The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
DIDN'T FLY YESTERDAY -
GUSTAVE WHITEHEAD'S "FLYING" CAR
Gustave Whitehead's flying machine
“A New Flying Machine.” The bland headline appeared in the Washington Times on June 10, 1901, with the subhead “This Air Ship Can Also Be Used as an Automobile.” There it was, the first flight and the first flying car, delivered together in one neat package.
The article appeared on page 4 of the paper. Flying machines weren't front page news. Every backyard tinkerer in America claimed the invention of a winged monstrosity that would get from here to there without killing anybody. "The trouble with all flying machines that have flown," wrote the anonymous Times reporter, "is that they have a habit of turning backward in midflight." This "contrivance" at least had a singular aspect that made it newsworthy: "it is a combination of an automobile and a flying machine."
Washington Times, June 10, 1901
The inventor was the enigmatic Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, CT, born in 1874, whose life would have made good fodder for Jules Verne. This account from John Brown's Gustave Whitehead website seems to be the best.
Gustave Whitehead, age unknown
Gustave Whitehead (born Gustav Weißkopf), son of a bridge-construction engineer, grew up in Germany. At school, he was keenly interested in flight; performed lift-measurement experiments on birds; built models; and jumped off roofs with self-built wings. Orphaned at age 13, he was housed with various relatives before being sent away to a machinist apprenticeship in Augsburg. (It's known that the manufacturer was later absorbed into M.A.N. Co..) Gustave completed his apprenticeship, becoming a trained engine-builder. ...
In 1891 he left his home town, saying he was headed for the USA. But when he reached the coast, he met a German family emigrating to Brazil. He joined them and worked on their plantation there. He then became a sailor working on several ships including the Norwegian ship “Gomünd” plying the route between Europe and South America.
In 1893, he arrived in the south of the USA. He was a crew-member on a coastal freighter which was shipwrecked in the Sea Islands Storm off Savannah, Georgia on August 28, 1893. Two weeks later he joined the crew of a Canadian ship and sailed to Southampton, England. He returned to live briefly in Birmingham, Alabama before moving to Baltimore, Maryland where in November, 1894 he again became a crewmember on a trading ship. The ship was heavily damaged in a storm in January, 1895 near New York. After repairs, the following month it was so heavily damaged in another storm that one crewman died and another was severely injured.
Upon arrival in Boston on April 1, 1895 he quit sailing and began working at Blue Hill Weather Observatory. He soon met James Means, a retired manufacturer, who’d just published a booklet titled “Manned Flight”. In January 1895, Means had announced his intention to found America’s first aviation organization – the Boston Aeronautical Society (which he duly did on March 19, 1895). In the announcement, Means outlined his plans to hire a team of mechanics to build Lilienthal gliders, set up a facility on Cape Cod to perform flight tests and run a flying contest which was to include a “powered flight” category. Whitehead became the Society's first and only Staff Mechanic.
The first mention of Whitehead I can find is from May 6, 1897, where he was "in the employ of J. B. Millet, head of the Boston Aeronautic society." Four box kites had flown off and gone missing and he asked for their return. This was a serious matter. Kites were a primary investigative means of studying flight in the 1890s. Three days later, in fact, the Globe ran a long illustrated article on the society under the headline "Flight By Man," with several of their "scientific kites" detailed. Whitehead's name is not mentioned among the more illustrious members.
Boston Globe, May 9, 1897
By October, though, he had moved to New York, where he did a series of much publicized attempts to fly, both with gliders and powered craft. On October 6 he was on top the Jersey City Heights, where "on the roads below, hundreds of people watched for the flight of the big machine." Nothing happened; the winds had shifted and Whitehead knew better than to try to launch against them. The New York Times then reported that "Gus" Whitehead would try his flying machine - either his 42nd or 43rd depending on the paper - on Sunday the tenth. The still-friendly Boston Globe ran a large drawing of his machine, with wings shaped like those of a condor. Winds also stopped this attempt.
Boston Globe, October 9, 1897
Whitehead quickly left New York for Buffalo where in November he married a woman name Lujza - later Americanized to Louise - and gave his occupation on the marriage certificate as "aeronaut," possibly the first ever to do so.
Gustave and Lujza (Louise) Whitehead
Another change of address brought him to Pittsburgh in 1899. Then again winds were the enemy. On December 6, 1899, one try at actual flight was covered by the Pittsburg Post-Gazette under the headline “Didn’t Fly Yesterday.” (Pittsburgh spelled itself Pittsburg for a few years.) Winds prevented him from putting his "queer-looking craft" in the air. The article notes that Whitehead claimed to have flown for 2,000 meters in Boston. That's unlikely, unless the reporter meant kites or gliders. (News reports in the 19th century almost inevitably contain shoddy reporting and dubious facts. Despite Otto Lilienthal's undisputed worldwide fame, both the Pittsburg and Washington reporters managed to misspell his name in different ways.)
