He will be remembered as an extraordinarily gifted inventor whose vision soared far beyond the confines of his humble workshop
History heaps adulation on the winner of a race but rather unfairly tends to ignore the runners-up. So most people nowadays take it for granted that the world’s first powered, controlled and sustained heavier-than-air flight was made by Orville Wright on December 17, 1903, in the United States. However, at the start of the 20th century, aviation enthusiasts in many countries did make significant progress towards powered flight. And Richard Pearse, a reclusive New Zealand farmer, was one of the foremost examples. He may not have been the first to fly but should that completely nullify his accomplishments?
Born on December 3, 1877, at Waitohi Flat, New Zealand, Richard William Pearse yearned to be an engineer, but his family could not afford the course fee. Instead, at age 21, he was put in charge of a 40-hectare farm nearby. Scorned by most of his neighbours for being a failure as a farmer (Cranky Dick, Mad Pearse or Bamboo Dick they called him), he preferred to spend most of his time inventing strange gadgets and carrying out his aviation experiments using his own meagre resources. He had neither technical training nor financial acumen. His only materials were bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas. With these, he designed and built a two-cylinder petrol engine and three aircraft. He kept abreast of the latest developments in the field by poring over the pages of Scientific American. And he achieved progress by sheer ingenuity, trial-and-error innovation and dogged persistence.
In 1901, Richard Pearse made several attempts to get one of his monoplanes off the ground, but did not succeed because his engine lacked sufficient power. So he thoroughly redesigned the engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each. He made some controlled taxi runs before attempting to fly again. And if the statements of the eyewitnesses are to be believed, he managed to get airborne in his machine and travelled for about 140 metres before crashing into a hedge on his property. No pictures or details of this faltering flight, more of a hop really, were recorded by Pearse or the onlookers, nor were there any newspaper reports of the feat. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that the flight did indeed happen on March 31, 1903. If so, it was a remarkable achievement for a poor farmer and came eight months before the Wright brothers entered the record books. Pearse also made several more of these short flights during the next couple of years or so.
Sadly, much of Pearse’s aviation legacy has been overshadowed by efforts to prove that his first flight predated that of the Wright brothers. It is unlikely that any such claim can be verified beyond reasonable doubt because the eyewitnesses themselves are dead since long. Pearse’s later flight experiments also remained poorly documented. Some undated photographic records did survive, but the images cannot be definitively interpreted. He was not a publicity-seeker, preferring to carry out his experiments in seclusion and attain scientific progress for its own sake. He refused even to stake claim to the first controlled powered flight, saying in a 1915 newspaper interview, “Pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers of America when the history of the aeroplane is written, as they were the first to actually make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane.” By Pearse’s own strict standards to attain fully controlled flight, a pilot would need to get airborne, fly the aircraft on a selected course and land it at a predetermined destination. Obviously his brief hops did not meet this definition. Neither, however, did the first flights of the Wright brothers. But the Wrights were able to continue their experiments till they achieved fully controlled flight while Pearse ran out of funds.
Pearse’s first aircraft, in fact, was an amazing invention, partly resembling a modern micro-light. It had several noteworthy features: a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nose wheel, and a variable-pitch propeller driven by a unique petrol engine. Although it lacked an aerofoil section wing, his aircraft was in harmony with modern aircraft design much more than that of the Wright brothers—monoplane rather than biplane; tractor instead of pusher propeller; stabiliser and elevators at the back, not in front; and ailerons instead of wing-warping for banking control.