Suspension of Disbelief — Given Enough Rope…

The 1903-04 Photographs - Whitehead Aloft or Merely Hanging

© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray — Posted: August 28, 2013



      One of the quests that Whitehead supporters have set for themselves is to locate a photo or two of Gustave Whitehead off the ground in one of his machines. The absence of 'photographic proof' has been a hindrance to those who've wanted Gustave Whitehead to be recognized as First to Fly, or - at least - recognized as someone who did manage to fly.

      During the late 1970's and early 1980's, Whitehead advocate William J. O'Dwyer sought out a photo displayed at the January 1906 Aero Club of America exhibition in New York, which he mistakenly believed depicted Whitehead aloft in his No. 21 machine. That photo, which earlier in 2013 John Brown claimed he had analyzed and identified as being Whitehead flying in No. 21, has been proven to be a photo of the John J. Montgomery glider The California. (See Articles "The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not" and "The Search For The Phantom Photograph of Whitehead In Flight")

      The pent-up desire for recognition felt by Whitehead supporters was evident by the response that John Brown's mistaken and wrong-headed identification generated. His identification, wrong though it was, caused branches of Connecticut state and local government to quickly respond with proclamations and declarations endorsing Gustave Whitehead as the First to Fly. Of course, even though the Brown identification has been proven beyond doubt to be wrong, none of those actions have been reversed.

      Whitehead's troubles with photographs go back to at least 1901-02, but one episode, besides the John Brown photo identification fiasco, is of special interest.

Lyon & Grumman ad
       The Bridgeport Daily Standard of October 1, 1904, (p.5), published a short story that two photographs of Whitehead flying "a limited distance at least" were on display in the south window of the Lyon & Grumman hardware store on Main Street, Bridgeport.

      The photos were described as…


"… showing Whitehead in his aeroplane about 20 feet from the ground and sailing along. Of course he has not perfected his invention but says that he has frequently flown over half a mile. There are people who believe that Whitehead is all that the newspapers have represented him to be. The photographs show that he has the ability to make short flights."


      Other than that one short lukewarm description lacking much detail, no definite trace of the images on display or any other description of them has been found.


      During 1966, the episode at hand became a point of sharp contention between the renowned British aeronautical historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith and Whitehead author, researcher and advocate, Stella Randolph. Gibbs-Smith prepared an in-depth report on the full spectrum of Whitehead allegations and activities, discussing and analyzing the "witnesses," the "flights," and the contents of both of Randolph's Whitehead books, the second of which had just been published.

      Gibbs-Smith sent a copy of his typewritten report to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (C.A.H.A.) under a cover letter dated May 1966, which he signed as "I remain, Dear Members, Your Friend." In that letter he wrote, in part…


      "Now where Whitehead is concerned, Stella Randolph has for the second time proved herself the wrong person to write on Whitehead. Her new book Before the Wrights Flew; The Story of Gustave Whitehead deserves even more severe censure than her previous work Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead. I say 'even more censure' because she still makes no attempt to write an impartial study of Whitehead; indeed, by her very title (Before the Wright Brothers) (sic) she shows that she is bent on denigrating the two greatest men in aviation history, who were also Americans; her text bears out this belief.

      "Therefore I think the time has come for me --a British professional aeronautical historian who holds an American degree and is devoted to the United States --to send you an unsolicited report on Stella Randolph's two books. I hope that you will see your way to reading out this report to a full meeting of your members, and have them discuss it. I only wish I could be there to join in."


      On page 7 of his 51-page point-by-point report, Gibbs-Smith takes Randolph to task for reproducing in her books a photo which Gibbs-Smith called "a fake." The photo is a widely reproduced image of Whitehead on a triplane glider, seen from the left and behind, as Whitehead seemingly glides along.



suspended glider p90rope in hand p90
(The Story of Gustave Whitehead - Before The Wrights Flew, p. 90; pyramidal tail and upper wings light as in original)




      In addition to Junius Harworth gripping a thin rope which runs from his left hand up to the glider, there is another clue that all is not as it appears with this photo. The fabric of the lower wings and the wings themselves are in an unstressed state, whereas if the glider were in actual - not faked - flight, they would be stressed. Also, note that Harworth is looking at the photographer and the camera, rather than looking at the glider.