Pittsburg Post-Gazette, December 6, 1899
Articles about flying machine had appeared in newspapers, sometimes reprinted nationally, almost weekly for the past decade. A few recounted the exploits of famous names like glider pioneer Octave Chanute and Prof. Samuel P. Langley. Most were intrepid young men with more daring than skill. A couple were outright nutcases. My favorite was Henry W. Keely of Philadelphia, a "motorman," who in 1897 announced a wingless flying machine. Four years before H. G. Wells debuted his gravity-nullifying Cavorite, Keely proposed to counter Newton's gravitation with - what else? - levitation.
Montreal Star, October 1, 1897
Whitehead moved again, to Bridgeport, CT, in 1900. There he got lucky, finding both financial backers and someone who could spin a good yarn to reporters. The first report to hit print was in the prestigious Scientific American magazine for June 8, 1901, a purely technical report with intriguing photographs of his flying machine. ("Aeroplanes" were a technical word for wings at the time; the entire contraption wasn't called an "airplane' until 1907.)
Scientific American, June 8, 1901
The whole story was run in a long article in the New York Sun on June 9, 1901 under another boring headline, "Improved Flying Machine." (Yes, this is the same article that the Washington Times printed without attribution, as did a dozen other newspapers, shortening and editing the contents at will.)
The Sun's reporter was a professional; once past the headline the reader would receive both a heartening human interest story about pluck and ingenuity along with all the technical aspects other fledgling aeronauts could possible want. (And also managed to misspell Lilienthal in yet a new way.) Whitehead (still legally named Weisskopf) is personified as the archetypal American despite his immigrant status. He took a low-paying job in Bridgeport as a night watchman in a steel manufactory so he could spend the critical daylight hours working on his machines in his front yard. Louise is apparently never asked what she thought of this. The complete article is five times as long as the opening below.
New York Sun, June 9, 1901
Later on, the car half of the flying car is given its due. Whitehead drove the machine with wings and rudder folded up, with the chassis sitting on four wooden wheels, each only a foot high. Though he "drove her pretty fast" in the city, he needed from midnight to dawn, or about six hours, to cover the 15 miles from Pine Street in Bridgeport to a field in nearby Fairfield. Both the Sun and Scientific American articles lack some important details. Putting them together, the total weight of the craft seems to be a slight 137 pounds. The wings were made of muslin fabric stretched over bamboo ribs, although no mention of the composition of the body is given. The machine was carrying two men, and also possibly 220 pounds of sand ballast, although Whitehead may have arranged to load that at the field. On the ground a 10 hp engine powered the wheels; a second larger engine would help in flight. The horsepower of the second engine is oddly omitted from both. The Sun states that "his machine weighs only two pounds to the horse power," but that's impossible. Maybe the 57 total pounds of the two engines generated 28.5 hp.
New York Sun, June 9, 1901
Two vitally important facts come out of this article. First, the experimental test flight had been made a month earlier, on May 3, 1901. Second, Whitehead never flew in it: nobody did. “Oh, no, I did not ride in the machine; not much,” he said in his interview. “It has not reached a sufficient state of perfection for that. I never for a moment had any intention of taking flight in it.”
Interesting story, but no more so than dozens, hundreds of others. So why even bring it up?
Because on August 18, 1901, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald featured a full-page, heavily-illustrated article on Gustave Whitehead's successful flight, with him piloting the aircraft a half-mile through the air, soaring over treetops.
Brdigeport Sunday Herald, August 18, 1901
For the next century, Whitehead would have ardent admirers in Bridgeport and elsewhere proclaiming him to be the pioneer of flight. There's even a museum dedicated to him in his Bavarian home.
All because of that August 18, 1901 article. Only one small problem. The article was a hoax. A publicity stunt. A yarn dreamed up by Richard Howell, an editor at the Herald, and Whitehead. Whitehead did not make a flight on August 14, 1901. Howell just took the forgotten story from June about the May 3 failed trial and gave it a happy ending.
Wait? Nobody noticed?
No. This is a 121-year-old scoop. Somehow all the Whitehead researchers missed the June 1901 stories. They did their research, to be sure, and found some 19th century stories that never turned up for me in my searches. Other sources mention the articles, but only in passing, and don't collect all of the mentions of Whitehead. What's important is that these particular crucial stories are not examined in detail by anyone on either side of the controversy.
Let's go through the articles and pair the story told in the June 9 New York Sun about a May 3 attempt with the August 18 article from the Bridgeport Herald about an August 14 flight. Remember, the first article is from a much later interview with Whitehead and the second is from the perspective of the reporter who supposedly accompanied them.
Since this is a flying car page, we'll start with the car and its description.
