Gustave Whitehead - a Short History
Early 1901, Gustave Whitehead built his 21st manned aircraft. He called it the “Condor”. That summer – more than two years before the Wright Brothers – he made history's first manned, powered, controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft. A photo and other proof exists. As a result, on March 8, 2013, the world's foremost authority on aviation history, "Jane's All the World's Aircraft", formally recognized Gustave Whitehead's claim (and, on March 22 and April 2, 2013, its editor, Paul Jackson, explained his reasons for doing in more detail).
When the Australian historian, John Brown, was hired to research an aviation documentary for Smithsonian Channel, the last book about Whitehead was more than 20 years old. Since then, publicly-funded Whitehead Research Committees in the USA & Germany had continued their efforts. And over 50 million pages of old newspapers had become accessible for online key-word searches. Furthermore, photographic technologies had entered the computer age. This led to some spectacular findings.
Within the first five days of research, known information about Whitehead more than doubled. This caused Dr. Tom Crouch Ph.D., Chief Historian at the Smithsonian, to write he was “incredibly impressed” and Dipl.-Ing. Univ. Hans-Günter Adelhard, Chairman of the Gustav Weisskopf Research Committee in Germany, that it was “atemberaubend” (breathtaking). The research revealed unknown aircraft, unknown public flight attempts (some, years earlier than previously thought), more than 250 unknown newspaper articles, – many of them front page items – and several other surprizes, including the rediscovery of the long-lost photo of the world's first powered aeroplane flight in 1901.
Whitehead was trained as an
engine-builder by M.A.N.
Gustave Whitehead (born Gustav Weißkopf), son of a bridge-construction engineer, grew up in Germany. At school, he was keenly interested in flight; performed lift-measurement experiments on birds; built models; and jumped off roofs with self-built wings. Orphaned at age 13, he was housed with various relatives before being sent away to a machinist apprenticeship at the Rudolf Diesel Co. in Augsburg. (That manufacturer was later absorbed into M.A.N. Co..) Gustave completed his apprenticeship, becoming a trained engine-builder.
Based on his age and later travels, previous commentators falsely assumed he quit his apprenticeship. However back then, German apprenticeships lasted only two rather than the current three years and started younger. No original source mentions him quitting. His brother merely stated, he transferred from a bookbinder to a machinist apprenticeship.
Sometime between 1888 and 1890 he left his home town, saying he was headed for the USA. But when he reached the coast, he met a German family emigrating to Brazil. He joined them and worked on their plantation near Recife. He then became a sailor working on the Norwegian ship “Gomünd” plying the route between Europe and South America.
Whitehead's first US job was
for Harvard Prof. W. Pickering
Towards the end of 1894, he arrived in Boston, USA. The oldest known photo of him shows him testing kites as an assistant for Harvard University’s Prof. Pickering at Blue Hill Weather Observatory in 1894 (left). There he met James Means, a retired manufacturer, who’d just published a booklet entitled “Manned Flight”. In January 1895, Means announced his intention to found America’s first aviation organization – the Boston Aeronautical Society (which he duly did on March 19, 1895). In the announcement, Means outlined his plans to hire a team of mechanics to build Lilienthal gliders, set up a facility on Cape Cod to perform flight tests and run a flying contest which was to include a “powered flight” category.
According to a written statement by Albert Horn (one of the mechanics hired) it was at the turn of 1894/1895 that Means and A. Merrill hired him and Whitehead to start building Lilienthal gliders. Apparently, Whitehead landed the job by claiming he knew Otto Lilienthal. It was also around this time that Means began corresponding with Otto Lilienthal, an event widely associated with the origins of heavier-than-air aviation in America. (Six drafts of Means’ letters to Lilienthal survive – only the drafts remain because the actual letters sent to Lilienthal were in German. This is acknowledged by Means in annotations he made stating “German translation sent”. And when Lilienthal responded, he wrote to Means in German. However, Means spoke no German.
At the time, Means did have a German-speaking, full-time employee. Gustave Whitehead not only spoke German but also had a good command of German engineering and aeronautical terms (demonstrated in correspondence with Austrian and German aviation journals). Furthermore, Whitehead was building Lilienthal-type gliders for Means. So, when Whitehead often stated he’d corresponded with, been associated with and studied the work of Lilienthal, the circumstances of his Boston employment would appear to substantiate this. His aircraft’s layout and wing structure certainly show Lilienthal’s influence.
Whitehead was Chief Mechanic for
America's first aviation organization
On many occasions, Whitehead also stated he’d been an “assistant” to Otto Lilienthal. It’s unclear, however, when this contact might have taken place. In a multi-year research effort, historian Col. Walter Prüfert† identified a possible time-frame between October 1893 & July 1894. Unfortunately, most of Lilienthal’s records were destroyed, making confirmation difficult. Almost all Lilienthal’s visitors rely on their own statement as proof of their visit.
Whitehead said he went back to Europe again to see Lilienthal after settling in America. In 1895/1896 during his employment for the Boston Aeronautical Society, the experienced seaman, Whitehead, could easily have boarded almost any ship in Boston Harbor for the two week trip to Hamburg or Bremen, offering his services in exchange for free passage. At the time, it certainly wasn’t unusual for people from around the world to travel to join the crowds watching Lilienthal’s public flight performances.
In a letter to Lilienthal dated April 30, 1896 (sent May 30, 1896), Means suggested sending his staff to Germany to learn from Lilienthal. Subsequently, in August 1896, the Society’s co-chief, Samuel Cabot, did, in fact, visit Lilienthal in Berlin. And since it was Whitehead’s job to build Lilienthal gliders, it’s probable Whitehead accompanied Cabot. After all, Whitehead was familiar with sea travel, glider construction and the German language.
Whitehead built two Lilienthal gliders
Regardless of whether Whitehead actually accompanied Cabot, the Berlin visit was an opportunity for the Boston Aeronautical Society to check if Whitehead’s claim to have worked with Lilienthal was true. Cabot and Lilienthal would have certainly spoken about Gustave and his construction effort in Boston. And while Cabot’s later correspondence with Octave Chanute (President of the US Engineers' Association) often referred to Gustave’s work, it never doubted his association with Lilienthal.