      The full text of what Gibb-Smith's report stated about the above photo (left), follows (emphasis as in original)…



      "On page 90 is reproduced a large photograph of a triplane glider with the caption 'Whitehead testing a glider with Junius Harworth holding the control rope.' There can be no doubt that the intention of the Author is to show Whitehead airborne in flight in a glider in this illustration. From the text, it appears that the glider was towed into the air from the ground, a perfectly legitimate practice. In Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead (opposite page 60) the same photo is reproduced with the caption 'Glider of 1901-1905 period, later furnished with motor. Whitehead aloft. Harworth in right foreground.' In view of the acquisition by the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association of the original negatives [handwritten in margin: 'secured by Stella Randolph from the Whitehead home'], the Author must have known -- or she should have known -- that this photograph as she has reproduced it, is a fake; that is to say, the glider is suspended from above; and the rope from the wings up to the supporting branch, and the rope from down from the branch to Harworth's hand, has been touched out. What possible motive can there be for touching out the rope in the first book, and what possible motive for not getting an unretouched print for this book, or not stating the fact of the machine's suspension, if it is not to deceive? The inclusion of this photo is, from an historian's point of view, completely inexcusable, and adds greatly to the overall suspicion generated by the book."


      The assumption Gibbs-Smith makes is that Randolph was somehow involved in removing evidence of the suspension rigging from the photograph she had opposite page 60 of Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead" and on page 90 of The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before The Wrights Flew - that she "must have known -- or she should have known --."

      Soon after Gibbs-Smith's report was received by C.A.H.A., Stella Randolph typed up her 12 page rebuttal, which she titled "COMMENTS of Stella Randolph upon 'GUSTAVE WHITEHEAD, A Report by Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith.'" The section related to the "faked" photo reads…


"Page 7 Re: 'Faked glider flight. There was no 'touching out' of anything by anyone in any photographs used in either of my two Whitehead books, unless it occurred before I acquired the plates and photographs from the Whitehead family. If in one picture there appears faintly a rope not appearing in another, it was 'lost' unintentionally either in the processing or the reproduction in printing the books. The man who reproduced the first pictures from those secured from the Whitehead home was the official photographer for the Surgeon General's Office of the United States, who did this work for me on his own time. He certainly was hardly the type of person to 'fake' anything; if he had been, he would hardly have risked his reputation and position for the sum I could pay him. The man who reproduced pictures to illustrate BEFORE THE WRIGHTS FLEW holds a responsible position in a large firm handling the best of visual equipment, and allied services. Neither would risk his position by 'faking' pictures. He has made affidavit to the fact that he did not retouch any of the pictures, that he was not asked to do so, and that none of those he reproduced had been so treated previously. Incidentally, the condition of the pictures and plates when secured in 1934, was such that those who were able to reproduce them as well as they did must have been highly skilled.

"Re: Suspended glider Mr. Smith's statement that the glider shown on page 90 of BEFORE THE WRIGHTS FLEW was suspended from a branch is absurdity, as a comparison with the height of trees in the background makes evident. (Not all of the Whitehead pictures available were published; others of this glider also attest to the error of Mr. Smith's claim.) Where was this giant tree? The redwoods of this country are not found in Connecticut!"


      Randolph was probably aware of the faked glider photos soon after she came into possession of the glass plate negatives in 1934. On balance, it appears that she did try to pass off the photos in her books as actually being Whitehead flying his glider, although she was careful to not state that in precise terms, thus leaving herself an out should someone discover the truth of the matter. The charge that she had someone "touch out" the suspension lines is effectively rebutted by Randolph, although her argument about the height of trees seems very weak, especially when it is realized that a good possibility was that the suspension line was attached to poles, rather than being run between two "giant trees" or "branches."

      There are possibilities other than that Randolph knowingly involved herself in a faked photo - a fraud. The seriousness of the charge against her was compounded by the fact that Randolph was an attorney and so had a professional obligation with respect to the sanctity of evidence.

      One possibility that comes immediately to mind is that the staged and hence "faked" triplane glider photos were the ones displayed in the Lyon & Grumman hardware store's south facing window. This would mean Whitehead and Harworth (and presumably the photographer) were the ones knowingly involved in perpetrating the fraud, not Randolph. Of course, Randolph did have possession of the most damning of the photos, the one that includes the overhead suspension rig. She could not have been completely unaware of the purpose of that rig above Whitehead's triplane glider, so she did fail to note that fact in her two books.

      The wording of the captions of that photo in her two books is of interest, in her 1937 book she wrote "Glider of 1901-04 period, later furnished with motor. Whitehead aloft. Harworth in right foreground." The wording of the caption under the same photo in her 1968 book reads "Whitehead testing a glider with Junius Harworth holding the control rope." Randolph no longer implies Whitehead is actually flying his glider, the image does that, and she has mentioned that Harworth is holding a "control rope" - the purpose of which she leaves to the reader's imagination.

      On a little reflection, the purpose of the otherwise ambiguous "control rope" becomes evident.

