Letters debate Whitehead first in flight claims

In early March, aviation researcher John Brown released information that led Jane's All the World's Aircraft to recognize Gustave Whitehead's flights in the Bridgeport area two years before the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

Tom Crouch, senior aviation curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, rebutted Brown's findings, saying there is no question that the Wrights flew first and expressing doubt that Whitehead ever left the ground in a powered aircraft.

This week, the two exchanged open letters, which can be read below.

From John Brown

Dear Tom,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my writings about Gustave Whitehead in a Smithsonian press release, http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/did-gustave-whitehead-beat-wright-brothers, in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/2013/03/air-and-space-curator-the-wright-brothers-were-most-definitely-the-first-in-flight/ and in an NPR- interview given in your home town of Dayton, Ohio. http://www.wyso.org/post/more-reaction-first-flight-claim

As much as I appreciate your efforts, you appear to have missed the point I was trying to make. For this reason, you've responded somewhat differently than I think most observers expected.

Perhaps I expressed myself unclearly. So let me try again: I claim to have uncovered a photo of Gustave Whitehead in powered flight more than 2 years before the Wright brothers. You are the Aeronautical Curator in charge of the original version of that photo. It forms part of the Hammer Collection. When we spoke in your office last year, you told me you were the only historian ever to have been allowed to view the entire Hammer Collection. And on your Institute’s website, it clearly states the photo is not accessible to researchers http://airandspace.si.edu/research/arch/findaids/pdf/william_j_hammer_collection_finding_aid.pdf (p.3 next-to-last paragraph)

The response I think many expected was for you to invite me and my forensic photography experts to examine that photo. Instead, you recited – verbatim – Orville Wright’s denunciation of Whitehead which appeared 68 years ago in US Air Service Magazine, calling it a “fresh look” and referring to my website as “flawed”. What easier way would there have been for you to show how "flawed" my conclusions are than to allow me to examine the photo?

Critical peer review normally involves reading what you’re critiquing first. Apparently, when preparing your response, you overlooked the detailed rebuttal of Wrights’ arguments which I published on page 2 of my website, http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history-of-whitehead-critics/. To cite just one example, you may want to reexamine your assertion that the first report of Whitehead’s flight was “delayed” by 4 days… it appeared in a weekly newspaper which published it in its very next edition. You may also want to distance yourself from the man you cite as your prime source on Whitehead – the flying saucer conspiracy theorist, Charles H. Gibbs-Smith.

Your critique opens by suggesting my findings were no different than those made by previous Whitehead researchers back in 1937 and calls them “standard arguments”. Indeed, your spokesman, Peter Jakab, stated last week, my findings were “nothing new”.

Now that I’ve published, I can finally reveal to you that from day one, I sent everything I found on Whitehead concurrently to you, Jane’s and the Whitehead Museum. Let me remind you how you reacted back then in your emails to me (attached):

- June 13, 2012; “John, thanks so much for all of the Whitehead treasure. Where did you find all of this?”

- June 13, 2012; “I am incredibly impressed by the amount of Whitehead material you uncovered”

- July 27, 2012: “Some of what you outline below seems to be new.”

Within the first 24 hours after the press conference announcing my findings, more than 25,000 people visited my website. (If I’m not mistaken, that’s more people than ever bought one of your books.) Many of them – including some noted historians – made comments similar to yours about the newness of the material. So you were in good company. Your initial, enthusiastic reaction was what I think most people would have expected of anyone interested in early aviation history. Why the change of heart now that it’s receiving wide attention? Isn’t that good for our field?

Peer review is normally impartial. In your case, the Wright-Smithsonian contract requires that you never state anyone flew before the Wrights. I therefore fail to see how you are qualified to review my work. Let me be clear, I consider you one of the world’s most qualified historians and I hope our friendship continues through and beyond these discussions. You’re certainly not UN-qualified. But on this matter, you are DIS-qualified. Normally, a person in your position would recuse himself. You simply cannot render an impartial judgment. You saying the Wrights flew first is like Bill Gates saying Microsoft products are good – except that Bill is more credible because no contract actually requires him to say that. You may want to bear in mind the words of the philosopher, Dennis Diderot (1713-1784), who once said, 'What has not been examined impartially has not been well examined. Skepticism is therefore the first step toward truth.' I think all good historians are sceptics - and impartial.

