The Man Who Would Be King: Gustave Whitehead and the battle with the Smithsonian

by Douglas Malan

September 13th, 2005


Whitehead #21 side view

Gustave and Rose

One of the most fascinating topics I've encountered came from a casual conversation about a model airplane. After a month of research, I think I just scratched the surface on this one. This is the original version of the story as it was written for the August issue of Connecticut LIFE, including 700+ words cut from the published story. The photo was printed from a cracked slide and shows Gustave Whitehead and his daughter, Rose, at the turn of the 20th century in front of No. 21. Thanks to Andy Kosch for the visual.

Dawn will break over Long Island Sound as it has every August 14, and as he has done for nearly 20 years, Andy Kosch will lift off in an ultralight airplane in the vicinity of Jennings Beach near the Fairfield-Bridgeport line.

The flight in a contraption that looks like a small go-cart with wings will be ceremonial yet unattended, short but reverential, in honor of the man who some believe flew a motorized, heavier-than-air craft under control on the same date and same location in 1901.

While he will be more likely to draw attention from police for disturbing the peace than stirring passionate debates about aviation history, Mr. Kosch's public gesture will serve as an annual salvo at the federal government for what he and others consider a misrepresentation of history that has cheated Gustave Whitehead, a former Bridgeport resident, out of recognition for flying more than two years before Wilbur and Orville Wright.

The debate has existed since the 1930s. Supporters of the German immigrant and engineer believe they have enough evidence in their favor. The Smithsonian Institution refutes the claims, calling into question the integrity of newspaper and magazine articles of the day, affidavits signed by witnesses to Mr. Whitehead's flights and the reliability of those who signed them.

In between, there is the story of a once-secret contract between the Smithsonian and the Wright brothers' estate uncovered by former Connecticut U.S. Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and the ongoing search for two photographs that show Mr. Whitehead in flight before 1903, one of which was on display publicly in 1906. No photos of Mr. Whitehead's motorized flights have been seen publicly since; the Smithsonian reasons that the events never occurred.

"We believe he did in fact fly long before the Wright brothers," said Mr. Kosch, 65, a science teacher at Platt Technical High School in Milford and recreational aviator. "Someone's got to keep this thing going. Someone has photos or a diary somewhere to prove this. We've got to get young kids into this to continue the research. Eventually maybe we'll come up with some really good evidence that the Smithsonian will accept."

Interest in the case piques and wanes among the public, depending on the year. CBS' 60 Minutes produced a story in 1986 after state Senator George "Doc" Gunther, R-Stratford, sponsored a bill to force the Smithsonian to examine thoroughly all evidence for Mr. Whitehead. At the same time, Mr. Kosch was building and preparing to fly successfully an authentic replica of Mr. Whitehead's 1901 craft, called "No. 21." Around 2003, the 100th anniversary of the flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., stories of Mr. Whitehead appeared again, and The History Channel devoted a "History's Mysteries" episode to the debate.

As a result, Connecticut has become fertile ground for speculation swirling around the origins of man flying a controlled, motorized aircraft.

EVIDENCE FOR A PIONEERING PEASANT

Two-forty-one Pine Street in Bridgeport looks nothing like it did in 1901 and everything like it should in a heavily industrialized part of the city. Weeds sprout from the scant few grassy areas surrounding the plot, most of which has been paved over with asphalt and concrete.

A moving company near I-95 is on what once was the home of Gustave Whitehead.

A native of Leutershausen, Germany, and a peasant with a predilection for engineering, he settled in Bridgeport in 1900 as a 26-year-old married man with one daughter, Rose.

Intensely interested in flight after observing early hang-glider experiments by Otto Lilienthal in Germany, he joined the merchant marines as a teenager and studied at sea the natural movements of birds, experiences from which he would draw when designing his aircraft.

He was so serious about flight that he listed "aeronaut" as his profession on his marriage license, a term used only by those dedicated enough to risk public ridicule at a time when humans in flight still seemed a preposterous notion.

He constructed No. 21 with a cockpit shaped like a slender boat. The wings could be fanned out for flight or tucked in when not in use, and a lightweight engine powered the wheels on the cockpit, allowing Mr. Whitehead not only to drive to his desired take-off point but also to lift off without the use of a ramp. A separate engine powered two propellers in the front.

According to a local newspaper, at "about two o'clock" on the morning of August 14, 1901, Mr. Whitehead flew for one-half mile around the area. The Bridgeport Sunday Herald, a weekly publication, provided the first account of the event as witnessed by sports editor Richard Howell. He wrote, "He had now soared through the air for fully half a mile and as the field ended a short distance ahead the aeronaut shut off the power and prepared to light … She settled down from a height of about fifty feet in two minutes after the propellers stopped."

