Saturday, February 14, 2009

Episode 2 Richard Pearse

2 Richard Pearse

In this episode of Jay Wont dart's podcast, I'll talk about Richard Pearse, a New Zealand inventor who is claimed to have built and flown an aeroplane before the Wright Brothers.
To get some background, I'll start with a couple minute clip I got from Google Video of Richard Pearse's sisters being interviewed, they must be about 80 years in this clip, talking about things that happened around 1903.

I love that clip so much , I just had to add it, not sure what documentary its from, it didnt say on Google Video. I think it could be a New Zealand documentary from the 1970's that gets mentioned in a article by Debbi Gardiner I'll mention later. This is my first episode that I'm trying to include clips in, I found out how to do that using Gar-ridge band (or is that "gar-arrrr-sh band"?) to cue up clips. I've emailed a few people who wrote articles I'd like to include snippets from in this podcast episode. It doesnt seem right to just steal other peoples work about anything, so I have tried to ask for permission to use quotes. I had an idea to use an artificial computer voice for other peoples quoted bits, so you will hear me talking about things I've looked up myself, when I use someone elses work in a quote, then I'll have a male or female computer voice read that bit, so you know its not my work. I'll be sure to give credit to the author of course, using a different voice is just to make it seem flashier.

I learnt about Richard Pearse a few years ago, my dad has a couple copies of a book about him, The Riddle Of Richard Pearse, by Gordon " Ogle-vy " thats how I think you are to pronounce his surname, O G I L V I E, I have emailed the author to ask a few questions, if he gets back to me Ill know how to pronounce his name properly! The book has a few interesting pictures of Pearse.

Richard Pearse didnt go to University, his older brother Tom had went and he studied medicine. Working completely by himself Richard Pearse came up with a list of inventions, just imagine what he could have done if he went to uni!

One of Richard Pearse's first inventions was a bicycle he made that had odd gears, could be pedaled in reverse and among other things had built in tyre pumps that worked as he rode the bike! To brake he would apparently push the pedals down hard, which sounds pretty odd to me. The frame of the bike was made from bamboo, Richard Pearse would use bamboo for alot of things, he was known as "Bamboo Dick", dick being a nickname for people called Richard in yesteryear.

Richard Pearse learnt about the world outside New Zealand through magazines and books, he was subscribed to Scientific American which is a current magazine even after all these years. Apparently, Scientific American had a ten thousand pound prize for the first person to make a manned flight in a powered airplane, in 2009 money that would probably be a million NZ dollars or more, I'm not sure how to work it out.

I'll talk a little about the Wright Brothers now to give a different view of early aviation.

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur born 1867, died 1912 and Orville born 1871, died in 1948. They were an American team known for making bicycles, they had a large company with many people working for them which started in 1892 as The Wright Cycle Exchange. Wikipedia says that they thought they could make a plane based on how they could make bikes, which are naturally unstable, but they move smoothly with balance, and so making a plane could be possible. The Wrights focused on control of their airplane rather than just adding more power like other inventors attempting to fly did. Based on how birds fly by tilting their wings, The Wrights came up with the idea of making their plane twist and tilt its wings for steerage. They made a few gliders, unpowered planes like a kite, which were normally flown by Wilbur the older and bossier brother.

The Wrights planned how they thought their inventions would work, they made a 2 metre long wind tunnel, they could put small versions of their gliders inside to test how they would react with wind blowing around the model, so they would know how the real thing would handle outside in open air.

Their planes would be made from Spruce, a light wood related to Pine. Probably similar to the bamboo that Richard Pearse had used.

The two propellers were behind the pilot, they were in a "pusher configuration", being behind they pushed the plane rather than the modern "Tractor configuration" that is in front and pulls the plane through the air, which happens to be what Pearse designed.

The engine they used was made by an engineer who worked for them, Charlie Taylor, NOT THE CHARLES, "CHUCK", TAYLOR, the basketball guy who lent his name to Converse for a pair of shoes! The engine alone weighed almost 80kg's and made about 12 horsepower, 9 kilowatts of power.

Orville, the quieter younger brother made the first successful flight, on December 17th, 1903. He flew a little under 40 metres, at about 10 kilometres per hour. A year later, 1904, Wilbur managed to fly the plane in a complete circle. They still had problems controlling the plane, and it was hard to fly without much wind. Later on the Wrights would use a sort of catapult to take off from, to give the plane a push to start off.

