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Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2012 
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'What has not been examined impartially has not been well examined. Skepticism is therefore the first step toward truth.' -Dennis Diderot, philosopher (1713-1784)

Old myths die hard. For example: the Wright brothers were co-equals in aviation innovation, right? Wrong. Author John Evangelist Walsh ably proved in his biography of the Wrights, One Day at Kittyhawk (1975), that Wilbur was the leader, Orville the follower-Wilbur the genius, his younger brother the junior assistant.

How did the notion that they were 'coequals' emerge as fact? Wilbur died in 1912. Orville, by controlling the Wright archives, influenced history. In the official biography, authorized by Orville 30 years after Wilbur's death, the brothers came out as coequals, with Orville more often than not playing the larger role.

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Another question: Who made the world's first powered airplane flight? The Wright brothers, of course, on December 17, 1903. Or perhaps not. Some historians believe that on August 14, 1901, at Fairfield, Conn., Gustave Whitehead achieved powered flight-two years and four months before the Wrights' first flight.

Which leads to a further question: Who was Gustave Whitehead? Many voice the view that Whitehead's work as an aviation pioneer has yet to receive a full and objective study.

A longtime leader of the efforts to learn the truth about Gustave Whitehead is Major William J. O'Dwyer, U.S. Air Force Reserve (ret.), of Fairfield, Conn. He was a World War II flight instructor and later a ferry pilot with the Air Transport Command. In postwar years, O'Dwyer became a building contractor in Fairfield, a job that, in 1963, led to his involvement in the Whitehead saga. In the attic of a house owned by the mother of Lt. Col. Thomas Armitage, a fellow member of the 9315th Air Force Reserve Squadron, of Stratford, Conn., O'Dwyer ran across photographs of Whitehead's 1908-1910 aerial experiments. The photos were in family albums of Armitage's late uncle, Arthur K.L. Watson, who had helped finance Whitehead's work in those years. The pictures bore the title 'Whitehead's effort' and nothing more.

'As pilots,' said O'Dwyer recently, 'we sensed that the pictures had historical significance and should be in a museum. So we took them to Harvey Lippincott, founder, and at the time president, of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (CAHA) in Hartford. Soon we learned that Whitehead's claimed flights of 1901 and 1902 had allegedly taken place in our hometowns of Fairfield, Bridgeport and Stratford. We'd stumbled on a mystery from which we couldn't walk away.'

Today, 30 years later and having spent a'small fortune' on his detective work, O'Dwyer is convinced that those historians who have labeled Whitehead an empty dreamer or an outright charlatan are way off base. 'It's strange,' he said, 'that those opinions evolved without extensive research, official inquiry or probe.'

Research showed that Whitehead's 1901 airplane-a high-wing monoplane with an enclosed fuselage and two propellers up front-was closer to today's lightplane configurations than any built by his contemporaries. His U.S. aviation 'firsts' numbered more than 20. They included, to name but a few, aluminum in engines and propellers, wheels for takeoff and landing, ground-adjustable propeller pitch, individual control of propellers (to aid in directional control), folding wings for towing on roads (resulting in what was possibly the world's first roadable airplane), silk for wing covering, and concrete for a runway. He built more than 30 aircraft engines and sold them to customers as far west as California. An earlier student of Whitehead's life and career was the late Stella Randolph of Garrett Park, Md., author of two books, Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead (1937) and Before the Wrights Flew (1966). Despite details, documentation and photos of Whitehead's airplanes, gliders and engines, the books were denounced by leading aeronautic agencies, including the Smithsonian Institution and the American Institute of Aeronautics. They described Randolph as 'unqualified' and her books as 'unreliable.'

In late 1963, O'Dwyer assumed duties as head of a research committee jointly sponsored by the CAHA and the 9315th Air Force Rescue Squadron. He began with eight pages of leads compiled by Harold Dolan, a Sikorsky Aircraft engineer and vice president/secretary of the CAHA. The Whitehead/Wright/Smithsonian evidence amassed by O'Dwyer now fills 20 file drawers in his home near Fairfield Center, with an orderly overflow of bulging cardboard boxes reaching from his small office into adjacent rooms. The CAHA information on Whitehead is filed at the New England Air Museum at Bradley International Airport, Windsor Locks, Conn., under the stewardship of archivist Harvey Lippincott.

To date, the total evidence, based on three decades of research, has convinced O'Dwyer and others that history has indeed been 'tampered with.'

In addition, the record was spelled out in O'Dwyer's book History by Contract, published in Germany in 1978, with Stella Randolph as coauthor. The book accused the national Air and Space Museum (NASM) of an apparent conspiracy of silence interspersed with behind-the-scenes demeaning of Whitehead's efforts. The net result, O'Dwyer and Randolph alleged, made Whitehead a virtual nonentity in aviation annals.

Gustave Whitehead was born Gustave Alvin Weisskopf on January 1, 1874, in Leuterhausen, Bavaria, Germany. Growing up in the era of Otto Lilienthal, the German glider pioneer, young Weisskopf became obsessed with the idea of flying. Later, he met and corresponded with Lilienthal, learning something of the rudiments of flight.

Orphaned at age 12, Weisskopf worked his way to Brazil as a seaman a few years later. During his four years at sea, he showed aptitude for the many mechanical skills needed aboard ship. Still dreaming of flying, he studied the flight of sea birds. He also survived four shipwrecks, the last of which put him ashore in 1894 on the Gulf Coast near the Florida Panhandle.

Weisskopf wandered northward, surviving on whatever work he could find. He reached Boston in 1897 after learning that the Boston Aeronautical Society had a job opening for'someone with kite and glider experience.' He was hired mainly because of his work with Lilienthal. Financed by the society, he built a biplane/ornithopter, a man-powered craft with flapping midwings. Not surprisingly, it failed to fly.

Weisskopf's travels next took him to New York City, where he demonstrated kites for the Horseman Toy Company and met his future wife, Louise Tuba, a Hungarian emigr. The couple's next stop was Buffalo, where they were married; then Baltimore, where their name was Anglicized to Whitehead. They then went to Pittsburgh, where Gustave began his efforts at powered flight.

In the spring of 1899, after finding work as a coal miner, he built a two-man aircraft powered by a steam engine. The project ended when the craft, with Whitehead as pilot and Louis Darvarich aboard as a stoker, crashed into a three-story building. Darvarich suffered lifelong scarring from steam burns and spent three weeks in a hospital. Whitehead, up front at the controls, escaped injury. It remains unclear as to whether or not the machine was airborne when it struck the building.

Whitehead, who had become unpopular with his neighbors and the police because of noisy nighttime tests of his steam boilers, which occasionally blew up with a roar, soon left town by bicycle with Darvarich. They sold their bikes in New York and continued by train to Bridgeport, Conn., where Darvarich had friends. Whitehead took a temporary job in a coal yard, then found more permanent work as a factory machinist. When his wife and daughter Rose arrived in Connecticut in 1900, the family moved into a house in Bridgeport's West End.

Whitehead resumed his efforts at flight, working nights in his basement. Later, he used $300 donated by an enthusiastic Bridgeport resident to buy materials to build a shedlike shop in the yard of his house. Neighborhood teenagers, captivated by Whitehead and his work, became his unpaid helpers. His efforts ranged from studying tethered seagulls to reading scientific journals and Octave Chanute's two books on aeronautics.

Whitehead gained knowledge step by step and evolved a series of gliders and airplanes, each one a modification of its predecessor. In the spring of 1901, he completed 'Airplane No. 21' with which, on August 14, he claimed to have made his first successful powered flight in Fairfield, then a farming and residential town just west of Bridgeport. The flight, according to Whitehead, subsequent testimony from co-workers and an article in the August 18, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald, covered a half mile and included a change of direction to avoid a stand of chestnut trees, plus a safe landing without damage to the aircraft.

A variety of evidence, including photographs taken in 1901, shows Airplane No. 21 as an aerodynamically correct monoplane with such wing features as dihedral angle, camber and angle of incidence. The wings had no spars, but instead employed load and flight wires rigged in the manner long used in early airplanes. They provided ample support for the slow-flying craft. A 'bowsprit' and 'mast' reflected Whitehead's nautical background, as did the boat-shaped fuselage in which the pilot could stand or sit at the control stick.

A movable horizontal tail provided up and down pitch control. For banks and turns, Whitehead shifted his weight. There also is evidence that wires may have been used to warp the wings for banking and turning. Alternating the power to the tractor propellers gave additional directional control.

Each wing had nine bamboo ribs attached to bamboo leading and trailing edges. Japanese-silk surfaces were attached on the underside of the wing structure, an arrangement that allowed the silk to billow up firmly around the ribs, thus reducing, but probably not eliminating, rib interference on the airflow over the wing. Tethered tow tests of a replica in 1986 showed the worst interferences occurred at the wingtips, where negative lift was encountered as liftoff approached. A slight change in rigging corrected the problem in the modern re-creation of the craft.

