Pictures At An Exhibition

The Search For The Phantom Photograph of Whitehead In Flight
© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray
Posted : July 28, 2013



      Over the decades, several myths about Gustave Whitehead have hardened into what many assume to be rigid "fact." One of the most persistent and most widely held myths concerns a blurred photograph of Whitehead in flight aboard his No. 21 machine, which was supposed to have been displayed at the first Aero Club of America's exhibition during January of 1906, as part of the Sixth Annual Automobile Show at the 69th Regiment Armory, in New York.

      The Aero Club's exhibition was an important event for many reasons, but for Whitehead supporters there was really only one important item on display... as Stanley Yale Beach wrote in the January 27, 1906, Scientific American, "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." (The reference to "Langley's machines" is to Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 and Aerodrome No. 6, neither carried a person, but both made lengthy and very successful powered, heavier-than-air flights in 1896.)

      The insistence by many conspicuous Whitehead advocates that such a photo of Whitehead flying aboard his No. 21 machine was displayed has become an essential chapter of a larger story… the unfounded accusation that the Smithsonian Institution has withheld evidence it possesses - evidence proving that Whitehead flew prior to the December 17, 1903, flights by Wilbur and Orville Wright.

(The clip below is from one such Whitehead advocate's web site)

advocate statement

      Some of the more extremist Whitehead advocates have also accused the Smithsonian of destroying evidence that Whitehead flew before the Wrights.

      These two themes - a missing photograph of Whitehead in flight in 1901, and the Smithsonian suppressing evidence that Whitehead flew - have become fixtures in many written arguments propounded by Whitehead advocates over decades, as they've sought to demonstrate that Whitehead has been the victim of institutional bias and a willful suppression of evidence.


      In this writer's opinion, those are mutually reinforcing fantasies that have become overly real for some people, to the point of becoming near-delusions.


No such photograph of Gustave Whitehead flying aboard his No. 21 machine was on display at the January 1906 Aero Club of America Exhibition.

No evidence exists that the Smithsonian Institution has withheld, suppressed or destroyed evidence that Gustave Whitehead flew aboard his No. 21 machine prior to Wilbur and Orville Wright's flights in December 1903.

Of course, it's not possible to hide a photograph which did not and does not exist.



      The image in question was one of many that can be indistinctly seen in the photograph, taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals, of the wall on which were displayed William J. Hammer's aeronautical photographs, along with photographs from other collections, technical institutes and individuals - the article did not say that the blurry Whitehead machine photo was owned by Hammer.

      O'Dwyer finally located a copy of the Beals photo, which shows four photographs of an earthbound Whitehead's No. 21 machine mounted in a single frame, as well as other indistinct images, but O'Dwyer thought that the lack of clarity rendered the images "useless."

      However, the lack of clarity was not what makes this blurred image truly "useless" as evidence of a "flight" by Whitehead - it is the fact that as described, the photo is of a Whitehead machine in flight - but not with Whitehead aboard.

      The blurred photo did not show a "larger man-carrying machine(s) in flight" - since none of the photographs on display did. The blurred photo, because of which O'Dwyer believed - as, apparently, does John Brown - "much of aviation history would be substantially rewritten." turns out to NOT be of a "man-carrying" Whitehead machine.

      Brown goes to great lengths on his web site to 'prove' one blurry image is of Whitehead in flight - indeed, he makes the outlandish claim that the blurry image is actually a photo taken at dawn ( ! ) on August 14, 1901, of 'Gus' Whitehead in flight.

The truth of the matter is that the blurry image is of the John J. Montgomery glider The California, on May 21, 1905. (See Article # 10 "The Photographs")

      Whitehead supporters have devoted many fruitless hours to searching for that fabled photograph. Writing in Flight Journal in 1998, William J. O'Dwyer remarked "If the photo Beach mentions as showing Whitehead in flight were to surface, much of aviation history would be substantially rewritten." - yet, Stanley Yale Beach mentioned no such thing - O'Dwyer is hopelessly wrong, as is Brown. Simply reading the entire article by Beach would have informed O'Dwyer and Brown of the truth of the matter.

      Could O'Dwyer have missed the sentence which immediately precedes the oft-cited "blurred photo" sentence ? Could O'Dwyer have missed its meaning ?

