Dr. Crouch Responds to John Brown

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John Brown:

This is in reply to your widely distributed, ”Open letter to Tom Crouch,” posted on March 24, 2013. I will make this as clear and concise as I can, addressing what seem to be your major points.

  • With regard to access to the Hammer Collection: If I ever told you that I was “the only historian to view the Hammer Collection,” then I misspoke. It is certainly true that I have spent as much time drawing on the rich resources of that collection as any historian. Contrary to your false charge, the Hammer collection is open to all researchers, and always has been. You complain of one group of enlarged and mounted photos, including an enlargement of the image in question, that were restricted for conservation reasons. Had you bothered to ask to see the image in question, our archivists would have provided you with the original 14” by 16” print of that photo. The large print in poor condition is nothing more than an enlargement of the original, and no doubt lacks the clarity of the original and contains distortions. If you had read the notation in the finding aide to the collection carefully, you would have realized that that you could have immediately accessed our best copy of the photo. It is not too late. Our archivists stand ready and willing to allow you or anyone else to examine that original image.
  • A Question regarding the date of the photo you analyzed: I believe you are wrong in assuming that Whitehead, the reporter, or anyone else tried to take a photo of Number 21 on August 14, 1901. The first time Whitehead mentions photography is in his 1902 letter to the editor of American Inventor. “This coming Spring,” Whitehead notes, “I will have photographs made of Machine No. 22 in the air and let you have pictures taken during its flight. If you can come up and get them yourself, so much the better. I attempted this before, but in the first trial [of January 17, 1902] the weather was bad, some little rain and a very cloudy sky, and the snapshots that were taken did not come out right. I cannot take any time exposures of the machine when in flight on account of its high speed.” The fact that no account of the events of August 14, 1901 mentions bad weather or a photographer indicates that Whitehead is indeed referring to his first trial of January 17, 1902. That means that the supposed photograph you have analyzed would not have been taken in August 1901, but in January 1902. That being the case, your photo could obviously not have been used as a basis for the line drawing carried in the 1901 Bridgeport article, as you argue. Of course, I don’t think that a 1902 photo of Number 22 exists either. I might add parenthetically that the Wrights began taking crystal clear photos of their machines in the air from the time of their first trip to the Outer Banks in 1900 through the end of their initial experimental work in the fall of 1905.
  • Comments on the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article: The fact remains that Richard Howell’s article in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald was published four days after the event as a feature story on page five, in a story captioned with witches on broomsticks flying overhead. In that regard, you have failed to deal with the comment of the only supposed witness to the August 14 flight, who told a subsequent interviewer that he was not there, did not witness any flight, did not believe that there had been a flight and suggested that Howell’s story was based on Whitehead’s description of the capabilities of his machine.
  • Your attack on C.H. Gibbs-Smith: I note that you also renew your attack on Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith in this section of your “open letter” to me. Over three decades after his death, Gibbs-Smith remains our best and most distinguished historian of early aviation. You completely ignore that fact, preferring to mention his attitude toward flying saucers, rather than informing your readers of his many books and articles on this question and relevant aspects of early aviation. Frankly, I find such an attack beneath contempt. Your argument would be stronger had you stuck to the facts of the case and avoided the “red herring” of vicious personal attacks.
  • Your Identification of additional news articles: I did congratulate you on your successful web search for additional news articles on Whitehead. You did produce articles that I had not seen, and I was very pleased to receive them. . The materials you sent did include one news article that provided what was for me new evidence as to Whitehead’s activity while living in New York in 1897. None of the articles that you unearthed added any new information supporting Whitehead’s claims to have flown in 1901 and 1902, however. The vast bulk of those articles were simply copies or rewritten versions of a handful of local articles, containing no additional information. With regard to the flight claims, your website simply repeats the standard arguments and witnesses that have been advanced and refuted many times over the years. With the exception of your failed attempt to produce a photo of a Whitehead powered machine in the air, you have added nothing new to the old debate.
  • Peer Review: You seem to suggest that your website has been peer reviewed. Books and articles submitted to scholarly journals and presses are peer reviewed by knowledgeable colleagues before publication. In contrast, it does not seem that your website was reviewed by anyone who knows anything about the subject. It shows.
  • The contract is between the Smithsonian and the members of the Wright family: I can only repeat that if substantial evidence of a pre-Wright flight claim were to be produced, I hope I would have the courage to admit it. Your regurgitation of old evidence is not a problem in that regard.
  • Doing History: You suggest that the “rules for writing history have changed.” They most certainly have not. While the avenues for the presentation of history have certainly changed, the time-tested guidelines that have shaped the work of professional historians for more than a century remain in place. With no peer review for web articles like yours, readers have no assurance of your adherence to accepted standards.
  • New Technology: You make a strong case for the use of new technologies to study historical issues. I certainly agree. Unfortunately, your use of these new technologies has not produced any new evidence regarding the flight claims of Gustave Whitehead. What you turned up was, almost entirely, a long series of articles copying the one original Bridgeport Sunday Herald article and several well-known later pieces, but including no new information. I find your photo analysis to be completely unconvincing. In short, new technology has not enabled you to build a stronger case.
  • Wing-warping: You claim to offer new evidence of wing-warping on a Whitehead craft. What does Whitehead say about flight control? “As soon as I turned the rudder and drove one propeller faster than the other,” he explained to the editor of American Inventor, “the machine turned a bend and flew north with the wind at a frightful speed, but turned steadily around until I saw the starting place in the distance.” That does not sound much like wing-warping to me. The evidence you point to with regard to Whitehead’s use of the technique has long been available and dismissed by knowledgeable researchers. In any case, the first suggestion of wing torsion is to be found in a 19th Century English patent, and was first applied in practice by Edson F. Gallaudet in his 1897 craft, tested on Long Island Sound and now on public display at the NASM. If Whitehead had applied the technique, and I doubt that he did, he certainly would not have been the first to do so. You would be well advised to review the history of flight control.
    Odds and Ends: How do I respond to:-

