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Gustave Whitehead and the Case of the Fallacious Photo

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2013-10-19-GWRNo21.jpg

Earlier this year, the aviation history community was rocked by a rumor that someone had found a photo of Gustave Whitehead flying in his "No. 21" machine (seen above, earthbound, with Whitehead and daughter Rose), over two years prior to the flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright on December 17, 1903.

The image -- hidden in a blurry photo of a January 1906 Aero Club of America exhibition in New York -- was supposedly revealed through use of modern scientific "forensic" techniques. The 'discoverer' of that photo posted a lengthy explanation on a web site, showing how the image morphed into a drawing which had appeared in the Bridgeport Herald on August 18, 1901, thereby 'proving' that the image and the drawing were linked and therefore 'proving' that Gustave Whitehead (born in Bavaria as Gustav Albin Weisskopf) had flown four days earlier, on August 14, 1901.

The not-an-historian editor-in-chief of Jane's All The World's Aircraft, the not-a-journal-of-history respected aviation industry publication decided that he'd been convinced of Whitehead's place in history and wrote that Whitehead had, indeed, been The First To Fly.

To the good people of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the legislators and governor of Connecticut, this 'discovery' and the endorsement of Jane's editor-in-chief was just what had been desired for years, 'proof' that local resident, inventor and naive, eccentric, experimenter Whitehead had been The First To Fly.

It's tempting to believe that the politicians in Connecticut saw this as an economic development issue, after all, hadn't Kitty Hawk and North Carolina reaped multiple tourist millions for decades as the site where Wilbur and Orville Wright had been The First To Fly?

Within an astonishingly short period of time, a state representative had put a bill up honoring Whitehead and proclaiming him to be The First To Fly, the bill had "flown" through both houses of the Connecticut legislature and the governor (who is rumored to be eyeing the White House in his future) had signed it into law.

As far as Connecticut was concerned, the Wrights were out and Whitehead was in.

The news broke into the mainstream media, with clever headlines stating "Wrights -- Wrong" and that sort of creative phrase-smithing in which journalists love to indulge themselves.

There was and is a major problem with all of this, however.

The image that the "forensic photo analysis" had manipulated into existence and which had awakened the Connecticut Body Politick was not of Whitehead flying -- while standing erect -- in his No. 21 in Connecticut that August day of 1901, it was instead a photo of a John J. Montgomery Glider -- the "California" -- taken May 21, 1905, at San Jose, California's Agricultural Park.

This "ooops" episode might have passed into the fog of yesterday's news, but for the fact that the person who made the erroneous 'discovery' and who had arranged the fallacious "forensic photo analysis" refused to accept that there had been a glaring mistake, choosing instead to blithely continue on as though nothing had happened.

In a similar vein, Jane's editor-in-chief would not withdraw his endorsement of Whitehead and the state government of Connecticut went ahead as though everything was just fine -- as political institutions so often will when they've made a grave error.

The utter botch of an analysis still persists on that person's web site, as though it were still a major 'discovery' instead of what it has become, a major embarrassment.

The desire to see things as someone would wish to see them, as opposed to how they actually are, is not a new phenomenon and in some contexts it can be accepted as artistic or creative.

However, in matters of science and history, things ought to actually be as they actually are and actually were.

In 'The Strange Case of Gustave Whitehead' nothing seems to be what it appears to be. A blurry photo becomes a line drawing which becomes 'evidence' in an ornate fantasy that politicians rush to accept as history.

And, what of Whitehead's machine -- what did he do with his miracle of the air ? He left it out in his yard to rot and decay in the elements for one or two Connecticut winters while he puttered with his next fantastical aerial machine.

Disclosure: The non-commercial flyingmachines.org/gwinfo web site hyper-linked in this blog is this blogger's web site.