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Gustave Whitehead

By Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia,

Gustave Whitehead
Full name Gustave Albin Whitehead
Lived January 1, 1874 – October 10, 1927
Birth Leutershausen, Bavaria
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality German
Spouse Louise Tuba Whitehead
Known for early pioneer of flight
First flight August 14, 1901 (reportedly)
Number 21

Gustave Albin Whitehead, born Gustav Albin Weisskopf (January 1, 1874 – October 10, 1927) was a German immigrant to the US and an aviation pioneer who designed and built engines and very early aircraft in which he reportedly made powered flights more than two years before the Wright brothers. He did most of his aviation work from about 1895 to 1911, but gained only modest attention. In 1901 a few newspapers reported that he made several flights in Connecticut that year, and he claimed a much longer flight in 1902. Publicity soon faded when he did not repeat the reported feats. His name and work lapsed into obscurity until a 1935 magazine article and follow-up book spotlighted his legacy and sparked a vigorous "first flight" debate among aviation buffs—including Orville Wright—that has lasted ever since.

Early life

Gustave Whitehead with an early engine.
Gustave Whitehead with an early engine.

Whitehead was born in Leutershausen, Bavaria, the second child of Karl Weisskopf and his wife Babetta. As a boy, he showed an interest in flight, experimenting with kites and earning the nickname "the flyer". He and a friend caught and tethered birds in an attempt to learn how they flew, an activity which police soon prohibited. His parents died in 1886 and 1887, when he was still a boy. He then trained as a mechanic and traveled to Hamburg, where in 1888 he was forced to join the crew of a sailing ship. A year later, he returned to Germany, then journeyed with a family to Brazil. He went to sea again for several years, learning more about wind, weather and bird flight. He again returned to Germany and visited the glider pioneer, Otto Lilienthal in 1893-94. The following year, he emigrated to the US.

In 1897, on behalf of the Aeronautical Club of Boston, Whitehead was hired by publisher J. B. Millet to build and fly sailplanes. He built several, one which was inspired by the Lilienthal glider. It flew for short distances. Albert B. C. Horn, an assistant, wrote: "A lightweight would have flown further than Whitehead...". (Referring to the fact that Whitehead was a big and heavy man.)

Also in 1897, the manufacturer Horsman in New York City hired Whitehead as a specialist for hanggliders, aircraft models and motors for flying craft. At this time, Whitehead occupied himself with plans to provide a motor to drive one of his gliders.

Pittsburgh 1898 - 1899

According to a witness who gave his report in 1934, Whitehead made a very early motorized flight of about half a mile in Pittsburgh in April or May 1899. Louis Darvarich, a friend of Whitehead's, said they flew together at a height of 20 to 25 ft (6 to 8 m) in a steam-powered monoplane aircraft and crashed into a three-story building. Darvarich said he was stoking the boiler and was badly scalded in the accident, requiring several weeks in a hospital.

The fireman, Martin Devane, who was called to the scene of the accident reported: "...I believe I arrived immediately after it crashed into a brick building, a newly constructed apartment house on the O'Neal Estate. I recall that someone was hurt and taken to the hospital. I am able to identify the inventor Gustave Whitehead from a picture shown to me". Because of this incident, Whitehead was forbidden to do any more flight experiments in Pittsburgh, so he moved to Bridgeport.

"When Gustave Whitehead's friend and assistant (Darvarich) had recovered sufficiently to leave the hospital, still carrying the scar of his scalding which was to be for life his only medal of honor for the first airplane flight, the two men agreed to go to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they hoped to find more suitable employment in a factory. Together, they traveled to Bridgeport on bicycles and found the desired employment."

