In your Editorial of June 7, 2013
you refer to the Connecticut Assembly’s commemoration of Gustave Whitehead’s
first flight in 1901 (before the Wright brothers) as “nonsense”, “rewriting history”
and “silliness”. You write that an “aviation authority was persuaded by a blurry,
indistinct 1901 photo”, that “the Smithsonian Institution is still scoffing” and that
“politicians should stick to policy and leave history to researchers”. Finally, you
compare the Assembly’s resolution to North Carolina’s 1985 repudiation of the
I’m the historian whose research led to those recent events. In the interest of
accuracy, may I point out that the issues you address collectively are, instead,
distinct and separate.
Just like the Assembly neither composed a State Song nor choreographed a State
Dance, it has not “decided history”. In much the same way that the US Congress
declared a “Columbus Day” and a ”Martin Luther King Day”, Connecticut lawmakers
have merely passed an act of commemoration. And since Whitehead was a
Connecticut resident, it was their duty to do so.
What confuses things is the Smithsonian Institute’s stand. In violation of academic
principles, its contract with the Wright family requires it to say the Wrights flew first.
When it refused to recuse itself, it was left out of peer review proceedings which
have now concluded. The Connecticut Assembly acted on those conclusions. It made
no historical findings of its own.
“Scoffing” does not befit a national institution. In 1985, the Connecticut Assembly
passed a resolution asking the Smithsonian Institute to examine Whitehead’s claim.
The Smithsonian declined. The Connecticut Assembly waited 28 years until other
institutions examined and confirmed the claim. It acted appropriately. It did not rush
in to legislate the claim.
Furthermore, it was not a fuzzy, Loch-Ness type photo that convinced my peers. It
was a preponderance of evidence from multiple sources including 17 eye-witness
statements, more than one hundred 1901 newspaper accounts (published worldwide)
and three news reports by journalists who saw a photo of Whitehead flying his 1901,
The evidence is so convincing that both houses of the Connecticut Assembly passed
the resolution unanimously. As someone who comments on State politics, surely total
agreement by Democrats and Republicans on any issue gives cause to sit up and take
Having spoken to lawmakers from both parties in both houses, I was impressed by the
way they rose above their differences to do the right thing.