Official State Crap Update: Connecticut Punts the Wright Brothers

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Here's the problem with trying to maintain a comprehensive list of the dumb things legislatures do: they keep doing them.

It was just a few days ago that I posted "Official State Crap: Connecticut," the most recent in the remarkably popular Official State Crap series. Today I learned two things: (1) I missed an entire list of no fewer than 61 official state days, because it was cleverly hidden in the title on Education rather than under Government, the way most states do it; and (2) the state legislature is about to amend that list to require the Powered Flight Day proclamation to state that Gustave Whitehead, not the Wright Brothers, was the first to achieve powered flight.

In other news, Connecticut has an official "Powered Flight Day." 

Gustave Whitehead

Click my mustache to learn more about me 

So, who the F is Gustave Whitehead? This guy over here ☞, who was one of several people experimenting with powered aircraft around the turn of the century. A number of reasonable people have claimed Whitehead flew successfully in 1901, two years before the Wright Brothers; there were contemporaneous reports of this event but whether or not it happened is hotly disputed.

You will never guess the state in which this event is said to have taken place.

I of course do not claim to be an aviation scholar and do not especially care who was technically first. I will say that the article about the event in the Bridgeport Herald on August 18, 1901, triggered a number of spikes on my fairly well-tuned bullshit meter:

  • They drove the plane from town out to the takeoff point, because it had wheels and a separate ground engine so it could be driven like a car.
  • The wings are said to have flapped.
  • Its "general appearance [was] that of a huge hat."
  • After takeoff, and apparently only after takeoff, Whitehead noticed he was headed straight for a clump of chestnut trees, which he was dramatically able to avoid only at the last second.
  • He is quoted as saying that how to do this (that is, steer) only occurred to him right then: "[L]ike a flash [a] plan to escape the trees came to mind." Good timing.
  • This part of the article is hard to read, but it seems to claim that the plane was powered by a "new generator" Whitehead had invented that involved "a chemical preparation known only to Whitehead." (Elsewhere Whitehead said it was kerosene.) 
Whitehead's machine

And it would have been a stupid-looking hat

Also, the best photographic evidence that he flew is an enlargement of a picture of a wall that has pictures on it, one of which is said to be a picture of the 1901 flight. (The building burned down, you see, taking the original evidence with it.) 

Anyway, none of that proves Whitehead didn't fly or that he didn't fly first, and some reputable people and journals have accepted the claim that he did. I'm just saying none of the above is very convincing.

But getting back to the Connecticut Legislature, the bill that looks set to pass will direct the governor to proclaim Powered Flight Day "to honor the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry." (It also establishes an official state polka and a second official state song, but like I said, I have enough trouble keeping up with these guys.) A number of reports have been saying that the legislature has thus "rewritten history" or something like that, but of course it hasn't. Nor could it. Legislatures are fond of making "findings of fact" declaring this or that thing to be true, but just because they say it doesn't make it so. Scientists and historians and so forth, not legislators, are in the business of determining actual facts. Legislators are just saying things.

Similarly, the North Carolina Legislature (which not too long ago passed a bill trying to define the rate at which sea levels are rising) did not establish any historical facts with its 1985 resolution rejecting Whitehead's claims and confirming that the Wright Brothers were first. (You will never guess the state in which they are said to have flown.)

Among the other official days proclaimed in Connecticut: Loyalty Day, School Safety Patrol Day, Friends Day ("in honor of the enduring value of friendship"), Green Up Day, Hungarian Freedom Fighters Day, Missing Persons Day, and Self Injury Awareness Day.

Although Section 10-30a, "Proclamation of Hat Day prohibited," has been repealed—and I would very much like to know why Hat Day was prohibited in the first place—the legislature does not yet seem to have taken advantage of this opportunity.