Connecticut 1900-1927

The aviation event for which Whitehead is now best-known reportedly took place in Fairfield, Connecticut on August 14, 1901. According to the Bridgeport Herald newspaper and a few witnesses who gave their statements more than 30 years later, Whitehead made a powered, controlled airplane flight in his "Number 21" aircraft for a distance of 800 meters (2,625 feet) at 15 m (49 ft) height and landed safely. The feat, if true, exceeded the best of the Wright brothers first powered flights by 540 m (1770 ft) and preceded the Kitty Hawk flights by more than two years. Herald sports reporter Dick Howell wrote the eyewitness account and drew a sketch showing the airplane in flight, but to the lasting frustration of Whitehead supporters, no photographs were taken. The newspaper, a Sunday weekly, published the article a few days later in its next edition, and the report was also reprinted in the New York Herald and Boston Transcript.

The sketch by Dick Howell, August 14, 1901.
The sketch by Dick Howell, August 14, 1901.

The airplane started driven by its ground wheels, then the power was switched over to the propellers. The motors were powered with a mixture of acetylene and oxygen/compressed air. No external starting help or special conditions, like a strong headwind or catapult, were used.

The Herald reported that before attempting to pilot the aircraft, Whitehead successfully test flew it unmanned in the pre-dawn hours, using tether ropes and sandbag ballast. The article said he made his first flight in the aircraft after daybreak.

The newspaper reported that trees blocked the way after the flight was in progress, and quoted Whitehead as saying, "I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery." The report said Whitehead quickly thought of a solution to steer around the trees: From The Bridgeport Herald, August 18, 1901:

"He simply shifted his weight more to one side than the other. This careened the ship to one side. She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yards of them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the sea avoids a bar. The ability to control the air ship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen to take time to look at the landscape about him. He looked back and waved his hand exclaiming, 'I've got it at last.'"

The Herald reported a safe landing.

Whitehead made a total of four flights that day, according to statements given by his helpers and other witnesses more than 30 years later. They said he aimed the airplane at a suitable place on the ground and turned off the motor while the aircraft landed itself softly without damage.

A man who worked with Whitehead for several years attested to one of the flights 33 years later:

"I, Junius W. Harworth, residing at Detroit, Michigan do depose and say that I was associated with Gustave Whitehead during his experiments with heavier than air flying machines. On August, fourteenth, Nineteen Hundred and One I was present and assisted on the occasion when Mr. Whitehead succeeded in flying his machine, propelled by a motor, to a height of two-hundred feet off the ground or sea beach at Lordship Manor, Connecticut. The distance flown was approximately one mile and a half and lasted to the best of my knowledge for four minutes."

Harworth also said No. 21 was flown by Whitehead in the summer of 1901 from Howard Avenue East to Wordin Avenue, along the edge of property belonging to the Bridgeport Gas Company. Upon landing, recalled Harworth, the machine was turned around and another hop was made back to Howard Avenue.

It was also around that time that Cecil A Steeves, a 16-year-old schoolboy, came upon Whitehead testing his aircraft on the Gilman Estate. Three men with ropes began pulling the machine which, within 200 ft (61 m), became airborne, rising high enough to clear telephone and trolley lines before sailing across the road to land undamaged in an old circus lot. Major O'Dwyer, having been shown the site by Mr. Steeves, took measurements which disclosed the distance traveled by the aircraft to be nearly 1,000 ft (305 m).

Whitehead had incorporated two mechanisms for steering the plane. A rope went from wing edge to wing edge through a pulley so he could try wing bending, and another mechanism could be used to vary the speed of the two propellers independently. He reportedly found that moving his body sideways worked so well that there is no record of him trying the wing bending.

January 1902

Whitehead claimed two spectacular flights on January 17, 1902 in his improved Number 22, with a 40 Horsepower (30 kilowatt) motor instead of the 20 hp (15 kW) in the Number 21 aircraft and aluminium instead of bamboo. In two published letters he wrote to American Inventor magazine, he said the flights took place over Long Island Sound and covered distances of about two miles (3 kilometers) and seven miles (11 km) at heights up to 200 ft (61 m), ending with safe landings in the water by the boat-like fuselage. Whitehead said he tried the propeller differential speed system and the "rudder" on the second flight and they worked well for making a big circle and a return to shore where his helpers waited. He expressed pride in the accomplishment: " I successfully returned to my starting place with a machine hithero untried and heavier than air, I consider the trip quite a success. To my knowledge it is the first of its kind. This matter has so far never been published."

