Richard Pearse

From Academic Kids

Richard William Pearse (3 December 187729 July 1953) was a New Zealand farmer and inventor who experimented with flying machines in the early 20th century. Following such aviation pioneers as Clement Ader and Samuel Pierpont Langley, he is reputed to have flown a powered heavier-than-air machine on 31 March 1903, some nine months before the Wright brothers. The documentary evidence to support such a claim is open to interpretation, however, and he does not appear to have matched the Wrights' achievement of controlled, sustained flight.

Pearse started farming on 100 acres (400,000 m²) in 1898 at Waitohi in South Canterbury, New Zealand, but he was never a keen farmer, being far more interested in engineering. He had wanted to study engineering at an advanced level, but his family did not have the money, having already sent his older brother, Tom, to medical school. Richard resorted to inventing instead.

In 1902 he 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. His flying machine was considerably closer to modern aircraft design than 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. It bore a remarkable resemblance to modern microlight aircraft. Pearse made some attempts to fly in 1902 but apparently failed due to insufficient engine power. He redesigned his engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each, and replicas of this design suggest that it could produce about 15 horsepower (11 kW). Components of his engine, including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes, were recovered from rubbish dumps at Upper Waitohi 60 years later.

There is strong evidence to suggest that with this machine Pearse may have achieved powered flight on 31 March 1903. Pearse himself said that he had made a powered takeoff "but at too low a speed for his controls to work". However, he remained airborne until he crashed into the hedge at the end of the field. Verifiable eyewitnesses describe his crashing into this hedge on two separate occasions during 1903. His monoplane must have risen to height of at least 3 m each time.

Pearse's work was poorly documented at the time. There was no contemporary newspaper record. There are some photographic records but these are of uncertain dates and some images are difficult to interpret. Pearse himself made contradictory statements which for many years led to 1904 being the accepted date among the few who were aware of his feats. It is worth noting that the Wrights had considerable difficulty in getting their accomplishment recognised despite better documention and witnesses; there was "Fliers or Liars?" debate for quite some time after Kitty Hawk, and it took many demonstrations before they were widely recognised. If Pearse, in remote New Zealand, put as little effort into leaving a record as it appears, the muddle about priority is no surprise.

Pearse moved to Milton in Otago in about 1911 and discontinued his flying experiments due to the hilly country. Much of his experimental work was 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 flying machine for personal use. His design was similar to an autogiro or helicopter but involved a tilting rotor and monoplane wings as well. The intention was that the vehicle could be driven on the road, like a car, as well as flown. However he became reclusive and paranoid that his work would be discovered by foreign spies. Pearse was committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch in 1951, and died there two years later. It is believed that many of his papers were destroyed at that time.

In the mid 1950s aviation pioneer George Bolt saw Pearse's last flying machine, which is sometimes described as a cross between a windmill and a rubbish cart. In 1958 Bolt excavated the South Canterbury dump site and discovered some components, including a propeller. His research in the 1960s (among eyewitnesses who were mostly schoolchildren at the time) produced strong circumstantial evidence for 1903: people who had left the district by 1904 remembered being there, and a particularly harsh winter with heavy snow.

During filming of a television documentary in the 1970s a replica of Pearse's 1902 machine was attached by a rope to a team of horses. When the horses bolted, the machine took to the air and flew, indicating the design was capable of flying. Unfortunately this was not filmed as the cameras had been packed away at the end of the day's shooting.

There is a memorial to Pearse's attempts at powered flight near Pleasant Point in South Canterbury.

A replica of his aircraft is on display at the Museum of Transport and Technology, Auckland. For the centenary of Pearse's alleged flight a replica motor was also made. The two were put together and successfully became airborne, albeit very briefly.

Pearse's designs and achievements were virtually unknown outside the few who witnessed them and had no impact on his contemporary aviation designers. However, his concepts had far more in common with modern aircraft design than other aviation pioneers. Others have later implemented Pearse's concepts without being aware of his efforts. Pearse has been described as a man ahead of his time as a result. So far ahead of his time in fact that the second New Zealand flight did not happen until 5 February 1910 when Vivian Walsh flew a plane he had built himself.

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