Few things say "staple of American history" like the names Orville and Wilbur Wright, the brothers who have long held the honor of building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight.
Yet like with so many other inventions throughout history, rumblings are rampant that those credited were not actually the first to make a particular discovery. In the case of the first human flight, the name Gustave Whitehead has been tossed around by aviation historians for years as the rightful owner of the Wrights' legacy.
At the heart of the matter is an article in the Bridgeport Herald of Connecticut describing how Whitehead, a German immigrant, flew for half a mile at an altitude of 50 feet on Aug. 14, 1901. Compelling on the surface? Indeed. But witnesses were few, some of them recanted and some called Whitehead a fabulist. There were no further flights, although he attempted many, and any photographic evidence to support the claim was missing – and thus, the Wright Brothers soared into history.
But now Jane's All the World's Aircraft, considered by many to be the authoritative publication on all things aviation, has deemed Whitehead’s 1901 flight to be the first successful powered flight in history, beating the Wright brothers by more than two years. Although Jane’s has historically backed the Wright’s claim to fame, the publishers note that new evidence presented by historian John Brown, especially the discovery of a missing photograph, convinced them to change their tune.
But as historians are wont to do, there is no shortage of debate about the topic.
In the opposite corner sit aviation experts at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Peter Jakab, associate director at the museum, finds the claim puzzling. He says the photo is too blurry (it was enlarged by 3,500 percent) and notes, "To my mind, it's really trying to see what you want to see in the image.” Jakab and his colleagues stand securely by the Wright brothers; there is ample evidence to prove it, and the evidence for Whitehead is too flimsy, they say.
But Whitehead supporters note that there is more than a bit of history at stake for the Smithsonian. The museum has built somewhat of an empire around the Wright brothers. Of particular interest is a contract held by the Smithsonian Institution with the estate of Orville Wright, which stipulates that the museum would lose custody of the Wright Flyer should it ever acknowledge that another aircraft was first in flight. Jakab says he would never let a contract stand in the way of a historical fact. Nonetheless, the presence of the contract complicates the matter.
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