March 31st, 1903 – New Zealand, First in Flight?

Richard William Pearse was a New Zealand farmer and inventor who performed pioneering experiments in aviation. It is claimed Pearse flew and landed a powered heavier-than-air machine on March 31st, 1903, some nine months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft.

Pearse aeroplane replica 680

The documentary evidence to support such a claim remains open to interpretation, and Pearse did not develop his aircraft to the same degree as the Wright brothers, who achieved sustained controlled flight. Pearse himself never made such claims, and in an interview he gave to the Timaru Post in 1909 only claimed he did not “attempt anything practical…until 1904”.

Pearse

Richard William Pearse (December 3rd, 1877 – July 29th, 1953)

Pearse himself was not a publicity-seeker and also occasionally made contradictory statements, which for many years led some of the few who knew of his feats to offer 1904 as the date of his first flight. The lack of any chance of industrial development, such as spurred the Wrights to develop their machine, seems to have suppressed any recognition of Pearse’s achievements.

In 1902 Pearse built and patented a bicycle with vertical crank gears and self-inflating tyres. He then designed and built a two-cylinder “oil engine”—which he mounted on a tricycle undercarriage surmounted by a linen-covered bamboo wing structure and rudimentary controls. Though it lacked an aerofoil section wing, his flying machine resembled modern aircraft design much more than did the Wright brothers’ machine: monoplane rather than biplane; tractor rather than pusher propeller; stabilizer and elevators at the back rather than the front; and ailerons rather than wing-warping for controlling banking. It bore a remarkable resemblance to modern microlight aircraft.

Pearse made several attempts to fly in 1901, but due to insufficient engine power he achieved no more than brief hops. The following year he redesigned his engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each. Researchers recovered components of his engine (including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes) from rubbish dumps in 1963. Replicas of the 1903 engine suggest that it could produce about 15 hp (11 kW).

Pearse_aeroplane_replica 2 680With a 15 horsepower (11 kW) engine, Pearse’s design had an adequate power-to-weight ratio to become airborne (even without an aerofoil). He continued to develop the ability to achieve fully controlled flight. Pearse incorporated effectively located (albeit possibly rather small) “ailerons”. The design’s low centre of gravity provided pendulum stability. However, diagrams and eyewitness recollections agree that Pearse placed controls for pitch and yaw at the trailing edge of the low-aspect-ratio kite-type permanently stalled wing. This control placement (located in turbulent air-flow, and close to the centre of gravity) would have had minimal, possibly inadequate, turning moment to control the pitch or yaw of the aircraft. The principles of his design, however, accord precisely with modern thinking on the subject. The Wright brothers, in comparison, successfully applied the principles of airfoil wing-profile and three-axis control to produce fully controlled flight, although their design, using wing warping and forward-mounted pitch controlling surface (canard), soon became obsolete.

Pearse’s work remained poorly documented at the time. No contemporary newspaper record exists. Some photographic records survived, but undated with some images difficult to interpret. Pearse himself made contradictory statements, which, for many years led the few who knew of his feats to accept 1904 as the date of flying. Unconcerned about posterity and in remote New Zealand, he received no public credit for his work during his lifetime. 

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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