Comparing the Number 22 to the Number 21, he reiterated his claim of flying the previous summer, "No. 21 has made four trips, the longest one and a half miles, on August 14, 1901." He added, "This coming Spring I will have photographs made of Machine No. 22 in the air." He said snapshots, apparently taken on January 17, "did not come out right" because of cloudy and rainy weather. The editor replied that he and readers would "await with interest the promised photographs of the machine in the air," but there were no further letters nor any photographs from Whitehead. A report surfaced decades later about a photo supposedly taken by a boat captain (see Photos section below).

Whitehead had no hangar to store Number 22, and it stood outside for the rest of the winter in sleet and snow. When the spring arrived, the plane was no longer safe and Whitehead did not have the money to restore it to flying condition.

Later career

Whitehead sold motors to, among others, Glenn Curtiss, who has been called "the father of American aviation industry". Air Enthusiast wrote, "In fact, Weisskopf's ability and mechanical skill could have made him a wealthy man at a time when there was an ever increasing demand for lightweight engines, but he was far more interested in flying. Even so, word of his talent as a machinist spread rapidly. His daughter, Rose, remembers bringing home so many letters with orders and advance payments on engines that she could scarcely carry them. She stated that one day, her father returned 50 orders, for he built only as many engines for sale as he felt would provide him with funds to advance his own work upon airplanes."

All of Whitehead's tools and equipment were not seized in a lawsuit he lost. He hid his engines in the neighbor's cellar, along with most of his tools. He bought another large parcel of land and built his final home on Alvin Street. (Alvin / Albin was his middle name.) He stored his aircraft from earlier years in Knapp's barn on Knapp's highway. (Lieutenant Colonel Robert Delbuono of the 9315th USAF Reserve Squadron recalled playing in that barn in the 1930s when he was a teenager, and that airframes and wings built by Whitehead were still there.) Whitehead did not end his work until 1912.

Lee S. Burridge, of the Aero Club of America, wanted Whitehead to build an engine to power Burridge's design for a helicopter. He advanced some money for the work. When Whitehead told him his helicopter would never fly, Burgess became angry. He went to Charles Wittemann, of Staten Island, NY, who was selling Whitehead engines. He had Wittemann install a Whitehead engine so he could test his helicopter, but the aircraft failed to fly in a 1910 test.

Whitehead's own 1911 studies of the vertical flight problem resulted in a 60-bladed helicopter, which, unmanned, actually lifted itself off the ground; but Whitehead realized that he needed a much more powerful motor to make the experimental helicopter a serious project. Soon thereafter many of his possessions were impounded. Around 1915 Whitehead worked in a factory as laborer and he repaired motors to support his family.

"Whitehead lost an eye when struck by a chip of steel in a Bridgeport factory. He also suffered a severe blow to the chest when hit by a piece of factory equipment, an injury believed to have contributed to his increasing attacks of angina. These setbacks brought slowdowns in his activities, although he exhibited an aircraft at Hempstead, N.Y., as late as 1915. Whitehead continued to work and invent. He designed a braking safety device, trying for a prize offered by a railroad. He demonstrated it as a scale model but failed to win the award. He constructed an "automatic" concrete-laying machine, which he used to help build a road in Long Hill, north of Bridgeport. He profited no more from those inventions than he did from his airplanes and engines."

When his discoveries, one after another, were credited to other people, and as others surpassed him in aircraft design, Whitehead lost interest. With WWI came prejudice against Germans and the situation only worsened. Whitehead never lost his German accent and never acquired American citizenship.

He died of a massive heart attack, on October 10, 1927, after attempting to lift an engine out of an automobile he was repairing. He stumbled onto his front porch and into his home, then collapsed dead in the house.