6/9-- A curious feature of Mr. Whitehead's contrivance is that, as it stands now, it is a combination of an automobile and a flying machine. When the experiments were made on May 3 which resulted in the accident, Mr. Whitehead says, the flying machine travelled along the road with its own power from in front of his house in Pine Street to a place out near Fairfield several miles away. [Later he calls it fifteen miles.] In addition to Mr. Whitehead it carried Mr. [Andrew] Cellie the entire distance. It was not driven rapidly because the inventor did not wish to take any chances of straining the machinery, but it showed itself capable, even with the little wooden wheels one foot high on which it rolls, of developing a very considerable speed.
8/18 -- The machine rolls on the ground on small wooden wheels, only a foot in diameter, and owing to their being so small, the obstructions in the road made it rock from one side to the other in an alarming fashion at times when the speed was fast. After reaching the Protestant Orphan asylum at the corner of Fairfield avenue and Ellsworth street there is a clear stretch of good macadam road and the flying automobile was sent spinning along the road at the rate of twenty miles an hour. For short distances from there on the speed was close to thirty miles, but as the road was not straight or level for any distance this rate of speed could not be maintained.
In May, Whitehead very sensibly drove the craft very slowly over bad roads in the middle of the midnight. No indication of headlights are ever given. In August, however, he whizzed along like a race car driver. A "flying" automobile in those days was one speeding at a very good clip.
No one can be surprised that wheels spaced that close together would make the contrivance rock from side to side at almost any speed. To be fair, these illustrations may not be correct. The picture at the top of this page shows a wheel far away from the body and modern recreations of the #21 also spread the wheels out further than the body to give it some stability.
6/9 -- "It was a little after midnight," said Mr. Whitehead to-day, "when we started out to make the experiments which resulted in the accident. I went at that hour because I did not want to attract attention and draw a crowd."
8/18 -- The start was made shortly after midnight in order not to attract attention.
6/9 -- "I did not want to get to the place until daylight. ... The road is hilly but the machine climbed the hills all right. We passed one horse and wagon about dawn and the horse took fright and ran away. .. It was just good and daylight when we were ready to begin the experiment.
8/18 -- It was about 2 o'clock Wednesday morning when the great white wings of the air ship were spread out ready to leap through the air.
Dawn comes about 5:20 am in Fairfield in May and about 15 minutes later in August. The reporter starts to deviate from the earlier story here, realizing that a "flying automobile" has to travel a mere 15 miles in much less than five-and-a-half hours. That starts digging a hole, however. No aviator, however daring, flew in the middle of the night. The story needs to fill in the four or so hours until daylight. Not to worry. The reporter recounts the May 3 experiment as if Whitehead repeated it to the last detail in the morning of August 14.
6/9 -- "We started the machine on the crest of a hill and from right in the middle of the road. With the under motor it got a good momentum and began to rise from the effect of the aeroplane wings. ... [I] put in 220 pounds of sand ballast...
"When the machine begins to rise the upper engine is started and the lower engine automatically stops. It worked perfectly. The machine sailed up into the air to a height, I should think, of forty or more feet. It cleared the top of the trees at all events..."
8/18 -- In the body of the machine were two bags of sand, each weighing 110 pounds, for ballast. Mr. Whitehead started the engine that propels the machine along the ground on the four wooden wheels... Slowly the machine started at first to run over the ground... Then Whitehead pulled open the throttle that starts the air propellers or wings and shut off the ground propelling engine. Almost instantly the bow of the machine lifted and she raised at an angle of about six degrees.
The sequel differs greatly between the two accounts.
6/9 -- "The second time it rose higher and went further. It went a full half-mile this trip, I should think. Then again the lack of an intelligent hand to guide it brought it to grief. It slanted downward and dashed bow on against a tree."
8/18 -- [Whitehead] took his positoin [sic] in the great bird. He opened the throttle of the ground propeller and shot along the green sod at a rapid rate. ...
[Whitehead] was heading 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 ride. ... To strike them meant wrecking the air ship and very likely death or broken bones for the daring aeronaut....
All that the May catastrophe had lacked was an intelligent hand. Howell supplies one.
8/18 -- He simply shifted his weight more to one side 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.
He had now sailed through the air for fully half a mile...
Supporters of Whitehead could still make the argument for him. Of course he would want to test the ship again before getting in. Of course his piloting the air ship would make a difference. The repeated heights and distances could be just coincidence or a function of the craft's limitations. Doing a trial in the middle of the night, in total darkness, or, as Howell put it, "The light was not very strong and everything looked like a ghost," might be a bit of exaggeration or a not mentioned full moon.
Howell, however, made additional mistakes in jazzing up his story.
Remember the spooked horse? He reappears.
8/18 -- An early morning milkman stopped in the road to see what was going on. His horse nearly ran away when the big white wings flaped [sic] to see if they were all right.