The craft had two engines-a ground engine and a flying engine. Both were fueled by the same calcium carbide (acetylene) generator. The ground engine was used for traveling on the plane's four wheels to test sites and during the takeoff roll. At liftoff, fuel to the ground engine was valved off, with all power then going to the main, or flight, engine. The engines were'steam type,' except that Whitehead used the expansion forces of acetylene instead of the much heavier steam system he had used in Pittsburgh. O'Dwyer cited Whitehead's use of wheels in 1901, rather than skids, as enhancing his 'first in flight' claim. The Wright Flyer of 1903, with its skids, relied on a catapult and rail system to achieve flying speed.

Whitehead continued to build aircraft and lightweight engines in the ensuing decade. Having abandoned steam, he moved to acetylene, kerosene and gasoline for fuel. He advertised and sold his engines to aircraft builders nationally. A notable customer was Charles R. Wittemann of Long Island and New Jersey. Wittemann was one of the earliest (1906) designers and manufacturers of airplanes and gliders in the United States, and a builder in 1923 of the Army's huge triplane, the six-engine Barling bomber. Whitehead appears to have reached the peak of his airframe success with the birdlike monoplanes of 1901 and 1902. Aircraft Nos. 20 through 23 were similar in design, but aluminum replaced bamboo for wing structures after No. 21. Later, seeking greater wing area to provide added lift for heavier engines, he changed to biplanes and even one triplane.

Meanwhile, the Wrights had achieved their own successful flight-and had begun taking steps to guard its place in the history books. From 1925 to 1948, the Wright Flyer was on display at London's South Kensington Science Museum. Orville had sent it to England rather than to the Smithsonian because of his outrage at the Smithsonian's display of Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome as the first man-carrying airplane 'capable of sustained free flight,' even though Langley's craft had not actually flown. Langley had formerly served as secretary of the Smithsonian (see 'Enduring Heritage' in the January 1996 Aviation History).

In 1914, after a bitter court battle between the Wrights and Glenn H. Curtiss over which of them should be recognized as 'pioneers in the practical art of flying with heavier-than-air machines'-which the Wrights won-the Curtiss company was permitted to take Langley's original 1903 machine from the Smithsonian to the Curtiss test site at Hammondsport, N.Y. The intent was to make tests to justify the Smithsonian's long-standing recognition of the Langley aircraft, thereby invalidating the Wrights' newly won title of pioneers. The Smithsonian paid Curtiss $2,000 toward the expenses of the tests.

In the March 1928 issue of U.S. Air Services magazine, Orville Wright wrote: 'It [the Smithsonian] published false and misleading reports of Curtiss' tests of the machine at Hammondsport, leading people to believe that the original Langley machine, which had failed to fly in 1903, had been flown successfully at Hammondsport in 1914, without material change. These reports were published in spite of the fact that many changes, several of fundamental importance, had been made at Hammondsport.' Twenty years later, in 1948, the Wright Flyer was returned to its homeland where it has been an extremely popular exhibit ever since. And Kill Devil Hill, N.C. (a state whose automobile license plates assert 'First in Flight'), has become a mecca for millions of tourists and aviation buffs.

Despite rumors of an agreement between the Smithsonian and the Wright estate, an actual contract remained elusive. O'Dwyer noted that during a 1969 conversation with Paul Garber, then the NASM's curator of early aircraft, Garber denied that any such agreement existed, adding that he 'could never agree to such a thing.'

Then came, as O'Dwyer expressed it, 'a whole new ball game.' On June 29, 1975, at an annual dinner meeting of international museum directors at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, CAHA officers overheard a loud argument between Louis Casey, then a NASM curator, and Harold S. Miller, an executor of the Wright estate. During the argument, Miller used the word 'contract' three times. Casey had mentioned that the wording of the label on the Wright Flyer was to undergo a change. Miller heatedly insisted it could not be changed 'by contract.' Miller won.

Learning of the public mention of a contract from CAHA veteran Harvey Lippincott, O'Dwyer renewed his efforts to obtain a copy of the agreement, which he had long suspected might be a key to NASM's reticence about Whitehead. Letters and visits between O'Dwyer and Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr., of Connecticut, plus senatorial clout and the Freedom of Information Act, were required to extract a copy of the contract from the Smithsonian. The agreement was dated November 23, 1948. One of two signers for the Wright estate was Harold S. Miller and, 'for the United States of America,' A. Wetmore, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

The clause insisted upon by Orville reads: 'Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered by the United States of America, by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.' Thus did the Wrights nail down their place in history. Commenting on the contract, O'Dwyer observed recently: 'The Smithsonian has no authority to represent the people of the United States in any contract if it compromises history. They overstep and abuse their power, especially when they engage in political engineering of this sort.'

Even before the public mention of a contract at the June 1975 dinner meeting, the CAHA was unearthing new facts related to the Whitehead controversy. In a letter to Donald Lopez, assistant director for aeronautics of the NASM, dated January 28, 1974, Harvey Lippincott, president emeritus of the CAHA, stated: 'I have attached a copy of a letter I have written to Paul Garber regarding our discovery of a new witness to the flights of Gustave Whitehead….Owing to the advanced age (94) of the witness, expediency is urged….The new witness lived next door to Whitehead in 1901–1903, and described a public flight before many neighbors…prior to 1903, from all indications. We urgently request your presence on Saturday, February 2, at 10 a.m., for a recorded interview with this witness.'

Subsequently, a memo by Lippincott dated February 1, noted, 'Lopez phoned today that he and Garber will be unable to attend the February 2 interview.'

Later, on February 15, Lippincott recorded: 'On February 2, 1974, at Trumbull, Conn., Mrs. Elizabeth Koteles described a flight of a monoplane by Gustave Whitehead near the baseball diamond at Gypsy Springs, Fairfield. She said the airplane took off from, and landed undamaged, on level ground. The plane was about four feet in the air and flew maybe 100-150 feet….From photos displayed, she picked out Airplane No. 21 of 1901 as the plane she saw. I was much impressed by her effort to recollect, and her sincerity and truthfulness. If she did not know something she said so.'

Whitehead's claimed flight of August 14, 1901, was described by writer Richard Howell in the August 18 issue of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald as covering a half mile at heights of up to 50 feet. Howell, an artist before he became a reporter, illustrated his article with an accurate drawing of airplane No. 21 in flight above an open field at Fairfield. Howell was erroneously referred to as editor of the Herald in later publicity. Whitehead's detractors, already debunking Howell's story as 'only imagination,' used that error as further ammunition. Why, they asked, would an editor hold such an important story for four days instead of giving it front page headlines on August 14? Not only did they overlook the fact that the Herald, a weekly, was published only on Sunday, but they also failed to recognize that in 1901 Howell was not the Herald's editor, but its sports editor. As such, he had placed his article on page one of his sports section.

O'Dwyer, curious about Howell, spent hours in the Bridgeport Library studying virtually everything Howell wrote. 'Howell was always a very serious writer,' O'Dwyer said. 'He always used sketches rather than photographs with his features on inventions. He was highly regarded by his peers on other local newspapers. He used the florid style of the day, but was not one to exaggerate. Howell later became the Herald's editor.'

Howell's story in the Sunday Herald said that Whitehead and two helpers (James Dickie and Andrew Cellie), along with the reporter, had traveled through the pre-dawn darkness from Bridgeport to Fairfield on August 14, 1901. Whitehead and Cellie rode in the aircraft, which rolled over the road on four wooden wheels. Dickie and Howell followed on bicycles. At Fairfield, Howell said, the airplane, with 220 pounds of sand ballast aboard, made a brief tethered hop; he then described the manned flight.

'By the time the light was good,' Howell wrote, 'the bags of sand were taken out of the machine….An early morning milkman stopped in the road to see what was going on. His horse nearly ran away when the big white wings flapped [as the engines were started]….The nervous tension was growing and no one showed it more than Whitehead who still whispered at times, but as the light grew stronger he began to speak in his normal tone of voice. He stationed his two assistants behind the machine with instructions to hold onto the ropes and not let the machine get away. Then he took his position in the great bird. He opened the throttle of the ground propeller and [the craft] shot along the green sod at a rapid rate. 'The two assistants held on as best they could, but the ship shot up into the air like a kite. It was an exciting moment. 'We can't hold her,' shrieked one of the rope men. 'Let her go then,' shouted Whitehead back. They let go, and…the machine darted up through the air like a bird released from a cage. Whitehead was greatly excited and his hands flew from one part of the machine to another.

'The newspaperman and the two assistants stood still for a moment watching the air ship in amazement. Then they rushed down the slightly sloping grade after the air ship. She was flying now about fifty feet above the ground and made a noise like the 'chung, chung, chung' of an elevator going down a shaft.

'Whitehead had grown calmer now and seemed to be enjoying the exhilaration of the novelty. He was headed straight for a clump of chestnut sprouts that grew on a high knoll. He was now about forty feet in the air and would have been high enough to escape the sprouts had they not been on a high ridge. He saw the danger ahead and when within two hundred yards of the sprouts made several attempts to manipulate the machinery so he could steer around [the trees], but the ship kept steadily on her course, head-on for the trees.

'Here it was that Whitehead showed how to utilize a common sense principle which he noticed the birds make use of when he was studying them in their flight. He simply shifted his weight to one side more than the other. This careened the ship to one side. She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yards of them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the sea avoids a bar. The ability to control the air ship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen to take time to look at the landscape about him.'