On balance, Whitehead’s claim to have assisted
Lilienthal would therefore also appear to be credible.
Whitehead built two Lilienthal-type flying machines for the Boston Aeronautical Society. The first was a biplane-glider with added ornithopter (flapping) wings of the type Lilienthal himself was planning to build before he died, (i.e., the flapping wings were Lilienthal’s idea, not Whitehead’s). Lilienthal referred to his plans for an ornithopter in his 14-page article in “Aeronautical Annual 1896” where he wrote: “On the one side I  experiment  with immovable wings . On the other hand, I try to attain dynamic flight by means of flapping wings, which are introduced as a simple addition.“). A photo shows Whitehead strapped to that glider (below, left). It didn’t fly.
Octave Chanute helped finance
Whitehead’s glider construction
The other plane he built was an 1895/1896-model Lilienthal monoplane glider which, according to Horn, did fly for short distances. Horn stated, Whitehead would have made longer flights if he’d been lighter. Cabot agreed.
Octave Chanute, President of the American Engineers' Association and America’s aviation commentator during that period, helped finance the glider to the tune of $50. However, it’s claimed there’s no historical trace of what happened to that glider. This would appear strange since it was the declared purpose of the Boston Aeronautical Society to publish such activities. What happened to it?
Otto Lilienthal sold only one glider to the USA (to William Hearst) and only two sets of original plans to engineers in New York (presumably Augustus Herring) and Boston (presumably S. Cabot). At around the same time, a member of the Boston Aeronautical Society, Charles M. Lamson, had a Lilienthal glider built for him based on original plans. Descriptions of how Whitehead’s Lilienthal glider and Lamson’s Lilienthal glider flew are almost identical. And the instructions accompanying Cabot’s set of plans in Boston were all written in German. However, Lamson spoke no German.
Whitehead may be the constructor of the so-called „Lamson-Glider", which would be notable inasmuch as a photo of it adorns the cover of Tom Crouch’s book, „A Dream of Wings“, one of the best-known histories of American aviation.
One of the best references for the quality of Whitehead’s work was Samuel Cabot. Cabot initially described Whitehead unfavorably but later changed his opinion, expressing regret when Gustave left in 1897 and hoping Gustave could be hired again in the future.
One of the participants in kite flying events at Blue Hill was Edward I. Horsman. Horsman was a professional kite-flyer and well-connected businessman who’d been named by an Act of Congress as an organizer of the 1892 World Fair in New York. Horsman headhunted Whitehead away from the Aeronautical Society to become a member of his “Scientific Kite Team”. The team performed meteorological measurements, aerial photography and public kite & firework displays for New York and other cities. The displays included regular events at Coney Island as well as on Independence Day, Flag Day and at the welcoming of ships into New York and other Harbors, including, for example, the return of US Admiral Dewey after a successful military campaign. Horsman’s team experimented with the lifting-power of kites. Indeed, the earliest known newspaper article mentioning “Gus” Whitehead is an interview with him on the roof of The Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York on Flag Day in June, 1897. At the time, he was operating bright red Horsman box kites and measuring their lift as having attained as much as 100 pounds.
(On later occasions, the Scientific Kite Team performed experiments with kites lifting both sandbags and humans and announced plans to add rudders and a motor. Horsman was a member of the US aeronautical community and even exhibited his kites 10 years later next to Whitehead and the Wright Bros. at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in New York in 1906. Experiments with man-carrying kites were an important part of aviation’s development. The Wright Bros. began with kite experiments four years later in 1901 and referred to them as their “Scientific Kite Flying”.)
Whitehead had been hired by Horsman to build a Lilienthal-type, man-carrying kite and add a small, 3 hp gasoline motor with a propeller. However, problems with delivery of the motor ended up in court and may have led to the end of their employment relationship. (In 1897, Horsman also began marketing a keeled box kite called the “Airship”. Horsman obtained a license for that kite's design from one of Whitehead’s former bosses at Blue Hill and its patent owner, Henry Clayton.)
While employed by Horsman, Whitehead continued to test his own manned aircraft. Two are known. The first is referred to in a letter by Samuel Cabot to Chanute dated May 7, 1897 in which Cabot inquires whether Chanute knows of Whitehead’s aircraft “out west” (presumably, in New York – west of Boston). The other, called “Condor Gus”, was successfully tested by Whitehead during the summer of 1897 at Blue Hill and reported internationally.
Whitehead did public flight
displays 1897 in New York
On October 4, 1897, Whitehead invited reporters from at least six New York newspapers to an unveiling of his two new aircraft in the courtyard of his residence on Prince Street. One was a bright red tri-plane, box kite glider. The other was a partly-finished biplane with retractable wings (according to him, his 42nd aircraft). Ensuing articles contained drawings of these two aircraft and described their planned motorization with a 3 hp gasoline motor. On October 6, 1897, Whitehead made two public flight attempts at Jersey City Heights witnessed by hundreds of spectators. The attempts were reported as far away as Pittsburgh. One of the spectators was “a young man” who told reporters he’d “witnessed flights by both Chanute and Lilienthal”. (The only person who fits this description was the New Yorker and aviation pioneer, Augustus Herring.)
After the demonstration, Whitehead put his machine in storage and moved to Buffalo. Six weeks later, on November 24, 1897, he married. When the clerk asked his profession, he replied “aeronaut”. [Some commentators alleged, this is evidence of Whitehead’s tendency to fantasize or self-aggrandize. But research makes it clear, Whitehead would have lied if he’d said anything else.] At that moment he was probably the only person in the world who could honestly state he’d been steadily employed for the past three years building heavier-than-air aircraft.