Gustave Whitehead and his 1901 monoplane taken near Whitehead's Pine Street shop. His infant daughter, Rose, sits on her father's lap, and the engine that powers the front landing-gear wheels is on the ground in front of the others.
Gustave Whitehead and his 1901 monoplane taken near Whitehead's Pine Street shop. His infant daughter, Rose, sits on her father's lap, and the engine that powers the front landing-gear wheels is on the ground in front of the others.

Gustave Whitehead with daughter Rose posing next to his aircraft Whitehead#21 - ca. 1901
Gustave Whitehead with daughter Rose posing next to his aircraft Whitehead#21 - ca. 1901

Whitehead's large Albatros-type glider - ca. 1905 - 1906
Whitehead's large Albatros-type glider - ca. 1905 - 1906

Whitehead's Number 21 was a racy-looking monoplane with a wingspan of 36 ft (11 m). The wings were constructed of silk, ribbed with bamboo, supported by steel wires and modelled after the shape of a soaring bird's wing. The plane was powered by two engines: a ground engine of 10 hp (7.5 kW), intended to propel the wheels to reach takeoff speed, and a 20 hp (15 kW) acetylene engine powering two propellers, which were designed to counter-rotate for stability.

Number 22 had a 40 hp (30 kW) motor (Number 21 had 20 hp {15 kW}) and aluminium had replaced the bamboo. The use of aluminium was one of many "firsts" in aviation Whitehead achieved. Rubber wheels with spokes, like motorcycle wheels, cement in runways, first airplane diesel, etc..

According to the reports, the plane started without any external help, from a flat surface and landed at another flat surface or on water. During flight, roll was controlled by the pilot shifting his weight, much as on a glider, pitch would be controlled by a tail wing; and yaw by differing the thrust of the two propellers.

Whitehead in the air in his Glider 1
Whitehead in the air in his Glider 1

Whitehead was an experienced glider builder and flyer too, beside his work with motorized flight. He built and flew gliders for several years, from 1897-1904.

When there was not sufficient money for airplane construction, gliding could still be accomplished and Gustave Whitehead became a very experienced glider.


In order to lend support to the idea that Whitehead was able to fly the Number 21 in 1901, some US enthusiasts began construction in 1985 of a reproduction of Whitehead's machine but with modern lightweight engines, instead of Whitehead's hazardous oxyacetylene engines. On December 29, 1986 Andy Kosch made 20 flights and reached a maximum distance of 100 m (330 ft). On February 18, 1998 a German reproduction flew distances up to 500 m (1,640 ft).

American actor Cliff Robertson, an accomplished aviator, looked into the controversy.

"In the '80s, Robertson decided to put to test the legend of Gustave Whitehead, the German immigrant who supposedly built and flew an airplane in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1901 -- two years before the Wright Brothers. Robertson rebuilt Whitehead's craft and piloted it himself down a runway in Bridgeport. It lifted off the trailer holding it and briefly took flight, lending credence to the story. 'We will never take away the rightful role of the Wright Brothers,' Robertson said, 'but if this poor little German immigrant did indeed get an airplane to go up and fly one day, then let's give him the recognition he deserves.'"


Whitehead's work remained almost completely unknown to the public and aeronautical community until a 1935 article in Popular Aviation magazine, "Did Whitehead Precede Wright In World's First Powered Flight?," which was co-authored by Stella Randolph, an aspiring writer, and aero history buff Harvey Phillips. Randolph expanded the article into a book, "The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead," published in 1937. The article and book reclaimed Whitehead from oblivion and inaugurated a running debate that has continued through the years among aviation enthusiasts and historians whether Whitehead's reported exploits are fact or fiction.

Randolph located and interviewed people who said they had seen Whitehead fly some 30 years before--either as his helpers, occasional employees, or as neighorhood children--and included more than a dozen affidavits from them in her book. These affidavits are key pieces of evidence, in addition to the Bridgeport Herald newspaper report, supporting arguments that Whitehead flew.