Howell's account continued: 'He had soared through the air for fully half a mile and as the field ended a short distance ahead, the aeronaut shut off the power and prepared to alight. He appeared to be a little fearful that the machine would dip ahead or tip back when the power was shut off, but there was no sign of any such move on the part of the big bird. She settled down after the propellers stopped and lighted on the ground on her four wooden wheels so lightly that Whitehead was not jarred in the least.'

In the 1930s, author Stella Randolph questioned James Dickie-named as one of Whitehead's helpers by Howell-about his part in the claimed flight of August 14, 1901. Dickie denied he had been present and also said that he never knew anybody named Andrew Cellie. The Smithsonian and other Whitehead detractors later used the apparent discrepancy to cast doubts on the credibility of Howell's Herald article.

'In 1963,' O'Dwyer said, 'when I read of Dickie's denial, I wondered if he was the same Jim Dickie I'd known ever since I was a youngster. I phoned him, and although he was much older than I, he remembered me well and we kidded each other about the old days. But his mood changed to anger when I asked him about Gustave Whitehead.

'He flatly refused to talk about Whitehead, and when I asked him why, he said: 'That SOB never paid me what he owed me. My father had a hauling business and I often hitched up the horses and helped Whitehead take his airplane to where he wanted to go. I will never give Whitehead credit for anything. I did a lot of work for him and he never paid me a dime.' I noticed, though, that Dickie did not tell me he was not with Whitehead on August 14, 1901, saying simply, 'I don't want to talk about it.' Also, he did not say he never knew anyone named Andrew Cellie-not surprising since Cellie was Dickie's next-door neighbor on Tunis Hill in Fairfield, and they both hung around Whitehead's shop.'

O'Dwyer, searching through old Bridgeport city directories in the 1970s, found that Andrew Cellie, a Swiss or German immigrant also known as Zulli and Suelli, had moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1902. Meanwhile, Cellie's former neighbors in Fairfield assured O'Dwyer that Cellie had 'always claimed he was present when Whitehead flew in 1901.'

Orville Wright wrote an article for U.S. Air Services magazine in 1945 under the headline, 'The Mythical Whitehead Flight.' An excerpt follows: 'In May, 1901, Stanley Y. Beach visited Whitehead at Bridgeport and wrote an illustrated article about Whitehead's machine which was published in the Scientific American on June 8, 1901….Although Beach saw Whitehead frequently in the years 1901–1910, Whitehead never told him he had flown. Beach has said that he does not believe that any of Whitehead's machines ever left the ground under their own power.'

Stanley Yale Beach was the aeronautical editor of Scientific American. A resident of Stratford, he helped finance Whitehead for some time. Beach also designed a Whitehead-built biplane that suffered from a major flaw: its wings were flat, with no curvature, or 'camber.' It never flew despite Whitehead's effort to alleviate Beach's error by installing a cambered monoplane wing behind the flat surfaces. A few excerpts from Beach's reports in Scientific American in 1906 and 1908 contradict Orville's version of Beach's beliefs about Whitehead.

Beach's reports referred to powered flights in 1901 by Whitehead in the issues of January 27, November 24 and December 15, 1906, and January 25, 1908. Included were these phrases: 'Whitehead in 1901 and Wright brothers in 1903 have already flown for short distances with motor-powered aeroplanes,' 'Whitehead's former bat-like machine with which he made a number of flights in 1901,' 'A single blurred photograph of a large bird-like machine constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only photo of a motor-driven aeroplane in flight.'

The last quote is from a long article by Beach on the first annual exhibit held by the newly formed Aero Club of America at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The report appeared in Scientific American, January 27, 1906. In that issue Beach also wrote, 'It would seem that aeroplane inventors would show photographs of their machines in flight to at least partially substantiate their claims.' That barb, according to O'Dwyer, was clearly aimed at the Wrights, who had been invited to show photographic evidence of their December 17, 1903, flight but refused even to attend the exhibit. 'That famous photo,' O'Dwyer added, 'did not surface until 1908.'

Beach's January 27, 1906, report also noted that'such secrecy [the Wrights'] was in sharp contrast to the 'free manner' with which glider pioneer Lilienthal 'gave the results of his experiments to the world."

Almost a year later, in his report on the second annual exhibit of the Aero Club of America (Scientific American, December 15, 1906), Beach wrote: 'The body framework of Gustave Whitehead's latest bat-like aeroplane was shown mounted on pneumatic tired, ball-bearing wire wheels….Whitehead also exhibited the 2-cylinder steam engine which revolved the road wheels of his former bat machine, with which he made a number of short flights in 1901.'

Why did Beach, an enthusiastic supporter of Whitehead who liberally credited Whitehead's powered flight successes of 1901, later become a Wright devotee? O'Dwyer offered some intriguing answers, all reflected by his research files, which state that in 1910 Whitehead refused to work any longer on Beach's flat-winged biplane. Angered, Beach broke with Whitehead and sent a mechanic to Whitehead's shop in Fairfield to disassemble the plane and take it to Beach's barn in Stratford. In later years (in O'Dwyer's words), 'Beach became a politician, rarely missing an opportunity to mingle with the Wright tide that had turned against Whitehead, notably after Whitehead's death in 1927.

'The significance of the foregoing can be appreciated by the fact that Beach's 1939 statement denouncing Whitehead (almost totally at odds with his earlier writings) was quoted by Orville Wright (as shown earlier). Far more important, however, was the Smithsonian's use of the Beach statement as a standard and oft-quoted source for answering queries about aviation's beginnings-because it said that Gustave Whitehead did not fly.'

O'Dwyer also focused his recent reflections on the missing photograph of Whitehead's Airplane No. 21 in apparent flight in 1901-the blurred picture referred to by Stanley Beach in Scientific American, January 27, 1906.

William J. Hammer, Thomas A. Edison's chief electrical engineer, was also a renowned aeronautical photographer and a founding member of the Aero Club of America. 'Hammer,' O'Dwyer said, 'reserved an entire wall to show some of his own photographs from a collection (cited by Alexander Graham Bell as 'the largest collection of aeronautical photos in the world'). It was Hammer's exclusive wall, with one exception: six Whitehead photos, including four static views of Whitehead's 1901 monoplane, one of his 1903 engines and the all-important sixth picture-the 'blurred photograph of a large bird-like machine constructed by Whitehead in 1901…of a motor-driven aeroplane in flight,' as described by Beach in Scientific American.'

'After a long and fruitless search,' O'Dwyer continued, 'one of our members stumbled on a book, Dreams of Wings, in which were reproduced the missing photos as they had appeared on the 1906 exhibit wall. The photo, by the exhibit cameraman, was shot from at least 40 feet away and at an angle to include a large part of the wall. The blurred picture was visible tucked partly under the top right corner of a frame surrounding the four static views of Airplane No. 21. Ironically, the book's author was Thomas B. Crouch, then the Smithsonian's curator of early aircraft [who later directed the aeronautical department], and the photos were credited to the Smithsonian.'

O'Dwyer admits that it is impossible to identify the blurred object as an aircraft from a long-range shot of the wall-despite the research committee's use of blow-up and modern computer studies of the picture. But, he emphasized, Stanley Beach saw the picture close up, examined it and fully described what was discernible-Whitehead in successful motor-driven flight.

The investigating committee's more recent research has established for the first time the location of the claimed flight of August 14, 1901. The route taken by Whitehead and his helpers to reach the flight site from Bridgeport (as described in Howell's Herald story on August 18), the testimony of at least two witnesses and the illustration drawn by Howell all combine to place the site at Turney's Farm, about a half mile north of the Long Island Sound.

'From all indications,' said O'Dwyer, 'Whitehead made his takeoff run diagonally across the farm, corner to corner, heading southwest into the prevailing wind. This gave him a potential flight course of at least a mile before reaching Fairfield Beach. Howell's drawing depicts Whitehead aloft in Airplane No. 21, a line of elms and chestnut trees atop a knoll in the distance, and two stone walls intersecting near the trees. Today, the walls are still there, easily found and identifiable as those that Howell sketched almost a century ago!'

Members of the CAHA and the 9315th Squadron went door-to-door in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, and Milford to track down Whitehead's long-ago neighbors and helpers. They also traced some who had moved to other parts of Connecticut and the United States. Of an estimated 30 persons interviewed for affidavits or on tape, 20 said they had seen flights, eight indicated they had heard of the flights, and two felt that Whitehead did not fly.

'Look, I never knew Whitehead personally or anything about his aircraft. All I did was watch him fly.' So spoke Frank Lanye, 92, on June 15, 1968, at his home in Waterbury, Conn. He was describing an autumn flight near Fairfield Beach in 1901, a year he remembered because it was a year after his 1900 discharge from the Navy. Present at the taped interview were the Smithsonian's Garber, the CAHA's Lippincott, O'Dwyer, and Don Richardson, the latter a Sikorsky Aircraft engineer.

John Ciglar, a Pine Street neighbor of Whitehead in 1901, told a Bridgeport Sunday Post reporter in 1940: 'I was nine years old when I and a group of other boys saw Whitehead fly in July or August 1901. I vividly recall the flight in a vacant lot at the corner of Cherry Street and Hancock Avenue in the West End of Bridgeport….Whitehead put every nickel he earned into flying machines, but as far as patents and recognition were concerned he didn't seem to care.'