When they had made a 40 minute, 40 kilometre flight , they decided the plane was ready to sell. Initially the Wright brothers were not believed, remember that nobody had ever managed to prove flight before, after probably hundreds of years of attempting. An article in a 1906 Paris magazine had a headline of "Fliers or liars?" Around 1908 the brothers had managed to put on some demonstrations for reporters, being able to fly circles and other examples of controlled flight which amazed the audience. One of the requirements for the plane to be used by the american army were that it carried a passenger, the current model of the plane was tried with sandbags for a few flights, before a passenger was trialled. Wilbur and Orville were not to fly together, they had promised their father that they would not risk both of their lives at the same time like that. In July of 1909 they passed the US Army's requirements for their plane, being able to fly two people at a speed of over 60 kilometres per hour for a flight time of over one hour, landing successfully. The Wright brothers sold their plane for $30,000 american dollars to the Army.

The Wrights had faced adversity, they were not believed to have flown, they had patent problems, competitors like Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, Langley claimed his plane the Aerodrome was the first plane "capable" of powered manned flight, despite the fact it seems to have always been unmanned. The Wrights fought for decades over this issue, to prove that they had the first plane, to get Langelys dud out of the Smithsonian to be replaced by a Wright Flyer.

The july 1909 passing of the army tests happens to be two months short of a hundred years ago from the date of this podcast being released. The brothers managed to fly around the Statue of Liberty, and up and down the Hudson river in New York, where an audience of a million saw a real flying machine. Such an image would be hard to disprove for any other inventor like poor Richard Pearse, who had made a plane before, but stuck alone in New Zealand, the other end of the world, without an audience of one million New Yorkers.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville lived until 1948 when he died of a heart attack. Wikipedia notes that he lived from .

Back to Richard Pearse now. The Wright Brothers first flight that mattered is recorded as being the 17th of December, 1903. Richard Pearse has witnesses saying he flew on the 31st of March the same year, 1903, so he flew almost a year before they did according to the witnesses. Richard Pearse himself has made different statments about what happened, if he did or didnt fly according to his definition of flight, often he seems to have said that he didnt have any real control over the plane, he says because it was moving too slowly for his steering system to work.

Richard Pearse was enlisted in the army, fighting in the first World War. After spending a year away from his farm, he returned to find that many of his valuable tools had been pilfered. The thief was never caught. Pearse left for Christchurch, with new ideas for his future.

In Christchurch, Pearse built three houses by himself, living off the rent of two houses, he lived in the third himself. On the second house he built, a tenant tried to put down some linoleum, it didnt seem to be fitting correctly. The tenet asked Richard Pearse for help, Pearse explained he had made the house himself and had never used a ruler, one end of the room was 15 centimetres wider than the other.

His third house was built when he was almost 50 years old. Right now I'm finding the book I mentioned, The Riddle Of Richard Pearse really useful, it has the most information I've found about the houses Richard Pearse built. Apparently the neighbours noticed that Pearse had not been seen for awhile, he didnt normally leave the property of the house he was building. A policeman found him close to death inside the thrown together shack he had built to live in while working on the house. Richard Pearse spent twenty days in hospital, and came out to continue his work on the house revived. He had been malnourished, living off bread, milk, cheese and cheap biscuits according to The Riddle of Richard Pearse. Despite having enough money to live a normal life, he was a very frugal person.

Living off the rents from two houses and living in the third, Pearse spent his time reading and inventing his next machine, which he called the Utility Plane. This was a VTOL plane, that could Vertically Take Off and Land. The main motor and propeller were on a swiveling mount, that could rotate the way the blades spun, from on top like a helicopter to in front like a normal plane. Richard Pearse now spent a lot of time at the Christchurch Public Library planning.

In his last years, Richard Pearse grew thinner and thinner, he lived very poorly despite having enough money to look after himself. He would often complain people were out to get him, to steal his ideas, to steal his plane. The Riddle of Richard Pearse mentions his idea that people were trying to gas him. This could be explained by his poor memory, Pearse would leave the gas taps on in the house, and the gas would seep through into other rooms. Neighbours would overhear him yelling and talking to himself about his ideas being stolen. Richard Pearse hated that his own designs were much better than those of which the Wright brothers had used.

A pretty sad ending, in his later years Richard Pearse would often write statements that would contradict what he had said earlier. He had started getting very bitter that major overseas companies were not interested in his designs, increasingly paranoid he was determined to be unable of looking after himself and was admitted to the Sunnyside Mental Hospital in June of 1951. He died of a heart attack two years and one month later , July 1953 at the age of 75. The Sunnyside Mental Hospital, the name sure is a contradiction. This mental asylum also housed Janet Frame, something interesting about her, she was scheduled for a lobotomy, when one of her books won a national award they cancelled the operation.

