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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Did Gustave Whitehead Beat the Wright Brothers as the First To Fly

Woodcut of Whitehead's Flying MachineIn honor of Wright Brothers' Day, I figured I'd address a topic concerning their reputation as the first people to fly. There's a bit of a movement to try to bestow that honor on a different man - Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead (born Wei├čkopf, but he changed his name when he moved to America) was an early aviation pioneer who built several unsuccessful flying machines. However, there are claims that he was successful on a few occasions prior to the Wright Brothers. These claims mostly come from a handful of sources - Whitehead's own claims, eye-witness accounts, and a report from the newspaper, the Bridgeport Herald. There's also a newly discovered photo supposedly showing Whitehead in the air. This photo was enough to convince Jane's All the World's Aircraft to officially recognize Whitehead as the first to fly, and for Connecticut to pass a bill proclaiming Whitehead as the first.

The problem is that none of these sources of evidence are particularly reliable. Whitehead himself could hardly be considered an unbiased party, so his claims can only be taken with a grain of salt without independent evidence to back it up.

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of Whitehead making flights. These do help the case, but they're still not ironclad proof. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Just this morning I received my weekly eSkeptic newsletter, with the subject this time being about just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be (in this case, prompted by the Michael Brown affair in Ferguson). That article has many good examples, but one of my favorites that it didn't include was the Challenger Study (or a similar 911 study). When people were interviewed the day after the Challenger tragedy, they gave an account of where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the explosion. But in a follow-up interview a year later, even though the memories still seemed vivid and real, they had changed, sometimes in very big ways (e.g. hearing about it from classmates vs. watching it live). In the case of Whitehead, most of the affidavits from eyewitnesses are from decades later - more than enough time for memories to become warped.

The local newspaper in Bridgeport published an article about Whitehead and one of his supposed flights. There's some conjecture over how serious the article might have been, but the most damning aspect of it is Whitehead's account of the flight. Speaking as a private pilot and an aerospace engineer, this is not the type of description you'd expect for somebody's first time flying any aircraft, let alone a primitive airplane designed when there was less understanding of controls and stability. Read this passage about his climbout, and how Whitehead did nothing to level his climb, but just rode it out with the machine taking care of it.

When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher.

But this paragraph is the one that really struck me.

And while my brain was whirling with these new sensations of delight I saw ahead a clump of trees that the machine was pointed straight for. I knew that I must in some way steer around those trees or raise above them. I was a hundred yards distant from them and I knew that I could not clear them by raising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery. Then like a flash a plan to escape the trees came to mind. I had watched the birds when turned out of a straight course to avoid something ahead. They changed their bodies from a horizontal plane to one slightly diagonal to the horizontal. To turn to the left the bird would lower its left wing or side of its body. The machine ought to obey the same principle and when within about fifty yards of the clump of trees I shifted my weight to the left side of the machine. It swung over a little and began to turn from the straight course. And we sailed around the trees as easy as it was to sail straight ahead.

Are we really to believe that Whitehead took off in an airplane without having given any thought beforehand to how he was to control it? It's absurd to imagine that such a flight would be successful, or would have been the leisurely affair that Whitehead described. And as the commentary in the article I linked to describes, the inferred speeds from this flight are impossibly slow. It's just not a plausible scenario.


Now it's time to examine what's actually my favorite part of this 'controversy' - the photographic evidence. There were some press reports that a photo of Whitehead in flight had been on display at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in 1906. Noone has been able to find this photo, but a Whitehead advocate, John Brown, thinks he's found evidence of it. The evidence comes from this photo of the exibition:

First exhibition of the Aero Club of America, January, 1906

The box and arrow were added by someone else to show the area of interest to Whitehead supporters. Brown took that region and enlarged it by several thousand percent to get this supposed image of Whitehead in flight:

Alleged photo of Gustave Whitehead in Flight

Brown has a lengthy article describing his analysis of the photo. He also has a description of it on the homepage of Gustave-Whitehead.com, that includes this side by side comparison of the photo to what he thinks it represents.

John Brown's Interpretation of Alleged Whitehead Flight Photo

Now, that's a pretty fanciful interpretation. And Brown appears to be very confident in his analysis despite the obvious lack of detail. But thankfully, we don't have to just wave this off as too vague to be meaningful. Carroll F. Gray has dug into this claim (and many others). Gray has pretty conclusively demonstrated that this photo is not of one of Whitehead's machines, but is rather a glider built by a John J. Montgomery. As much as I would like to steal some of Gray's photos to show in this post, he's put in so much effort that he deserves the visitors at his site. So, in case you missed the link before, here it is again, Update # 5: The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not. I highly recommend visiting that page. Even if it's not Whitehead in the air, it's very interesting how Gray was able to track down this scene from such a blurry image and definitively identify the actual scene it's depicting.


