WNPR

David McCullough: No Evidence Connecticut's Gustave Whitehead Was First in Flight

May 5, 2015

David McCullough speaking at Emory University.
Credit Nrbelex / Wikipedia

For decades, David McCullough has chronicled some of the biggest chapters of U.S. history. In his latest book, McCullough focuses on two brothers who not only had a massive impact on the United States, but on the world. The Wright Brothers follows Orville and Wilbur’s path to immortality and their lasting legacy.

Among those who dispute the Wright brothers' claim to fame are supporters of Connecticut resident Gustave Whitehead who they say was the first to fly in 1901. In fact, Connecticut lawmakers went so far as to officially declare that Whitehead was the first to fly, ticking off North Carolina and Ohio in the process.

What does McCullough think of Whitehead's claim? Well, he dedicated one whole paragraph in the epilogue of his book to dismissing the idea.

In addition to discussing aviation history, McCullough spoke on WNPR’s Where We Live about his own profession and how writing about history will be different for future generations.

McCullough will be at the Connecticut Forum this weekend along with historian and author Stacy Schiff. His new book The Wright Brothers is out now.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the impact of the Wright brothers’ accomplishment and how long it took for news to spread: 
"It wasn’t until Wilbur put on a demonstration in France at Le Mans, that the world suddenly realized: it’s happened. Man can fly in a motorized machine and of course, it changed the world. 

Orville Wright (left) congratulates Maj. C.A. Lutz who averaged a flying speed of 157 mph in 1928.
Credit Harris & Ewing / Public Domain

"Last year at one airport in this country [O’Hare], 70 million people came in and out of that airport as passengers on airplanes. Everybody just takes it for granted.   

"Yet, Orville Wright, who was the man who flew the first flight ever lived on until 1948. I could have known him. I would have been 15 in 1948. He could have been the nice old feller around the corner. It’s unbelievable that history changed that much, that fast from one invention! Nothing like it had ever happened before."

On Orville’s reaction to the use of planes in war: 
"He was appalled by it all. Who wouldn’t be? Of course he was. But he said it was not unlike the invention of fire. You can use it for positive purposes, useful purposes, essential purposes; or you can use it to destroy...kill and to ravage a countryside or a city. It was not all ‘happy days are here again,’ it brought some of the greatest horrors man had ever seen.

"But nonetheless, here we are sailing along, millions of us at 35,000 feet -- thinking, ‘oh, this is just part of life. This is the way it’s always been. Nothing to even think anything great particularly great - particularly unusual.’ But of course, it’s about as unusual as anything could have been imagined."

Gustave Whitehead, a Connecticut resident, who is believed by some to be the first to fly.
Credit Public Domain

On claims that Connecticut’s Gustave Whitehead was actually the first to fly:
"There’s no evidence for it whatsoever. It comes to the fore -- this story, this belief, this claim about once every 25 years. But this always happens. There are people today still who don’t believe that man landed on the moon, that it was all faked on television and so forth with special effects. There are people who think that Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy. These things keep coming back for some reason or another.

"Furthermore, it wasn’t just that the Wright Brothers flew first. They invented the plane that they flew, which wasn’t a practical plane in 1903 -- it couldn’t bank and turn. So they spent another two years developing the first practical airplane which was done at Huffman Prairie outside of Dayton by the Wright brothers. That was really the real airplane. But they learned to fly it.

"Mr. Whitehead is never known to have flown anything and when he tried to demonstrate later on, it didn’t work at all in front of people. There’s something like 35 noted historians of aviation specialists who have signed statements that say ‘it’s an interesting story but there’s nothing to support it.’"

On his own work, and how writing history has evolved:
"I don’t think we’ve ever had a period where so many first-rate writers are writing history and biography as we’re in right now. The reach of these books is enormous, which is a measure of how well they’re written. It’s also a measure, I think, of a need to know more than we do because we’ve slipped badly behind in how we are educating ourselves in our schools, universities and colleges in history. Eighty percent of the colleges and universities in the country don’t require any history at all in order to graduate. And as a consequence, we’ve been producing for quite a while, people who are basically historically illiterate. They want to catch up so these wonderful books are coming along and they’re filling a big need.

"Also, history is opening up more in there’s financial history, literary history, technological history, and medical history. The part women have played in history is getting attention [which is] long overdue. And thank goodness for all of it!"

On how future historians will document life in the 21st century:
"This is a huge concern with the people in the Library of Congress and they are studying ways in which they can preserve the electronic communications of our time but I have my doubts about that. Someone can very inconspicuously and conveniently for them erase whatever they don’t want to have hanging around and it’s too bad. 

"If you have any interest in immortality, start keeping a diary and write in it every day."
David McCullough

"I tell people, if you have any interest in immortality, start keeping a diary and write in it everyday and when you feel your time on earth is about to wind up, give it to the Library of Congress or some local library or archive and it will be quoted forever and ever because it will be the only one in existence."

"There’s an old expression about working your thoughts out on paper. And many people in the days gone by were raised that put your thoughts down on paper, whether it’s in a diary or a letter and it will help you to exercise your mind in a more focused fashion and it’s true. It works. We’ve all known that. Writing concentrates your thoughts in a way nothing else does. It’s good for you. Particularly good if you want to improve yourself intellectually or in some particular form of self-expression or achievement."