And there's another stopper. Even in 1901 aeronauts knew that flapping wings might work with a bird's muscle power and hollow bones but had no place on an air ship. Whitehead's wings were rigid. "Immovable" said the June 8 Scientific American article. (To confuse history, that article said the ribbing was covered in silk, but the June 9 Sun article maintained that Whitehead used muslin and planned to switch to silk for "the perfected machine." Howell, in August, naturally repeated the mention of muslin with nothing about silk.) The article repeatedly compares the #21 to a "big bird," "white goose," "giant bat," and "bird released from a cage."
Want more? Howell made the truth stretch throughout the entire tale.
6/9 -- "as near as I can guess I should say the machine was in the air the last time about a minute and a half."
8/18 -- He had now sailed 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 light. ...
For half an hour the man who had demonstrated that he has a machine that can navigate the air talked of his ten minutes' experience in the air ship.
Early aeroplanes flew in a straight line. The ability to circle back to the starting point would come later. Howell is explicit that Whitehead flew from one end of a field to the other, a half mile in total, just as Whitehead had described his second May flight. A half-mile in a minute and a half is a speed of 20 mph, very impressive for an early flight. The Wrights fourth and best trial on December 17, 1903 lasted fifty-nine seconds in the air and covered 852 feet (1/6 mile) or about 10 mph. Whitehead's achievement as given would be years ahead of anybody else. But 90 seconds in the air apparently wasn't dramatic enough. Howell had to inflate the time to an incredible ten minutes. The Wrights wouldn't make a flight that long until 1905. They couldn't. Nobody could. Taking 10 minutes to fly 1/2 mile means a speed of 3 mph in the air. That's too slow to maintain lift. The plane wouldn't continue flying.
You don't have to be an expert in early aircraft not to believe Howell's account. All that's needed is to be a writer, although any decent teacher could spot this immediately as a plagiarized essay. Howell took the short, dry, technical narration of a worthy but failed attempt and rewrote it into a glittering tale of derring-do in the mode of the fiction of the day. He added color, personality, danger, and triumphing over the odds to make the story as sensational as possible while maintaining credulity. Few if any of his readers would understand the glaring errors.
One of them, though, was Gustave Whitehead. Whitehead is not known to have objected to a line of the Herald's full-page fable. Surely that trumps any later doubts.
I'm saying no. The article was a puff piece, a Barnum-like exaggeration to draw the suckers in and get them to part with their money. Whitehead knew he was being used and reveled in the knowledge. He used the publicity to make himself one of the country's most famous aeronauts. His name would be splashed all over newspapers for years. A man who worked as a night watchman needed far more cash than crashing into a tree would generate. Only the fame that success brought would lure in backers.
The Herald article names one right at the beginning.
8/18 -- Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, and W. D. Custead, of Waco, Texas, have co-operated and are now working on a flying machine which is expected to revolutionize the world of aeronautics. ...
But while Mr. Whitehead has demonstrated that his machine will fly he does not pretend that it can be made a commercial success. On the other hand Inventor [sic] Custead claims that his airship can be made a commercial success for it differs from Whitehead's in that it rises from the ground vertically while Whitehead's machine must have a running start like a goose before leaving the ground in flight.
William Custead invented the helicopter? Definitely not. Here's the image the Herald ran.
Brdigeport Sunday Herald, August 18, 1901
Custead's creation was a variation on a blimp. Needless to say, this contraption never made it into the air. Nothing is known to have come out of his brief association with Whitehead. How the two totally separate approaches to flight were to be melded is a mystery.
Could Custead have been the impetus for the article? A pro-Whitehead site says he promised $100,000 but quickly disappeared when Whitehead refused to give details about his advanced engine. A Custead site reports instead that Custead announced that he had backing of $100,000 and made grand announcements based on the imaginary forthcoming money. He "was a better salesman than engineer, and he had trouble separating the dream from reality," reports Michael Barr about Custead. The possibility that he sold Howell on an article is intriguing but unprovable.
Someone did. That's the inescapable conclusion. It's hard to believe that anyone after the early 1900s ever believed this fantastical early proto-science fiction tale. In fact, there's no good evidence that Whitehead ever flew in any craft he invented. Dreamers and charlatans were a dime a dozen then. No more proof need be added to the massive pile others have assembled. Nevertheless, the June 1901 articles are too important to leave unnoticed in databases. They confirm that Howell's fable was exactly what it appeared to be: an unmitigated lie wrapped in a pretty package. Then as now people wanted to believe reassuring and uplifting stories, the little man winning out over huge opposition, faith in oneself triumphing over all doubters. Nothing ever changes. That includes the truth that, as far as can be proven, the Wright Brothers made the first flight and the first flying car would need two more decades to see fruition.
November 23, 2022