On August 19, both the Boston Transcript and New York Herald printed stories about the feat, performed two years, four months and three days before the Wright brothers. Unfortunately for the case, no photos were taken in the middle of the night; the only visual printed was a sketch of the aircraft in flight, leaving in question the veracity of a newspaper account printed at the height of yellow journalism practices, as was pointed out in The History Channel's production.

"What bothers me is why didn't someone have a camera?" asked Robert Whitehead, 76, a grandson of Gustave's who lives in Trumbull. Despite the lack of undisputed physical evidence, Mr. Whitehead has no reason to doubt his grandfather's accomplishment.

"The only things I know about my grandfather are what my father told me, and he was one-year old when my grandfather flew," Mr. Whitehead said. "My father never lied to me, and as far as I know, my grandfather never lied to him. My grandfather had high principles and so did my father. If he told me he flew, then he flew."

Mr. Whitehead said that his grandfather was afraid to publicize his flying attempts for fear of crashing and killing someone on the ground. In the early days of unproven, motor-powered aviation, such concerns were warranted and similar cautions taken by aviators who also guarded closely their engineering secrets. The Wright brothers, for instance, did not perform flying exhibitions for the public until 1908.

Gustave Whitehead already had crashed an aircraft into a building in Pittsburgh in 1899, his grandson said, which led to his family moving to Bridgeport, where manufacturing conditions for a burgeoning industry were ideal.

Did Gustave Whitehead fly under the cover of night to avoid a crowd of curious onlookers? Maybe he correctly estimated the impact of a public failure, such as beset Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former Smithsonian secretary who spent $50,000 of the government's money to construct a motorized aircraft only to crash it in the Potomac River in front of a large crowd on December 8, 1903, nine days before the Kitty Hawk events. Mr. Langley's reputation was soiled thereafter, but his attempted flight began a series of events involving the Smithsonian that led to the contract with the Wright brothers' estate.

But the case for Gustave Whitehead involves more evidence. On January 17, 1902, he reportedly flew several miles over Long Island Sound in an updated aircraft called No. 22, which ran on kerosene instead of acetylene and included other design improvements. Again, no photographs of the event were printed, but 10 years ago Mr. Kosch and Sen. Gunther discovered the existence of proof of flight and one of the two photographs for which they are searching.

They had been told of a sea captain's log entry, possibly from that day, describing Mr. Whitehead's flight above the water and also heard that this Captain Brown had photographed the sight. The logs are part of about 15 leather-bound books once stashed in the attic of an East Lyme house owned by people who have since moved to California, Mr. Kosch said.

After trading phone calls with the people, whose names Mr. Kosch could not recall, they said no such photo or logs were in their possession. To this day, Mr. Kosch wonders if they sold the vital evidence to the Smithsonian.

"We always tell people if you have anything, let us have it," said Sen. Gunther, 86.

Articles about Mr. Whitehead's advancements in flying appeared in The American Inventor, The Aeronautical World and Scientific American prior to December 1903, and as he continued his experimentation, he streamlined his airplane engine designs.

Still, no photo ever appeared of Mr. Whitehead in flight until 1906. That year, Scientific American published an account of the Aero Club show in New York City and included a photo showing a display board of the day's top aviators.

Stanley Yale Beach, editor of the magazine and benefactor for Mr. Whitehead, described a blurred photograph of Mr. Whitehead flying No. 21 in 1901, evidence that the Smithsonian disputes because Mr. Whitehead informed The American Inventor magazine in 1902 that he could not "take any time exposures of the machine when in flight on account of its high speed."

"Whitehead began building copies of ... hang gliders in 1902 and 1903," wrote Dr. Peter L. Jakab, chairman of the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, in a 1986 essay. "It may very well have been an in-flight photograph of one of these gliders, which do exist, that appeared at the 1906 Aero Club show." Supporters of Mr. Whitehead's cause disagree strongly. They point to evidence of a conspiratorial cover-up, asserting that Mr. Whitehead is debunked with half-truths and faulty logic crafted because of a contract signed on November 23, 1948.

But if evidence for Mr. Whitehead's case was strong enough, he should have been recognized before he died in 1927 with only eight dollars to his name. Sen. Gunther believes he fell victim to jingoism of the day.

"He was a German. He was in the wrong place at the right time," Sen. Gunther said. "During World War I, Germans were discriminated against as much as the Japanese were in World War II."

And Mr. Whitehead's acute focus on flying prohibited him from devoting more time to manufacturing and selling his airplane engines, a product that might have enhanced his legacy.