Whitehead’s qualifications were impressive. He’d been formally trained at Diesel/M.A.N. to build engines; had spent at least four years at sea handling and maintaining sails, rigging, motors and propellers; had worked for Harvard’s Prof. Pickering testing kites at Blue Hill; almost certainly translated Lilienthal’s works into English (and probably assisted Lilienthal too); built two Lilienthal-type gliders; and had been Chief Engineer of America’s first aviation organization. He’d then worked for New York’s Scientific Kite Team designing, building and testing a powered, manned kite, all the while building and testing his own flying machines and demonstrating them publicly.
Records at the Buffalo Library show Whitehead spent his time there studying aviation literature including that of Count d’Esterno, whose 1864 aircraft patent bears great similarity to Whitehead’s 1901 aircraft. (Not only the configuration but also the number of ribs is identical.)
Whitehead’s handwritten notes made in Buffalo show that the propeller he selected for his future aircraft was the “Type J” developed by the British aviation pioneer, Hiram Maxim. This wasn’t a simple “air-screw” but a more modern design where the blades were airfoils and their pitch was optimized at varying angles along their length.
In Buffalo, Whitehead also settled on his wings’ future airfoil. He chose one with its arc peaking near the leading edge designed by the British pioneer Philipps rather than with a symmetrical arc of the type favored by Lilienthal. (His methodology was similar to that of the Wright Bros., who – some four years later – also discarded the symmetrical Lilienthal airfoil and also addressed modern propeller design.) Whitehead went even one step further by filling out the concave area under the wing as is now done on modern airfoils (below).
Hargrave and Arnot/(Herring)
used Whitehead motors
Just three weeks after his wedding, Whitehead apparently spoke to a skeptical journalist about his plans to finish his new aircraft and fly it soon in Pittsburgh. However, Whitehead moved first to Baltimore where he introduced a new, wheeled version of his aircraft to the press.
The images and descriptions of Whitehead’s October 1897 (New York) and March 1898 (Baltimore) aircraft provide a snapshot of Whitehead’s progress in aircraft design. Firstly, the triplane configuration is reminiscent of Hargraves' Box Kites which completely replaced the diamond-shaped, so-called “Malay” kites during his 1894 tenure at Blue Hill. Secondly, Gustave was still using a symmetrical airfoil (as in the two Lilienthal-type gliders he’d built for the Boston Aeronautical Society 1895-97). Thirdly, his aircraft had a stabilizing, cruciform tail. This was to become a key feature in the enablement of controlled flight. Existing literature often attributes this invention to others, notably to the young man who’d been watching Gustave’s public flight displays in New York, Augustus Herring.
It’s claimed, Herring’s triplane glider was built in October 1896, however it wasn’t disclosed until 1898, i.e. after Gustave’s public displays. Furthermore, it wasn’t until late March of 1898 that Herring, together with Octave Chanute, sent plans for an almost identical, wheeled version to be patented by a middleman in London. Those drawings included an added motor (as Gustave had announced to the press some six months previously). What’s more, construction of the Herring-Chanute Glider was farmed out to Charles Lamson and financed by the Banker, Matthias C. Arnot, for whom Whitehead provably built motors. However, the exact nature of affiliations between Herring, Arnot, Lamson and Whitehead is still unknown.
From Baltimore, Whitehead moved to Pittsburgh. There, according to a stack of affidavits, he fulfilled his prediction and flew a steam-powered monoplane in the spring of 1899, ending in a firey crash. Despite this, the lightweight steam engine he’d used impressed other designers. In Australia, Lawrence Hargrave’s 29th engine was a “Whitehead”, built according to Gustave’s plans. He displayed it on July 1, 1901 to the Royal Society of New South Wales. It’s unclear how Hargrave got those plans, although, since he was a member of the Boston Aeronautical Society, it could have been from one of the other members like Alexander G. Bell, who visited him in Sydney, James Means, who published Hargrave’s work alongside Lilienthal’s in his 1896 “Aeronautical Annual” or Octave Chanute, William Eddy and Albert Zahm, with whom Hargrave corresponded. [The record dates Whitehead's Pittsburgh flight to "April or May 1899". Other inventors who lived just across the border from Pittsburgh in Ohio wrote to the Smithsonian Institute on May 30, 1899, thereby commencing their own investigation of flight - Wilbur and Orville Wright.]
By the end of 1899, Whitehead, accompanied by a friend, Louis Darvarich, left Pittsburgh and headed for
Boston. Along the way, in December 1899, Whitehead spoke to a journalist in Scranton about his plans to commercialize the plane he’d just flown
Perhaps because Whitehead had previously received a job offer from a kite manufacturer in Bridgeport and because Louis Darvarich had friends there, they headed there instead. While changing trains in New York, Gustave showed Louis the plane he’d built two years previously at its storage location in Spring Street. Finally, in December 1899, the press reported Gustave’s arrival in Bridgeport and that he was already testing new aircraft, a single-engine plane with only one, 2-cylinder engine decribed by one witness.
Press coverage of Whitehead resumed in June the following year. Newspapers from Washington to Vermont and as far away as Minnesota reported his flight-test of an acetylene-powered, monoplane with sandbags in the cockpit (his 57th aircraft in total and his 20th manned aircraft, he said). The test took place at a site some 15 miles from Bridgeport near the village of Fairfield. Two months later, on August 14, 1901, he invited the press to witness his first, successful, manned, powered flight.
Whitehead's aircraft was "roadable". It's wings could be folded and it had wheelpower for driving on roads. Leaving Bridgeport shortly after midnight, he, his helpers and the press drove the aircraft under its own power 15 miles to the same Fairfield site as the previous tests. They arrived at first light (4:32am according to current US Navy tables). After rigging the machine, Whitehead took off at dawn (5:02am), flying first half a mile, then on his second flight, a mile and a half at a height of 50 feet, making a shallow turn along the way to avoid a clump of chestnut trees. (The arrival and takeoff times are listed here because some commentators have stated the flights took place at night – something erroneously reported by one reporter which Whitehead himself later made fun of.)
