Pearse flew long after Wrights

INVENTOR: Waitohi man Richard Pearse
INVENTOR: Waitohi man Richard Pearse

The legend that Richard Pearse, of Waitohi, succeeded in achieving controlled flight before the Wright Brothers in 1903 appears to have finally been proved false.

Christchurch aviation author Errol Martyn said in a television interview he had found newspaper reports of Pearse flights being made in 1910. Research by the Herald suggest the first flights were made in 1909.

In Pearse's own words from November 17 that year:

HISTORIC DEPICTION: An artist's impression of Richard Pearse flying his aeroplane.
HISTORIC DEPICTION: An artist's impression of Richard Pearse flying his aeroplane.

"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.

"I have had several tests. Last week's was my most successful one, the machine rising readily."


A New Zealand flying machine
Mr Richard Pearse of Waitohi
the Inventor

(From The Timaru Post, November 17, 1909)

A newspaper reporter receives curious instructions from time to time, but surely none more curious or pleasing than that which awaited the writer, a Post representative, on his arrival at the office on Tuesday morning. It read with that brevity peculiar to editors: "Inspect Mr Richard Pearse's flying-machine at Waitohi".

A quick ride in the express train to Temuka, and an inquiry of a very respectable hotel keeper put me on the track leading to the house of Mr Pearse, the inventor.

I crossed the field and rapped at the door of the dilapidated old structure. "Come in," said a cheery voice. The impression made upon my mind is one that I know will never be effaced.

"To the right of me was an empty room resembling a miniature barn, littered with sack and chaff. In the passage, immediately in front of me, rested three pieces of mechanism, built of bamboo poles and sail, for all the world resembling the spars and sails of a yacht.

To the left of me, however, was "the" room, I was face to face with the replica of an up-to-date engineering establishment.

There stood the forcing furnace, the time-honoured lathe, bores and innumerable other tools.

The litter of scrap iron, tins, oils, wire, etc, inseparable from an engineering establishment, and in the midst of it all, king of his own little den, stood the inventive genius himself, Richard Pearse – the man who day in and day out, from 8 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock in the evening, for five long, weary years, with a patience and doggedness almost inhuman, has plodded on, until the very chink of his chisel would seem to have become tragically monotonous, and the mention of a flying-machine an anathema. But it is, and for Pearse, happily not so.

The man is an enthusiast, heart and soul. He is as fresh, as happy, as healthy and as determined as the day, when five years ago, he set out to achieve the dream of his life – the inventing and making of a flying-machine. And has he succeeded? Well it would appear so. The beautiful network of machinery, bamboo, wire and tarpaulin – looking for all the world like a huge spider's web, with a fly in the centre, and wings at the rear and at either side – answers affirmatively. From the equilibrium rudder at the tail to the propeller at the front and the engines in the centre, the machine is entirely original and demonstrates clearly the untiring patience, indomitable pluck, and engineering skill of the inventor.

But perhaps it would be as well to tell Pearse's tale in his own words. For the information of those who have not had the privilege of meeting this silent worker on the plains, I might mention that he is a man of striking personality and appearance.

He is of good physique, stands well over six feet in his socks, and his hands are large and hardened as those of a man well used to the rough toil of life. His story is simply told, and put in connected form, reads as follows:

"I am the son of a farmer, and have two brothers, both of whom, and myself are bachelors. My father is a retired man, and lives with my mother at Temuka. His farm is cut up between myself and brothers.

"From the time I was quite a little chap, I had a great fancy for engineering, and when I was still quite a young man, I conceived the idea of inventing a flying machine.

"I did not attempt anything practical with 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 else. But I succeeded sufficiently to realise that there was a future for the flying machine and to send me on the course which is now within a week or two of complete success.

"Many of the parts for machine have been used on the other side of the waters. I do not say, mind you, that inventions have been copied. It is but natural that different people working on the same ideas, should arrive at the same conclusions. But I will say many of my inventions have come into use on the other side of the world since my own were patented in New Zealand.

"Almost every portion of my machine is of my own exclusive manufacture. The 25-horse power petrol engine (in four parts) and radiator built myself specially for a flying machine. The lightest 25hp engine in the world to my knowledge, weighs somewhere in the vicinity of 300lbs.

"My 25hp water-cased engine weighs 100lbs only, turns the four sheet steel propeller blades at the rate of 800 revolutions to the minute, and under the very severe tests to which I have subjected it, it has never shown the slightest sign of failure.

"My propeller connects direct with the crankshaft, thus obviating the necessity for clutches or any other weighty gear. The whole secret to a flying machine is in its lightness, and sustaining power. My machine weighs altogether, with me in it, only 500lbs, as against 1000 and 2000lbs the weights of the machines on the other side of the world.

"I have 900ft of sustaining area, as against 500 and 700ft, the sustaining areas of the 1000lb and 2000lb machines in the northern hemisphere. The action of a flying machine is simply that the propeller drives the machine along, and like a boy with his kite, as soon as a certain velocity is attained (in the case of my machine 12 miles per hour) the machine is elevated with its tricycle into the air, and sustained there by the 900ft of canvas beneath the body of the machine.

"Would the machine drop instantly if the propeller stopped revolving? Certainly not. The machine would descend as gracefully as a parachute.

"At the present moment, my rear rudder is slightly too heavy for the rear of the machine, and I am shifting it to the front, when every piece of the working mechanism will be within my sight as I sit in the machine.

"I have had several tests. Last week's was my most successful one, the machine rising readily, but tilting gradually at the rear owing to the rudder in that position disturbing equilibrium. As you may imagine, after five years labour without a return, and the expenditure of about 300 in raw material, I cannot afford to take any risks with my machine. Next week, if my trial is satisfactory, I will make preparations for the giving of public exhibitions.

"There is no commercial value in a flying machine itself at present. If I can get my machine right for flying exhibitions throughout Australasia, within a short time, my fortune is made. If through any case I am delayed, and foreign machines are exhibited here, I will simply get no return; but that will not prevent be bringing my machine to perfection. Would you like to see the petrol engine and propeller in operation?"

I admitted that I would, and my desire was promptly gratified. The engine was set going, the propeller was given a twist or two, and with a suddenness wholly unprovided for, I was almost blown off my feet by a veritable hurricane of wind.

The propeller blades spun round until they appeared as mere shadows in the daylight; the machine heaved and rattled like a living thing, seeming every moment as if it would spring from the earth and disappear.

A touch of the hand, and the vibrating mechanism was as dead as a stone. It was then that I recollected that the last train train left Temuka at 6.18 o'clock and that I had no chance of catching it, but I was content to lose it. I had seen the first completed flying machine in Australasia, and that was worth missing a dozen trains to see. It was therefore in a cheerful spirit that, after partaking of the lavish hospitality of the Pearse Brothers at their bachelors' house, a couple of miles distant, I crossed the seat of my antiquated bicycle – one of the first I imagine, that was imported into New Zealand – and pedalled all the 15 miles to home and Timaru.

It might be mentioned for the information of those who find time hanging on their hands, that the machine in question is not yet open to minute public inspection, but will be as soon as the inventor is ready.

The Timaru Herald