Richard William Pearse (3 December 1877 – 29 July 1953) 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 31 March 1903, nine months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft, but 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 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.
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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 (the most crucial aspect of an aeroplane), in general layout his flying machine resembled modern aircraft design more than did the Wright brothers' machine: monoplane rather than biplane; tractor rather than pusher propeller; stabiliser and elevators at the back rather than the front; and ailerons rather than wing-warping for controlling banking (although much the same can be said for the much earlier, and unsuccessful Adar Avion III, excluding the ailerons).
Pearse made several attempts to fly in 1901, but due to insufficient engine power he achieved no more than brief hops (again reminiscent of the Avion III). 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).
Verifiable eyewitnesses describe Pearse crashing into a hedge on two separate occasions during 1903. His monoplane must have risen to a height of at least three metres on each occasion. Good evidence exists that on 31 March 1903 Pearse achieved a powered, though poorly controlled, flight of several hundred metres.
With a 15 horsepower (11 kW) engine, Pearse's design had an adequate power-to-weight ratio to become airborne (even without an aerofoil).[who?] He continued to develop the ability to achieve fully controlled flight. Pearse incorporated small "ailerons". 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 Wright brothers, in comparison, successfully applied the principles of airfoil wing-profile and three-axis control to produce fully controlled flight.
Pearse's work remained poorly documented at the time as no contemporary newspaper record exists. Some photographic records survived, but they are 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.
However, he was not alone in this. The Wrights had considerable difficulty getting their accomplishment recognised, despite better documentation and witnesses. A "Fliers or Liars?" debate continued for quite some time after Kitty Hawk, and it took highly public demonstrations before the Wright brothers gained wide recognition. Pearse patented his design, but his innovations—such as ailerons and the lightweight air-cooled engine—did not succeed in influencing others.
Pearse moved to Milton in Otago in about 1911 and discontinued his flying experiments due to the hillier country there. Much of his experimental equipment got dumped in a farm rubbish-pit. However, he continued experimenting and produced a number of inventions. He subsequently moved to Christchurch in the 1920s, where he built three houses and lived off the rentals.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Pearse continued to work on constructing a tilt-rotor flying-machine for personal use – sometimes described as a cross between a windmill and a rubbish-cart. His design resembled an autogyro or helicopter, but involved a tilting propeller/rotor and monoplane wings, which, along with the tail, could fold to allow storage in a conventional garage. He intended the vehicle for driving on the road (like a car) as well for flying.
However he became reclusive and paranoid that foreign spies would discover his work. Committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch in 1951, Pearse died there two years later. Researchers believe that many of his papers were destroyed at that time.
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On his death, the Public Trustee administered Pearse's estate. Fortunately for posterity, the trust officer given the task of disposing of his personal effects recognised the significance of his aeronautical achievements and brought them to wider attention. As a result, aviation pioneer George Bolt saw Pearse's last flying machine.
In 1958, Bolt excavated the South Canterbury dump site and discovered some components, including a propeller. His research in the 1960s produced strong evidence for flight in 1903: people who had left the district by 1904 remembered the events, and recalled a particularly harsh winter with heavy snow.
During filming of a television documentary in the 1970s, crew attached a replica of Pearse's 1902 machine by a rope to a team of horses. When the horses bolted, the machine took to the air and flew, indicating that the design could fly. This did not get filmed, as the crew had packed away their cameras at the end of the day's shooting.
In the mid-1980s, a MOTAT staff-member opined that Pearse himself, having seen that "history had already been written" stated in his later years that though he had in fact flown in March 1903, he had said "1904" because the Wright brothers at Kittyhawk had become part of history, and that therefore Pearse declined to appear as a disputatious claimant to the first controlled powered flight.
Adding some confusion to the issue, the tilt-propeller aircraft Pearse later worked on bears a very close resemblance to the original aircraft, and the remains at MOTAT, though presented as parts of a single machine, may very well come from three separate machines:
The South Canterbury Museum in Timaru includes display material relating to Pearse and to his contribution to early aviation. In 2012, evidence emerged in the media that a newspaper clipping from 1909 may have debunked the long debated argument. In the article, Pearse was quoted as having said in November of that year: "I did not attempt anything practical with the idea until, in 1904, the St Louis Exposition authorities offered a prize of 20,000 to the man who invented and flew a flying machine over a specified course. I did not, as you know, succeed in winning the prize. Neither did anybody."
However, contrary to this article, Evan Gardiner, a great nephew of Richard's, has countered with his own article stating that information from some sources was "taken out of context with the rest of Pearse's letter and has enabled Martyn to present his case and subsequent article on a false premise."
Against this is a Timaru newspaper article from August 1910, which states H J Pither of Invercargill had made the first successful flight in New Zealand in an aircraft he constructed. The flight took place in Southland in July 1910 and was widely reported. When Pither attempted to repeat the feat before the public, he failed.
The most compelling evidence refuting claims that Pearse was first to achieve power flight comes from Pearse himself, in the form of two letters that he wrote to local newspapers in 1915 and 1928.
In the 1915 letter, he wrote: "The honor of inventing the aeroplane [...] is the product of many minds [but] pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers [...] as they were actually the first to make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane".
In the 1928 letter, he recounted what happened during those early attempts: "At the trials it would start to rise off the ground when a speed of twenty miles an hour was attained. This speed was not sufficient to work the rudders, so, on account of its huge size and low speed, it was uncontrollable, and would spin round broadside directly after it left the ground. So I never flew with my first experimental plane, but no-one else did with their first for that matter".
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At the dawn of the 20th century, a number of enthusiasts in several countries advanced towards powered heavier-than-air flight. Pearse, as one of several designers contemporary with the Wrights, advanced some distance towards controlled flight.
However, Pearse's designs and achievements remained virtually unknown beyond the few who witnessed them and they had no impact on his contemporary aviation designers.
Wanaka has a line of tiles mounted on the sidewalk by the lake listing important world and New Zealand historic events. The 1903 tile says that the first powered flight in history occurred in Timaru, and at the bottom of the tile for 1903 the Wright Brothers were listed as having also flown that year.
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Film and the stage have commemorated Richard Pearse's remarkable achievements over the years. Three plays centred on Pearse: The Pain and the Passion, by Sherry Ede, Too High the Sun by Stephen Bain and France Hervé, and Pearse, by John Leask, which was performed during the Richard Pearse Century of Flight 1903–2003 celebrations in Timaru.
In the 1970s, New Zealand's TV One produced a television movie about Pearse and his first flight. The film focused on Pearse's reclusive manner and his small town's perception of his eccentric activities.
Forgotten Silver, a 1995 mockumentary by filmmakers Costa Botes and Peter Jackson, purports to uncover a long-lost segment of motion picture film that, with digital enhancement of a newspaper seen in one shot, "proves" that Pearse successfully flew in March 1903, predating the Wrights' achievement by several months.
A memorial to Pearse's attempts at powered flight stands at (Pleasant Point in South Canterbury.) near
The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland displays a replica of Pearse's aircraft. For the alleged centenary of Pearse's flight, a replica motor was added. The two, combined successfully, became airborne. Visitors to the museum can also see his last flying machine and the remains of his first aircraft.
The Red Menace, an eight-part Doctor Who/The War Of The Worlds crossover fan fiction novella by Jeff Stone published in the New Zealand Doctor Who fanzine Telos during the 1990s extensively features Pearse as the co-creator of flying machines used to battle the returning Martian invaders. The unpublished extended version features material outlining Pearse's lonely journey to Britain to try to interest businessmen in his "aero-nautical device" designs.