NB: This post originally appeared on my professional blog, In Another Place.
I just finished David McCullough’s story of the Wright Brothers and their contributions to the history of flight. It is a biography of sorts, telling the story of the family but focusing on the years when the brothers were developing and demonstrating the plane. Maybe that is less by design and more because by 1910, McCullough notes that they had really “accomplished all they had set out to do.” (p. 253). Wilbur Wright died young, just a few years after the momentous events of the early 1900s. Orville outlived the rest of the family but spent much of his time in bitter disputes over patents and legacy and had a falling out with his sister who had done so much to support the brothers. A sad ending, really.
The legacy seems to be the most important part and continues to be controversial as there is another claimant to the “first to fly” mantle: Gustave Whitehead. His claim had been largely debunked throughout history–McCullough dismisses it in a few sentences–until Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft published an editorial claiming photographic evidence. I was not prepared for what I found doing some quick Google searches. This is a big fight amongst the aviation community and several states. Gustave has his own website and prominent supporters.
Meanwhile, aviation historian Carroll F. Gray tends to the anti-Whitehead website devoted to questioning all things Whitehead. In a lesson for all inventors, keeping good records is essential. Gray argues that a major reason to support the Wrights’ claim over Whitehead is that there is just more documentation:
Lost in much of the discussion and debate over who was first to fly is the simple fact that the evidence for Gustave Whitehead is extremely thin to non-existent, while the work of the Wrights is evidenced by volumes of notebooks, numerous diaries, piles of photographs and reams of letters. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that those who believe that Whitehead actually flew sustain themselves on “a hope and a prayer” — faith in that supposed fact — because the absolute proof of that claim is nowhere to be found.
Finally, there’s a humorous political aspect to all this. Based on that one editorial in the aviation magazine, Connecticut legislators decided to declare Connecticut the birth place of aviation and put all their support behind Whitehead. North Carolina and Ohio, states that have often fought over the brothers, now joined forces with both states passing their own resolutions against Connecticut’s claim.
I think this might make an interesting conversation in a history class or makerspace about keeping historical records and how innovation happens. No one can seem to determine if the brothers knew about Whitehead who, even if he didn’t fly, did some inventing and tinkering around planes and the idea of a flying car.