      It's very unlikely that O'Dwyer or Brown failed to note the meaning of what Beach was reporting, which leaves us to wonder if we are looking at a case of intentional misdirection by O'Dwyer and by Brown - a slight of hand ?



      Whitehead advocates point to the article that appeared in the January 27, 1906, Scientific American magazine, as "evidence" that a photo of Whitehead in flight in 1901 existed, usually picking out and highlighting the same sentences.

      On the front page of John Brown's Whitehead web site, he chose to provide this version of the sentences, a very good example of selective and misleading editing…

John Brown's version of Sci. Amer. Jan. 27, 1906, p 94 quote

      Brown gives his readers a mangled version of what the Scientific American article actually said. The last edited text Brown has posted in this section - in BOLD - reads… "… Whitehead in 1901was the only [ ] photograph … of a motor driven aeroplane in successful flight." That is a misleading juxtaposition of fragments. Comparing that edited quote from John Brown's web site (screen grab above) to the actual sentences throws light on how manipulated the matter of the 1906 A.C.A. Exhibition photo has been.

      The sentences in the January 27, 1906, Scientific American article, from which Brown picked his sentence fragments, read…



… middle of the first paragraph…


"Besides these very complete exhibits of apparatus, the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead, Berliner, and Santos-Dumont; and other photographs showing airships and balloons in flight, together with bird's-eye views taken from the same."


Notice that Brown connects - in BOLD - "Whitehead" and the fragment "in flight"… notice also that the Scientific American article is discussing photographs taken from lighter-than-air "airships and balloons in flight"

Brown's misleading - "deceitful" might not be too strong a word - editing of these sentences leads the reader to conclude that a photograph showed Whitehead in flight… the actual sentences say no such thing, however.

… also in the first paragraph…


"Among the exhibits of apparatus of historic interest were the large wooden propellers which Mr. Herring used on the first motor-driven, man-carrying aeroplane to make a flight from the ground. This machine, according to Mr. Herring, was propelled by a small compressed-air motor. On October 22, 1898, he informs us that it flew with its operator a distance of 72 feet in 8 seconds against a 25-mile-an-hour wind."



A.M. Herring powered model
… after a description of Langley's model Aerodrome experiments, a long description followed of Augustus Moore Herring's model two-surface machine (seen in the cropped image to left, part of a larger image appearing on page 93 of the Scientific American article) which had a wing span and chord of 5ft.-3in. x 14in. chord, and was powered by a single cylinder gasoline engine driving a 19in. diameter propeller. The model was tethered to a pole and circled around at 30 m.p.h. for some 15 miles during December 1902, until the fuel was consumed.

So, in the context of discussing powered model machines that have flown without a person aboard, this follows next and in the same paragraph…


"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 machine of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight. This has been done by Mr. Maxim and Prof. Langley; and on account of his desire to secure photographs of his tetrahedral kits in mid-air, Prof. Bell uses red silk in their construction instead of nainsook, which he prefers, but which, owing to its light color, is difficult to photograph."



… a moment's reflection will lead to the inescapable conclusion that the 1901 Whitehead "large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air" flew with nobody aboard.

The sentence that preceded "A single blurred photograph of a…" is also worth paying close attention to, for it informs the reader that…


"No photographs of this [the powered A.M. Herring model machine] or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published."



      Let's consider what the implications are that flow from that declaration that "No photographs… of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown…"



1) It is self-evident, then, that a photograph of Gustave Whitehead in flight aboard his No. 21 machine was NOT on display at the 1906 A.C.A. Exhibition.


and consider this "… nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published."



2) This last half of the sentence tells us that the author of the Scientific American article had yet to see "any trustworthy account of their reported achievements…" because none has "… ever been published."



      Stanley Beach could hardly have been unaware of the August 18, 1901, "Flying" article in the Bridgeport Herald about Whitehead's supposed August 14, 1901, "flight." Beach is telling the reader that the Bridgeport Herald article and all the ones that had appeared in the various New York newspapers - and elsewhere - were not "trustworthy."

      Recall that Beach was the automotive and aeronautics editor for Scientific American who lived in Stratford, near Bridgeport, and had known Whitehead at least since late May of 1901. (See Articles # 1 and # 2)

Scientific American Jan. 27, 1906, p 93Scientific American Jan. 27, 1906, p 94
(darkening of surrounding articles added)



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