From Popular Aviation, January 1935
Whitehead Precede Wright
In World's First Powered Flight?
By Stella Randolf and Harvey Phillips
Before 1901 had ended, Gustave Whitehead had built fifty-six
airplanes. The first ones were turned out without numbers being assigned
and that is why, in August, 1901, the machine under construction was
only No. 21.
One day, it was pushed into the street from the backyard of the
modest house, 241 Pine Street, which was then the Whitehead home. For
weeks women in the neighborhood had been exclaiming about the fineness
of the silk they were sewing into the wings of this airplane. Even a
young man, loitering about the neighborhood, was pressed into service to
No labor unions or NRA set the wages, for the young man received
twenty cents to the women's fifteen. Now, the wings were neatly folded
back against the boat-shaped canvas-covered body as it was being pushed
through the gate. Inside it, two engines were humming, one for
propelling the wheels on which it was to get its start upon the ground,
the other to turn the propellers when the machine was in the air. The
small boys of the neighborhood came running, attracted by the unusual.
Little Alexander Gluck was there and so was an older friend of Mr.
Whitehead, Louis Darvarich, who had worked with him long before they
came to Bridgeport in 1900. Other spectators came flocking, shouting and
exclaiming round-eyed at the monster. They drew excited breaths of awe,
and whistled through their teeth as the creature dashed down the road,
rose from the ground, not many feet higher than their heads, and flew
above the dirt road that was then Pine Street.
But too many children running about add to the dangers of such tests.
So, morning after morning, the plane tests were made before many of the
little ones were up and about — or many of their elders either. Even
then, one day Gustave Whitehead's heart was in his mouth as he barely
missed striking a little boy who ran excitedly into the pathway of his
On most of his test flights a mechanic-helper accompanied Gustave
Whitehead. Anton Pruckner remembers well some of these flights. One of
the longest was made in August, 1901, and was about a mile and a half in
length, as Gustave Whitehead wrote the editor of the "American
Inventor," who published the letter in the edition of April 1,
The Phillips Aeronautic Library furnished me the information that led
me to this letter and also on the long trail which has not ended, but
continues to broaden as it discloses the genius and ability of Gustave
The airplane used in 1901 had been constructed by Mr. Whitehead in
its entirety; both engine and plane were his own idea. It was a
monoplane with a four-cylinder two-cycle motor located forward. Ignition
was of the make and break type and Columbia dry batteries were used. The
gas tank was gravity-fed and held two gallons of petrol. The body of the
machine was constructed of pine, spruce, and bamboo, reinforced with
Shelby steel tubing and piano wires. The wing coverings were of Japanese
silk, varnished and fastened to the bamboo struts with white tape. The
wings spread out behind the two propellers, and were supported with
wires running to a central mast. The entire thing weighed approximately
800 pounds. With Mr. Whitehead aboard the weight was increased to about
The mile and a half flight, made August 14, 1901, occurred at
Lordship Manor, now a suburb of Bridgeport and took place somewhere in
the vicinity of the site of the present Sikorsky airplane factory.
Junius Harworth, then a young boy assistant of Mr. Whitehead, remembers
the flight distinctly and in detail.
Gustave Whitehead was modest about proclaiming his achievements. He
sought perfection. When he had flown, this was not sufficient. He must
do better. In fact, Gustave Whitehead was never satisfied. Ever since,
at an early age, he had constructed his first pair of wings and
attempted a secret flight with them, he had been dissatisfied with his
The great Lillienthal was his friend and model; successful gliding
was at that time his goal. When he could glide, Gustave Whitehead would
not be content until a motor drove his glider. A steam motor did it, but
it was too heavy to seem practical and it required too heavy a load of
fuel to send it far. Gunpowder, ammonia, acetylene, gasoline and even
kerosene served his purpose by turns.
And when he had mastered motor construction and had flown again and
again, he knew he had not yet reached the desideratum of flight.
Airplanes must rise vertically from the ground, declared Gustave
Whitehead to his dying day, if they were to become practical and to that
end he toiled on through the years.