Aside from all these poor lines of evidence put forward by the Whitehead advocates, it also helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. They learned their lessons from that flight, went through a few more iterations of flying machines, and by 1908 were giving public demonstations that amazed audiences (though it should be noted that by 1908, there were others flying - just not nearly as well as the Wrights). Whitehead supposedly made his first flight a year or two before the Wright brothers, and then... what? Other than that one questionable article (and many papers that picked up that single story), Whitehead never made headlines with any public flights. He never even built an airplane that could fly after that. How does someone go from being the first in flight to not being able to make another working airplane, despite several attempts?


There's really no good, strong evidence to back up the claim that Gustave Whitehead was the first person to successfully fly an airplane, and there are actually a few indicators that it never happened (like his account of the flight). I think it's possible (though still not backed up with evidece) that he did have some success, maybe even making a vehicle capable of hopping into the air and staying aloft for a few seconds. But the honor of the first in flight still belongs to the Wright Brothers.

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I came across several interesting articles on these issues (some of which I might have already linked to above).

More Info:


Image Source: Wikipedia

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2014

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve something people had dreamt about for centuries - flying. Granted, the Wrights weren't lone geniuses working in a vaccuum. There were many pioneers before them whose work they built upon, and many contemporaries working on the problem who would have figured it out eventually. But the Wright Brothers were the first, and their systematic approach and especially their focus on controllability put them years ahead of anyone else, and fulling deserving of that honor (even if their later patent wars might have hurt the fledgling industry).

So when you're out and about today, glance up at the skies, and if you spot an airplane, marvel a little bit at what an accomplishment it is.

Related Entries:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, 2014

As has become my tradition to celebrate Christmas on this blog, every year around this time I post Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun. As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed." (that links from a few years ago.)

Tim Minchin has his own tradition - donating all the proceeds from the sale of the song in the months of December and January to the National Autistic Society, a tradition that he's keeping again this year. So if you don't already own your own copy of the song, go buy it and help support a good cause.

And now finally, here it is (but don't let the fact that you can listen to it from YouTube stop you from buying your own copy).

War on Christmas 2014

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away. Maybe I just haven't been following the right news sources, or maybe the issue's dying out, but I haven't heard a whole lot about the War on Christmas this year. I did Google the phrase, and found that the right wing site, The Blaze, still has several War on Christmas articles (and they're written from the oblivious position you'd expect from a site like that - how dare those atheists insist my city actually follow the law, even though a majority of our residents want to break the law), but even there there were only 10 articles from this year - hardly a raging war. Thank goodness. I'm hoping the right wing types who get so bent ouf of shape over the separation of church and state or the inclusiveness of saying Happy Holidays are finally getting over themselves and that in a few more years the only mention of the War on Christmas will be people remembering curiosities from the past.

Anyway, I've written a few good 'war' posts in the past that are still interesting. The first two links below are my favorites. The first includes a historical perspective on Christmas, and how it wasn't always the warm and fuzzy holiday it is today. I especially like the quote from a historian who described Christmases past as "a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras." Actually, that sounds kinda fun. The second article is about the attitude that people have taken towards Santa Claus that I just don't understand. Why do we insist that children earnestly believe in this silly myth, even once they get old enough to start questioning its plausibility? Like I point out in the article, everybody has a good time with their kids around Halloween with ghosts, goblins, and vampires without pretending they're real. Why can't we let kids enjoy Santa Claus the same way? On the other hand, there's a meme* that's gone around about Santa that I find pretty funny.

Santa Jesus Meme
Source: Master Marf (no idea if that's the original creator)

I guess I rambled a bit there. Anyway, here are my previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. My wife's already put up the tree in the house. I've already decorated our big tree out front. My daughter's been checking her advent calendar every day. I'm close to having more Christmas songs stored on my computer than what's actually possible to listen to on Christmas Day. And when that day finally gets here, we'll do the presents, visiting with family, a big Christmas dinner. In fact, we do pretty much everything associated with Christmas other than go to church. So, here are a few of the positive Christmas posts I've written.

And as a bonus, here are links to humorous Christmas related pages on other sites.


* I really don't like how to many people, the term, meme, has become synonymous with a picture with a catchy sarcastic saying, rather than Dawkins' original coining, but I guess that's the way language works. Speaking of, here's one I just came across from Meme Generator that's rather fitting for this entry:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for November 2014

Top 10 ListWith November over, it's time once again to go through the server logs to see what pages on this site were the most popular. The list was largely similar to previous months, with two exceptions. The entry, Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, made the list for the first time. Granted, last month it was very close at number 11, but this is the first time it officially made it into the top 10. The other newcomer was Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 14. This was part of an in depth review of an old creationist book, and while I think it's interesting and informative, I wouldn't have thought it to be the type of page to make the top 10 list. I mean, how many people are Googling "Alfred McCann" for refutations of his 92 year old arguments (though sadly, many modern creationist arguments aren't much changed).

As far as overall traffic, it's in line with what it's been for the past year, though down a bit from last month.

Anyway, here's the list of the ten most popular pages on this site in October.

Top 10 for October 2014

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  4. Book Review - Tribulation Force
  5. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  6. Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 14
  7. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  8. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  9. Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore
  10. Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

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