Who Was First?

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ere the Wright brothers the first to fly a powered aircraft? And if not, what effect would this have on the history of aviation?

The answers are "no" and "none at all."

The Wright brothers never claimed to be the first to fly. In his earliest scientific paper, presented to the Western Society of Engineers in 1901, Wilbur Wright alluded to English inventor Hiram Maxim, who launched a steam-powered biplane with a three-man crew on  an unintentional flight in 1894 when a restraining device failed. Both the crew and the aircraft survived in tact, but Maxim never flew it again. Perhaps he realized from his one brief hop that the machine was uncontrollable.

Wilbur and Orville Wright wished to be remembered for making the first controlled and sustained powered flight. Their greatest contribution to aviation was the development of three-axis aerodynamic controls roll, pitch, and yaw and the piloting skills needed to use them effectively.

Even if it could be shown that the Wrights were not the first to achieve controlled flight, this revelation would have little effect on history. It is generally accepted that Robert Fulton was not the first person to build a steamboat, nor was Thomas Edison the first to make an incandescent electric light. History, however, rarely honors inventors just for being first. It is much kinder to those who are the first to effect a change in their world, for it is these people who are the most memorable. Fulton, for instance, demonstrated a practical steamboat to a receptive audience. News of his accomplishment precipitated the rise of steam-powered navigation. Edison not only designed light bulbs, but also developed the equipment for generating and delivering the electrical power needed to make electric light a practical alternative to gas light.

The same is true of the Wright brothers. As early as 1902, reports of their successful gliding experiments and descriptions of their gliders impressed scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. It positively galvanized the French and led to a flurry of experiments with heavier-than-air flying machines. Type du Wright aircraft airplanes whose designs were derived from descriptions of Wright gliders and Flyers were the first successful powered flying machines in Europe and America.

By 1908, the Wrights had developed a practical airplane capable of carrying two people and flying for an extended period of time (as long as the gasoline lasted). For the first time, the brothers demonstrated their invention before large audiences, showing the skills they had learned to control their machine in the air. In 1909, they began to teach these skills to students. These events not their first tentative flights in 1903 mark the beginning of modern aviation as far as most of the world was concerned.  Within three years, aviators were flying successfully in every part of the globe. Aviation records for speed, altitude, and endurance were shattered almost daily as pilots and engineers took the Wright's basic concepts and added their own ideas. Airplanes evolved quickly and by World War I showed only a superficial resemblance to pioneer Wright aircraft. But they all used variations of the Wright control system and pilots used the basic flying skills the Wrights had developed. This remains true even today.

It is remotely possible that at some time before December 17, 1903 when the Wrights flew their first powered airplane that someone somewhere made a controlled, sustained powered flight. But if they did, they did not effectively communicate this achievement to  aeronautical scientists or the world at large. They did not file patents, publish plans, make repetitive demonstrations, or teach others how to fly. Their work, however ingenious it might have been, had no effect on the development of aviation. Consequently, even if it could be proved that someone flew before the Wrights, it's likely that his or her name would never amount to anything more than an interesting footnote in the history of aviation.

As time goes on, it seems less likely that historians will turn up conclusive evidence of an obscure aviator who beat the Wrights to the punch. There are several interesting candidates, but their supporters have yet to prove their case.

Most of the evidence that has been offered are newspaper stories and affidavits, neither of which is considered conclusive proof. Browse through the newspapers from any large city between 1860 and 1900, and you are likely to find stories about successful flying machines. One of our members once spent an afternoon in the Denver Public Library (Denver, Colorado) looking up information on Jerome B. Blanchard, a one-time prospector and patent-medicine salesman who built several aircraft in the 1890s. In the course of this investigation, he turned up three stories about other local aviators who flew successfully, beginning in 1869! While one or more of these newspaper stories may have been true, it's much more likely that they were all fantasy. Aeronautical hoaxes have been a tradition in American journalism since the 1844 when Edgar Allen Poe, newly arrived from England and in desperate need of money to hire a doctor for his ailing wife, concocted a fantastic story about a "steering balloon" the Victoria that had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in three days. He sold this story to the New York Sun, which never thought to check Poe's sources.

Even stories in professional journals such as Scientific American and The Inventor cannot be taken at face value. Few of these stories are researched articles; most are letters to the editor. In these letters, would-be aviators stretched the truth or fabricated successful flights to attract investors and finance their aeronautical research. Editors published the letters without questioning their accuracy for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that aviation stories made good copy. And when the editors wrote an actual article themselves, their research often left something to be desired. The 1904 Scientific American article that recounts the Wright flights of December 17, 1903 is drawn from a story in the Virginian Pilot newspaper. The Pilot reporters fabricated most of this story, having nothing more than a tip from the telegraph operator. The Scientific American article repeats these fabrications.