He was one of the few men who made both his own airplane and motors.
So able was he at motor construction that he might have made a small
fortune from the manufacture of motors alone, had he been willing to
confine himself to this, but an inventor's genius cannot be confined so
readily. He constructed revolving motors, motors of two and more
cylinders, motors of increasing horsepower and a tester for determining
the thrust they would afford.
His tester, crude though it is, remains today as additional evidence
of the genius of this remarkable man. Much of his construction was done
by his own hands. Occasionally, a wooden pattern would be sent to some
shop to be made up into metal. Even his house, in which his widow lives
today, was constructed by his own hands with the aid of his then small
He was essentially the mechanic type, better able to carry out his
ideas in wood and metal than to work them out on paper or with
blueprints. So it was that Gustave Whitehead, instead of broadcasting
his flight of August 14, 1901, or any of his others previous to that,
confined himself to his self-appointed task. While he was striving for
perfection in the United States, Santos Dumont, in France, was steadily
pushing ahead toward his goal of constructing a petrol-driven airship,
or "'blimp" as it would be characterized today.
The afternoon of October 19, 1901, a group of frock-coated,
silk-batted, bearded officials importantly appeared at the Pare
d'Aerostation at St. Cloud. They represented the French Aero Club. In
addition to the officials, a considerable crowd had gathered. They had
come to watch Santos Dumont rise into the air, which he did at 2:43 P.
M. in his sixth airship, and take-off in the direction of Eiffel Tower.
Santos Dumont's interest in the Eiffel Tower lay in the offer of
100,000 francs that M. Henry Deutsch had offered as the prize for the
first petrol-driven airship that rose from the Pare d'Aerostation at St.
Cloud and circled the tower, returning to its starting point, all this
to be accomplished within the unheard of brief period of not more than a
half hour. Santos Dumont won the prize with 29 seconds to spare.
Above England floated a balloon in which rode the Hen. C. S. Rolls,
Frank Hedges Butler and Miss Hedges Butler of the United Kngdom, As they
floated they thought, and their thoughts resulted in the creation of an
Aero Club for their native isle. Promptly it was formed, and from this
beginning in 1901 the present Royal Aero Club traces its ancestry.
Throughout that same year, 1901, Captain Ferber, in France, and
Octave Chanute, in the United States, were continuing their research
with gliders and seeking means of turning them in circular movements in
the air. In the fall, at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights were also trying out a
glider, a biplane with the enormous wing area of 308 square feet. This
was larger than they had used when making their glider flight at Kill
Devil Hill, July 27, 1901.
Before winter had come, they could say they had learned one thing
that year, namely, that by shifting the position of the body while
operating the glider, the pilot could make his machine travel a distance
of as much as 300 feet. But they were not greatly encouraged. Said
Wilbur, "'Man will never fly in a thousand years." Chanute's
encouragement, however, did much to keep the brothers at work with their
research during the winter.
It was also the year 1901 that Samuel Pierpont Langley, having made
and flown steam-propelled airplane models and thus demonstrated the
necessary laws of aerodynamics, remarked, "I have brought to a
close the portion of the work which seemed specifically mine — the
demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight-and for the
next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the
idea, it is probable that the world may look to others."
That winter of 1901-02 was a busy one for Gustave Whitehead. On the
afternoon of January 17, 1902, the weather looked promising. It was the
day he and his helpers had been seeking, so they quietly took their new
avion, No. 22, to the beach outside Bridgeport and started its kerosene
motor. The intention was to make some short trial flights, out over the
Gustave Whitehead took his place at the controls of the machine, the
men gave it a preliminary push, and it trundled away on its three wheels
and was off! The plane performed so admirably that its owner continued
his flight for a distance of two miles over the Sound, following the
shore line of the beach, although he had intended to make only short
flights of not more than half a mile. The men pulled it ashore, and now
Gustave Whitehead proposed to fly across the Sound.
He took off again, and at a height of 200 feet, was steadily
progressing out across the Sound and out of the view of his helpers,
when it occurred to him that it might be interesting to see if he could
make his machine turn about and go back to its starting place. He turned
the rudder slowly and drove one propeller faster than the other. With a
thrill he realized his scheme was working.