Whitehead's son Charles was interviewed on a 1945 radio program, which led to another magazine article, which led to a Reader's Digest article that reached a very large audience. Orville Wright, then in his seventies, felt compelled to respond and wrote an article, "The Mythical Whitehead Flight," which appeared in 1945 in U.S. Air Services, a publication with a far smaller readership.

The controversy remained relatively dormant until the 1960s, when William O'Dwyer, a retired Air Force major, accidentally discovered some photographs of Whitehead aircraft, though not in powered flight, in the attic of a Connecticut house. Thereafter, he devoted himself to researching Whitehead's work and became convinced he had flown. O'Dwyer contributed information to a second book by Randolph, "The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew," published in 1966.

O'Dwyer also wrote a book, "History by Contract," published in 1978. In it, he emphasized that a 1948 "contract" between the Smithsonian Institution and heirs of the Wright brothers unfairly withheld official recognition of Whitehead's achievements. The existence of the "contract" was not publicly known until 1975.

The Wright-Smithsonian "contract," which the Institution refers to as an "agreement," prohibits the Smithsonian from saying that anyone made a manned, powered, controlled airplane flight before the Wright brothers. It reads, in part:

Paragraph 2 (d)
"Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors 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".

If the Smithsonian fails to abide by the agreement, Paragraph 4 specifies, "possession of said airplane shall automatically revert to the Vendors"—the Wright heirs, who sold it for a nominal one dollar.

The agreement ended a lengthy and bitter feud between the Wright family and the Smithsonian over credit for the first controlled powered flight. Although the controversy was due to the Smithsonian's claim for the Langley Aerodrome, Whitehead supporters say the agreement unfairly withholds recognition of his work. Air Enthusiast magazine wrote in January 1988:

"The evidence amassed in his favour strongly indicates that, beyond reasonable doubt, the first fully controlled, powered flight that was more than a test "hop", witnessed by a member of the press, took place on 14 August 1901 near Bridgeport, Connecticut. For this assertion to be conclusively disproved, the Smithsonian must do much more than pronounce him a hoax while wilfully turning a blind eye to all the affidavits, letters, tape recorded interviews and newspaper clippings which attest to Weisskopf's genius."

Dr. Peter L. Jakab, chairman of the Aeronautics Division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM), said in 2005 that the agreement would not stop the Smithsonian from recognizing anyone as inventor of the airplane if indisputable evidence is found:

"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. 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."

Whitehead in his working clothes
Whitehead in his working clothes

William O'Dwyer wrote in Flight Journal magazine:

"Back in the 1960s when we began our investigation, we were informed that the Smithsonian NASM had no knowledge about Whitehead's early claims of powered flight until Stella Randolph's book came out in 1937. Nearly two decades later, we discovered the Smithsonian had produced a "Bibliography of Aeronautics" covering the years up through 1912; in it, a great number of the references are cross-indexed under the names of both Whitehead and Weisskopf Since the Museum's book covering references on hand in their collection shows they knew a lot about what was being reported about Whitehead's work and claims, it is hard to understand why the Smithsonian never once contacted Whitehead, or for that matter, ever contacted his family after his death in 1927. His engines, papers and original glass negatives were still at his home until the time his family moved to Florida after WW II. Unfortunately, little has survived: five of the books he studied along with a working scale model of his 1898 steam engine and some miscellaneous parts and wooden patterns salvaged by Stella Randolph in the mid-1930s. All else went to the town dump or to scrap-metal yards."

In 1968 the state of Connecticut officially recognized Whitehead as "Father of Connecticut Aviation". That did not sit well with the North Carolina legislature, although its members took a few years until they expressed their displeasure:

"Whereas, the North Carolina General Assembly repudiates the contention of a group of Connecticut residents and that State's Legislature, that Gustave Whitehead, a resident of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was the first man to achieve sustained, controlled flight in a heavier than air machine on August 14, 1901; and.... Whereas, Bridgeport is famous for another great showman, promoter and circus man, P. T. Barnum, who said, "There's a sucker born every minute."; and Whereas, the North Carolina General Assembly gives no credence to the false claim that Gustave Whitehead was the first man to achieve...sustained, controlled, powered flight.... Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Senate, the House of Representatives concurring..... The Wright Brothers made the world's first successful powered, sustained and controlled flights in an airplane at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the morning of December 17, 1903."


