Knowledge is built on data. For social sciences such as history, data include primary sources like news articles written during the time in question on the subject at hand: Who was the first to build and successfully pilot a working airplane? Yet again this question has been stirred up and the attendant controversy for this latest chapter now swirls around Ohio, North Carolina and Connecticut. The historiographer may delight in the ongoing drama. The historian attempting to provide an answer to the question has the option of consulting one of the primary sources, Scientific American. The magazine has been around since 1845, and in the first decade of the 20th century it was one of the leading science and technology publications that reported on the progress in aviation. Text, though, works the way data does: one sentence or a lone data point has little significance. Context is needed for the researcher to derive meaning. Snippets of original text plucked from the magazine’s pages have been presented in support of the thesis that Gustave Whitehead successfully flew a powered airplane in the first few years of the 20th century. Digging a little deeper into the context of the text, however, provides confirmation to the contrary, that Whitehead did not succeed in flying a powered, piloted, controlled airplane. The following titles and quotes from the original text are not edited; any omissions are marked with ellipses (... or ....).
Scientific American, June 8, 1901, page 357
Scientific American, September 19, 1903, page 204
There is no mention in this article of the flights that Whitehead supposedly made in Pittsburgh in 1899 or Bridgeport in 1901. The method he used helped to get his flying machines in the air but this kind of flight cannot be categorized as controlled, sustained or powered flight. These events may be the source of the memories dredged up thirty years later by people who claimed to remember Whitehead flying, to the extent that Whitehead was definitely airborne. By comparison, the Wrights' fourth flight at Kitty Hawk was shorter than 350 yards, being about 284 yards, but against a headwind it was powered by an engine alone and piloted by Wilbur Wright without contact with the ground.
Scientific American, January 27, 1906, page 93
Lower down in the article, on page 94, a sentence fragment has been used to claim the existance of a photograph of one of Whitehead's larger man-carrying machines in flight. However, the photograph in question specifies an unmanned model that was successfully airborne for long enough to have a photograph taken — a feat that does not seem to have extended to any of Whitehead's larger man-carrying machines. Models were an accepted and traditional method used by aviation pioneers, including Whitehead, to experiment and demonstrate technology. Text on page 94 has four interesting parts. The text: 1) mentions Langley's successful airplane, an unpiloted scale model named the "Aerodrome" (there’s a nice clear photograph of it on the page as well) 2) mentions Herring's model airplane 3) complains that there are no photographs of the Herring model in flight 4) continues the complaint with a note that there are no photographs of "larger man-carrying machines in flight" 5) mentions a model by Whitehead driven by compressed air (perhaps using technology similar to Victor Tatin's 1879 airplane model that was driven by a cylinder of compressed air). Because the text specifically states that there were no photographs of "larger man-carrying machines in flight," it is doubtful that the exhibit ever contained a photograph of one of Whitehead's larger man-carrying machines in flight.
[page 94, 2nd paragraph]
Among the model self-propelled aeroplanes shown, those of Prof. Langley should undoubtedly have first mention. The steam-driven machine flew about half a mile over the Potomac River at Quantico, Va., a little less than ten years ago, or on May 6, 1896. This was the first flight of a motor-driven aeroplane.... Another interesting model is that exhibited by Mr. Herring, and which he claims has made numerous successful flights. When tethered to a high pole with a long cord, this machine is said to have flown 15 miles in a circle in December, 1902, and to have stopped only when the gasoline supply gave out. A single-cylinder, air-cooled gasoline motor having mechanically-operated inlet and exhaust valves and a make-and-break igniter, all worked from a single cam, and carrying a small propeller on its crankshaft, was shown on this machine. The weight of the motor was said to be only 2 pounds, and its maximum horse-power 0.51 at 3,400 R.P.M. In flight, however, the engine only made about 850 R.P.M. and developed but 0.07 horse-power. The aeroplanes of this model (which is shown in the lower left-hand picture on the preceding page) were 5 1/2 feet long by 14 inches wide.... No photographs of this or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published. 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.
Scientific American, November 24, 1906, page 379
In his enthusiasm the Brazilian aeronaut forgets also that at least three experimenters in America (Herring in 1898, Whitehead in 1901, and Wright brothers in 1903), Maxim in England (1896), and Ader in France (1897), have already flown for short distances with motor-driven aeroplanes, and yet no really practical machine of the kind has as yet been produced and demonstrated.