Ironically, several flight experimenters who later dismissed Whitehead as a fraud showed a strange curiosity about his work. Testimony exists, for example, that the Wright brothers visited Whitehead's Bridgeport shop in 1901 and 1902 and had discussions with him. Among the witnesses were Anton Pruckner, Whitehead's young machinist and engine assistant, and Cecil Steeves, another of Whitehead's young neighbor helpers. Asked in later years how he knew the two men were the Wright brothers, Pruckner replied, 'They had to introduce themselves.' He said the pair visited 'more than one time.' Steeves, in a recorded interview in 1937, said he remembered a visit by the Wrights. 'They came from Ohio,' he said, 'and under the guise of offering to help finance Whitehead's inventions, actually received inside information about his work…. After they had gone away, Mr. Whitehead turned to me and said, 'Now that I have given them the secrets of my invention they will probably never do anything in the way of financing me'-a good prophesy, as it turned out.'

Charles M. Manley, a mechanic for Samuel P. Langley, opted for amateur espionage rather than a shop visit. In late 1901, Whitehead was exhibiting his Airplane No. 21 in Atlantic City, and Manley assigned a clerk to visit the display and obtain technical data. The engine date he wanted included explosions per minute in the cylinders, method of cooling cylinders, propeller rpm at full power, and method of transmitting power to propellers via bevel gears. Regarding the airframe, Manley wanted to know how the brace rods were joined to the body of the craft, plus the wing, tail and propeller dimensions.

In a 1940 interview with reporter Michael D'Andrea of the Bridgeport Sunday Post, Louise Whitehead said her husband was always busy with motors and planes when he wasn't working in coal yards or factories to earn money for his aeronautical efforts. 'I hated to see him put so much time and money into that work,' she said.

Mrs. Whitehead said her husband's first words upon returning home from Fairfield on August 14, 1901, were an excited, 'Mama, we went up!' Mrs. Whitehead, however, said she never saw any of her husband's flights.

Whitehead's efforts to solve the problems of flight took their toll on the family budget. Louise Whitehead had to work to help meet expenses. But the couple was able to buy land on Tunis Hill, where, with the help of their son Charles, Whitehead built two homes, in 1903 and in 1912. The two houses still stand. He also planted a large orchard from which he sold fruit, and kept a cow and chickens to help with the family's food supply.

Junius Harworth, who, with Anton Pruckner, was one of Whitehead's more important helpers, said in later years that Whitehead could have made a good living building engines alone. Rose Whitehead Rennison, the eldest of the couple's three daughters, recalled that her father received so many orders and advance payments for engines that he simply returned them. 'He was more interested in airplanes,' she said, 'and sold only enough engines to provide more money to further his efforts to fly.'

Whitehead lost an eye when struck by a chip of steel in a Bridgeport factory. He also suffered a severe blow to the chest when hit by a piece of factory equipment, an injury believed to have contributed to his increasing attacks of angina. These setbacks brought slowdowns in his activities, although he exhibited an aircraft at Hempstead, N.Y., as late as 1915. Whitehead continued to work and invent. He designed a braking safety device, trying for a prize offered by a railroad. He demonstrated it as a scale model but failed to win the award. He constructed an 'automatic' concrete-laying machine, which he used to help build a road in Long Hill, just north of Bridgeport. He profited no more from those inventions than he did from his airplanes and engines.

On October 10, 1927, in his 54th year, Gustave Whitehead died of a heart attack, leaving his family with their home and $8. His grave in Lakeview Cemetery, Bridgeport, was marked only by a bronze spike bearing the cemetery number 42. His pioneering work has been largely denied or forgotten for 37 years.

Thanks to members of the CAHA and the 9315th Reserve Squadron, a headstone replaced spike 42 at commemorative graveside ceremonies on August 15, 1964. The granite stone bore a likeness of Airplane No. 21 and the inscription, 'Gustave Whitehead, January 1, 1874–October 10, 1927. Father of Connecticut Aviation.' Present were aviation pioneers Charles Wittemann and Clarence Chamberlin. Whitehead's then surviving daughters-Rose Rennison, Lilian Baker and Nellie Kusterer-were present, as were Anton Pruckner and representatives of all U.S. Armed Forces, the CAHA, the 9315th Squadron, and state and local governments. A statement from Connecticut Governor John Dempsey proclaimed August 15 as 'Gustave Whitehead Day,' as did statements from Bridgeport and Fairfield officials.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering ghost of Gustave Whitehead still stands in the wings awaiting its summons on stage.

This article was originally published in the March 1996 issue of Aviation History and written by Frank Delear, a native of Boston and a retired public relations director of Sikorsky Aircraft, Stratford, Conn. He is the author of five books and many newspaper and magazine articles, including a feature on Harriet Quimby in Aviation History, January 1991. For further reading: History by Contract, by William J. O'Dwyer; and Before The Wrights Flew, by Stella Randolph.

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46 Responses to “Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy”


  1. 1

    [...] into the matter the more muddled it becomes, with all manner of people claiming first in flight, Gustav Whitehead being often [...]

  2. 2
    Arnie Madsen says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I learned some history today that I had never been aware of.
    Arnie
    Bell 47 G2

  3. 3
    Don Chaplin says:

    My wife is a grandaughter of John Whitehead and great neice to Gustave,growing up she often heard her grandfather and grandmother talk of the time and money spent on Gustaves efforts.
    Her grandfather died in 1952 in Kamloops B.C.Canada,her grandmother talked of the times the Wright Bros. came to talk to Gustave about his ideas.
    The family has not been involved in trying to get Gustave's first flight on Aug 14,1901 recognized as it should be,we all would like to thank Bill O'Dwyer for the hours and hours he has devoted to this as well as all the other people involved. The family has nothing to gain should this ever be resolved as it should be other than knowing Gustave gets his just deserve, We have to wonder what the Smithsonian is afraid of in holding open hearings on this matter if they feel that proof isn't there.

    • 3.1
      Wendy Kusterer-Willis says:

      Hi Don, I am the great grandaughter of Gustave.My grandmother was Nellie Whitehead -Kusterer daughter of Gustave. I often wondered what happen to Gustave's other brothers, and wondered if i had more family out there.I have 2 Pictures of Uncle Charlie(gustave's son) and Some of my grandmother Nellie. I Helped take care of Lily (gustave's youngest daughter) in her last days.I dont have pics of her though If your wife would like to see them please email me @ wendykinfla@yahoo.com.

      • 3.1.1
        Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman says:

        I would like to invite the Whitehead family to email me at gwfirstinflight@gmail.com. Would love to hear from you. My father, Bill O'Dwyer, passed on in 2008, but his work remained, with his archives at the Fairfield Museum in Fairfield, CT, and also in Leutershausen, Germany. He worked on the Whitehead research for 45 years, right to the end, his work at his side. Now, it is still being used, along with that of Stella Randolph, to bring Whitehead the credit he deserves. I would love to have you write me about the Wrights visits and what was said, when these occurred. I am working on several manuscripts on the topic of Whitehead with a book coming out shortly, the first of a number of these, based on my joint research with my father, for the past thirty years. I know that there are a lot of new theories out there, and some wild claims, but as a retired educator, I have to say that authenticated research is the best to use, it will stand the test of time. Don't believe all you read, particularly the criticisms of Whitehead have a tendency to be fabricated or half-truths. I must also add that when the GW replica from USA hit the photographer, the wires were rigged backwards, but the flight was made anyhow, despite that, to the chagrin of a number of the team. After that the replica was not allowed again on the airstrip, due to insurance etc., which was a shame. Without the backward, accidental rigging this would not have occurred. I know a lot about Whitehead and the research, it is now 50 years that he has been in my life. A brilliant man with a wonderful family who supported him and loved him. The first human to make a powered, controlled, sustained, heavier-than-air flight.

  4. 4

    [...] For more about Whitehead, Wikipedia has a nice overview. To read more about the controversy between him and Wrights, this is a good place to start. [...]

    • 4.1
      Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman says:

      Actually, the Gustave Whitehead page on Wikipedia has been controlled by the Wright-wing group for a number of years. For more info on this see http://www.gustavewhitehead.info and go to FAQ, the Dark Side of Wikipedia. Basically their game is to make the article negative. It is a prime example of why Wikipedia cannot be trusted as a reference.

  5. 5
    rick barnes says:

    I recently visited Fairfield and made a point looking for Whitehead's house on Pine Street in Bridgeport.There is a large commercial building there now,about 30 years old I suspect ,at the same street address.Cliff Robertson,the Oscar winning actor from Palm Beach County and a champion soaring pilot ,is a strong believer in Mr. Whitehead.Whitehead's story would make a great hollywood movie!

  6. 6
    RV8tor says:

    Unfortunately this article contains at least one major historical inaccuracy. It claims the Wright's 1903 flyer required a catapult. That is in fact not true and they did not use a catapult for their first flight. Did did use catapults later.

  7. 7
    Rick L says:

    Bridgeport CT claims Whitehead to be first in flight. Many referring sites available: http://www.captainscoveseaport.com/attractions.htm
    I wasn't there – in this life.