At least 86 newspapers reported
Whitehead’s 1901/1902 flights
So far, using only non-pay research resources eighty-six newspaper reports of Whitehead’s 1901/1902 flights have been found, many of them front-page news. The reports came from as far away as Australia and Austria. One of the articles was even written by the builder of Santos Dumont’s airships. [The reason all these are shown on this site is because Orville Wright’s main argument in his attempt to discredit what he called “The Whitehead Legend” (August 1945, “US Air Services”, p.9) was his claim Whitehead’s flight was only reported on a back page of a local newspaper. Wright also questioned why that paper had waited four days before reporting the story, oblivious to the fact that it was a weekly newspaper which reported the flight in a special section of its very next edition. Orville cited these points as “evidence” no-one took the report seriously. (In his criticism, Orville neglected to mention that the first, sanctioned report about his own 1903 flight was published in a fortnightly beekeeper’s journal decorated with drawings of flowers and that it had been rejected for publication by “Scientific American” because it was “too far-fetched”.)]
The weekly newspaper, Bridgeport Herald, whose Chief Editor was present, reported Whitehead’s flight on August 18, 1901. The article included an etching (lithograph) based on a photo he’d taken (above). [The following paragraphs briefly summarize the search for the photograph. For a more detailed account, click here.]
For a brief video summary of the photo analysis (German TV), click here.
Due to both the technical difficulty of photographing a fast-moving airplane at dawn and the cost of half-toning, a published photo would have been unusual in 1901. (Even modern cameras would have trouble getting a clear picture of a fast-moving object at dawn. (Dawn is favored for test flights because that’s generally when the wind is weakest.)
The photo Howell took was blurred. However, even if it had been in focus, a lithograph would have normally been used. Even major newspapers like the New York Herald chose to have a lithograph drawn rather than use a photograph due to the prohibitive expense of typesetting (see example of Vuia’s aircaft, some six years later, below).
Just like photos are retouched,
lithographers optimized images
In much the same way, the first illustrated reports of the Wright brothers 1903 powered flight also showed lithographs of them and their 1902 glider rather than photographs (below) – note how the lithographer altered the background.
To illustrate an even earlier report just three days after the Wrights’ Kitty Hawk experiments, the
lithographer not only changed the background but also reversed
the flight trajectory:
The original photo of Whitehead’s first motorized flight has since been lost. The newspaper which used it to prepare the lithograph no longer exists. And Whitehead’s own copy was destroyed in a fire when his workshop burnt down. The Bridgeport Standard (a different newspaper than the Herald) reported it having been displayed in a Bridgeport shop window in 1904 and described it as showing the aircraft at a height of 20 feet. The last time it was seen in public was in January 1906 in New York at the first ever exhibition by the Aero Club of America. All attempts to find it since then have failed leading many to “dismiss the case with prejudice”. However, such a view confuses two separate issues.
The issue here is not historical expertise in applying what were then cumbersome and expensive techniques in photographing fast-moving objects in low-light conditions (i.e. tripod, black cloth cover and glass-plates negatives). The issue is first flight. There’s no “Historian’s Manual” mandating events must be documented by photos. If this were the case, most known history would be “invalid”. Historians – like anyone else – are required to handle evidence in a prescribed manner, i.e. as courts do.
There are established standards of evidence used by courts to establish facts. For example, a murder is almost never caught on film. If two credible, independent witnesses testify they saw it, a conviction is assured. This standard is called “clear and convincing evidence”. If there are no witnesses, circumstantial evidence is used, (i.e. motive/opportunity/instrument). Depending on the “weight” of the evidence, this can lead to conclusions based on lower standards such as “beyond a shadow of a doubt”, “preponderance of the evidence”, etc.. However, when it comes to Whitehead, some Wright-Fans have suggested the standard be a “moving target”. On their website they write:
”Even if someone someday produces a photo of No. 21 in flight on August 14, 1901, it will be nothing more than a footnote, a curious anomaly in the history of aviation.”
In a sense, they’re right. The same is true of all early aviation concepts. The Wrights’ own biplane/canard/pusher-prop/catapult concept became a historical footnote very quickly. Indeed, biplanes now fall into the “jalopy” category. But such a view misses the point. The point of history is to document the chronology of development, not just the commercial successes.
Luckily, this site's author found the lost photo.
In its January 27, 1906 edition, p.94, "Scientific American" published an eyewitness report of the first exhibition of the recently-founded Aero Club of America, held January 13-20, 1906 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The article states:
”…the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead… in flight…. A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air… constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only [ ] photograph … of a motor driven aeroplane in successful flight."
"Scientific American" is a very credible source. Tom Crouch Ph.D., Chief Historian at the Smithsonian Institute, once wrote in a September 28, 1982, letter to publisher, Leo Opdyke:
“The editors of "Scientific American" were honest men.They would not lie to their readers. [ ] In short, these were trained, professional, technical journalists who were in the best possible position to judge Whitehead’s work [ ]. They were far better able to evaluate the validity of Whitehead’s case than anyone alive today.”
Some critics allege the "Scientific American" article was written by Whitehead’s business partner, Stanley Yale Beach. Although this allegation remains unproven, they insist the article must be ignored. However, mid 2012, the author of this website discovered another article in the “Silver Springs Signal”, dated March 8, 1906. It too reports there being a photo of a motor-powered, 1901 Whitehead monoplane in flight on the wall at the exhibition. That’s when this author decided to take a closer look.
The lost photo was discovered
in the background display
A panorama photo of the exhibition was known to exist. It was discovered by Tom Crouch, probably in the Hammer Collection. In his 1981 book, “A Dream of Wings”, p.170, Tom used the photo to show Hearst’s Lilienthal glider hanging from the roof of the exhibition. But, what it also showed were photos hanging on the wall in the background.
Using 1981 technology, researchers quickly identified one very blurred Whitehead photo in the background. An enlargement was requested and duly received. On it, someone had helpfully penned a circle around the supposed Whitehead photos, drawing attention away from the surrounding ones.
The enlargement enabled identification of two more photos, both showing Whitehead’s plane on the ground. However, the photo at top right showing an airborne object remained too blurred. The next 30 years were spent wondering what it might show.