"I remember someone said if Gus Whitehead would've just built engines instead of flying, he would've died a multimillionaire," Robert Whitehead said. "Instead, he wanted to fly. He'd get $1,000 for an engine, but he'd put it back in the airplane. (Gustave's children) didn't have any money for shoes because he put it all into the airplane. That really hurt the family."

WHITEHEAD REFUTED

The 1930s ushered in the first era when the Whitehead versus Wrights debate forced its way into the open. Stella Randolph's book, "The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead" published in 1937, outlined the arguments in support of Mr. Whitehead and included copies of articles from 1901-03 as well as signed affidavits from men who worked for Mr. Whitehead or witnessed his pre-1903 flights.

Louis Darvarich of 845 Wordin Avenue in Bridgeport signed an affidavit attesting to his accompanying Mr. Whitehead during the ill-fated Pittsburgh flight of 1899.

Ms. Randolph published another book, "The Story of Gustave Whitehead: Before the Wrights Flew," in 1966 with additional information about the case.

The Smithsonian's disputes lay in some of those affidavits as well as interviews conducted independently of the book. Eyewitness accounts of pre-1903 flights differ in detail to recollections rendered in the 1930s, and thereby created too many discrepancies to favor Mr. Whitehead, the institution argues, especially when considering the advanced age of the witnesses.

Two men mentioned in newspaper articles of the 1901 flight, James Dickie and Andrew Cellie, could not corroborate the day's events when interviewed in the 1930s. Mr. Dickie, who provided funds for Mr. Whitehead, renounced the entire occurrence, saying that he did not recall any flight ever taking place and calling the newspaper stories "imaginary." No one by the name of Andrew Cellie ever appeared in city directories, and Mr. Dickie said he had never heard of such a man.

In 1937, Stanley Yale Beach, the magazine editor who bankrolled Mr. Whitehead, also refuted the claim that Mr. Whitehead flew before 1903.

"I do not believe that any of his machines ever left the ground under their own power in spite of the assertions of many persons who think they saw him fly," he said. The Smithsonian further reported that Mr. Whitehead's wife and family knew nothing of the August 1901 flights, according to Dr. Jakab.

In the 1970s, the pro-Whitehead set struck back with "History by Contract," co-written by Major William J. O'Dwyer of the United States Air Force Reserve and Ms. Randolph, and considered the most comprehensive collection of arguments for Mr. Whitehead.

By that time, Mr. Whitehead's aircraft, including a helicopter he designed that his grandson remembers playing on as a child, and all of his engines had been donated as scrap metal for the war effort long ago.

Maj. O'Dwyer's research revealed that Mr. Whitehead's sloppy book-keeping led to financial disputes that severed his relationship with Mr. Dickie, which probably caused the latter to change his story out of spite.

Mr. Whitehead's refusal to continue work on an airplane prototype designed by Mr. Beach might have led to a similar dispute. In terms of Andrew Cellie, Maj. O'Dwyer concluded that the newspaper misspelled his name and the man was actually Andrew Suelli, Mr. Whitehead's next door neighbor who had died before anyone discovered the discrepancy. The most significant bit of evidence uncovered by Maj. O'Dwyer is the signed contract between the Smithsonian and the Wrights' estate.

The Wright Flyer from the Kitty Hawk experiment hangs prominently in the Smithsonian, though some question its authenticity because the craft used in 1903 wrecked the same day. When the Wright brothers completed their flight, they laid claim to a pioneering moment and waited for a patent to be approved while negotiating contracts for the sale of their technology, according to a spring 1987 article in Invention & Technology magazine.

In 1910, the brothers offered to donate the 1903 flyer to the Smithsonian, but the institution refused. American aviator Glenn Curtiss set about rebuilding the failed 1903 airplane designed by Samuel Langley, and in May 1914 he flew it successfully in New York.

Based on the flight, the Smithsonian then recognized Mr. Langley, its former secretary, as the father of powered flight in America based on his design but refused to acknowledge that Mr. Curtiss changed dozens of vital elements of the original design in order to make it fly.

Outraged by the snub, Orville Wright could not convince the Smithsonian or the press that the Wright Flyer should be considered over Mr. Langley's invention; therefore, Mr. Wright sent the '03 Flyer to the Science Museum of London, enraging Americans.

"I believe my course in sending our Kitty Hawk machine to a foreign museum is the only way of correcting the history of the flying-machine," Invention & Technology reported Mr. Wright saying. "In its campaign to discredit others in the flying art, the Smithsonian has issued scores of these false and misleading statements. They can be proved false and misleading from documents. But the people of today do not take the trouble to examine this evidence."

His comments could not have been more ironic, considering the position of the pro-Whitehead faction.

