Thanks for taking the time to respond to my writings about Gustave Whitehead in a Smithsonian press release, in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine and in an NPR- interview given in your home town of Dayton, Ohio. 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. (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. 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 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, as indeed it would be with the ethics of any scientific organisation. 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, John