Take Nothing for Granted
Just when you think you know everything, you’re reminded that subtlety and nuance are part of even the most mundane information. It’s been said that facts are inconvenient things, but they’re especially vexing for writers, because there are facts, and then there’s what really happened.
I just read today that a fellow named Gustave Whitehead preceded the Wright brothers in heavier-than-air flight by more than two years — and stayed aloft longer and at a higher altitude than Orville Wright in his inaugural flight. That’s the conclusion of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, the world’s most authoritative resource about aviation, which claims that Whitehead’s flight, and subsequent efforts preceding the 1903 launch of the Wright Flyer, have precedence.
However, Whitehead’s claim is still in dispute, and most aviation authorities credit the Wrights, although their achievement is often qualified by references, for example, to “controlled, powered, and sustained flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft.” (They are also credited with being the first aviators to develop sophisticated flying instruments.)
So, what is one to do when one seeks to write, perhaps merely in passing, about the dawn of flight? It is irresponsible, of course, to say that the Wright brothers invented the airplane, and neither did Whitehead. Nor were they, or he, the first to fly: The achievement of the Wright brothers was preceded by glider flights and powered but uncontrolled flights. Lighter-than-air manned (balloon) flight was first accomplished in 1783 — dirigible (steerable) flight occurred the next year — and historical accounts exist of working hang-glider-like contraptions built and tested (usually with disastrous results) hundreds of years ago.
How, precisely, one qualifies such milestones depends on context and on the sophistication of the audience; a history of aviation directed at children will differ in its references from a technical treatise. But it’s the in between that counts for most writers: A newspaper or magazine article, or a trade book, that mentions the advent of manned flight must concisely acknowledge that the Wright brothers were aviation pioneers but do not deserve unqualified credit for priority.
You may never have the occasion to mention flight in your writing other than a passing reference to the mode of travel to your recent vacation destination, but this lesson is scalable to any topic: Unequivocal claims of priority are hazardous to one’s credibility. Take care that such discussions are backed up by documentation and accurately expressed.