If we can seize on the idea that Whitehead flew for a "short distance" in 1901, while cutting out the mentions of Maxim, Ader and Herring, this text could be stretched enough to claim the first-in-flight laurels for Whitehead. It is particularly significant that Whitehead is included with these other aviation pioneers in a list from 1906 because at that date none of them were proved to have achieved powered, controlled, piloted flights. The article even says so: "no really practical machine of the kind has as yet been produced and demonstrated." Here’s a list of the impractical machines: Hiram Maxim's airplane from 1896 is listed first. A massive machine of 3-1/2 tons, held by rails, the craft produced enough lift to wreck its rail system. Maxim is credited with lift, but lift is only one component of flying, so he is not credited with a controlled flight. Clement Ader's Avion III is credited here with one of the flights for "short distances" in 1897, but we now know that after the veil of French military secrecy was lifted, it was the Avion I in 1890 that made a "flight": altitude about 8 inches, distance about 150 feet. Augustus Moore Herring worked with both Samuel P. Langley, who made the machine for the first successful heavier-than-air flight (unpiloted), and Octave Chanute, the aviation author. Herring is sometimes credited with a first flight on October 22, 1898, based on thinly substantiated claims. It is possible his machine was briefly airborne, but the engine, driven by compressed air, was limited to 30 seconds of power. If we are to accept a 60-foot hop as a flight, Whitehead is now fourth in line after Maxim, Ader and Herring. The Wright Brothers are listed here as having made a "short flight" in 1903. Does the article therefore show that the Wrights only made a powered hop in 1903, no better than anything Whitehead may have demonstrated in 1901? After all, even in 1906 the Scientific American was still skeptical of the Wright claims, as were many of the public. And the Wrights were just as secretive than Whitehead. So how do we come to a conclusion that the Wrights were pilots and inventors of the airplane after flights of "short distances" and Whitehead was not? Aviation research by the Wrights between 1901 and 1903 included hundreds of well-known and successful free-flight (untethered) gliding experiments while they worked out a method of controlling their aircraft. As an aside, it is worth looking at the long development and practical use of three-axis control in gliders and airplanes by the Wrights and contrasting that work with Whitehead's description of ad hoc aircraft control by having one engine go slightly faster than the other one, and then leaning over in the cockpit. Following the Wrights work at Kitty Hawk, they largely retreated from the public eye and conducted experiments in secret for the next four years, leaving a large gap in the public’s knowledge and Scientific American’s coverage of their work. There were rumors, some mentions within military and aviation circles, letters by the Wrights to aeronautical societies, even an article in Gleanings in Bee Culture (circulation 25,000). However, we are now able to fill that knowledge gap with notes, reports, photographs (there's a splendid series of clear photos of the powered Wright machine in the air above Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905 in the collection of the Library of Congress), letters among all of the participants involved, physical artifacts (surviving airplanes) and old movies that consistently corroborate every step they claimed or claimed for them in the development of their powered, piloted airplanes. There is as yet no good proof that Whitehead moved beyond the ability to make flights of "short distances." But bear in mind that Carl Sagan said that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" — in other words even if there is no mention of an event, it is hard to prove that the event never occurred. If, on the other hand, you consider the placement of Whitehead with Maxim, Ader and Herring in the pantheon of aviation pioneers who never flew a powered, controlled airplane, this article comes very close to proving that up to 1906 Whitehead never flew a powered, piloted and controlled airplane.
Scientific American December 15, 1906, page 442
Scientific American, December 15, 1906, page 447
Scientific American Supplement, March 26, 1904, page 23,599
By O. Chanute, Chicago, Ill.
Navigable balloons have recently been developed to what is believed to be nearly the limit of their efficiency, and after three intelligent but unfortunate attempts by others, a successful dynamic flying machine seems to have been produced by the Messrs. Wright. [Paragraph 29 outlines the steps the Wrights took to be successful pilots]
This was the kind of practical efficiency acquired by the Wright Brothers, whose flying machine was successfully tested on the seventeenth of December. For three years they experimented with gliding machines, as will be described farther on, and it was only after they had obtained thorough command of their movements in the air that they ventured to add a motor. How they accomplished this must be reserved for them to explain, as they are not yet ready to make known the construction of their machine nor its mode of operation. Too much praise cannot be awarded to these gentlemen. Being accomplished mechanics, they designed and built the apparatus, applying thereto a new and effective mode of control of their own. They learned its use at considerable personal risk of accident. They planned and built the motor, having found none in the market deemed suitable. They evolved a novel and superior form of propeller; and all this was done with their own hands, without financial help from anybody.
Scientific American, November 14, 1908, page 338
Scientific American, January 24, 1914, page 76
The decision which has been handed down by the Circuit Court of Appeals in the infringement suit brought by the Wright Company settles once and for all, in this country at least, the question: Who invented the flying machine? To be sure, there was never any doubt in the popular mind. Practical achievement counts for so much and paper discussion for so little, that the inventor who rises above the mere theoretical presentation of his ideas is inevitably glorified. The decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals stamps the popular verdict with approval and recognizes Orville and Wilbur Wright as the inventors of the man-carrying, motor-driven aeroplane.