Partisanship was a problem back when the Smithsonian’s Director, Prof. Langley, was trying to be the first to fly. The problem wasn’t remedied by the Wright-Smithsonian contract. It simply created an even greater conflict of interest. Tom, you’d be well advised to put your energies into re-establishing credibility by assuring abrogation of that contract rather than writing critiques under its ominous shadow. I’m more than happy to engage you on this subject. Indeed, I believe we’ve both been invited to debate at an event this summer in Connecticut.

However, as long as that contract is in place, it will undercut your position. (And I will gently continue to remind you of that for as long as it's in force.)

"Spin" won't help. In a response to the contract issue last week http://blogs.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/2013/03/not-the-first/ you wrote that the contract was "a healthy reminder of a less-than-exemplary moment in Smithsonian history".

Well, yes. But why, then, should it remain in force? That would be like Germany saying remembrance of WW2 atrocities required the wartime government to remain in force. I fail to understand your logic. At least in my estimation, such a contract is at odds with the Smithsonian's own mission statement http://www.si.edu/About/Mission, as indeed it would be with the ethics of any scientific organization.

The rules of writing history have changed. When it comes to events in 1901, people no longer blindly accept historians' pronouncements at their face value. Instead, they whip out their smart phones and read 1901 newspapers first. These days, we historians have to prove ourselves and earn our reputations with hard facts which hold up under cross-examination.

That’s what I was expecting of you. I chose a modern, transparent forum to publish my work and used accessible footnotes. In total, I authored over 200 pages of material. Tom, there’s GOT TO BE some mistakes in there somewhere. Are you going to look for them? I’m prepared to make changes in my position.

That’s what peer review and transparency are all about. That's why we study history - to find new things and deepen understanding. Are you willing to take a "fresh look" at your own position in the light of these new findings?

Many of my findings are attributable to modern technologies. I used:

- facial recognition to find two early photos of Whitehead

- digital newsprint scans to find over 250 articles about him, &

- forensic photo analysis to identify the photo of Whitehead in powered flight

(I’m saving the best quality versions for an upcoming documentary).

As historians, we need to embrace these technologies in pursuit of the truth, just like courts have done to acquit or convict people years later. The blurred image of Whitehead in flight is not indiscriminate as to detail. Those shadows and patterns are as individual as a finger print or a strand of DNA. I think you’ll be surprised when you see how the analysis works. I know I was.

Something else I expected you to comment on is Whitehead’s disclosure of his aircraft’s wing-warping mechanism in Dec. 1902, some 4 months before the Wrights filed their wing-warping patent. As we historians know – and the Wrights admitted in court – the issue was never “powered flight” but “controlled flight”. Are you planning to ignore this finding? That might be risky in the age of the internet.

Tom, sure you can continue championing Mr. Gibbs-Smith's erroneous conspiracy theories about Whitehead, claiming

- 86 independent newspapers around the world conspired to lie about Whitehead’s 1901 and 1902 flights;

- 17 independent witnesses in two states also conspired to lie about seeing such flights;

- 4 independent newspapers conspired to lie when describing a photo of Whitehead in flight;

- Whitehead himself lied about everything;

- Almost every major figure in early US aviation conspired to lie about buying engines and airframes from Whitehead;

- Aeronautical World, a peer journal, somehow backdated Whitehead’s wing-warping disclosure to four months

before the Wrights’ patent application; and

- I, of course, conspired with "Jane’s" to join this century-spanning conspiracy.

Come on, Tom. Face the facts. "Jane's"-bashing won't get you far. The history of aviation is more than a chronicle of Dayton community happenings. And your prestigious office deserves more than a knee-jerk, provincial response.

With apologies to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev:... Mr. Crouch, tear up that contract!