Because photographs have not been found or do not exist showing any of Whitehead's airplanes in flight, and only a hand-drawn sketch survives by the reporter from the Bridgeport Herald, it is difficult to fully substantiate the flight reports. Whitehead apparently could not afford to attempt powered flights later so they could be well-documented.

According to William O'Dwyer, the Bridgeport Daily Standard newspaper reported that photos showing Gustave Whitehead in successful powered flight did exist and were exhibited in the window of Lyon and Grumman Hardware store on Main Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut in October 1903.

Another missing photo that purportedly showed Whitehead in motor-driven flight was displayed in the 1906 First Annual Exhibit of the Aero Club of America at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The photo was mentioned in a January 27, 1906, Scientific American magazine article, pages 93 and 94, by aeronautical editor Stanley Beach, who helped finance Whitehead's work for several years. The article said the walls of the exhibit room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of inventors such as Whitehead, Berliner and Santos-Dumont. Other photographs showed airships and balloons in flight. The report said a single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's scale model machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight.

Aviation enthusiast Andy Kosch, a Connecticut high school science teacher, and State Senator George Gunther heard about yet another photo showing Whitehead in the air with his Number 22 airplane. They were told that a sea captain named Brown made a logbook entry about Whitehead flying over Long Island Sound and even photographed the airplane in flight. A friend rummaging through the attic of a house in East Lyme, Connecticut, told Kosch he came across the captain's leather-bound journal containing a picture of Whitehead in flight with a description of the spectacle. Later, when the friend learned of the journal's value, he attempted to retrieve it, but the owners had moved to California. Kosch eventually made contact with them, but they later told him they could not find the journal, and the search for logbook and photograph met a dead end.


The only known interview with Whitehead's wife happened in 1940, many years after the events of 1901 and 1902.

In a 1940 interview with reporter Michael D'Andrea of the Bridgeport Sunday Post, Louise Whitehead said her husband was always busy with motors and planes when he wasn't working in coal yards or factories to earn money for his aeronautical efforts. "I hated to see him put so much time and money into that work," she said.

Mrs. Whitehead said her husband's first words upon returning home from Fairfield on August 14, 1901, were an excited, "Mama, we went up!" Mrs. Whitehead, however, said she never saw any of her husband's flights.

Whitehead's efforts to solve the problems of flight took their toll on the family budget. Louise Whitehead had to work to help meet expenses."

Critics of the Whitehead claims have often referred to the second statement to discredit him. The following quote supplies an argument for Whitehead skeptics:

"Perhaps the last word in the matter should be left to Gustave Whitehead's wife, Louise Tuba Whitehead, who never recalled seeing her husband fly in his flying machines."

On the same webpage, Dick Howell's drawing is captioned, "Imaginative Drawing Of Gustave Whitehead Aloft In His Whitehead #21,"—making the presumption that no flight occurred—rather than "The sketch by Dick Howell, August 14, 1901 in The Bridgeport Herald"

Critics also point to Stanley Y. Beach, the son of the editor of Scientific American, and later himself editor of the magazine. Beach became an enemy of Whitehead after Whitehead refused further work on an airplane Beach designed. In 1937 Beach 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."

However, he had written earlier:

"I know that the airplane patented by him was inherently stable, laterally and longitudinally, and that it would always make a 'pancake' landing instead of a nose dive."

It would seem that for Beach to know this, he must have watched more than one flight and more than one landing of Whitehead's aircraft.

The Smithsonian denied ever having heard of Whitehead but later it was discovered that the Smithsonian's own publication about early aviator pioneers had many references to both the name Whitehead and Weisskopf. The Smithsonian further reported that Mr. Whitehead's wife and family knew nothing of the August 1901 flights, according to Dr. Jakab.