Mid 2012, this author of this website was rummaging through the 400-year-old, cobweb-strewn attic of the Gustave Whitehead Museum in Germany. It could only be reached via a circular staircase in a stone tower at the side of the building. There, he came across an illustrated 1906 report by a German magazine about the same exhibition with better quality photos.
Forensic technology has come a long way since 1981. Computers were in their infancy then. Nowadays, satellite cameras can read pages in books 300kms below. And police investigators regularly solve crimes using software to analyze shadow-patterns and the varying contrasts on blurred surveillance camera images.
Applying modern technologies, the first task was to confirm the identification of the framed photos within the encirclement (below):
The mysterious one at top right was then identified by varying the contrast and grading the intensity of the shadows (below):
What Whitehead-fans had spent 30 years hoping was the “blurred photograph of a large, birdlike [ ] motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight” turned out to be a well-focused photo of a known, 1903 Whitehead glider. It had been taken at the same location as the 1901 flight in a field bordered by chestnut trees near the village of Fairfield.
Attention was then switched to the photo at top left which lay outside the circle. The task was to find the original, blurred photo upon which the Lithograph accompanying the August 18, 1901 article had been based. Its distinguishing features were a white-winged monoplane flying about 50 feet off the ground over fields near Fairfield with clumps of trees, a takeoff-slope and a dim, dawn sky in the background, a tree on the right and a fencepost at bottom right. Here it is:
The primary correlating feature is the line and position of the horizon in relation to the fencepost. Both are clearly identifiable in an otherwise blurred picture. Additionally, both the height of the white monoplane and the angle from which it’s viewed are strong correlating factors. The mathematical probability of coincidentally finding all these factors together in another photo is close to zero. And yet, there are differences.
- - The lithographer appears to have reduced the size of the trees to free up the
background behind the plane (other photos taken at the same location near Fairfield
show a similar tree-line – see previous glider-photo.)
- - The lithographer also appears to have reversed the direction of the flight so that the
aircraft flies away from the edge of the page (thereby improving the composition but
putting the plane on a collision course with the tree near the fence).
- - Furthermore, the low, morning sun may be reflecting off one of the propeller blades or wing-protrusion.
The original trajectory probably looked more like this:
The lost photo (& lithograph):
In addition to a comparison of the blurred original with the available lithograph, an analysis of the context provides further corroboration:
- It’s definitely a photo shown at an aircraft exhibition surrounded by photos of aircraft, making it unlikely it depicts anything else but an aircraft;
- It’s definitely in the „Whitehead“ section;
- The other photos in that section have been identified, however the missing photo described as showing a blurred, white, powered, monoplane, hasn’t.
- It definitely shows a blurred photograph (deduced by comparison to the other photos);
- Its contents conform to the 1904 newspaper description („20 feet high”).;
- It was found exactly where two 1906 press reports said it was;
- It fits the description “blurred, birdlike machine in flight” of those two 1906 reports;
- It appears to be a monoplane (i.e. not a biplane). Except for 2 photos of an early Lilienthal glider, no other monoplanes were on display at that show;
- Assuming the upward protrusion is a mast and the width of the mast's blurring is then subtracted from the whole object, a shape consistent with the outlines and proportions of Whitehead's 1901 monoplane remains;
- If it doesn’t show a horizon, a row of trees and a low-flying, white monoplane, what else could it show in the Whitehead section at an aircraft exhibition?
[The detailed analysis lists several further points.]
German TV shows a brief analysis with higher-quality images here.
Using known images, the original scene may have looked something like this:
For a more detailed analysis of the photo and its circumstances, click here.
Whitehead’s plane had 3-axis steering
After the August 14 1901 flight, Whitehead continued to make short flights over the next five months. He then developed a more powerful, diesel engine, calling his new plane “No. 22” and performing even longer flights, one including a full circle. (Flying a 360° circle was the accepted standard for proving an aircraft was controlable in early aviation.) The circular flight was made over the shallows between Charles Island and Bridgeport on Jan. 17, 1902. (Making flights over water was a safety precaution used by the aviation pioneers, Kress (Austria) and Blériot (France). Others, like Herring, Chanute and the Wrights (USA), used sand dunes to cushion any mishaps.)
Affidavits and statements by 17 people, some of them recorded on audio and video, bear witness to the many powered flights made by Whitehead between August 1901 and January 1902. Parts of the original aircraft, one motor and a large number of photographs still exist. Replicas based on the original flew successfully in 1986 (in the USA) and 1998 (in Germany). And extensive statements by Whitehead himself survive, illustrating his advanced thinking compared to his contemporaries.
As a result, in 1968, the Government of the State of Connecticut declared Whitehead the “Father of Flight”. On September 14, 1983, the State Dept.’s Information Service made the following press release: „On August 14 1901 a German-American succeeded in the first motorized flight in the history of aviation. [ ] Though Whitehead’s flight happened two years before [ ] the Wright brothers, [ ] it is Whitehead who is the legitimate father of modern aviation.”
Whitehead‘s airplane „No. 22“ embodied several improvements over the previous „No. 21“. In addition to the 40 hp diesel engine and silk-covered wings, according to a 1934 affidavit by Whitehead’s brother, John, it also had roll-control via wing-warping employing cables attached to the wing-tips.
Statements by family members have low evidentiary weight. Until now, historians have generally rejected this statement and attributed it to sour grapes. After all, the central feature of the Wright Bros.' patent was wing-warping. However, proof the No. 22 really did have wing-warping has now been found in a description of Whitehead’s aircraft appearing in the December 1902 issue of "Aeronautical World": “The set or angle of the aeroplanes will be altered and controlled by levers which will regulate the force of compressed air which actuates them in order to deflect the aeroplanes so as to incline or steer a circular course without shifting the position of the ballast or aeronaut.”