Best regards,


Following is a response from Tom D. Crouch, Ph.D.,

Senior Curator, Aeronautics, Smithsonian Institution.

March 25, 2013

From: Tom D. Crouch, Ph.D.

To: John Brown

Subject: Response to Your Open Letter to Tom Crouch

John Brown:

This is in reply to your widely distributed, ”Open letter to Tom Crouch,” posted on March 24, 2013. I will make this as clear and concise as I can, addressing what seem to be your major points.

• With regard to access to the Hammer Collection: If I ever told you that I was “the only historian to view the Hammer Collection,” then I misspoke. It is certainly true that I have spent as much time drawing on the rich resources of that collection as any historian. Contrary to your false charge, the Hammer collection is open to all researchers, and always has been. You complain of one group of enlarged and mounted photos, including an enlargement of the image in question, that were restricted for conservation reasons. Had you bothered to ask to see the image in question, our archivists would have provided you with the original 14” by 16” print of that photo. The large print in poor condition is nothing more than an enlargement of the original, and no doubt lacks the clarity of the original and contains distortions. If you had read the notation in the finding aide to the collection carefully, you would have realized that that you could have immediately accessed our best copy of the photo. It is not too late. Our archivists stand ready and willing to allow you or anyone else to examine that original image.

A Question regarding the date of the photo you analyzed: I believe you are wrong in assuming that Whitehead, the reporter, or anyone else tried to take a photo of Number 21 on August 14, 1901. The first time Whitehead mentions photography is in his 1902 letter to the editor of American Inventor. “This coming Spring,” Whitehead notes, “I will have photographs made of Machine No. 22 in the air and let you have pictures taken during its flight. If you can come up and get them yourself, so much the better. I attempted this before, but in the first trial [of January 17, 1902] the weather was bad, some little rain and a very cloudy sky, and the snapshots that were taken did not come out right. I cannot take any time exposures of the machine when in flight on account of its high speed.” The fact that no account of the events of August 14, 1901 mentions bad weather or a photographer indicates that Whitehead is indeed referring to his first trial of January 17, 1902. That means that the supposed photograph you have analyzed would not have been taken in August 1901, but in January 1902. That being the case, your photo could obviously not have been used as a basis for the line drawing carried in the 1901 Bridgeport article, as you argue. Of course, I don’t think that a 1902 photo of Number 22 exists either. I might add parenthetically that the Wrights began taking crystal clear photos of their machines in the air from the time of their first trip to the Outer Banks in 1900 through the end of their initial experimental work in the fall of 1905.

Comments on the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article: The fact remains that Richard Howell’s article in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald was published four days after the event as a feature story on page five, in a story captioned with witches on broomsticks flying overhead. In that regard, you have failed to deal with the comment of the only supposed witness to the August 14 flight, who told a subsequent interviewer that he was not there, did not witness any flight, did not believe that there had been a flight and suggested that Howell’s story was based on Whitehead’s description of the capabilities of his machine.

Your attack on C.H. Gibbs-Smith: I note that you also renew your attack on Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith in this section of your “open letter” to me. Over three decades after his death, Gibbs-Smith remains our best and most distinguished historian of early aviation. You completely ignore that fact, preferring to mention his attitude toward flying saucers, rather than informing your readers of his many books and articles on this question and relevant aspects of early aviation. Frankly, I find such an attack beneath contempt. Your argument would be stronger had you stuck to the facts of the case and avoided the “red herring” of vicious personal attacks.

Your Identification of additional news articles: I did congratulate you on your successful web search for additional news articles on Whitehead. You did produce articles that I had not seen, and I was very pleased to receive them. . The materials you sent did include one news article that provided what was for me new evidence as to Whitehead’s activity while living in New York in 1897. None of the articles that you unearthed added any new information supporting Whitehead’s claims to have flown in 1901 and 1902, however. The vast bulk of those articles were simply copies or rewritten versions of a handful of local articles, containing no additional information. With regard to the flight claims, your website simply repeats the standard arguments and witnesses that have been advanced and refuted many times over the years. With the exception of your failed attempt to produce a photo of a Whitehead powered machine in the air, you have added nothing new to the old debate.