….86 independent newspapers around the world conspired to lie about Whitehead’s 1901 and 1902 flights – 86 newspapers simply reprinted or abstracted a handful of original articles of questionable veracity. 
…17 independent witnesses in two states also conspired to lie about seeing such flights — Witnesses whose testimony was taken more than three decades after the fact by biased interviewers

….4 independent newspapers conspired to lie when describing a photo of Whitehead in flight – I believe it likely that they mistook a photo of a Whitehead glider in the air for that of a powered machine. 
….Whitehead himself lied about everything – Well, I don’t think there is evidence to prove that he ever left the ground in a powered aircraft, as he said he did. 
….Almost every major figure in early US aviation conspired to lie about buying engines and airframes from Whitehead — Every major figure in early US aviation most certainly did not buy engines and airframes from Whitehead. 
…. Aeronautical World, a peer journal, somehow backdated Whitehead’s wing-warping disclosure to four months – Aeronautical World was certainly not peer reviewed. The letters were by Whitehead, not the editor. In any event, as noted, other experimenters had used the technique prior to 1901. 
….I, of course, conspired with “Jane’s” to join this century-spanning conspiracy – Well, you did successfully hoodwink them.
I think I have addressed at least the major points in your “Open Letter to Tom Crouch.” Please understand that I have no intention of engaging in a prolonged debate with you on this subject. Once you have taken the trouble to look at the photo in question, if you believe you have new evidence, I would love to see it. At this point, however, I believe that I have expressed my views in a full and open fashion. Barring new evidence, I stand on what I have said in print over the past several weeks. Since you saw fit to share a letter written to me with a great many individuals, I feel justified in responding in kind.
Tom D. Crouch, Ph.D.
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution

Updated: March 27, 2013 — 2:11 PM
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