Wright Brothers Weren't First to Fly: Expert

But Smithsonian refutes claim

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 19, 2013 9:12 AM CDT

(Newser) – A newly discovered photo is fueling a controversial theory that a German immigrant in Connecticut was really "first in flight"—not the Wright brothers. An amateur historian found a photo in Germany that some say shows the real first plane flight, by one Gustave Whitehead. The photo—which is of a 1906 exhibition in which a suspected image of Whiteheads's flight appears on the back wall—would confirm a news article about Whitehead's flight published in Connecticut in 1901, some two years before the Wrights flew, NPR reports. "Our license plate should say 'firster in flight,'" says a Connecticut mayor.

The historian sent the photo, along with dozens of additional articles he'd found on Whitehead's flight, to leading flight publication Jane's All the World's Aircraft. Its editor says Whitehead deserves the honor; as Jalopnik reports, the pilot's Aug. 14, 1901, feat was reported to have lasted for more than half a mile, at an altitude of around 40 feet. "The evidence cannot be shaken off anymore," he notes. Experts at the Smithsonian disagree. The image is "very, very indistinct" (it was blown up by 3,500% to reveal the back-wall image) and the numerous articles could be re-reports of just a single article, one director says. But the Smithsonian was required, upon obtaining the Wrights' plane in 1948, to maintain that the Wrights were first, says the magazine editor. The museum official says the facts take precedence. (See the photo in question here, midway down the page.)

Gustave Whitehead and his 1901 monoplane. His infant daughter, Rose, sits on her father's lap, and the engine that powers the front landing-gear wheels is on the ground in front of the others.   (Wikimedia)
Whitehead and his Condor No. 21 in the spring of 1901. This is not the photo in question.   (Flight Historical Research Foundation Gustav Weisskopf)
Part of patent application #821,393, dated May 21, 1903, submitted by Orville and Wilbur Wright to the US Patent Office for their Flying Machine.   (AP Photo/U.S National Archives Records Administration)
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