Book Stakes Chatham's Claim To Aviation History

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Local History

Cabot sometimes used the hill overlooking Mill Pond for his glider experiments. COURTESY OF JOHN BROWN

“Chatham is the cradle of aviation,” says John Brown, the author of a new book called “Gustave Whitehead and the Wright Brothers: Who Flew First?”

Brown came to this conclusion after he studied late 19th century experiments in glider flight in Chatham that he says led directly to one of the experimenters being the first to fly in a motor-powered aircraft.

Brown is a native of Australia living in Germany. Jean Young, assistant archivist at the Chatham Historical Society (CHS), helped Brown in his research for over a year.

Here’s the story. A Boston businessman and inventor named Samuel Cabot bought a small cottage just south of Bridge Street in the spring of 1889. Cabot’s house overlooked the Mitchell River, not far from the bridge. He soon engaged local carpenter James A. Crowell of Stage Harbor Road to act as caretaker and enlarge the house. By 1893 Cabot, who was an M.I.T. dropout, began experimenting with glider flight on his land, which included a beach suitable for landings. Crowell assisted him. “Local and national press described a machine flown there in 1894 as having been based on the kite principle, made of bamboo and having a size of 25 to 30 feet with a wing area exceeding 100 square feet,” Brown writes.

Chatham’s hills “where strong winds are almost perpetual” made perfect launch pads, according to the Boston Sunday Globe of Aug. 1, 1897. The gliders sometimes launched from the southeastern tip of Morris Island, which Cabot eventually owned, and landed in the ocean. If the wind shifted, they launched from a slope on Mill Hill and landed in the Mill Pond. When the winds were not strong, the glider launched from the roof of a barn. Flights extended for as long as 50 feet, according to Crowell, although Brown estimates they were much longer.

Gustave Whitehead was an employee of the Boston Aeronautical Society whom Cabot invited to Chatham in August 1897. In Chatham, they collaborated on the glider flights. The German-born Whitehead later became a controversial figure as he claimed to have flown a motor-powered airplane in 1901, about two years ahead of the Wright brothers’ famous 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk. Brown’s conclusion is that Whitehead put to use what he learned from gliders in Chatham when he conducted his powered flights in 1901.

Brown first contacted Young in 2014 and she worked as his local contact for the following year, scouring the CHS’s extensive archives and directing Brown to the Chatham Monitor, which he was able to access online from Germany. One of Young’s finds was a manuscript by Dorothea Allen who was involved with the CHS early on and wrote a paper on the early glider flight experiments.

Brown first became interested in early aviation when he worked as a flight instructor and airline pilot in Southeast Asia. Later he moved into airplane construction and today works as a project manager at a research airport in Northern Germany. The Smithsonian Channel hired him in 2012 to research and anchor a two-part TV documentary and that is when he first heard of the controversy regarding Whitehead’s role in early flight. At that point he began his independent research of Whitehead.

Now, here is why Chatham’s role in all of this is so significant—perhaps significant enough that early aviation history should be rewritten. The standard history of aviation credits men named Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring with conducting “the first ‘real’ glider flights over any significant distance,” Brown says. Those flights were over Lake Michigan. “However, as far as I can tell with the information I have now gathered, the flights in Chatham appear to have been more successful. Chanute corresponded with Cabot and hired Whitehead directly himself. It was subsequently Chanute who passed on information to the Wright brothers when they started their experiments several years later in 1899.”

So we have a direct line—Cabot and Whitehead in Chatham, Chanute and Herring on Lake Michigan, and finally the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk.

“Basically, it appears that historians so far have only attempted to document where the Wright brothers got their ideas from, but not where flight actually originated,” Brown says. “You can put me down as now being convinced that Chatham and Boston are far more significant than Lake Michigan when it comes to the development of flight. They may be the cradle of flight in North America. Certainly New England has gotten a raw deal in books on the history of flight so far. This new information really can’t be dismissed. The evidence is just too strong.”

The carpenter Crowell, who became a windmill builder later in life and worked alongside Cabot, told a publication called Cape Cod Magazine in 1926 that the Wright brothers owed a great deal to Cabot’s experiments.

Brown’s book has already been filmed as a television documentary called “Challenging the Wright Brothers” that was shown in Europe. A scene in the film that took place on Cape Cod was reenacted and filmed on a beach near Perth, Australia, Brown says.

As for Young, she is interested in finding a photo of one of those early experiments with flight in Chatham, and she asks that anyone who has an old photo of a “weird-looking flying machine” to please bring it in to the CHS.

To obtain a copy of “Gustave Whitehead and the Wright Brothers: Who Flew First?” visit Amazon.com.