Kid Reporters

First in Flight

Did Gustave Whitehead beat the Wright Brothers to the sky?

April 29, 2012

TFK Kid Reporter Brian Forbes visits the Gustave Whitehead Flying Machine Exhibit at the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Most people think that the Wright Brothers invented the first airplane. But a recent exhibit at the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has made visitors question history.  

TFK Kid Reporter Brian Forbes visited the museum in December, where the Gustave Whitehead Flying Machine Exhibit was on display. The exhibit included a model of Whitehead’s Aircraft Number 21. Eyewitnesses at the time of Whitehead’s flight in Fairfield, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901, claimed that the plane flew more than a half-mile. It was two years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.

History in the Making

Whitehead was born in Germany in 1874. He moved to the United States in 1895. As a boy, Whitehead was determined to fly when no one had before. But he became orphaned at 13, and went to work as a sailor on a ship. During his time at sea, Whitehead studied the way seagulls flew and how the water and the boat’s shape helped the ship to move.  Later, Whitehead designed his aircraft to look like a boat hull with large wings.

The Discovery exhibit included proof of the flight: an article from the Bridgeport Sunday Herald newspaper, dated August 18, 1901. The paper covered the flight with a drawing. The caption read, “Whitehead’s flying machine soaring above the trees.” The exhibit also showcased photographs of Whitehead with his inventions and sworn statements from eyewitnesses to the flight.

Kid Reporter
Brian Forbes

So, why does Whitehead not get credit for being the first to fly? Adam Zuckerman, a curator at the Discovery Museum, has a theory. “Whitehead didn’t go out to sell his story. As soon as he flew, he went back to his workshop to see what he could make better,” Zuckerman told TFK. “The Wright Brothers spent years giving lectures about how they flew first. Their marketing skills put everyone else in the shadows.”

It wasn’t easy for the Wright Brothers to convince people either, Zuckerman says. Even though they had photos and witnesses of their flight, it took more than 40 years for the Smithsonian Museum to finally accept the claim in 1942.

Try, Try Again

In 1902, Whitehead tested his second airplane model, Number 22. The aircraft flew a five-mile loop over Long Island Sound. But despite being a pioneer in flight, Whitehead was a bad businessman, as museum visitors learned from the exhibit. He was accused of spending his customers’ money on his airplanes and lost his workshop in a lawsuit. He died at the age of 57 of a heart attack.

However, Whitehead’s legacy lives on through exhibits such as these, which continue to ask questions about who took to the skies first. “The critical thing about history is that we get the story right and be open to new evidence,” Zuckerman said. 

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