  8. 8
    Sue A. Lehman says:

    I enjoyed your article about Whitehead's life and flights. I have written a historical mystery using the Whitehead controversy as part of the backstory. I would love to get in contact with any of Gustave Whitehead's relatives to learn more. I hope to publish my novel soon (I've already had two published) and want it to be as accurate as possible. Thank you for any information you can provide me.

    • 8.1
      Rick L says:

      Google is your friend, keep searching. There is/was a building at Captains Cove Marina, Bridgeport, CT with a recreation of his plane, some photos and artifacts. There are people there that occasionally open the building and will defend to the end, that Whitehead was first in flight – they are VERY convincing. I believe there may still be relatives of his still living in the area….. you might call the Captains Cove Marina office and inquire how to reach them. There has been some transitions/ownership changes that last 5 yrs – not sure who is still there. A reference to an old exhibit:
      http://brucemuseum.org/site/exhibitions_detail/gustave_whitehead_first_in_flight/

  9. 9
    atc333 says:

    the amazing thing when one compares the Wright plane with the Whitehead plane is the aerodynamic correctness of the earlier plane. From all reports, the Wright plane was extremely hard to control, but, because of the supposed ability to control flight in all three planes, it is considered to be the first in flight. Some claim the Whitehead plane was more of a glider, yet it obviously could be taken off, direction changed, and safely landed, so it would seem the First in Flight belongs to the Whitehead plane with the Wright Brothers plane gaining praise for the ability to more completely control, though ailerons, rudder, and elevator the total direction of the plane. That control does not change the fact that it is obvious from witnesses and articles that Whitehead was in reality, "First in Flight".

  10. 10

    [...] años antes, Gustave Whitehead consiguió esa misma hazaña, sólo que la noticia se retrató tiempo después a través de dibujos [...]

  11. 11
    Nathan51 says:

    It should be as no surprise that the historians may have gotten this one wrong as they have on so many other inventions. The invention of the radio was wrongly accredited to Marconi for many years. Marconi stole the idea from Nikola Tesla and others. For many years the invention of the Laser was improperly assigned to Charles Towns and Arthur Schawlow. Often the individual that gets the credit is the one that has the most political clout and the best connections to get recognized.

  12. 12
    Graeme says:

    Although I agree there is substantial evidence supporting Whitehead as someone who completed a manned, powered flight, the title of first still belongs to the Frenchman, Clement Ader.

    His aircraft, Eole, flew a short distance in 1890 from level ground, although it had little control. It was a very advanced design, however, featuring an enclosed cabin, a cantilever monoplane wing, reverse tricycle undercarriage, twin ground adjustable props, as well as variable camber wings.

    His later aircraft, Avion III, is preserved in Paris.

    I really enjoyed this article on what was an almost forgotten event in aviation history.

    Thanks!

  13. 13
    RH says:

    An important lesson here is that the airplane was an invention coming together — in the hands of many inventors, largely separated in geography, language, culture, style and methods — during the "Age of Invention" around the late-19th / early-20th centuries.

    Like the automobile and the light bulb and other inventions, the fame goes not to the "first" inventor, but the first "successful" inventor — success defined as getting the attention for their creation.

    While the Wrights may fairly be said to have had the first "successful" aircraft, it was the evolution of technologies lent by Cayley, Lillienthal and Chanute, whom they studied — and arguably even the Scotsman Percy Pilcher and Gustave Whitehead, whom they apparently investigated — assembled with only four critical differences:
    1.) Roll-control
    2.) High-efficiency propeller
    3.) High power-to-weight engine (crafted by their mechanic)
    4.) Careful precision design, testing and workmanship.
    …arguably none of these features, alone, unique to the Wright Flyer.

    Ironically, within a few years, Frenchman Louis Bleriot would make the Wright Flyer utterly irrelevant, as his modern Bleriot XI monoplane — an assemblage of others' ideas, also — triumphed with the first flight over open sea (across the English Channel, 1909), and became the world's first truly mass-produced airplane

    The crude Wright-style airplane, different in almost every respect —
    - open seating with no cockpit (laying down in the original version),
    - chain-driven pusher propellers,
    - dual forward elevator planes,
    - dual rudders aft, wing warping
    - flight control by multiple levers (and pilot laying in a moving cradle in original form)
    - skid landing gear
    - catapult launch (on most early models)
    —vanished from the scene almost as suddenly as it had arrived.

    The Bleriot, on the other hand (except for its monoplane wing configuration) set the basic design configuration standard for airplanes for a generation —

    - enclosed cockpit,
    - small, high-speed, direct-drive propeller on
    - "tractor" (puller) front-mounted engine,
    - wheeled undercarriage,
    - tailwheel,
    - conventional joystick-and-pedals controls
    - aft-mounted single horizontal stabilizer/elevator,
    - aft-mounted single vertical stabilizer/rudder,
    - no forward aerodynamic devices,
    - (and eventually even roll-control by aileron in a subsequent model)

    …for the basic design of airpalnes for the next quarter-century,

    In time, even the Bleriot's
    - air-cooled radial engine,
    and
    - monoplane wing configuration
    would become the standard of airplane design,
    – further eclipsing the stodgy, primitive Wright Flyer.

    In truth, no one "INVENTED" the airplane, alone.

    But the Wrights have won (rightly or wrongly) credit for the first "viable" airplane, with almost no public notice of all the others who contributed such essential elements as:

    1.) the cambered wing
    2.) stabilzation — lateral, vertical, longitudinal
    3.) elevators
    4.) rudders
    5.) truss construction
    6.) gasoline engine

    — the public does not celebrate the memory of any of those more essential contributors to the design concept of the airplane. (Though arguably rudders and truss construction are less definitive than the Wrights' innovation of roll-control, all these features, developed by others, were key design elements of the Wright Flyer).

    The Wright Stuff is NOT the Whole Story.

  14. 14
    Matt says:

    There is just one glaringly large problem with this claim. All the world was excited about developing heavier than air flight at this time. The US government had spent massive amounts of money trying to build an air calvary. France, England and Germany were all working very hard on this. If this was true, why is there no picture? From 1901 to 1903 no one took a picture of a flying Whitehead aircraft?. 90 year old people from that town is not proof. If you ask 30 people in my hometown they will tell you of a the town ghost. This is like claiming Armstrong landed on the moon but no one took a picture. And no, missing pictures don't count. The authors own accounts of a flight are vastly different. Maybe 150 ft versus 2000+ ft in distance? Maybe 10 ft versus 50 ft in height? The article started with a quote on being skeptical. This story is full of conspiracy theory and unverified claims, not facts. It's a nice interesting story but no real proof presented here.

    • 14.1
      Susan Brinchman says:

      Photographs WERE taken at the time and displayed publicly, witnessed and written about by a number of journalists of the era. Over time, these were lost. Whitehead's early death, a fire in his shop, and the carelessness of those who were entrusted with the pictures added to the problem. There is some evidence that the missing photo seen on the Aero Club of America's exhibition wall in Jan.1906 may possibly even be kept from the public eye at Smithsonian. I have studied this issue for 30 years.
      Go to http://www.gustavewhitehead.info for more information on this topic.

  15. 15
    Marcia says:

    Let's be skeptical. The Wright Brothers' alleged Dec. 17, 1903, photograph of Orville Wright taking off on his \first flight\ is often referred to as evidence that they flew that day. Would it hold up in an unbiased court? Not by a long shot. The picture didn't appear until 1908–after the Wrights had returned to Kitty Hawk. Plenty of time to get some nice, clear photos of a so called Wright flyer. The plane is not taking off or coming down either. Examine the conformation of the wings. Disregard the cast shadow, which any photographer could add later. Then look at the wings in the documented flights of 1909.

    • 15.1
      Peter says:

      While you are at it, look at the canard and rudder of the 1909 aircraft. After a nose dive in 1905, the Wrights moved the canard forward and the rudder aft, to improve the control of the aircraft. The 1903 had close coupled control surfaces; the 1905-on did not.

      The Boston Journal of August 25, 1901, says Whitehead took his first manned flight at 4am. The film speed of 1901 B&W film was about ASA 6: it needed full sunlight to get an exposure. Dawn on the 14th was 6:05am. There is not First Flight photo, just a wood print in one of four papers in town.

    • 15.2
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      Marcia, are you really saying that the well-known 1903 Wright photo is a total fake ? Is that honestly what you are saying ? If you are, such a statement betrays an utter ignorance of photographic techniques of the period.

  16. 16
    Pierre Leduc says:

    March 22, 2013 : In light of the recently publicised NEW evidence, there can no longer be any doubt that Whitehead was first. What I find most appaling is that all of those who are failling to recognize this achievement today are also the ones who have failed to even consider the new evidence available through Mr. Brown's efforts. And this comment is especially addressed to all those who are pretending to have some (tainted) knowledge of aerodynamics. The first steps have already been paced for history to regain a rightfull representation of the facts, and that will be without waiting for NASM to straighten up its act.

    • 16.1
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      If only there *were* new evidence… what John Brown has offered is recycled old and totally discredited "evidence." New packaging of old dis-proven assertions does not make them "new."

  17. 17

    [...] Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy – History Net [...]

