display that was said to have the 1901 picture in it. The picture is from far off, but he goes through a long description of how he has decided which of the pictures is the described one, and how it matches the drawn image, even with several changes. I find that description fascinating.

Fundamentally, the image they have is a survey of the entire 1906 display:


That red box is around a different picture, but of the same size. As you can imagine when you blow this up by a thousand times you don’t get much. Here is the picture in question:


So, what can you tell from this? Not a whole lot, but probably enough.

First, there are pictures of the original plane, and it has also been reconstructed by enthusiasts.


(I might also say that it’s a darn sight more lovely than the Wrights’ plane.) There is also the description of the flight, and knowledge of what newspapers did when they published lithographs of images. To get the fuzzy image to match the lithograph you have to reverse the direction of the plane and simplify the landscape, but that was quite common — it happened to pictures of the Wrights’ plane as well. Plus there is the fact that several contemporaries (including a Scientific American journalist) say that there was such a picture in this exhibit.

In the end, here is what Brown concludes is the likely content of the picture:


The walk through from the start to finish on the picture is entertaining, to see the detective work step-by-step, and learn about news coverage in those days, and so on.

In the end I have to say I’m convinced. I’m no expert, but I can see a case when it’s made. With all the contemporary testimony and the matching of that testimony to other records, I’d be settled. The image is interesting, but only indicative. The news article is more so, even if it is a local paper.

One final interesting point — the gallery of images from that wall is actually in the Smithsonian. They could have a contemporaneous print of the first powered flight. But they won’t let researchers access this collection of images because of their fragile state. However, considering the importance of the picture (if it is there), I would hope they would start up a project to document those pictures with high-resolution images.

The Smithsonian, by the way, has the original Wright plane which they received on condition that they never say that anyone else was first. However, I would doubt (and hope) that this has not actually influenced their current folks to disagree about the change of primacy.

So, now we know. The first powered flight was in 1901. And not just that, there were many powered flights over the next two years before the Wrights’ managed theirs.

The Wrights, however, managed to successfully commercialize the airplane, while Whitehead did not. And therefore they had crucial interests in being known as the first, and a large and wealthy stage from which to promote this view. I’m sure we’ll be getting more on that in the future.

One important point made by Jane’s is that the elegant bird-like wing structure Whitehead used was poorly suited to larger aircraft, unlike the boringly simple Wright structure. So even if Whitehead had been able to commercialize what he’d built, he could not have pushed it farther than small craft without a radical shift. Whatever their primal place in the history of flight might be, the Wright brothers were the first in the line that led to over a century of planes.

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