Steadily and rapidly the machine came about until he was facing his
starting point. As he neared his rejoicing helpers on the shore, he
slowed the speed of the plane and again dropped it gently into the
water. It had traveled a distance of approximately seven miles, not
across the Sound, but it had made the first turn in the air so far as
has been recorded. Thus, on January 17, 1902, Gustave Whitehead carried
out the suggestion of Langley that others should demonstrate the
practicability of mechanical flight.
That he accomplished this feat, Gustave Whitehead testified himself
in a letter to the editor of the "American Inventor," to which
the editor gave sufficient credence to publish it. This fact is further substantiated
by affidavit of Whitehead's assistant, present upon this occasion. Once
more Gustave Whitehead had set out to travel a given distance in the air
and had exceeded all expectations.
The machine used upon this occasion was similar to the one used in
August of 1901. The thrill of the experience exceeded any within memory
except that early one in the Oakland suburb of Pittsburgh in the Spring
of 1899, when much cruder, steam-driven model had carried him and his
assistant a distance of almost a mile.
Firemen from the nearby No. 24 Engine Company had lent their
assistance that time to start the machine, while the assistant fed
charcoal to the flame which heated water in the ordinary kitchen boiler
which they were using. The firebox had a sheet of asbestos at its base,
then a sheet of iron over that, while the walls were made of clay. The
engine itself was a two-cylinder one with a 4-inch bore and 10-inch
No one expected the machine to go far on that eventful day. A
distance of a few rods would have been sufficiently convincing in those
days. But as they went onward and upward, steered by Gustave Whitehead
at the controls in the front, they exceeded the distance originally
planned and found themselves headed for a three-story brick house.
Afraid to attempt to swerve, there was but one hope, namely that they
might clear the top of the house. But they failed. Down fell the
machine, all but demolished, while the agonized fireman in the back
writhed with the pain of a scalded leg. The glasses for indicating
water-level in the boilers had broken, permitting steam to envelop the
While all this unusual performance was taking place in Pittsburgh in
1899, two young men were zealously testing glider models in their home
in Dayton, Ohio. Orville and Wilbur Wright had not solved to their
satisfaction a problem which troubled them, a problem of controlling and
balancing winged machines in the air, and their first man-carrying
glider was nothing but a dream as yet. In Germany Graf von Zeppelin was
busily overseeing the construction of his rigid airship, while in France
Santos Dumont was testing petrol-driven airships and Captain Ferber was
experimenting with heavier-than-air machines.
Spring went by, then summer and one rainy day in October of that
year, 1899, a crowd stood in the rain at Stanford Park, near Market
Harborough, in England, to see Percy Pilcher make his first test of a
power-driven glider. Percy Pilcher looked at the sky and shook his head.
The weather was not to be trusted. But the crowd grew restless. The long
wait and the rain were fast convincing them of the soundness of logic
they had often repeated, "If man had been intended to fly, God
would have given him wings."
Not to disappoint the crowd utterly, Pilcher prepared to make a
glider flight in his tried and trusty "Hawk" as he had done
many times before. All was ready. Pilcher took his place and the machine
was being towed rapidly over the ground when the tow-rope broke. The
crowd murmured in disgust. Hastily the rope was repaired and another
start was made.
Breathlessly, they saw Pilcher sailing splendidly into the air, up
and up to a height of nearly thirty feet--suddenly a guide wire in the
tail snapped. The tail collapsed. And before the eyes of the crowd could
credit what they saw, down came Pilcher and his "Hawk" in a
heap upon the crowd. Two days later Pilcher passed away without
regaining consciousness, one of the earliest martyrs to aviation.
