Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wright brothers

Connecticut First in Flight? Yeah, Wright!

Among the prices we pay for democracy are legislatures doing silly things.

In 1894, the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that claimed that an Indiana man had devised a means of “squaring the circle,” constructing with just a compass and a straight edge a square of the same area as a given circle. Thought an impossibility since ancient times, squaring the circle had been proved impossible by the German mathematician Ferdinand Von Lindemann in 1882, one of the great mathematical accomplishments of the 19th century. The bill also made several vague references to the value of the mathematical constant pi, the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, in one instance calling it 3.2 (it’s 3.1459 . . . and so on out to as many digits as your computer is willing to go, for pi is an irrational number and thus cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction or decimal). The Indiana Senate, fortunately for that state’s reputation, killed the bill.

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Among the prices we pay for democracy are legislatures doing silly things.

In 1894, the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that claimed that an Indiana man had devised a means of “squaring the circle,” constructing with just a compass and a straight edge a square of the same area as a given circle. Thought an impossibility since ancient times, squaring the circle had been proved impossible by the German mathematician Ferdinand Von Lindemann in 1882, one of the great mathematical accomplishments of the 19th century. The bill also made several vague references to the value of the mathematical constant pi, the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference, in one instance calling it 3.2 (it’s 3.1459 . . . and so on out to as many digits as your computer is willing to go, for pi is an irrational number and thus cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction or decimal). The Indiana Senate, fortunately for that state’s reputation, killed the bill.

Now the Connecticut legislature has decided that it has the power to legislate historical fact. In this case it has passed a bill that reads, “The Governor shall proclaim a date certain in each year as Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry, . . .”

Gustave Whitehead, who lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is supposed to have flown an airplane of his own design in August 1901, more than two years before the Wright Brothers undoubtedly flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The only problem is he almost certainly didn’t. These sorts of stories float around journalism like Elvis sightings and UFOs, getting resurrected on slow news days every decade or so. Whitehead certainly built airplanes, but there is precious little evidence that any of them ever flew. He did build and fly gliders. A website dedicated to the Wright Brothers has an excellent essay that demolishes the claims for Whitehead. It is a brilliant piece of historiographical analysis, which is how historians—if not legislatures—determine historical truth.

The bill now sits of Governor Malloy’s desk. He would do the state a favor by vetoing this nonsense. But he probably won’t.

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