Old white man of the day

Richard William Pearse

Richard William Pearse was born on 3 December 1877 at Waitohi Flat, Temuka, New Zealand.

By disposition quiet, introspective, gentle and somewhat aloof, Pearse was a dreamer even at school. After finishing his primary education at Waitohi in 1893 he wanted to study engineering at Canterbury College, but the family could not afford it. Instead, when he turned 21, Pearse was given the use of a nearby 100-acre farm block.

Here Pearse built a workshop, designed his own forge and lathe, and proceeded to spend most of his time inventing gadgets. His first patented invention, dating from 1902, was an ingenious new style of bicycle, bamboo-framed with a vertical-drive pedal action, rod-and-rack gearing system, back-pedal rim-brakes and integral tyre pumps.

But flying, not cycling, was his dream. Through Scientific American Pearse kept in touch with experimentation overseas. There is evidence he was working on ideas for powered flight from 1899 and had built his first two-cylinder petrol engine by 1902. He then constructed, using bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas, a low aspect ratio monoplane.

Of prophetic design, it closely resembled a modern microlight aircraft in appearance. After considerable taxiing on his farm paddocks Pearse made his first public flight attempt down Main Waitohi Road adjacent to his farm. After a short distance aloft, perhaps 50 yards, he crashed on top of his own gorse fence. No details were recorded, by Pearse or onlookers, of this tentative flight. In two letters, published in 1915 and 1928, the inventor writes of February or March 1904 as the time when he set out to solve the problem of ‘aerial navigation’. He also states that he did not achieve proper flight and did not beat the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright who flew on 17 December 1903. However, a great deal of eyewitness testimony, able to be dated circumstantially, suggests that 31 March 1903 was the likely date of this first flight attempt. (The year 1902 also has its advocates.) Pearse continued his flying experiments, achieving several further powered take-offs or long hops, most of them witnessed. None of them, in terms of length or control, was a true flight by any strict definition. In July 1906 he patented his aircraft.

Whether or not Pearse flew in any acceptable sense, and regardless of the exact date, his first aircraft was a remarkable invention embodying several far-sighted concepts: a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel, and a propeller with variable-pitch blades driven by a unique double-acting horizontally opposed petrol engine.[…]