A witness supposedly named Andrew Cellie could not be found in the 1930s, but O'Dwyer concluded that the Bridgeport Herald misspelled his name and the man was actually Andrew Suelli, Mr. Whitehead's next door neighbor who had died before anyone discovered the discrepancy.

"O'Dwyer, searching through old Bridgeport city directories in the 1970s, found that Andrew Cellie, a Swiss or German immigrant also known as Zulli and Suelli, had moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1902. Meanwhile, Cellie's former neighbors in Fairfield assured O'Dwyer that Cellie had "always claimed he was present when Whitehead flew in 1901.""

"Members of the CAHA and the 9315th Squadron went door-to-door in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, and Milford to track down Whitehead's long-ago neighbors and helpers. They also traced some who had moved to other parts of Connecticut and the United States. Of an estimated 30 persons interviewed for affidavits or on tape, 20 said they had seen flights, eight indicated they had heard of the flights, and two felt that Whitehead did not fly."

One of the statements given by a witness in the 1930s seems to refute claims that Whitehead flew. Air Enthusiast wrote:

In James Dickie's affidavit of 2 April 1937, he states that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, the aircraft shown him "in pictures No 32 and 42" never flew, that he does not know Andrew Celli, and that he was not present on the morning of 14 August 1901. Although it initially appears very damaging to Weisskopf's claims, this document is riddled with errors and proven distortions. The dimensions of the aircraft described by Dickie have nothing at all in common with those of machine No 21, which Weisskopf tested on 14 August; therefore, Dickie cannot have been acquainted with that aeroplane. When Major O'Dwyer spoke with him about the affidavit, "(He) admitted that the engine described in it was one stationed upon the ground, having heavy boilers transmitting steam through a hose to the pipe, causing it to revolve for the testing of tethered aircraft . . . The engine was not intended for use in aircraft, and never was. In light of Dickie's later admissions, his affidavit of earlier date has little value and it would not have been published had all the facts been known earlier.

In 1934 Anton Pruckner, a mechanic who worked a few years with Whitehead, attested to the events of January 17, saying, "I saw him make the flight across the Sound to which he refers," but also said he did not remember the names of any other witnesses. However, the 1988 Air Enthusiast article (previously cited) says, "Pruckner was not present on the occasion, though he was told of the events by Weisskopf himself."

No source is given in that article for the idea that Pruckner was not present, while the affidavit from Pruckner clearly states he saw these flights personally.

The confusion created by people who said they witnessed different flights on August 14, 1901 was also used to discredit Whitehead.

Peter L. Jakab, of the National Air and Space Museum says:


"Despite rumors of an agreement between the Smithsonian and the Wright estate, an actual contract remained elusive. O'Dwyer noted that during a 1969 conversation with Paul Garber, then the NASM's curator of early aircraft, Garber denied that any such agreement existed, adding that he "could never agree to such a thing."

Then came, as O'Dwyer expressed it, "a whole new ball game." On June 29, 1975, at an annual dinner meeting of international museum directors at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, CAHA officers overheard a loud argument between Louis Casey, then a NASM curator, and Harold S. Miller, an executor of the Wright estate. During the argument, Miller used the word "contract" three times. Casey had mentioned that the wording of the label on the Wright Flyer was to undergo a change. Miller heatedly insisted it could not be changed "by contract." Miller won.

Learning of the public mention of a contract from CAHA veteran Harvey Lippincott, O'Dwyer renewed his efforts to obtain a copy of the agreement, which he had long suspected might be a key to NASM's reticence about Whitehead. Letters and visits between O'Dwyer and Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr., of Connecticut, plus senatorial clout and the Freedom of Information Act, were required to extract a copy of the contract from the Smithsonian. The agreement was dated November 23, 1948. One of two signers for the Wright estate was Harold S. Miller and, "for the United States of America," A. Wetmore, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution."


