Why were the Wrights given credit as “first in flight”?
Despite the fact that Gustave Whitehead’s successful powered airplane flight was completed 28 months before the Wrights, controversy exists. Whitehead’s multiple powered flights before December 17, 1903 far outdid the Wrights’ short, out-of-control hops. Yet, it took 112 years to for Whitehead to be credited as “first in flight” by a major authority on aviation.
The question is always asked, “Why?”
Reasons why the Wrights were credited as “first in flight” include:
- Extensive self-promotion over a half-century, including self-documentation that was accepted as “fact”
- A signed legal contract with Smithsonian Institute to recognize ONLY the Wrights as “first in flight”
- “Reasons for the vanished recognition [of Whitehead] are several….That because they were the most successful of the early aviation pioneers, they [the Wrights] must have been ‘the first to fly’…Secondly … [the Smithsonian-Wright Contract]…” (Jane’s Editor, Paul Jackson, 3/8/13)
- Survival of a photo of the Wright Flyer two feet in the air has been mistakenly accepted as “proof of a flight”
- Officially recognized by the court during patent suits as “first in flight”, based on expert testimony from a secret employee of the Wrights
- Needed to be recognized as “first in flight” to aid with their patent suits, in gaining a broader interpretation of patent rights for a “pioneer invention” vs. “improving the art”
- Paid and professional promotion from 1906-1915
- Support from monied interests at the Aero Club of America from 1905, forward
- Initially recognized as first to develop a practical airplane (not the first flight)
- Better resources and contacts
- Legal advisors and paid attorneys
- Publicly self-promoted as “first in flight” in some key publications
- Financial ability to continue experimenting full-time to develop a practical plane up through 1906
Credit for being “first in flight” has mistakenly been given to the Wright brothers, who simply developed the airplane further, in a practical sense. The Wrights did not invent the airplane. That honor goes to Gustave Whitehead, with mountainous evidence in existence for his earlier inventions and many powered flights from 1899-1903. It was necessary for the Wrights to claim they were first, in order to gain the total control over aviation they actively sought in the first decade of flight. Their desire for this control, and their many lawsuits against other aviators were well known facts during that period. As a result, the Wright brothers were not very popular in aviation circles. The focus was on development of a practical airplane and for the Wrights, worldwide control of the patents. The Wrights wished to have everyone pay them to be able to design and sell airplanes, and to fly them for profit. Central to that goal was establishment of being “first in flight”, in order to gain widest patent rights. The Wrights weren’t first, however. Gustave Whitehead was the true inventor of the airplane.