Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight?
By Nancy Finlay
On June 25, 2013, Governor Dan Malloy signed into law House Bill 6671 recognizing Gustave Whitehead as the first person to achieve powered flight. Several eye witness accounts attest to the success of Whitehead’s airship, which took off from a field near Fairfield, Connecticut, on the morning of August 14, 1901, more than two years before the Wright brothers famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. If Whitehead is to be believed, his later test flights were even more impressive. He claimed to have flown a second machine for more than seven miles out over Long Island Sound, circling and landing gently in its waters. Why then do the Wright brothers get the credit for the invention of the airplane, while Whitehead long-received no more than a footnote in the history of aviation?
Gustave Weisskopf was born in Germany on January 1, 1874. As a teenager, he ran away to sea, where he learned about sailing vessels and studied the flight of seabirds. In 1894, he was shipwrecked in Florida, and by 1897, was in Boston building gliders for the Boston Aeronautical Society. He married, anglicized his name to Whitehead, and continued to move about the country. While working in a coal mine near Pittsburgh, he built a two-man steam-powered airship that apparently flew a short distance before crashing into a three-story building. In 1900, he settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he continued his experiments with steam engines and airships.
Gustave Whitehead’s Airship
In June 1901, Scientific American published a description of Whitehead’s latest flying machine. It had concave wings made of silk stretched over bamboo poles, secured by steel wires. Its mast, bowsprite, and rudder recalled those of a sailboat, but in overall design, resembled a giant bird. The body of the machine was 16 feet long and powered by two steam engines, “one to propel it on the ground, on wheels, and the other to make the wings, or propellers, work.” Like a bird, it was able to flap its wings.
On August 14, local boys helped to haul the machine from Whitehead’s home in Bridgeport to the field where the first trials took place. Two of these boys later testified that they saw Whitehead fly. A soldier returning from the Spanish-American War also claimed to be an accidental witness to Whitehead’s first flight. A reporter from the Bridgeport Herald also claimed to be present, though his account provoked some skepticism, since newspaper hoaxes, which helped sell papers, proved quite common at the time. Whitehead’s own first-person account of his flight, in which he described sailing along at a height of 40 or 50 feet, steering around a clump of trees, and alighting on the ground “with scarcely a jar,” also appeared in the Bridgeport Herald and was picked up by other newspapers, including the New York Herald and the Boston Transcript.
Five months later, on January 17, 1902, Whitehead tested a second machine, this one with a kerosene engine rather than a steam engine. This time there were no witnesses, but Whitehead published an account of the trials in the magazine, American Inventor. He claimed that he made two flights, one two miles long and the other seven miles long, circling over Long Island Sound and returning to his starting place, something that, he pointed out, had never before been done in a heavier-than-air machine. He invited the editor of the magazine to send a photographer to take pictures of his machine in flight. Unfortunately for Whitehead’s future reputation, this never happened.
Although some accounts claim that financial hardship forced Whitehead to give up his experiments with his airships, a 1910 article in the Hartford Courant described him as a “local aeronaut” and reported that he had recently been rendered unconscious and “badly shaken up” when a monoplane he attempted to fly crashed into a bridge. Whitehead died in 1927, just a few months after Charles Lindbergh’s successful flight from New York to Paris in a monoplane named The Spirit of Saint Louis. Long-distance, powered flight, such as Whitehead dreamed about, had become a practical reality, but Whitehead himself was already long forgotten.
First in Flight?
Did Whitehead really fly? Did he exaggerate his achievements? Does it really matter? Invention is rarely a single act by an individual genius. The great inventions that move civilization forward typically depend upon the research and experiments of many different people. The Wright brothers certainly knew about the unsuccessful efforts of early aviation pioneers and probably read the published accounts of Whitehead’s flights. Years later, Whitehead’s assistant even claimed that the Wright brothers visited Whitehead’s Bridgeport workshop, where they acquired “a great deal of information.” Yet the Wright brothers’ first plane was very different from Whitehead’s, more like a giant kite than a giant bird. It did not flap its wings, and unlike Whitehead’s efforts, the Wright brothers’ flights were well documented and promoted. While Whitehead faded into obscurity, the Wright brothers developed a successful business that transformed the transportation industry and had an enormous effect on the history of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, many feel Gustave Whitehead deserves recognition for his innovation and courage, and Governor Malloy’s proclamation assures that he will be remembered. In the 1901 account in the Bridgeport Herald, Whitehead indicated that he felt that his experiments were a success: “That was the happiest moment of my life for I had demonstrated that the machine I . . . worked on for so many years would do what I claimed for it. It was a grand sensation to be flying through the air. There is nothing like it.”
Nancy Finlay grew up in Manchester, Connecticut. She has a BA from Smith College and an MFA and PhD from Princeton University. From 1998 to 2015, she was Curator of Graphics at the Connecticut Historical Society.