More recently, aviation researchers Louis Chmiel and Nick Engler acknowledged the possibility that Whitehead flew before the Wright brothers, but asserted that the achievement would be of little significance:

"While Whitehead believers insist that he was first to fly, no one claims that his work had any effect on early aviation or the development of aeronautic science. Even if someone someday produces a photo of No. 21 in flight on August 14, 1901, it will be nothing more than a footnote, a curious anomaly in the history of aviation."

At the time of Whitehead's activity, however, his work attracted the attention of various aeronautical groups, manufacturers and experimenters. For example, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, who was building a flying machine called the "Aerodrome", secretly sent an assistant to an exhibition to measure and find out as much technical details about Whitehead's airplane as possible. The assistant reported the aircraft did not appear to be airworthy.

"In October, 1904, Professor John J. Dvorak, Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in St. Louis, announced publicly, that Weisskopf was more advanced with the development of aircraft than other persons who were engaged in the work."

According to William O'Dwyer writing in Flight Journal, when the Wright brothers sought a lightweight engine for their powered experiments at Kitty Hawk, Octave Chanute urged Wilbur to look into the ones being built by Gustave Whitehead. Orville Wright denied they had ever visited Whitehead at his shop, stating they had only stopped in Bridgeport while on the train to Boston.

Statements given in the 1930s by two of Whitehead's workers claimed that the Wright brothers visited Whitehead's shop on Pine Street twice in 1902 and earlier. One of the men quoted Whitehead as saying, "Now I have told them all my secrets, and I bet they will never finance my airplane anyway." Asked in later years how he knew the two men were the Wright brothers, Pruckner replied, "They had to introduce themselves."

Interest in Whitehead's engines is also indicated by the recollections of his daughter Rose, who spoke of her father receiving numerous orders for them. Whitehead advertised and sold his engines to aircraft builders in the region. A notable customer was Charles R. Wittemann of Long Island and New Jersey. Wittemann was one of the earliest (1906) designers and manufacturers of airplanes and gliders in the US, and a builder in 1923 of the Army's huge triplane, the six-engine Barling bomber.

Even Stanley Beach stated that Weisskopf "deserves a place in early aviation, due to his having gone ahead and built extremely light engines and aeroplanes. The five-cylinder kerosene one, with which he claims to have flown over Long Island Sound-on 17 January 1902 was, I believe, the first aviation Diesel."

An online biography based on the O'Dwyer and Randolph books says the engine Whitehead used in Pittsburgh attracted the attention of an Australian aeronautical pioneer: "This steam machine was so ingenious that several years later Lawrence Hargrave told of using miniature designs of "Weisskopf-style" steam machines, as well as the "Weisskopf System" for his model trials in Australia."

The history reveals that Gustav Weisskopf was pursuing a passion for flight, sharing knowledge along the way. The Wright brothers obviously had the same passion for flight but were aggressively seeking patents in order to support the commercial outcome that they were foreseeing. Those various attitudes are still prevalent in research today.


In his first letter to American Inventor, Whitehead said because "the future of the air machine lies in an apparatus made without the gas bag, I have taken up the aeroplane and will stick to it until I have succeeded completely or expire in the attempt of so doing." His words bore an eerie resemblance to those in another letter, written in 1900, to aeronautical expert Octave Chanute: "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life." The author of that letter was Wilbur Wright.


Junius Harworth
Junius Harworth

Over the years, Whitehead had several young assistants who worked for no remuneration because they were fascinated by his projects. Pruckner, Harworth, Bert and Andy Papp and Louis Lazay were a few of the young boys who worked with him. The longest standing assistant was Junius Harworth. All of the assistants contacted years after the fact claimed that they learned much from Whitehead that helped them to obtain good employment as adults. Junius Harworth went on to become a foreman at the Packard Company Motor Plant.

See also


  • History by Contract, by William J. O'Dwyer; Publisher: Fritz Majer & Sohn (West Germany), 1978; ISBN 3922175007
  • Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead by Stella Randolph; Publisher: Places, Inc., 1937
  • The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew, by Stella Randolph; New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966

External links

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Published in July 2009.

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