Another improvement the No. 22 had was a rudder for yaw-axis control. Whitehead himself described it on many occasions. This innovation was partly employed because the No. 22 was designed to land on water where a rudder is normal. Smithsonian Director, Paul Garber, was kind enough to draw in the rudder in a diagram he himself sketched while interviewing Whitehead’s assistant, Tony Pruckner, in 1966:
Together with the large, vertical elevator, Whitehead’s No. 22 therefore had three-axis steering. (Such steering was invented by the Frenchman, Goupil. But it’s also claimed by the Wright Bros. citing domestic US patent law which at the time required an invention to be proved by live demonstration.) Three-axis steering was one of the most important developments leading to the invention of the aircraft.
Following the success of the No. 22, Whitehead planned a No. 23. Blueprints dated early 1902 show he originally intended to use a canard elevator. It’s not known why he decided against a canard (as later used by the Wrights), but instead chose to use an empennage only. Knowing his reasoning would be helpful to aviation historians. That’s because his monoplane, empennage, tractor propeller, wheeled-landing-gear configuration was about 25 years ahead of its time. Today, almost all aircraft bear these features. (The plans shown above are the only Whitehead plans which have survived. However, it’s known Whitehead made precise plans of all his aircraft and motors.)
The previous aircraft, No. 21, also employed several features of technical interest. Firstly, the smaller of its two motors had 10 hp and provided power to the wheels for takeoff. Upon rotation, its link to the wheels was shut off and its power was added to the other, 20 hp motor which drove the propellers so that a total of 30hp was available for flight. The No. 21’s acetylene engine was like a steam engine inasmuch as it didn‘t have internal but rather external combustion. (Here’s where the difference between the terms “engine” and “motor” is important.) Compressed air was created by the engine outside the motor’s cylinder and only then ducted into the cylinder. This way, the pressure created by the lower engine could be redirected via a steam hose to the upper engine by simply pushing a lever. Secondly, using the same lever, the fabric surface of the wings could be stretched tight. This procedure is similar to what modern kite-surfers and paragliders do when they keep their wing devices in a safe, low-lift mode for preparation then suddenly tighten them for launch. This explains why reports of Whitehead’s flights referred to his machines “shooting into the air”.
After the widespread press coverage Whitehead received following his unmanned test flights in May 1901 and after becoming a media star subsequent to his manned flights in August 1901, Whitehead was besieged by opportunists, hoping to cash in on his invention.
Prof. Langley sent spies
The first was a convicted fraudster named H.S. Le Cato from Philadelphia who, after first taking a ride in the aircraft, offered Whitehead a six-month contract to display it at Atlantic City. Two weeks later, it was loaded onto a railcar and shipped there. While at Atlantic City, the Smithsonian Institute sent two spies, Traylor (a clerk, below center) & Hodge (an ethnologist, below left), to examine the aircraft. Written instructions were issued by the Director, Pof. Langley’s assistant, Charles Manly (below, right) asking that measurements of Whitehead’s machine be made surreptitiously.
The Wrights deny coming
The Wright brothers were among the next visitors. After receiving a July 1, 1901 letter from Octave Chanute recommending a 10 hp, 30 lb. Whitehead motor (which Whitehead was building for M.C.Arnot and for Prof. C.E.Meyers), Wilbur replied on July 4, 1901 as follows: “The 10-horsepower motor you refer to is certainly a wonder if it weighs only thirty lbs. with supplies for two hours, as the gasoline alone for such an engine would weigh some ten or twelve lbs. thus leaving only 18 or 20 lbs. for the motor or about two lbs. per horsepower. Even if the inventor miscalculates by five hundred percent it still would be an extremely fine motor for aerial purposes”. At the time, the Wrights were actively looking for a motor. They invariably followed Chanute’s advice (as they’d done previously by hiring Herring, Spratt and Huffaker). Three witnesses attested to their visit under oath*. Yet, the Wrights denied visiting Whitehead or even Bridgeport before 1909.
Circumstantial factors appear to support their visit. The Wrights had a good friend in Bridgeport. He was the submarine inventor, Simon Lake, with whom they discussed their glider and their patent options before their claimed 1903 flight. And prior to 1902, the Wrights were in almost constant contact with known aviation pioneers such as Means, Cabot, Chanute and Herring. It’s hard to believe the only one they ignored was Whitehead, especially since his experiments had been so widely reported in "Scientific American", Prof. Langley was spying on him, Chanute was recommending him and he was producing motors for their competitors, Herring/Arnot.
For aviation experts, perhaps the most important discovery about Whitehead may not be the additional evidence of his first flight. In Dec. 1902, Whitehead published a precise description of the wing-warping mechanism on his aircraft in "Aeronautical World". That was almost 4 months before the Wright brothers applied for their patent (on March 23, 1903). The significance of this is that the Wrights' whole claim to preeminence rests on their claim to have both discovered and practically applied a wing-warping system first. (Contrary to popular belief, in their court proceedings, the Wrights freely admitted they weren't the first to have invented a powered aircraft.) Undeniably, Whitehead was the first to publish and practically apply a system of wing warping. [Interestingly, the Smithsonian has not yet responded to this fact at all.]
Chanute’s mid-1901 letter to the Wrights offers yet another snapshot of Whitehead’s status in the aeronautical community. Long before his famed August 1901 fight, he was not only providing motor plans to Hargrave in Australia, but building Motors for Arnot/Herring’s aircraft, Meyers’ airships and possibly for many other efforts too.
When Le Cato’s promised contract in Atlantic City didn’t materialize, Whitehead returned to Bridgeport where the Texan, William D. Custead was waiting for him.
Custead promised to invest $100,000 but soon left when Whitehead refused to divulge the secret ingredient in his acetylene motor’s fuel. However, Custead did buy a motor from Whitehead and became one of the first dealers for Whitehead motors.