Affidavits from eye-witnesses to supposed flights are just as suspect.  They become more so as the elapsed time between the flight and the deposition lengthens. Research into "recovered memories" has shown that because most people like to be helpful, they can often be coaxed by investigators into misremembering dates and events  particularly if the investigators are insistent or provide positive reinforcement (smiles, expressions of gratitude) for remembering a date or event in a particular way. A. V. Roe, a pioneer aviator, collected a large number of affidavits to prove that he had been the first person to fly in England. But actual correspondence between Roe and other aviators from that time (among them Orville Wright) showed that the flights he made took place sometime after the dates that the witnesses had been prompted to remember. More to the point, Stella Randolf presented multiple affidavits for Gustav Whitehead being first to fly, painstakingly collected from his friends and neighbors. But she casts aspersions on all of them in the very beginning of her book on Whitehead as she misremembers an event from her own past. She tells of her father making a comment upon reading a well-known article on the Wright brothers that he could not possibly have seen because it was written after his death!

What is needed to prove a claim that someone else was first to fly is evidence that corroborates the newspaper stories and affidavits diaries, letters, scientific notebooks, blueprints, photographs of airplanes in flight. So far, none of the claimants have produced corroborating evidence sufficient to unseat the Wright brothers from their widely accepted place in history as the first to make a sustained and controlled powered flight, or as the inventors of the first practical airplane.

An Interesting Note:

Historians vs. Zealots

In studying these matters, we have found that the accounts of aviators who are said to have flown before the Wright brothers fall into two categories.

Most of these stories are historical, such as the accounts of the Ezekiel Airship or the experiments of Richard Pearse. They have been pieced together by conscientious researchers whose purpose is to present an accurate picture of their subject and his aeronautical accomplishments. They expose little-known but fascinating chapters in aviation history that deserve to be remembered.

A few mostly concerning Gustav Whitehead and Alberto Santos Dumont are canonical stories told by zealots. For these well-meaning folks, their accounts  are not so much historical as they are a belief system, although their subjects do deserve a place in aviation history. But these zealots ignore or modify the rules – called historiographics – by which historians winnow the kernels of truth from the chaff of memory. They either exaggerate the accomplishments of their subject or denigrate the accomplishments of others. As a result, their accounts often do their subjects more harm than good.

Historians construct a story to fit the facts; zealots construct the facts to fit the story. We report history here zealously. ; )

History records several pioneers who made manned hop-flights before the Wright brothers. None of these flights, however, were sustained and controlled.

In 1874, a young French sailor piloted Felix du Temple's monoplane down a ramp and into the air for a few seconds. The hot-air engine could not sustain the machine in flight. The airplane apparently had an elevator to control pitch and a rudder for yaw, but there were no roll controls.

In 1884, Alexander Mozhaisky, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, launched a steam-powered monoplane down a ramp near St. Petersburg, Russia. It was airborne for 75 to 100 feet (23 to 30 meters), but could not sustain flight. Nor did Mozhaisky provide any controls. The single occupant -- I.N. Golubev -- was only along for the (mercifully short) ride.

In 1890, Clement Ader became the first pilot in history to take off from level ground. Near Gretz, France, he managed to fly about 165 feet (50 meters) just a few inches off the ground in his steam-powered Eole. His 20 horsepower engine, however, could not sustain the machine in flight. The Eole had only the most rudimentary controls -- Ader planned to use a rudder to steer right and left and vary the speed of the engine to climb and descend. There were no roll or pitch controls.

In 1893, Hiram Maxim (the inventor of the machine gun) built a huge biplane-like test rig with twin propellers, each driven by an 180 horsepower steam engine. It ran along a 1800-foot (549 meters) straight track which allowed it to rise only a few inches into the air. In 1894, an axle broke during a test run, the rig escaped the restraining track, and it was in free flight for a few seconds before the crew shut down the engines. It might have sustained itself in flight -- it certainly had ample power -- but it had no controls other than two elevators, one forward and one aft.

In 1898, Augustus Herring -- co-inventor of the Chanute - Herring Glider -- attempted to fly a powered version of that airplane in St. Joseph, Michigan. The compressed-air engine could not sustain flight; Herring's best hops were no more that 50 to 75 feet (15 to 23 meters). He had no means of controlling the aircraft other than shifting his body weight.

German immigrant Gustav Whitehead is said to have flown briefly on August 14, 1901 in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  The account is controversial;  Whitehead claimed wildly successful flights as early as 1893 and continued until 1903. No plans for any of his aircraft survive (he claimed to have built over 40), and the existing photos do not clearly show a means of control.

The Reverend Burrell Cannon built the Ezekiel Airship using the Book of Ezekiel in the Bible as his blueprint. In the autumn of 1902, it made an unplanned and uncontrolled flight of about 160 feet (49 meters) while two workers where testing its engine.

New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse made several hop flights early in the 20th century. Eyewitnesses recalled these flights occurred in 1902 and 1903, but Pearse himself wrote that he did not begin his aerial experiments until 1904. Whatever the dates, Pearse's drawings show the aircraft lacked a rudder and was not fully controllable.

Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his 14-Bis near Paris, France in the fall of 1906. In October, his best flight covered 196 feet (60 meters); in November, he stretched that to 721 feet (220 meters). Both flights ended when his aircraft entered a roll that Santos-Dumont could not stop and he decided to land, so there is some controversy whether or not these were completely controlled flights. Nonetheless, they are counted as the first "official" flights in Europe.

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A History of the Airplane/Who Was First?

Experimenters Who Claimed to be First to Fly


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