After Richard Pearse's death, his things were deemed to be worthless, and were all to be dumped. An estimate came up with the cost of clearing his garage (remember my debate at the start of this episode?) would be 7 pounds, which doesnt sound much, but in todays money that must be at minimum a hundred dollars now, maybe a thousand. Not sure how to work that out sorry. The things inside were estimated to be worthless ! Including the latest version of the airplane Pearse had been working on, worthless! George Bolt, who had been chief engineer for the Tasman Empire airline, and a pioneer aviator himself heard about Richard Pearse, and decided to rescue Pearse's items from the dump, he came across parts of the planes like part of a propeller and engine parts. George Bolt also tracked down surviving witnesses of Richard Pearse's achievements. One of Pearse's tennents had told George Bolt about a conversation when Pearse had not wanting to build a roof on a building behind his house, where he would keep the Utility Plane. When the tenant asked why no roof, Pearse explained he would be building an aeroplane that could fly straight up. MOTAT, the mueseum of transport and technology in Auckland has some of the remains Bolt rescued from oblivion. On display is a replica of the original Pearse plane that is meant to have flow in 1903. MOTAT also has the Utility Plane.

Here is a clip from Debbi Gardener, a columnist, who happens to be related to Richard Pearse. I found a great article of hers, I've contacted her about using it. No reply, but I have mentioned what article it came from, its worth reading the full article.

Another source I liked very much was the NZ Edge website, which has profiles about famous New Zealanders. I also have asked permission to use the last paragraph from the article.

From the N Zed Edge Website

As his biographer Gordon Ogilvie writes:

"... there seems to be an element of Greek tragedy in the man. Even the Gods were against him. He was an inventive phenomenon in a small community where farming was everything. If you couldn’t farm you were an idiot. And yet he chose to do the unthinkable – to fly."

The N Zed edge website ends its Richard Pearse article

"From a land of travellers, whose national symbol is a poorly sighted, flightless bird, came an eccentric visionary with a soaring imagination who managed, against the most improbable odds, far away from any centre, of scientific debate or knowledge, to upset assumptions and become airborne. Pearse was a prophetic designer and engineer who had absolutely no influence whatsoever on the course of history, yet he is immortalized for his inventiveness, ingenuity and achievement against the odds of ridicule, geography and resources Richard Pearse: The Kiwi who flew"

Ill end with a section of a 1928 letter Richard Pearse wrote to The Star, a Christchurch newspaper. I'll read this quote in my own New Zealand accent, Im sure Richard Pearse wont mind, as much as I love the novelty of my Mac's voices, they will screw up the pronunciation, My voice is home grown a few hundred kilometers from where Pearse flew his plane, and we both look sort of similar, I have the same dark curly hair as Richard Pearse,making me better qualified than my hairless computer.

"An ordinary motor car or motor bicycle motor weighs about 20 pounds per horsepower, and my first aeroplane motor of 24 horsepower weighed 5 pounds per horsepower. As this motor was not powerful enough, I built a 60 horsepower motor that weighed 4 pounds per horsepower. The wrights motor was 32 horsepower and weighed 5 pounds per horsepower.

At the trials (my plane) 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 on 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. But with my 60 horsepower motor, which proved very reliable, I had successful aerial navigation within my grasp, if I had had the patience to design a small plane that would be manageable. But I decided to give up the struggle, as it was useless to try to compete with men who had factories at their backs. It is impossible to assign any invention wholly to one man, as all inventions are the products of many minds, and the most we can do is to give the man who had done the most some pre-eminence. As the Wrights were the first to make a successful flight in a motor driven aeroplane, they will be given pre-eminance when the history of the aeroplane is written."

If this episode has gotten you interested in Richard Pearse, you should google his name to see what else you can find about him. The book I like most about Pearse, The Riddle of Richard Pearse by Gordon Ogilvie can be found secondhand on TradeMe. I also reread the NZ Edge website article on Richard Pearse, they have articles on many famous New Zealanders.

Thank you to everyone whose work helped me, I've tried to list any prior sources I remember having read so they get full credit for the author's work.

If you want to contact me, even just to say you listened, send an email to, j a y w o n t d a r t @, I'd appreciate it.

Have a super happy day, bye.
links used
The Riddle of Richard Pearse book, by Gordon Ogilvie article by Debbi Gardiner, who is related to Richard Pearse

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