  18. 18
    satheesh says:

    Indian history shows that the aircraf theory was written and documented 1500 year back and the proof is there…

    According to Indian scholar Acharya,

    ‘Vaimanika Shastra deals about aeronautics including the design of aircraft the way they can be used for transportation and other applications in detail. The knowledge of aeronautics is described in Sanskrit in 100 sections, eight chapters, 500 principles and 3000 slokas including 32 techniques to fly an aircraft. In fact, depending on the classifications of eras or Yugas in modern Kaliyuga aircraft used are called Krithakavimana flown by the power of engines by absorbing solar energies!’

    It is feared that only portions of Bharadwaja’s masterpiece Vaimanika Shas-tra survive today.

    The question that comes to one’s mind is, what happened to this wonderful encyclopedia of aeronautical knowledge accumulated by the Indian savants of yore, and why was it not used? But in those days, such knowledge was the preserve of sages, who would not allow it to be misused, just like the knowledge of atomic bombs is being used by terrorists today!

    if you want more proof we will produce…..

  19. 19
    Peter Vorum says:

    Did Gustave Whitehead have photos of his Aug 14, 1901, flight? No. He told the papers that he took off at 4am – to keep anyone from stealing his designs. Aug 14 was a new (no) moon night; dawn was at 6:05am. The black and white film of 1901 had an ASA 6 speed rating: it required sun light to make an exposure. There was no photograph.

    Sergei Sikorsky wrote an op ed for the Hartford press: Whitehead said he used ropes to control the aircraft (named the Condor #21); you use ropes on a balloon, not an airplane. Whitehead said he flew 1/2 mile in 10 minutes; that's an average of 3 mph, balloon speed, way too low for an airplane. After flying for 10 minutes, Whitehead shut the engines down,and settled to a gentle landing 2 minutes later; again, balloon vs. airplane. Fact Check: Whitehead's business partner Bill Custead built blimps. Ya' think?

    Whitehead claimed to have tied his aircraft to a tree, run up the engine, and measured the thrust of the props. No. 22 made 508 pounds. For 3-4 pounds of thrust per Hp, that's a 127-170Hp engine, that weighed about 35 pounds. Sam Langely's Aerodrome was powere by Manley's very efficient engine that only produced about 1 Hp/pound. Even the engine of the F-15 fighter in full after burner doesn't produce 3.6-4.9 Hp per pound of engine weight.

    Whitehead sources say he knew Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute. Shortly after taking off in 1901, he realized that he was headed for a clump of trees. He told the Scientific American magazine months earlier that he could turn by varying the throttles on his 2 propellers; it didn't work. Some time before the flight, he told the Bridgeport Herald that he had no way to turn. Then, as the trees loomed up, he 'discovered' that he could turn by weight shifting. Weight shifting was the only way Lilienthal had to control his hang gliders. He ran out of margin, stalled some 50 feet in the air, fell, and died several days later. If he knew Otto Lilienthal, why would he not have developed a better control system, than the one that got Lilienthal killed 5 years earlier?

    At 4 am, Whitehead said he climbed to 50 feet. In pitch dark? Several of his witnesses said he flew 4-30 ft high later on. Maybe he wasn't flying an airplane, but a hover craft. Go look at the Soviet's Caspian Sea Monster: 300+ ft long, 100 ft wingspan, 8 engines on stub wings that blew air under the wings. It got up off the water, and flew as a Ground Effect Machine. Airborne? Yes. Airplane? No.

  20. 20
    Marcia says:

    Mr. Vorum needs to apply his critical skills to the first four "manned, controlled, heavier than air flights" of the Wright brothers observed by five "witnesses" (one a boy),who didn't agree with them on what happened Dec. 17, 1903..

  21. 21
    Ron Howland says:

    Mr Vorum is absolutely incorrect in his statement, that Whitehead told the papers he took off at 4am. Source please?. There was a reporter present, from the Bridgeport Herald, invited by Whitehead specifically to record the event. That reporter stated the sun was rising as he prepared for the flight. The night-time flight claim has also tripped up many an earlier ill-informed debunker. So, what about the second longer flight he made that day, in broad daylight?

    • 21.1
      Peter says:

      Got it: the Boston Journal of Aug 25, 1901, said takeoff at 4am.

      The Herald article author referred to an un-named reporter. What's really fun, is the story was never reported in the three other Bridgeport newspapers. Exclusive!

      From the web, dawn on August 14, 1901, was 6:05 am. It was a new (no) moon night. But for the stars….

      Shortly after takeoff, Whitehead said he saw a clump of chestnut trees (eagle eyes) dead ahead. He turned. Then, in total darkness, he would have had to find the camera, and maneuvered close enough to be photographed.

    • 21.2
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      Only one of many problems with the 18 August 1901 Sunday Bridgeport Herald article about Whitehead's purported "flight" is the fact that the article is a rewrite of a NY Sun article which appeared over 2 months earlier. Of note is also the fact that the NY Sun was well known for publishing aviation hoaxes.

  22. 22
    Peter Vorum says:

    To Ron Howland
    Yours of Sept 6, 2013

    I the ill-informed, address the true believer: the reporter who attended the flight was not named by the author of the article. Next!

    Please go to John Brown's web site, and pull up the newspaper articles about Gustave Whitehead's August 14, 1901, flight in Bridgeport or Fairfield, CT

    Yes, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article, refers to your un-named reporter. If you go through any number of articles in Brown's web site, you'll find that many are un-signed. It's called Associate Press and United Press International. One has, \from the telegraph,\ near the headline; it was 1901. Paper A reporter composes something; Papers B, C, D… use it to fill space. Notice how many edited versions of the Herald story there are.

    Several 1903 articles mention Whitehead's intent to take his dirigible to the St. Louis World's Fair air races in 1904, to compete against Santos-Dumont. He built airplanes (maybe?); his 1901 business partner William Custead built dirigibles or blimps. Do you suppose the 1901 flight was really one of Custead's blimps? Some of those same papers said 'the wings flapped as Whitehead took off'. Look at the wing-like structures down the length of Custead's blimps.

    Thank you for driving me back to that web site for some references. Whitehead wrote in another article, that the unmanned flight was at 2 am, and the manned flight at 4 am. Can't pull that one up, BUT here are two others that show how someone is wrong here.

    NY Sun, p. 2, Aug 18, 1901, 2nd paragraph: \The flight was made at 2 o'clock on Wednesday morning….\

    New Haven Palladium, August 20, 1901, 2nd paragraph: \The flight was made at 2 o'clock on Wednesday morning….\

    These are references 9 and 13 out of 100+, where the paper said the takeoff was at 2am. If you really need the 4am citation, I'll try to dig it back up.

    Andy Kosch got the replica that he and a group of Nutmeggers built, to 6 feet off the ground. Was that the highest it would climb, or was that Kosch's decision? Don't know

    Anyhoo, that's not flying in free space. It's in the Wing in Ground Effect altitude. When an airplane is flying, there is a cushion of air between the bottom of the wing and the ground, that extends up until the aircraft is about 1 wing span above the ground. For the Condor, that would have been about 36 feet aloft; Whitehead claimed 50 feet. Gotta' problem, there, bunky? August 14, 1901, had a new (no) moon. How does anyone estimate their altitude above a farm field with no visual references on their first flight?

    Back to the WIG. Google the Soviet's Caspian Sea Monster of the '70s. The fuselage was 320 feet long(?), it could transport about 700 combat troops at 500 knots over long range – a couple of thousand miles. 8 engines on pylons near the cockpit blasted air below the 130 (?) foot long stub wings at the aircraft's CG. 2 engines on the tail provided thrust for speed. My SAC pilot boss said the thing scared the hell out of the Pentagon, because flying below the radar, it might show up anywhere, like on the Potomac River, unannounced. But, it could not fly in free space above the WIG 1-wing span altitude.

    Andy Kosch flew the modified replica of the Condor off of a flat runway at Sikorsky Airport. Try that on a farm field. Per light rail experience, smooth solid wood wheels running on wet (2 or 4am dew/juice from crushed plants) farm ground cover, would slip. Light rail companies have to clear the rails of leaves and dry them every fall, or the Traction Factor drops from 0.7 to 0.1. If the front wheel drive of the Condor was powered by a 10 Hp engine, with traction factor 0.7 reduced to 0.1 by the grass they mashed, it would be accelerating on a 1 Hp drive train. I've walked the Huffman Prairie Flying Field where the Wrights did their 1904-on developmental work. Because of the wild vegetation, it's hard enough on your ankles to make running real difficult.

    This past August, Sergei (helicopter) Sikorsky noted in an op ed in the Hartford paper that by 1901 news accounts, Gustave Whitehead's Condor flew 0.5 miles in 10 minutes. That's 3 mph. Or was it a William Custead blimp? I talked to a WW I pilot who flew a Farman bi-plane. Thanks to the wires, struts, pokes and prods, it took off, climbed, flew, descended, stalled, and landed at 40 mph. Andrey Cellie and James Dickie ran along with the Condor, holding onto ropes, \stumbling over hummocks (coarse fescue and orchard grass growing in clumps),\ (Bridgeport Herald 9-18-01), until the couldn't hold keep up, and were told to let go by Gus. Gold Medal 100m fastest man Usain Bolt peaked at 27 mph at the end of a scientifically designed track after years of trainging; Cellie and Dickie stumbled HOW fast at 2 and 4am in street clothes in the middle of a farmer's field?