Peer Review: You seem to suggest that your website has been peer reviewed. Books and articles submitted to scholarly journals and presses are peer reviewed by knowledgeable colleagues before publication. In contrast, it does not seem that your website was reviewed by anyone who knows anything about the subject. It shows.

The contract is between the Smithsonian and the members of the Wright family: I can only repeat that if substantial evidence of a pre-Wright flight claim were to be produced, I hope I would have the courage to admit it. Your regurgitation of old evidence is not a problem in that regard.

Doing History: You suggest that the “rules for writing history have changed.” They most certainly have not. While the avenues for the presentation of history have certainly changed, the time-tested guidelines that have shaped the work of professional historians for more than a century remain in place. With no peer review for web articles like yours, readers have no assurance of your adherence to accepted standards.

New Technology: You make a strong case for the use of new technologies to study historical issues. I certainly agree. Unfortunately, your use of these new technologies has not produced any new evidence regarding the flight claims of Gustave Whitehead. What you turned up was, almost entirely, a long series of articles copying the one original Bridgeport Sunday Herald article and several well-known later pieces, but including no new information. I find your photo analysis to be completely unconvincing. In short, new technology has not enabled you to build a stronger case.

Wing-warping: You claim to offer new evidence of wing-warping on a Whitehead craft. What does Whitehead say about flight control? “As soon as I turned the rudder and drove one propeller faster than the other,” he explained to the editor of American Inventor, “the machine turned a bend and flew north with the wind at a frightful speed, but turned steadily around until I saw the starting place in the distance.” That does not sound much like wing-warping to me. The evidence you point to with regard to Whitehead’s use of the technique has long been available and dismissed by knowledgeable researchers. In any case, the first suggestion of wing torsion is to be found in a 19th Century English patent, and was first applied in practice by Edson F. Gallaudet in his 1897 craft, tested on Long Island Sound and now on public display at the NASM. If Whitehead had applied the technique, and I doubt that he did, he certainly would not have been the first to do so. You would be well advised to review the history of flight control.

Odds and Ends: How do I respond to:-

….86 independent newspapers around the world conspired to lie about Whitehead’s 1901 and 1902 flights 86 newspapers simply reprinted or abstracted a handful of original articles of questionable veracity.

…17 independent witnesses in two states also conspired to lie about seeing such flights Witnesses whose testimony was taken more than three decades after the fact by biased interviewers

….4 independent newspapers conspired to lie when describing a photo of Whitehead in flight I believe it likely that they mistook a photo of a Whitehead glider in the air for that of a powered machine.

….Whitehead himself lied about everything Well, I don’t think there is evidence to prove that he ever left the ground in a powered aircraft, as he said he did.

….Almost every major figure in early US aviation conspired to lie about buying engines and airframes from Whitehead Every major figure in early US aviation most certainly did not buy engines and airframes from Whitehead.

…. Aeronautical World, a peer journal, somehow backdated Whitehead’s wing-warping disclosure to four months Aeronautical World was certainly not peer reviewed. The letters were by Whitehead, not the editor. In any event, as noted, other experimenters had used the technique prior to 1901.

….I, of course, conspired with "Jane’s" to join this century-spanning conspiracy Well, you did successfully hoodwink them.

I think I have addressed at least the major points in your “Open Letter to Tom Crouch.” Please understand that I have no intention of engaging in a prolonged debate with you on this subject. Once you have taken the trouble to look at the photo in question, if you believe you have new evidence, I would love to see it. At this point, however, I believe that I have expressed my views in a full and open fashion. Barring new evidence, I stand on what I have said in print over the past several weeks. Since you saw fit to share a letter written to me with a great many individuals, I feel justified in responding in kind.

Tom D. Crouch, PhD

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

Smithsonian Institution

P.O. Box 37012

National Air and Space Museum

Room 3232 MRC312

Washington, D.C.20013-7012