Altering history, and other silliness

Shortly before adjourning June 5, the General Assembly found the time to pass legislation that marked the 14th anniversary of the sister state relationship between Connecticut and Taiwan, honored various ethnic groups with months (or a day) to call their own, wrote the Wright Brothers out of Connecticut's version of aviation history and gave us two new state songs to sing and dance to - all in one bill. No kidding.

In addition to celebrating the Connecticut and Taiwan sisterhood and replacing the Wright Brothers as the inventors of the airplane with Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, the bill proclaimed March as Irish-American Month, October as Italian-American Month, November as Native American Month and June 24 as French-Canadian-American Day. (Note that French-Canadian-Americans only get a day; they certainly will.)

But as they say on the TV product commercials, "That's not all!" The bill also recognized a second state song called "Beautiful Connecticut Waltz," to join the previously recognized "Yankee Doodle" and gave the state its first official state polka, "The Ballroom Polka."

If you think all of this sounds really silly, you're onto something.

Most of the attention to this mother of all omnibus bills has been on the elimination of the Wright Brothers' place in history and the rather sneaky way it was done.

First, a little background. The Smithsonian points out the Wright Brothers never claimed to be the first men to fly but their flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., was the first controlled flight and, unlike earlier flights, it led directly to the development of modern aviation. Before the Wrights, there were flights by forgotten pioneers like Clement Adler, who flew a steam-powered machine a few inches in the air for 50 yards or so in France in 1890, and Augustus Herring, who claimed a similar achievement in Michigan in 1898. There was also a well-known inventor - Hiram Maxim of machine gun fame - who flew about 200 feet in England in 1894.

Gustave Whitehead's new place in history, if the governor signs the bill, will be as part of Powered Flight Day, an existing state observance that previously required the governor to pick a date each year "to honor the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry." As the session ended, legislators crossed out "the Wright Brothers" and inserted "Gustave Whitehead."

Mr. Whitehead was undeniably an aviation pioneer but besides being beaten for first flier status by Messrs. Adler, Herring, Maxim and maybe one or two others, his bumping the Wrights is, to put it politely, questionable.

It started when a British publication, "Jane's All the World Airplanes," enhanced Mr. Whitehead's position when it recognized contemporary news accounts found by an Australian aviation expert, including a blurry photo, as evidence that Gustave beat the Wrights.

Officials at the Smithsonian's National Aviation and Space Museum, which houses the Wright plane, are skeptical, pointing out Mr. Whitehead never flew again after 1902 in his subsequent career as an engineer and inventor. The original newspaper account in the long-gone Bridgeport Herald is said to be of doubtful accuracy and was reprinted elsewhere without confirmation - if you can imagine that ever happening. Also, there were five papers in Bridgeport back then. The other four had nothing on the momentous flight.

However, Whitehead advocates note the Smithsonian does have a vested interest in the Wrights: a contractual agreement with family members that the museum will lose the plane if it ever recognizes anyone else's role in the first flight.

All of this adds up to a controversy that casts a bit of doubt on the Wrights but more on Mr. Whitehead, even though Rep. Larry Miller of Stratford, one of his champions, disparages the brothers for flying "a couple of hundred feet and that's it" while Mr. Whitehead "was a pioneer and a very bright guy."

Keep that in mind the next time you're dancing to "The Ballroom Polka."

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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