Whitehead’s most fateful visitor was Herman Linde, a German immigrant who made his living as a Shakespearean actor. Needless to say, things didn’t add up. Linde agreed to finance Whitehead’s project and built a new workshop. Encouraged, Whitehead himself took out a $1,700 loan and wrote to his family in Germany that he was now the owner of an aircraft factory. However, secretly, Linde planned to take over the venture and started colluding with workers. Mid-January 1902, right when Whitehead was short of cash, Linde withdrew support and announced the formation of his own aviation company, refusing to pay any more bills. Linde was later convicted of multiple criminal offences and admitted to an insane asylum. But that came too late for Whitehead. He was now broke. Four to six unfinished aircraft remained in Linde’s workshop to which Whitehead no longer had access.
In January 1902, the No. 22’s motor was damaged in a hard landing. It was then left outdoors for the rest of the winter for lack of a place to store it, becoming unserviceable as a result. In April, Whitehead’s brother, John, arrived and contributed some of his savings. But it wasn’t enough. Soon, John left. It was then that Whitehead made the decision to no longer build his own airplanes. Clearly, no-one was willing to actually pay for them. From then on, he would only build them for others – cash in advance.
Instead, he concentrated on selling motors. These were immediately in high demand, especially among airship and flying machine builders. Having thus secured his livelihood, he sprent the few years (until 1905) building a house for himself, his wife and his nearly four year old daughter, Rose.
This decision led to Whitehead becoming a central figure in the early years of US aviation. He quickly made a name for himself as an aviation supplier. As early as 1902 the “Automobile Trade Magazine” reported that customers could order lightweight kerosene, gasoline, acetylene, steam and gunpowder motors along with dirigables and airplanes from Gustave Whitehead in Connecticut.
Whitehead became a major
motor & airframe supplier
At the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Whitehead exhibited one of his motors. The winning dirigible at the flying machine contest held there was Thomas Baldwin’s “California Arrow”, flown by Roy Knabenshue. It, too, was equipped with a Whitehead motor – at least that’s what a qualified aviation journalist wrote after examining it. American historians later claimed it was a Curtiss motorcycle engine, which isn’t necessarily a contradiction. Indeed, two sources report Whitehead built aircraft motors for Curtiss, which may explain why many early Curtiss and Whitehead motors looked so similar. And when the Curtiss-Herring Co. went bankrupt, Whitehead's motor distributor, George Lawrence, was one of the listed creditors owed money by the venture. (Knabenshue went on to make one of the first dirigible flights over New York and become chief pilot of the Wright Exhibition Team. Baldwin became Vice President of the Aero Club of America. And in 1908 Baldwin’s airship and the Wright Flyer won the US Army’s Contest to select a military flying machine.)
Yet another Whitehead motor was present in St. Louis. It powered Prof. Carl E. Meyers’ Sky Cycle. Meyers was the balloon supplier for the US Weather Service and the US Army Signal Corps. The Sky Cycle had been patented in 1897 and sold successfully – as the name suggests – as a pedal-powered airship. Just four days after the July 1901 Chanute-Wright correspondence, a New York newspaper reported that the 30 lb./10 hp motor the Wrights were interested in was to be installed in the Sky Cycle so it could compete in St. Louis. At the contest, the local press reported on the motor’s use. The Sky Cycle went on to become one of the first commercially successful aircraft ever. For many years, Meyers sold it via classified ads appearing in technical magazines across the USA, offering single, twin, three and four cylinder, powered versions.
The world record balloonist, H.E. Honeywell, also ordered two Whitehead motors. In 1904, the physics professor, John J. Dvorak, examined Whitehead’s work and in a front-page newspaper article publicly declared Whitehead to be ahead of all other aviation pioneers. He, too, hired Whitehead to build a motor. In summer, 1905, Whitehead installed an 18-20hp motor in the "Flying Machine" of Israel Ludlow. Ludlow's pilot was Charles K. Hamilton from Connecticut. In 1906, Hamilton moved on and later became a Curtiss Show Pilot. He was replaced by J.C. ("Bud") Mars who later also joined the Curtiss Team. Edward M. (Colonel) House, who was living in New York at the time and later became US President Wilson’s special envoy for foreign affairs, was a Whitehead customer. Another Whitehead motor customer was Wipple S. Hall of Fresno, California.
1906 was a year in which Whitehead’s prominent position in the American aeronautical community was clearly apparent. A detailed analysis of panorama photos taken at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in January 1906 revealed not only the long lost photo of Whitehead’s No. 21 in powered flight but also proof of Whitehead’s status among his aeronautical contemporaries. The aviation exhibition was housed in a single room around which visitors proceeded in a clockwise direction. It started with ten photographs of Whitehead’s aircraft and motors. The very first ones (at top, left) showed his 1901 flight. Next, they saw thirty-three photographs of balloons and dirigables including those of Knabenshue and Santos-Dumont. Following them were eight photographs of Lilienthal’s gliders, six of Herring/Arnot’s glider, six of the Wright brothers’ gliders & kites, eight of Prof. Langley (including one of his flying model) and twenty of Hiram Maxim’s failed powered aircraft. As a highlight, Baldwin‘s Whitehead-powered „California Arrow“, in which Roy Knabanshue had performed a flight over New York just a few months previously, was on display. It was much the same scene in December 1906 at the second such exhibition where Whitehead had three motors on display.
In 1906 aviation,
Whitehead was pre-eminent
It wasn’t until May 20, 1908 that the Wright Bros. first released a photo of their claimed 1903 powered flight in the New York Times. Up until that time, they only showed photos of their kites and gliders. At the January 1906 exhibition, Herring/Arnot didn’t show any photos of their powered flight either. The only exhibitor besides Whitehead who showed powered flight was a power-extended glide of Prof. Langley’s model. It’s therefore understandable why the photograph of Whitehead’s 1901 manned, powered flight was given a place of such prominence at the beginning of the exhibition. After all, only Whitehead and dirigible airships were able to freely control their movement through the air.
Ironically, during this transitional period (December 17, 1903 until May 20, 1908), the Wrights faced the same dilemma as Whitehead did in the years 1906-2012 when people asked, “where’s the photo?”.
The Feb. 10, 1906 Editorial of "The New York Herald" wrote about the Wrights and bore the headline: “Flyers or Lyers?”
