Today in Transportation History – 1901: Did He or Didn’t He?

Aviation pioneer, Gustave Whitehead, may or may not have flown a powered aircraft two years before the Wright Brothers.

Gustave Whitehead, c. 1900.

Whitehead (or Weisskopf in his native German) emigrated to the US in the late 1800s, after a troubled childhood in Bavaria. He was trained as a mechanic and then forcibly ganged onto a ship in Hamburg in 1888 at the age of 14. In this and subsequent sailings between his native Europe and Brazil, he studied the weather, the patterns of the wind, and how birds flew. This provided the young Weisskopf with a firm knowledge on which to draw when he landed in New York in 1893 and began working for a toy manufacturer building kites and model gliders. He also anglicized his name at this time to Whitehead.

In 1896, Whitehead began working as a mechanic for the Boston Aeronautical Society, building full-size gliders and even an ornithopter (an early version of a helicopter). As early as 1899, a friend of Whitehead’s named Louis Darvarich claimed that he had built and flown a steam-powered monoplane in Pittsburgh (though no evidence or newspaper reports at the time support this story.)

Two years later, an article in Scientific American reported on Whitehead’s “novel flying machine” that was ready for preliminary trials in Connecticut. Newspapers also reported in May that Whitehead had tested his machine, unmanned, with 220 pounds of sand ballast using ropes on the ground for control. Finally, an article appeared in the August 18 edition of the Bridgeport Herald, that claimed Whitehead had successfully flown his Number 21 aircraft in a controlled powered flight for a half mile at 50 feet and landed safely.

However, subsequent investigations have cast doubt on the flight, and on the two witnesses who said they were at the scene, despite affidavits being taken in the 1930s. No reliable photographs exist of the machine flying on the day, or on any other day, and doubts remain about the newspaper article itself.

Whitehead continued to invent, building an aeronautical motor for the St. Louis World’s Fair, designing a 60-bladed helicopter (which was flown, but unmanned), and even constructing an automatic concrete-laying paving machine that was used to build a road north of Bridgeport. An industrial accident left Whitehead blind in one eye and suffering from heart problems, and he died in relative obscurity in 1927.

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