Like Gustave Whitehead, Pilcher designed and constructed his own
motor and plane. His plane, in which the motor was to be used, had been
a triplane, while the plane used by Gustave Whitehead in Pittsburgh the
preceding spring had been a monoplane. Gustave Whitehead's flight had
been brief too, not over a half-mile--less than 2,640 feet. Yet it was
more than four years later that the Kittyhawk flight of 852 feet,
lasting only 59 seconds, took place and eventually won the acclaim of
The realization that he had flown was all the mechanic-engineer had
over which to rejoice as he lay for weeks in the hospital recovering
from his wounds. Poor comfort it was without a doubt, but it spurred on
the enthusiasm he had shared with his inventor-friend, Gustave
Whitehead. They had been taking turns working in a coal mine at Wilcox,
Pennsylvania, while in spare time Whitehead repaired guns and did like
odd jobs to help earn the extra pennies his experiments required. With a
young family to support, money was not too plentiful, but true inventive
enthusiasm is not easily downed.
Misinformed by so-called scientists of the day regarding comparative
strengths of different metals under steam pressure, these two men had
tested out boiler after boiler of different metals. And boiler after
boiler had been blown to bits as they tried and tried for the
mathematical and scientific exactness they required.
The neighbors had not always shared the enthusiasm of their inventive
friends during this stage of their labors, particularly as much of the
experimental work had to be done after working hours at night, and many
a neighboring window pane went hurtling into the darkness along with the
bursting boilers. But the tests resulted in the finding of a boiler that
would somewhere nearly meet the requirements of the inventor.
A test model had been made first, then the one that really flew.
Today, the model looks a little odd to be adapted to airplane
propulsion, but it is apparently as sturdy and ready to demonstrate as
the day on which Gustave Whitehead turned it out in his workshop.
When Gustave Whitehead's friend and assistant 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
Gustave Whitehead sent for his family to join him. Although the
employment was better in Bridgeport, spare time for indulging inventive
ambitions was even more scarce. Louis Darvarich, the mechanic friend,
married and the demands of growing families compelled both men to devote
less of their time and funds to the inventions Gustave Whitehead's busy
brain could devise.
Often, however, the demands of genius were too strong. Both Mrs.
Whitehead and the children found it necessary to seek employment, while
in a fever of the certainty of success that would compensate for all
privations, Gustave Whitehead devoted time and money without stint to
Almost any of the local machine shops were glad enough to employ him
when the need for more funds drove him to them, for he was a master
mechanic. But he remained only long enough to acquire what his immediate
needs demanded and he was gone, back to his beloved inventions.
Men of means, fired with his enthusiasm, came, saw, listened,
contributed for a time to his experiments, then grew discouraged and
disgusted when his insistence upon perfection caused Gustave Whitehead
to destroy one after another of his airships and start anew.
To the promoter it seemed well enough that his invention flew. To a
public that could not then vision a flight much beyond a quarter of a
mile, such demonstrations would have been convincing enough. But brief
flights, running starts, too heavy materials and half-realized dreams
were not for Gustave Whitehead. There were quarrels. Charges of
unfairness by promoter and inventor were sometimes hurled. But through
it all Gustave Whitehead remained steadfast in his search for the
Young boys and men, mechanically inclined but lacking means, were his
most eager assistants. It was nothing for them to linger over their work
until early morning hours, absorbed with the same interest that drove
their inventor friend, while they gleaned unforgettable lessons in
mechanics from him.
Gustave Whitehead did not fly any more after his circle over Long
Island Sound that 17th day of January, 1902. The weather was becoming
threatening, the day was nearing its close, and in spite of the
enthusiasm of his workers, the plane was returned to the Pine Street
Winter come in earnest. Through its storms the plane rested
unprotected in the yard; there was no money to secure a shelter for it,
because only a short time before, Whitehead and his financial backer had
quarreled. Spring came and the motor had been ruined; the plane itself
was not thought trustworthy in view of the ravages of winter. There was
nothing for it but to construct another.
In April, 1902, John Whitehead, a brother, arrived from California
and volunteered to assist his brother in his construction of airplanes.
Neither had sufficient money, however, so both found employment and
continued the labors at night as best they could. When there was not
sufficient money for airplane construction, gliding could still be
accomplished and Gustave Whitehead became a very proficient glider.