Whitehead Motors Powered
the First US Military Aircraft
In 1907, Whitehead was registered as one of the participants in the flying events at the World Fair in Jamestown, Virginia. It's not known if he himself displayed anything there. But one of his motors was accompanied Israel Ludlow's Whitehead-powered "Flying Machine". The construction of that machine had been financed by the US Navy. It was displayed as a hydroplane in Jamestown (without the motor), then with wheels at the Gordon-Bennet & Scientific American events in October 1907 in St. Louis (which were part of the Expo).
A Whitehead-Powered Airplane Took
Off on the Smithsonian's Front Lawn
Development of that aircraft for the US Army Signal Corps.' trials at Fort Meyer continued until 1908. During tests just before the trials commenced, Ludlow's Whitehead-powered aircraft got briefly airborne. The test location was the front lawn of the Smithsonian Institute on the Washington Mall. The flight was only brief because the propeller shaft broke. Ludlow admitted ignoring Whitehead's advice about using the correct fly-wheel and had instead replaced it with a lighter one of less than half the correct weight.
Alongside his brisk motor business, Whitehead took on aircraft construction jobs. One of his customers was Wild-West hero, Buffalo Jones, for whom he built an ornithopter. His main customer was "Scientific American"’s Aviation Editor, Stanley Yale Beach, whose father edited – and grandfather founded – that magazine. Beach was also co-founder of the New York Aeronautical Society. Whitehead built at least three aircraft for Beach. However, Beach had his own ideas about aircraft design. In one particular case, the two argued so vehemently that Beach had Whitehead arrested. The disagreement arose when Beach hacked off the upper wing of a biplane to make it a monoplane (which he believed would fly better). That led Whitehead to confiscate the engine – presumèdly for safety reasons. (In unrelated incidents, Beach ran over and killed a pedestrian in Bridgeport, then refused support for his wife and child causing his father to cut off all funds, thus ending his aviation experiments.)
A Beach aircraft was one of three Whitehead-built planes to compete at the very first air show of the New York Aeronautical Society in Morris Park in 1908. The second was built for Louis R. Adams, President of the Long Island Automobile Club and Vice President of both the New York Aeronautical Society and the Aero Club of America. And the third was built for Bridgeport resident, Howard Booth.
In 1909, all winged, heavier-than-air aircraft in America were grounded by injunctions obtained by the Wright brothers to protect their patent. If an aviator wanted to continue flying his own aeroplane, he was required to buy a Wright License which cost more than $25,000. The only other legal option was to buy the Wrights' canard-biplane-pusherprop invention which most were unwilling to do – especially Glenn Curtiss. (Curtiss ended up ultimately taking over the Wright Aircraft company when it failed and modernizing its aircraft designs.)
Whitehead’s final aircraft construction job was for a helicopter (which didn’t violate the Wrights’ patent). He built it for the President of the Aeronautical Society of America, Lee S. Burridge. Shortly thereafter, Whitehead stopped flying altogether when the monoplane he had built and was piloting crashed into a bridge, crushing his rib-cage.
Starting in 1910, Whitehead’s motor business boomed all the more. He continued building motors for retail customers like C.S. Wilson, who successfully competed in events in his Whitehead-powered plane. But he also wholesaled his engines to dealers and aircraft manufacturers. One of them was America’s first successful, commercial aircraft builder, Charles & Adolph (C. & A.) Wittemann. (Charles was co-founder of the New York Aeronautical Society). When asked later about Whitehead’s abilities as a motor-builder, Charles Wittemann described him as “a genius”.
C.W.Miller’s aircraft, shown below, was built by C. & A. Wittemann and equipped with a Whitehead motor.
Other Whitehead motor dealers were Cleve Shaffer, President of the Pacific Aero Club and the West Coast’s first commercial aircraft builder, and Geo A. Lawrence, an international aircraft and aviation motor dealer who advertised Whitehead motors across the USA and even in Europe. (Lawrence also built a hydroplane powered by a Whitehead motor.)
So far, over forty different types of Whitehead motors have been identified. A steam engine and parts of an eight-cylinder engine exist to this day. Whitehead’s daughter, Rose, remembers there were sometimes more orders for motors than she could hold in her hands when she fetched the mail. She also remembers her father returning more than 50 orders (including down-payment checks) on one single day due to overcapacity.
Even Whitehead’s enemies grudgingly acknowledge his abilities as a motor builder. There are many hints as to where Whitehead’s motors were used in the years 1902-1915. In this regard, Whitehead research is at an early stage. However, that’s not the main issue.
On October 15, 1964, Charles Wittemann made a written and tape-recorded statement under oath in which he declared he’d spent a week working alongside Whitehead in his Bridgeport workshop, had examined Whitehead’s acetylene motor and found it capable of performing the claimed flight of 1901. The significance of Wittemann’s statement is not only his personal knowledge of the engine but also his legal standing. Wittemann was appointed by US President, Woodrow Wilson, as America’ Chief Aviation Expert in WW1. His expert witness statement therefore has added evidentiary weight.
Although existing evidence eliminates any need for circumstantial corroboration,
- the proven airworthiness of both the Whitehead engine and the Lilienthal wings
employed in the No. 21 aircraft, and
- the successful flights of two replicas of the No. 21 (1986, USA and 1998,
lend further support to Whitehead’s claim to have successfully flown such an aircraft in 1901.
Whitehead pioneered powered flight
and was prominent in early aviation
In summary, Gustave Whitehead was instrumental in the transfer of Otto Lilienthal’s advanced aviation knowledge to the USA in 1895-6. In 1901, Whitehead built and flew the world’s first powered aircraft. In 1902, he repeated the feat in an aircraft with three-axis control. And his motors played an important role in pre-WW1 US aviation. His 1902 decision to become a supplier rather than continue development of aircraft was based on his lack of funds and his devotion to his young family. Rather than detract from his legacy, it shows he was not only a talented inventor and mechanic but also a decent human being.
History of Whitehead Critics
The last eight decades brought forth the occasional Whitehead critic. For a nostalgic look back, click here.