    Oh, please drop the search for THE PHOTOGRAPH. The speed of B&W film in 1901 was about ASA 6. It required full sunlight to get an exposure, like at 10:30am December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, NC. There is no 2am, 4am, or just-as-the-sun-is-appearing-in-the-east of the Condor. Mr. Hammond's collection at the NY air show in 1906 was of the tandem glider of a San Jose College prof. Got his name at home, if you need it.

    Was the Condor an airplane? Doubtful. Look at the Smithsonian program in late September, 2013, about hovercraft races. Commercial company has one they're selling to the public. Air cushion trunk system to get it off the ground; the Condor had wood wheels. Short ram wings on the commercial hovercraft and the Caspian got the vehicles above the hovercraft altitude to Wing In Ground; the props of the Condor, mounted below the leading edge of the wings, probably rammed enough air there, too.

    Airplane definition: capable of flight in free air above the WIG level, with positive control in pitch (Wright's 1900 forward canard), roll (Wilbur's 1899 wing warping kite), and yaw (Wright's 1902 movable rudder). In his 1908 U.S. Patent (Whitehead and Stanley Beach), Gustave Whitehead showed a drawing probably taken from his 1904 Albatross glider. The pilot sat in a sling chair, with arms up on a frame, to permit weight shifting. The trapezoidal nose of the glider would force it back to level flight, if it happened to enter a dive. In the only technical drawing or description of anything that he ever did, Whitehead showed that he did not need no stinkin' control surfaces.

    If he really knew Otto Lilienthal, why did he stay with weight shifting, the thing that got Otto killed in 1896?

    As Sikorsky noted, also, the tips of the Condor (or #22) would have struck the water when Whitehead made his water landings on Long Island Sound in January, 1902. They would have been damaged or destroyed. A bit of FOD, to punch holes in the cloth and let it sink? Landing in 50 degree water can be deadly, real fast, as we found off of Korea 50 years later. My thought, after walking through the 15-20 inch tall ground cover on Huffman Prairie: the tips of the Condor would have been the world's first weed wacker. Damaged: zero thrust, pieces flying.

    Stella Randolph and Harvey *** wrote an article for Popular Aviation in 1935, about GW. You can read the answers to her (attorney, not necessarily a pilot) questions on Brown's web site. \The children came out,\ to see something, when they were 8-12 years old. Yes, I can tell you the exact day when a neighbor appeared in my neighborhood atop a National Guard tank, between 1958-62. It was Memorial Day! But, what did Randolph ask the depositionees? \Did you see Gustave Whitehead fly his airplane on or about 1901 or 1902, in or about the city of Bridgeport, CT?\ Objection, your Honor. Leading question! Look at how many witnesses foul up an auto accident, when asked 10 minutes – not 34 YEARS – later.

    Brown: Wilbur Wright became withdraw, a preacher, before his death of a communicable disease. Withdrawn: as president of the Wright Aeroplane Company, he flew around the Statue of Liberty, in France, Germany…. His father was Bishop Milton Wright of the United Brethern Church (sp?). Four days to/from Boston to take a deposition in their 1909 Wright/Curtiss Patent infringement law suit weakened him, he got typhoid (killer oysters?), and died.

    Is Brown's statement factual, or character assassination?

    Contrast pulp journalism to peer reviewed technical publications: at Octave Chanute's invitation, Wilbur made presentations to the Western Association of Engineers in Chicago in 1901 and 2, and wrote technical papers for their Journal. Go to some of Brown's references: Gustave Whitehead and William Custead are inventors. They have $100,000 in the bank. Last Tuesday, Whitehead flew an airplane.

    I forgot to mention the May, 1901, unmanned flights of the Condor in pre-dawn darkness. The second one ended with the aircraft slamming into a tree.

    In 1899, Randolph said Whitehead and a friend tried to fly a 2-seat steam engine powered aircraft, while in Pittsburgh. Aviation History in 1986 said there was no indication that it got off the ground when it slammed into a 3-story building, and set it on fire. Gus and friend left their families in P'burgh, hopped their bicycles, and rode to New York City. From there, they took a train to Bridgeport. I've ridden a 10-speed in the hills near Pittsburgh. On a high wheeler or a 1-speed of the day, on dirt or no roads, it would have been a bear. Really dumb, when you consider they were running along the Pennsylvania Rail Road's main line to NYC.

    John Brown noted the NASA Moffett Field wind tunnel tests of the Wright's gliders and 1903 Flyer. They were unstable in 3 axes. That's exactly why they developed wing warping, a canard, and movable rudder. Put a Condor replica in the same wind tunnel, and see what it's characteristics are. Wil & Orv built their own wind tunnel. From the Condor wing, you can see Whitehead never saw of one. Out of ground effect, what was the Condor like? How did it compare to the 1903 Flyer?

    The Cerrus ballistic safety system is a parachute that deploys when an aircraft is out of control. Put one on a Condor replica, climb to whatever the minimum deployment altitude (300, 500 ft?) is, and see if the Condor can fly straight and level. If the parachute deploys, Whitehead's chances were….

    Build a platform with 12 inch diameter wheels (Kosch built a set for the Connecticut replica) mounted 5 feet apart length wise and 2.5 feet apart side to side, like the approximate footprint of the Condor. Randolph's 1935 article said the Condor weighed 800 pounds, he 165. Distribute 965 pounds equally to the 4 wheels of this platform, then tow it through a farmer's field – Whitehead took off from Tierney's field. If the drag load is greater than the 365 pounds thrust that Whitehead claimed the Condor's twin props produced, takeoff on Aug 14, 1901, was unlikely.

    Gustave Whitehead it is said, did his flight tests at night so that no one could steal his secrets. What fool takes off from a farmer's field in pitch black no moon-ness, without having walked the area in daylight, only to realize 100 yards later, that he's headed straight at a clump of chestnut trees? Ache, du libe? How's my german? Or, is that Ouch.

    To answer your last comment, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald reported an unmanned sand-bagged pilot's seat flight at 2 am, and a second manned one just as the sun was beginning to appear. Broad day light? Reference, please.

    Mr. Brown and O'Dwyer make a big deal of The Contract, by which the Smithsonian is forbidden to say that any other aircraft flew before the 1903 Flyer. The next sentence says if the Smithsonian does find an earlier, successful aircraft, the family gets the Flyer back.

    Brown wants to sue over wing warping? In 1913, the judge in their Patent infringement law suit looked at Glenn Curtiss' assertion that Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wrights. In New York State and U.S. Federal Courts, the judge found for the Wright brothers. Don't waste your legal budget, Mr. Brown.

    Note: 1897, Whitehead flew a tri-plane glider in NY. 1901, he flew an umbrella winged Condor 1904, he was back to a tri-plane. The Wrights went from a short, wide wing; to a longer wind wing; to a slender much longer wing in 3 years of development. Jump vs. development.

  23. 23
    Susan Brinchman says:

    When I say photos were taken, I refer to those of the 1901 and possibly others of the early flight period of Whitehead. There were up to three daytime flights on Aug. 14th reported by witnesses that followed the flight at dawn.
    The way the newspapers operated in those days, it is not relevant to refer to what distant press reported. What is relevant and more reliable is what was reported by the eye-witness reporter, Dick Howell, of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, identified and supported by the paper's editor in 1937. The other accounts of that flight are either repeats (Associated Press) or accounts that may have been changed. You could have 1,000,000 reports of Whitehead's flight of his airplane on Aug. 14th, 1901 … what that is worth is showing that what he did was being disseminated around the globe, rather than just being reported locally. If they changed the specifics (2 AM vs. 4 AM, vs. dawn) that is a reflection on the reporting of the era. However, the flights were locally covered by someone Whitehead trusted. That matters. As to a photo, the most likely scenario is a daytime photo that blurred due to high speed, and of unknown date, except that at least one (and likely more) photo(s) were mentioned by journalists for the 1901 plane and another, in 1904.
    The nighttime flights were for a variety of reasons, not just to be secretive concerning designs. Safety, laws, crowd-avoidance added to this. It is why the Wrights were at Kitty Hawk.
    As to what Mr. Brown says or doesn't say, remember that he is entitled to his theories, and in most cases cites the research findings of O'Dwyer, as they appeared in magazine articles and unpublished writings, etc., or in History by Contract, published 1978. As an interested party who joined the fray on Whitehead a year ago, Brown has spent a lot of time studying this information which is scattered around the world and hard to get at, with the three books on Whitehead out of print and the research archives in CT, TX and Germany. Considering he is very new to this topic, and the info is scattered, he has done an admirable job of trying to ascertain and communicate what Whitehead was doing. Citing his findings to published and unpublished materials besides newspapers would help direct others to the same source information and would follow professional guidelines for historians, even of the amateur variety (those without degrees in history). The books are key to understanding Whitehead, as are the O'Dwyer articles and unpublished materials in his archives in Germany and CT. History by Contract cited all its sources and is an effective resource today as a result, though out of print, it is available usually, used, online, and hopefully will be reprinted shortly.

