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Probably the best claim to having been the first is attributed to a German immigrant named Gustav Whitehead, who may have made one and possibly two flights in a small monoplane of his own design (and powered by a tiny motor also of his own design) as early as 1901—two full years before the Wright Brother’s tried it.Unfortunately, ol’ Gustav was a better mechanic and aviator than an archivist and he neglected to get any photos of the flight or document it (although there was a reporter from a local paper supposedly present—along with a handful of witnesses—who allegedly saw a second flight in 1902).
The Wrights, however, did come up with the first truly controllable aircraft, making the previous claims fairly moot in that none of those earlier attempts flew very far (usually a couple hundred of feet) or were controllable—with the possible exception of Whitehead. What he did do was be quicker on the draw than his competitors by getting to the patent office first.
Many of these “facts” we learned in school, while some of them we picked up from friends or on TV—or just “heard somewhere.” Whatever their source, however, they have subsequently proven to be erroneous, demonstrating once again that just because something is repeated often enough doesn’t necessarily make it so.
In fact, it seems the only things we really know for certain is that we don’t know anything for certain, which is what makes it possible for revisionist historians to make a living and pundits like myself to pretend to be smarter than everyone else.
In effect, he was looking for a shortcut and found a whole continent in the process.
While the accomplishments of the gifted brothers from Dayton, Ohio cannot be diminished, the fact is there are a number of people who may have accomplished the feat of being the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air craft in powered flight (as opposed to unpowered gliders, which had been flown for years before the Wright Brother’s first flight).
In fact, some historians maintain that another fellow named Elisha Gray was the first to create a working telephone, only to see Bell get all the credit for it.