GUSTAVE WHITEHEAD - What Did He Do ?

UPDATE:   After repeated contacts with John Brown regarding the following Open Letter, he chose to not to answer the questions posed in this Open Letter, claiming he is too busy.   He has recently written that he has objections (unspecified) to the wording of my Open Letter.   If he ever does answer, his answer will be posted.

An OPEN LETTER to JOHN BROWN, Whitehead Advocate
from Carroll F. Gray, Aviation Historian


(originally submitted to Flight Journal, which chose to not publish)
June 13, 2013


Dear John,



   I've followed the recent flurry surrounding Gustave Whitehead with great interest.


   I wrote a lengthy article in February of 2004 describing what I believed Gustave Whitehead had actually done. I've posted that article on the Gustave Whitehead page of my flyingmachines.org web site. I have what I believe is a very good understanding of aviation of that period, and a very good understanding of what Gustave Whitehead did and what he did not do.



   In your recent "Open Letter to Tom Crouch" posted on Flight Journal, you lay claim to having "uncovered a photo of Gustave Whitehead in powered flight more than 2 years before the Wright brothers." (You wisely did not say "controlled, powered flight.")


   I have some questions to ask of you, John, and would like you to respond here, if Flight Journal will permit it, so all those interested in this matter can read what your answers are.



Matter #1 - The Original Photo Displayed at the 1906 Aero Club of America's Exhibition of "Aeronautical Apparatus" at the Sixth Annual Automobile Show in New York



UPDATE: On July 28th an article discussing this matter in more depth was posted - HERE


   You say that the "original version of that photo" (which shows, in the distance, the display of William J. Hammer's collection of aviation photos - blue box added to show location of Whitehead photos) is "not accessible to researchers." Technically that is true but only because of the fragile condition of the original image - an archival copy image can be inspected. You appear to be using innuendo to suggest it is being hidden for some nefarious reason.


         * So, my first question to you is: Do you believe that the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum is keeping a photo of Gustave Whitehead in flight aboard his No. 21 hidden from view, away from prying researcher's eyes ?


   By the way, on your web site you mistakenly term the overall exhibition photo a "panoramic photo," it is not.


         * My second question to you is: Do you believe that Dr. Tom Crouch is knowingly assisting in keeping that supposed photo hidden ?


Matter #2 - The Agreement - You refer to the "Agreement" between the Wright family and the Smithsonian as a "Contract."


UPDATE: On August 5th an article discussing various agreements, including the one between the executors of the Orville Wright Estate and the Smithsonian Institution was posted - HERE


   I was dismayed when I learned of the Agreement (which is what it is termed, not a "Contract" as you and others keep repeating) many years ago. On first blush it looked unseemly that such an agreement would exist.


   I then looked more deeply into the matter and found that it was utterly understandable why the Wright heirs would want a written agreement with the Smithsonian's "National Museum" (as it was known then) regarding the display of the reconstructed 1903 Wright Flyer. The Smithsonian and several individuals had treated the Wrights very shabbily, especially in the matter of the 1914 Langley Large Aerodrome "A" "trials" which took place on Lake Keuka, New York.


         * So, my next question for you is: Do you know and understand the context of that Agreement ? I ask because you appear to be of the mind, and many are, that the Agreement was put in place to prevent Gustave Whitehead from receiving his due recognition.


Matter #3 - The image in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article (August 18, 1901) of Whitehead flying aboard his "No. 21"


UPDATE: On July 19th the correct identification of the Blurry Image was posted - HERE - it is a photo of a Montgomery glider, as predicted - "The California," taken on May 21, 1905


   Intrigued, I examined in detail, and with an open mind, what you've offered on your web site as the photo of Gustave Whitehead in powered flight on August 14, 1901.


   I was surprised to see how filled with errors and misunderstandings your narrative is, given the fuss and furor your comments and activities have caused.


   One minor - yet telling - example: you betray a complete lack of understanding of what a photographic half-tone is, somehow equating that process, which renders a photo as a series of dots, with some proccess that renders "outlines" of what is found in a photo. It does not.


   Neither is half-toning the same as lithography, as you say it is: "That's why lithography or 'half-toning' was invented. By reducing an image to its outlines, massive cost savings were achieved. Without the use of half-toing [sic], many small newspapers wouldn't have been able to afford to ilustrating [sic] their articles."


   Along the same line, you have a false notion of what a lithograph is, believing that the pen and ink line drawing displayed in the August 18, 1901, Sunday Herald story about the supposed "flight" of Gustave Whitehead on August 14, 1901, is a "lithograph." It is not.