Finally after World War II, the Wright Flyer was returned to the Smithsonian but only under certain circumstances. By order of a contract unearthed in the 1970s by then-Senator Lowell Weicker and the Freedom of Information Act, the Smithsonian paid $1 for the airplane with the understanding that it should always be displayed "facing the Main Entrance in the fore part" of the aviation wing.

Further, neither the Smithsonian nor any museum affiliated with the Smithsonian "shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

Any violation results in the estate reclaiming the airplane. Executors of the Wrights' estate, Harold S. Miller and Harold W. Steeper, and the secretary of the Smithsonian, A(lexander) Wetmore, signed the contract.

The injustices directed at the Wrights now are directed at Mr. Whitehead and anyone else with pre-1903 claims, Whitehead supporters assert.

In a July interview, Dr. Jakab said the primary purpose of the document was to handle an inheritance tax issue rather than recognize the Wrights as inventors of the airplane. He added that the section about first rights emerged because of the dispute with Mr. Langley's design.

"The passage was not directed toward the Whitehead claim, or any other specific pre-Wright claim," Dr. Jakab said. "The reason the Smithsonian agreed to including this section of the agreement was that at the time it was clear the Wright brothers were the true inventors of the airplane, and there was no reason to believe this would ever be disputed." But the disputes have come loudly from a small group of people in the past 30 years. As Mr. Kosch and Sen. Gunther seek to uncover the proof necessary to give Mr. Whitehead his due credit, the language of the contract seems to pre-empt consideration of any future evidence.

Dr. Jakab said if someone presents irrefutable evidence for Mr. Whitehead, the contract would be irrelevant.

"We would present as accurate a presentation of the history of the invention of the airplane as possible, regardless of the consequences this might incur involving the agreement," he said. "Having said that, however, at this time, as in 1948, there is no compelling evidence that Whitehead or anyone else flew before the Wright brothers." Magazine and newspaper articles of the day plus signed affidavits fail to provide solid proof.

"It's hard to believe all of these people are liars as the Smithsonian would have you believe," Mr. Kosch said. "It's hard to believe all of those publications would print stories with no truth."

THE MOVEMENT TODAY

Mr. Kosch champions the cause for Mr. Whitehead through engineering. When he and a team of enthusiasts constructed a replica of No. 21 in 1986, they did so by studying enlarged photos of the aircraft on the ground and culling details from print media in an effort to disprove historians who said No. 21 never could fly. Though he was more interested in the challenge of constructing and flying the plane than the history of it, Mr. Kosch soon wrapped himself in the debate and has remained vociferous. This fall, he and a team of students at Platt Tech will continue work on a new steam-powered engine that will be truer to Mr. Whitehead's 1901 design. The effort in 1986 was so successful that the Gustave Whitehead museum in Leutershausen, Germany, (where he is revered as Gustav Weisskopf) paid to have the replica shipped overseas to be displayed.

The museum collection honoring Mr. Whitehead is one of the few in the world. The Fairfield Historical Society houses some artifacts, as does the University of Texas at Dallas, beneficiaries of Ms. Randolph's collection. Captain's Cove in Bridgeport features Hangar 21, a small wooden shack on the water where Mr. Kosch displays historical evidence and scaled-down models of No. 21 that he has built over the years. Kaye Williams, the developer of Captain's Cove, donated $10,000 to the construction effort 20 years ago, but Mr. Kosch said no one has made any money from the replica.

The New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks features no exhibits of Mr. Whitehead.

Sen. Gunther continues efforts to open an air museum in Building 6 at Sikorsky in Stratford but he said problems remain with funding the facility and finalizing a deal for property still considered a United States Army base. If and when the museum becomes operational, Mr. Kosch and Sen. Gunther envision a deal with the Leutershausen museum to share artifacts, all for a daring visionary to whom they feel connected through German ancestry.

All of the research has paid some dividends. Following Maj. O'Dwyer's efforts, a headstone listing Mr. Whitehead's accomplishments replaced the pauper's grave in which he had been buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport.

But Mr. Whitehead's legacy remains largely unknown. "I don't know if he'll ever get the recognition he deserves," his grandson said.

"The various claimants have had almost no lasting impact on public opinion," Smithsonian aeronautic curator Tom Crouch writes in "The Bishop's Boys," a Wright brothers biography. "The great mass of Americans have never doubted the priority of the Wrights. Nor should they."

A small aircraft will buzz in dispute through the early-morning sky on August 14, signifying the relevance of a poor German engineer said to have defied gravity in pioneering fashion 104 years ago.

For Mr. Kosch, the anniversary will not pass quietly.