History By Contract pXVIsuspended glider suspended glider harness close

      The suspension rig appears to be braced with wire between the tips of the arms. The lines running from each of the arm tips converge (beyond the view of the photo) to a single point. This would mean that the rig was free to rotate horizontally, which would, in turn, explain what Junius Harworth is doing off to the righthand side of the image. He is holding a line which is secured to to the glider's framework, apparently at the tail, to keep the glider from rotating while being photographed.

      The pyramidal tail would have caused considerable drag in flight, but flight is not what is causing the pronounced counterclockwise twist (as seen from behind) of the tail. The twist is not seen in a photo taken when the triplane glider is not suspended. A possible source of the twist might be the tension on the line being held by Harworth.

History By Contract plate XVHistory By Contract plate XV cropped enlarged
      History By Contract, Plate XV shows two more views (above, left) of the Whitehead glider suspended from the rig, with Junius Harworth (lower photo) holding a line to the suspended Whitehead glider, this time gripped in his right hand - enlargement of Harworth to the right.

      Twelve years after Gibb-Smith's report and Randolph's response, the topic of the 'faked' glider photos was still sufficiently 'in the air' to be included in O'Dwyer and Randolph's 1978 book, History By Contract, as plate XVI.

      The explanation offered by O'Dwyer is definitely not a compelling one, yet it is a prime example of O'Dwyer's technique of misleading the reader while appearing to simply offer information. The caption O'Dwyer wrote under the above photo reads…


"In the 1902 American Inventor journal, Whitehead told how he was unable to obtain satisfactory in-flight photos of his craft, with the photo equipment he had available. To overcome this problem, for articles about his gliders, he used an overhead sling harness and suspended them from a line strung between trees. His photo collection (on glass negatives) include photos of the sling rigging itself, for his collection records. Later day cynics, quick to discredit all of Whitehead's work, denounced the sling as fraud."


      The 1902 American Inventor article discussed Whitehead's No. 22 powered machine - which might not have even existed. Nonetheless, the reasons why no photos were taken of that machine are cited by O'Dwyer as reasons why glider photos could not be taken. The relevant American Inventor passage reads…


"This coming Spring I will have photographs made of Machine No. 22 in the air and let you have pictures taken during its flight. If you can come up and get them yourself, so much the better. I attempted this before, but in the first trial the weather was bad, some little rain and a very cloudy sky, and the snapshots that were taken did not come out right. I cannot take time exposures of the machine when in flight on account of its high speed."


      The 1902 American Inventor article is irrelevant with respect to Whitehead's glider photos. O'Dwyer states that Whitehead overcame "this problem" - which Whitehead ascribes to bad weather and the alleged "high speed" of a powered machine - by using the suspension rig. The rig overcame which part of "the problem" - the bad weather ? - of course, not… the "high speed" of the powered machine (in this case an unpowered glider) ? - of course, not.

      O'Dwyer is seizing on the references Whitehead makes to photography, to somehow justify or make reasonable Whitehead's use of the suspension rig. Certainly without meaning to, O'Dwyer concedes the fakery point by stating that Whitehead suspended his glider to take photos for use as illustrations "for articles about his gliders" and for - oddly - Whitehead's "collection records" - as though Whitehead wanted to be certain to document the use of a suspension rig even though the suspension rig would not appear and would not be mentioned in articles.

suspended model kite

      Hanging a "machine" from an overhead wire or rope to take a photo of that "machine" "in flight," was something Whitehead had done earlier, in 1899 or so, with his flying-fish "model kite." As can be seen in the photo (left), the device has at least one line running up to the overhead utility wires (note the top of a utility pole in the lower righthand corner of the photo, above). In the image of this "model kite" published in the December 1902 Aeronautical World, the device is shown in a different photo as though it is up in the air on its own, with no mention or indication of a suspension line.

      In a classic O'Dwyer finger-pointing reversal - something O'Dwyer does repeatedly in his many defenses of Whitehead - O'Dwyer then assails the "Later day cynics, quick to discredit all of Whitehead's work, [who] denounced the sling as fraud." O'Dwyer does his best to make it all appear normal and legitimate and even reasonable, yet the fact remains that the photographs were meant to be used to illustrate Whitehead's glider in flight, with him aboard - they were intended to be fraudulent.

      It appears that all of the photos of Whitehead above the ground in his triplane glider were faked, using the suspension rig. In addition, there is good reason to believe that the photos which show Whitehead aloft in his "Albatross" glider were similarly faked.

      This opens the door to assert that if any photos are ever found of Whitehead "flying" in a machine, those photos would likely have been faked, as well.

(See Article Wandering Diogenes - Truth & Gustave Whitehead)




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Updated : 11:30p August 29, 2013, typos corrected, added text re: suspension rig and tail twist