   At that time, a pen and ink line drawing would have been acid engraved onto a flat piece of copper using a photographic negative and an acid resist. The process reproduced drawings and line art in great detail and the resulting engraving, nailed to a wooden block, would then be added to the text block for printing.


   I mention these errors not to educate you on late 19th and early 20th century photo reproduction, but to point out how shallow your understanding is of the processes about which you write so confidently. You've devoted considerable space on your web site to commentary about how newspapers of the period rendered photographs and altered them and much of that section on your web site suffers from your lack of knowledge.


   I see the reason why you devote the space you do to that aspect, even if what you have to say is wrong. You believe that by construing the article's image of Whitehead's No. 21 monoplane as a manipulated photograph and not a drawing, you can then assert that a photo had existed from which the manipulated image was made.


   There are several problems with this. Not the least of which is that you've built this supposition about a photo being the source behind the image of No. 21 on a completely erroneous belief as to what that image is. To repeat, it is an artist's pen and ink drawing. Of course, to say that, breaks the link to the imagined photo which was imagined to have been used to produce that image. You also seem to overlook that the article displays a photo of Whitehead, taken for use in that article. Why not simply use the supposed photo of Whitehead in flight ? Why, then, use a drawing ?


   Even more telling is that you digitally massage the "single blurred photograph" seen in the photo of the January 1906 exhibition until it reveals under digital torture that it is the photo from which the Sunday Herald's image was made. Was this done with some notion of the process being "forensic" ?


   If you paid for this "forensic" photo analysis, perhaps you might consider asking for a refund of your money.


   When I examined that "blurred photograph" on your web site, I immediately saw a John J. Montgomery glider in profile with its characteristic vertical tail surface and drooping tandem monoplane wings, most likely indoors, in Montgomery's workshop.


   I was amazed that you've managed to convince people that the blurred photo is of Whitehead in flight.


         * My next question for you is in two parts: Do you admit you've misunderstood and misstated the processes you've discussed, and, do you honestly intend to say that the pen and ink drawing of No. 21 aloft is some degree of proof that a photo of that event exists or existed ?


   I believe that you're seeing what you wish to see and that your desire to make the whole process appear scientific and "forensic" is little more than highly manipulated imagery.


   There is a photo (on page 48 of John Joseph Montgomery, Father of Basic Flying by Arthur Dunning Spearman, S.J., University of Santa Clara, 1967) that is very similar (though not exactly so) to the image in the '06 exhibition. I believe that the "blurred photograph" will likely be shown to be of a Montgomery glider, not Whitehead in flight in his No. 21 monoplane.



Matter #4 - Your selection of quoted material



UPDATE: On July 28th an article discussing this matter in more depth was posted - HERE


   I noticed that on your web site you chose to highlight in bold the following text from the January 27, 1906, Scientific American article about the Aero Club's display of photos... "A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight."


   In another place you surround the above quote with a red box, underlining words in red. What you chose to not underline was the sentence that immediately preceded the one you did highlight. The preceding sentence reads "No photographs of this [a powered A. M. Herring machine] or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published."


   I assume that you read that sentence while reading the January 27, 1906, Scientific American article. You must have realized that the meaning of that sentence was that a photograph of Whitehead aloft in his No. 21 was not displayed - nor were photos of anyone else in "larger man-carrying machines in flight" displayed.


         * So, therefore, my question to you is: Did you read the entire January 27, 1906, Scientific American article, if so, did you not understand that no photos of "larger man-carrying machines in flight" were displayed ? If you did understand that, why search for one in that exhibition ? Did you not believe what the article stated ?


Matter #5 - "Jane's All the World's Aircraft" recognition of Whitehead as first person to fly


UPDATE: An Open Letter to "Jane's" was posted on July 21st and can be read - HERE


   If "Jane's" were an historical journal this might be of great importance, but it is the leading aviation industry publication, not involved with matters of history and certainly not an arbitrator of historical fact. Your personal association with "Jane's" must have helped with this recognition, and since you are an advocate for Whitehead, I should offer congratulations to you for having managed to do this.

UPDATE: An article discussing the 1897 "Condor" matter at length is posted - HERE


         * My last two questions for you are about history and the printed word: Do you believe that prior to March of 1898 Gustave Whitehead flew 4-1/2 miles across a valley, aboard a four-winged flapping-wing glider, taking off after a run of 30 ft. from a mountaintop at 2,000 ft altitude, as the New York World of March 4, 1898, tells us Whitehead claimed ? Do you believe Whitehead made this flight ?



   I look forward to continuing our conversation and to reading, here on Flight Journal, your answers to my questions.


   Best wishes, Carroll

(originally submitted to Flight Journal, which chose to not publish)



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