Gustave Albin Whitehead, born Gustav Albin Weisskopf (1 January 1874 – 10 October 1927) was an aviation pioneer who emigrated from Germany to the U.S., where he designed and built early flying machines and engines meant to power them from about 1897 to 1915. Whitehead claimed to have flown several times in his own powered aircraft designs in 1901 and 1902, before the Wright brothers flew in 1903. These claims, though supported by researchers in the 1930s and later, have been examined and dismissed by mainstream aviation historians, especially those associated with the Smithsonian Institution.
During his period of active aeronautical work, Whitehead attracted notice from various newspapers, Scientific American magazine, and a book about industrial progress. Claims for Whitehead's best-known reported manned powered flights depend largely on a newspaper article that said he achieved the feat in Connecticut in August 1901, and on an unsigned Scientific American article in September 1903 describing Whitehead making short flights low to the ground in a motorized triplane originally designed as a glider. Affidavits from people who knew Whitehead or lived nearby were collected more than 30 years later; many of these asserted that Whitehead had flown, though some denied it. No photograph showing Whitehead making a powered flight has ever been found. Aviation historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith dismisses the August 1901 newspaper article as "juvenile fiction".
After his aeronautical experiments of the early 1900s, Whitehead faded from public view until a 1935 magazine article and a 1937 book focused attention on his life and work. In the years afterward "lively debate" arose among scholars, researchers, aviation enthusiasts and even Orville Wright on the question of whether Whitehead preceded the Wright brothers in powered flight. Research in the 1960s and 70s, and pro-Whitehead books in 1966 and 1978, led to renewed examination of the claims by mainstream aviation historians. Following a year of senior scholarship at the National Air and Space Museum, Gibbs-Smith concluded in 1970 that the Whitehead claims to first powered flight were false. Nevertheless, enthusiasts in the U.S. and Germany built and flew near-replicas of Whitehead's 1901 flying machine beginning in the 1980s, using modern engines.
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