A young reporter, name MacNamara, found Gustave Whitehead and
"his delightful Weber and Fields dialect" interesting copy.
Now editor of the Bridgeport "Times," he tells me he once
called upon Whitehead just in time to see a young assistant make a
flight in a glider. MacNamara asked to be permitted to do likewise, and
his wish was granted. A triplane glider was one of the most interesting
of Whitehead's inventions.
In September and October, 1902, the Wright brothers were ready to
believe they had pretty well mastered the art of gliding, for during
those months they had completed nearly a thousand glides, some of them
more than 600 feet in length. A motor for their plane was the next step.
Meanwhile, in Bridgeport, there appeared a picturesque figure. He was
Colonel Buffalo Jones, characterized so well by Zane Grey. Buffalo Jones
had his own ideas of inventions and he had his ideas concerning who
could construct the type of engine he had in mind, to his satisfaction.
Gustave Whitehead's genius appealed to him, and as neither knew the
probable cost of such work, the figure agreed upon was too small for
Gustave Whitehead to realize any profit by the time the work was
He then took up building motors for others for a time, hoping thus to
secure funds for his own work. But his profits were small and progress
with his own engine was slow. When he had completed his new type engine,
for the also newly constructed airplane, although it was a forty
horsepower, four cylinder, four-cycle gasoline motor, it was not
sufficiently powerful to lift the plane. To determine the thrust
required, he tested the plane by attaching it to a Locomobile car and
having it towed for a distance. Finding that a motor of sixty horsepower
was required, the brothers set to work again.
To make sure of plenty of power to spare, they designed a 200
horsepower, eight-cylinder, four-cycle, V-shaped motor. They were
encouraged now, for a new backer from New York had sought them out and,
assured of funds, they felt success was within their reach. But the new
backer proved their undoing, for he insisted upon testing the new motor
in a boat on the Sound, and in his eagerness he advanced the spark too
rapidly, the boat capsized and lost the motor.
Again, Gustave Whitehead started construction, but now 1903 had more
than half run its course, and Professor Langley, encouraged by the War
Department to renewed effort, was busily attempting to launch a large
duplicate of his flying models, a duplicate large enough to carry a man
from a houseboat on the Potomac. The means of launching was by a catapult.
Unfortunately, the catapult failed to operate satisfactorily and the
plane caught and was thrown into the water on each of the two attempts
Langley made to launch it. The public, always ready to doubt if the
Deity actually intended man to fly, could not heap enough abuse upon
When December 17th came, there was activity in the Wright Brothers'
camp at Kitty Hawk. A few days later came reports of flights, not at
first generally accepted, flights the brothers had succeeded in making
in a power-driven man-carrying, heavier-than-air flying machine.
The Wright Brothers had much in their favor at all times. They had
independent means, they had the encouragement of others working in the
same field, they belonged to organizations where their work would find
reception and publicity, they spoke English fluently and their
background was such that they knew how to use it skillfully to carry
their audience with them.
They took out patents promptly and had every means of establishing
their claims. And so, to the Wright Brothers, after years of bitter
controversy with those who believe in the efficiency of Professor
Langley's plane, has been generally conceded the palm of having been the
first to fly.
Disheartened and discouraged, Gustave Whitehead had still not lost
sight of the fact that an airplane would never be really practical until
it could rise vertically from the ground. He had always been in the
forefront of those who could foresee what were the needs of practical
aviation. He had been early in putting wheels under his planes to
Wrights were still using a pylon and derrick arrangement several years
after their first accredited flight.
Gustave Whitehead was among the earliest to seek light weight and
strength through the use of aluminum and silk. He was one of the few who
made both motor and plane for his airplanes. But now he turned to his
ideal, a helicopter. One such helicopter was completed but, although his
engine lifted it, he saw a more powerful one was needed, so he started
construction of another larger helicopter along the same lines and a
more effective engine. But once more he and his backers disagreed. The
law was with the latter and all his shops and equipment were seized. It
was the final blow to a long-suffering genius. Gustave Whitehead never
lost his interest in aviation, but he died without completing his