    • 23.1
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      Ms. Brinchman neglects to mention that the 18 August 1901 Sunday Bridgeport Herald article about Whitehead was anonymous and that Richard "Dick" Howell never once claimed it as his own. No byline, no claim of authorship, an anonymous story about an "earth-shattering" event ? Think about it – a reasonable person would immediately see that without someone claiming authorship the article about such a supposed event must have been a hoax.

  24. 24
    Susan Brinchman says:

    RE: the wooden wheels

    According to Junius Harworth, who spent 14 years with Whitehead, starting in 1900, the wooden wheels were covered with sheet metal, which he helped apply.

    Whitehead tended to use clear, hardpacked soil for their airfields. This included beaches. They also, at times, used planks that the airplane ran along, and other times, hilly regions.

  25. 25
    Peter says:

    Recently, John Brown announced that Gustave Whitehead's 1901 flights were witnessed by a police chief, judge, justice of the peace; or at least, that's what they were when Popular Aviation (now Flying magazine) author Stella Randolph interviewed them in 1935. She said, \the children came out,\ to watch. Cellie and Dickie were named in the August 14, 1901, article about the 'first flight'. Adults, but Brown dismissed them. Dickie was mad at Whitehead apparently for never paying a bill to move equipment.

    One, Chief Ratzenberger, said at 8-12, he and friends grabbed the trailing edge of the Condor's wing, and held on until it took them off of their feet. Whitehead friends shooed them away.

    If you've ever been around an airplane, you've heard of Center of Gravity. In a Piper Warrior, it can range 10 inches, depending on passenger load and position, fuel load, and luggage. A couple of kids hanging on the trailing edge of the wing would be a killer aft CG.

    The last flight of Andy Kosch's Condor replica hit and knocked down and out Wayne Ratzinger, Chief's grandson. I remember news coverage on Channel 4 in New York. They said the Condor crashed into the press gallery. Kosch said Ratzinger was out on the runway, to take 'the photo', for his paper, the CT Post. It put a gash in his scalp and broke his elbow. Kosch, an ultralight pilot, added wing warping to the replica. Despite standing up, like Whitehead did to aid weight shifting; he either could not maneuver, or did not see Ratzinger, and hit him.

    Acting Post Master Tate was interviewed in 1928 for the 25th Anniversary at Kitty Hawk. He said everyone initially thought the Wrights were wasting their time, but they came around as the tests proceeded. He said you never heard a harsh word to or about anyone from the Bishop's boys.

    Contrast the cartoons of the Condor on the Bridgeport Herald sports page; to the two photos taken at Kitty Hawk, of the 1902 glider in the air on the front page of a New York Herald newspaper.

    And no, Photoshop was not used to fake the shots. Go to the Library of Congress Wright Brothers Collection to view some of their photos. Some are funky: they were damaged in a major flood in 1913. Wilbur tested his model for wing warping at The Pinnacle in Moraine, OH, just south of Dayton. It was a lime stone spike close to the Great Miami River. Photos of that are in the group.

    When the Wrights sued Glenn Curtiss over wing warping in 1909 (he apparently would not pay their Patent license fee), kids who had seen the 1899 experiments testified under oath in court, about the tests.

    Sworn depositions are nice, but outside of court where the other side can cross examine the witness, do they mean much? Roberts posted the answers, but what were her questions? \John, when you were 10 years old, did you see Gustave Whitehead fly his aircraft the Condor in or about the city of Bridgeport in or about the years 1901 or 2?\

    Too much Raymond Burr: \Objection. Leading Question\

    Brown wants to sue over wing warping. Trot out the Judge's 1913 decision in Wright vs. Curtiss, who presented the idea that Whitehead had flown before the Wrights, which was to find for the Wrights. Settled law, I think, not being a lawyer.

    • 25.1
      Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman says:

      When the Whitehead replica hit the reporter, I was told Kosch knew that something on the plane was rigged backwards, yet tried to fly it anyhow. This had nothing to do with Whitehead. After that debacle, caused by accidental reverse rigging, the insurance company for the field denied any further tests. Lesson learned … but not a reflection on Whitehead.

  26. 26
    Carroll F. Gray says:

    To read facts about what Gustave Whitehead did and did *not* do, please visit http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/index.html

    You'll find that John Brown's photo identification, of a supposed 1901 photo of Whitehead in flight, was completely in error.
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/newphoto.html

    You'll also read for yourself how Whitehead faked photos of himself supposedly flying in a glider.
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/rope.html

    You'll also read how untruthful Junius Harworth and Gustave Whitehead were
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/JWHtruth.html
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/truthandwhitehead11.html

  27. 27
    Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman says:

    It is apparent that some people worship the Wrights to the degree that it is with near-religious fervor. They then will fabricate desperately in order to maintain the status quo, which they know they are losing. "The man doth protest too loudly" certainly applies here. Just because you read it on someone's "blog" website, does not make it true. Coming soon, a provocative new book, "Successful Flights", first in a series about Gustave Whitehead and the Wrights. This will contain 250 citations that you can count on.

    • 27.1
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      I can hardly wait to read and review your book, Ms. Brinchman. Perhaps you'll include some of the material your father kept from researchers who were not totally pro-Whitehead – the material your father had locked away behind a contract – some might call **that** History by Contract, I know I do.

      Also, don't you think it's about time you asked the Whitehead Museum in Germany to return the books that Gustave Whitehead took from the Buffalo Public Library in November 1897 – after all it was your father, Wm. O'Dwyer, who took possession of them and passed them on to the Whitehead Museum, even though he didn't own them, either.

      That might begin the process of setting some of these matters to rest.

  28. 28
    Carroll F. Gray says:

    To read facts about what Gustave Whitehead did and did *not* do, please visit http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/index.html

    You'll find that John Brown's photo identification, of a supposed 1901 photo of Whitehead in flight, was completely in error.
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/newphoto.html

    You'll also read for yourself how Whitehead faked photos of himself supposedly flying in a glider.
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/rope.html

    You'll also read how untruthful Junius Harworth and Gustave Whitehead were
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/JWHtruth.html
    http://www.flyingmachines.org/gwinfo/truthandwhitehead11.html

  29. 29
    Carroll F. Gray says:

    Apologies, I inadvertantly posted a copy of a previous comment, so it appears twice – I did not intend for it to.

  30. 30
    Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman says:

    According to you, Carroll F. Gray, everyone in the world for the past 113 years has been lying, except those who say the Wrights were first to fly. Mr. Gray is a good buddy of Tom Crouch, curator at the Smithsonian, a hometown boy from Dayton OH (the Wrights' town), who makes a living defending the Wrights as first to fly (required by the Smithsonian-Wright contract) and by writing a large number of books about the Wrights. Mr. Gray, who lives in Encino, CA, is heavily biased toward the Wrights and has decided to post largely fictional accounts of how everyone lied on his obscure and caustic blogs. I suppose some people like conspiracy theories that cannot be proved. If so, there is much fodder there. I prefer use of primary and secondary sources, more academic language. Bottomline, you will not find the facts there, in my opinion. It is ridiculous.

    • 30.1
      Carroll F. Gray says:

      Susan, quite obviously I do not "believe everyone in the world for the past 113 years has been lying…" – what an absurd thing for you to say.
      I would leave it to Dr. Crouch to say whether or not I am "a good buddy" of his, I would never presume such a thing, and your many vicious nasty slights directed at Dr. Crouch do you no favor.
      Is my residence in Encino somehow important for you to say ? Is your residence in El Cajon of any importance ?
      I would not say I am "biased toward the Wrights" – I am convinced by the mass of contemporary evidence in favor of the Wrights, it is, in my opinion, indisputable. By contrast, the "evidence" for the Whitehead claims is – for the greatest part of it – shoddy and unconvincing.
      In addition, despite claims by you and John Brown that you've uncovered "new evidence" all the two of you have offered is a recycling of old and discredited "evidence."
      I understand that it must sting to read that your father manipulated the material he gathered to force it to support the Whitehead claims. However he did manipulate evidence and you likely know it's true since the proof is contained within the material which he sought to keep hidden from all researchers who did not share his opinion.
      There is no merit in using primary or secondary sources. the value of such material is derived from context and from an understanding of what the circumstances truly were.
      I think the contrast between your web site's material and the material on my web site is evident to anyone who would care to take the time to review both sites.
      As I mentioned to you previously, I'm eager to read and review and fact-check your forthcoming book, do you have a publication date in mind ?

      • 30.1.1
        Carroll F. Gray says:

        I do not want to leave room for misunderstanding, there is no inherent merit in using primary or secondary sources. Simply referring to and presenting primary and secondary sources without an understanding of what is of value and what is not, does not serve the interest of historical scholarship.
        For instance, the great bulk of the re-writes of the August 18, 1901, Bridgeport Herald article which John Brown located are of not real value, unless the point is to demonstrate how effective telegrams and phone calls were at the time. They do not serve to "prove" anything about the Whitehead claims.
        When a person is driven by a preconceived point of view, a bias, they tend to select material which supports their bias and discard material which does not support their bias. Both you and John Brown do this… how refreshing it would be if you dared to look beyond your own bias and apply your intellect to this subject, not only apply your fond memories of your father and your passions for Whitehead's claims.

  31. 31
    JoJo Biggins says:

    Cool – the food fight was better than the meal!



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