Richard Pearse

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Richard William Pearse
Born(1877-12-03)3 December 1877
Died29 July 1953(1953-07-29) (aged 75)
Christchurch, Canterbury Region, New Zealand
OccupationFarmer, inventor
Known forPioneering flights in heavier-than-air aircraft

Richard William Pearse (3 December 1877 – 29 July 1953) was a New Zealand farmer and inventor who performed pioneering aviation experiments. Witnesses interviewed many years afterward claimed that Pearse flew and landed a powered heavier-than-air machine on 31 March 1903, nine months before the Wright brothers flew.[1][page needed] Documentary evidence for these claims remains open to interpretation and dispute, and Pearse himself never made such claims. In a newspaper interview in 1909, he said he did not "attempt anything practical ... until 1904".[2]

Biographer Gordon Ogilvie credits Pearse with "several far-sighted concepts: a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel, and a propeller with variable-pitch blades." [3]

Pearse ended his flying experiments about 1911, but continued aviation work, attempting to develop a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and rotorcraft.[4][3] Late in life he became bitter and paranoid and was admitted to a mental hospital in 1951, where he remained until his death.


Early engineering work[edit]

A replica of Pearse's monoplane

In 1902 Pearse built and patented a bicycle with vertical crank gears and self-inflating tyres.[citation needed] 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. The wings lacked an aerofoil shape, which is crucial for generating lift, but the general layout of this machine resembled modern aircraft design: 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 roll control.


Pearse made several attempts to fly in 1901, but due to insufficient engine power he may have achieved no more than brief hops. The following year he redesigned his engine to incorporate double-ended cylinders with two pistons each. Researchers recovered components of his engine (including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes) from rubbish dumps in 1963. Replicas of the 1903 engine suggest that it could produce about 15 hp (11 kW).

Richard Pearse Aero Engine
A silver medal struck by the New Zealand Mint for the New Zealand Museum of Transport and Technology in 1982 to commemorate the "80th Anniversary of World 1st Powered Flight" by Pearse. MOTAT's website gives 1903 as the year of his first flight, not 1902 as indicated on the medal.

Eyewitnesses describe Pearse crashing into a hedge during 1903.[5] His monoplane may have risen to a height of at least three metres on each occasion.[6][page needed] Evidence exists that on 31 March 1903 Pearse achieved a powered, though poorly controlled, flight of several hundred metres.[7][page needed]

With a 15 horsepower (11 kW) engine, Pearse's design had an adequate power-to-weight ratio to become airborne (even without an aerofoil).[who?] He continued to develop the ability to achieve fully controlled flight. Pearse incorporated small "ailerons". Diagrams and eyewitness recollections agree that Pearse placed controls for pitch and yaw at the trailing edge of the low-aspect-ratio kite-type permanently stalled wing. This control placement (located in turbulent air-flow, and close to the centre of gravity) would have had minimal, possibly inadequate, turning moment to control the pitch or yaw of the aircraft. The Wright brothers, in comparison, successfully applied the principles of airfoil wing-profile and three-axis control to produce fully controlled flight.

Pearse's work remained poorly documented at the time, and no contemporary newspaper record exists. Some photographic records survived, but they are undated with some images difficult to interpret. Pearse himself made contradictory statements, which for many years led the few who knew of his feats to accept 1904 as the date of flying. Unconcerned about posterity and in remote New Zealand, he received no public credit for his work during his lifetime. Pearse patented his design, but his innovations—such as ailerons and the lightweight air-cooled engine—did not succeed in influencing others.

Later activities[edit]

Pearse moved to Milton in Otago in about 1911 and discontinued his flying experiments due to the hillier country there. Much of his experimental equipment got 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 tilt-rotor flying-machine for personal use – sometimes described as a cross between a windmill and a rubbish-cart. His design resembled an autogyro or helicopter, but involved a tilting propeller/rotor and monoplane wings, which, along with the tail, could fold to allow storage in a conventional garage. He intended the vehicle for driving on the road (like a car) as well for flying.

However, he became reclusive and paranoid that foreign spies would discover his work. Committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch in 1951, Pearse died there two years later. Researchers believe that many of his papers were destroyed at that time.


On his death, the Public Trustee administered Pearse's estate. The trust officer in charge of disposing his personal effects recognised the significance of his aeronautical achievements and brought them to wider attention. As a result, aviation pioneer George Bolt saw Pearse's last flying machine.

In 1958, Bolt excavated the South Canterbury dump site and discovered some components, including a propeller. His research in the 1960s produced evidence for flight in 1903:[citation needed] people who had left the district by 1904 remembered the events, and recalled a particularly harsh winter with heavy snow.

During filming of a television documentary in the 1970s, the crew attached a replica of Pearse's 1902 machine by a rope to a team of horses. When the horses bolted, the machine took to the air and flew, prompting Pearse enthusiasts to assert that the design was flyable. The event was not filmed, because the crew had packed away their cameras at the end of the day's shooting.[citation needed]

A replica aeroplane on display at the South Canterbury Museum in Timaru

Debunking the myth[edit]

In a 1909 newspaper interview, Pearse said "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."[2] He also wrote two letters to local newspapers in 1915 and 1928. In the 1915 letter, he stated: "The honor of inventing the aeroplane [...] is the product of many minds [but] pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers [...] as they were actually the first to make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane".[8][9] In the 1928 letter, he recounted what happened during those early attempts: "At the trials it 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 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".[citation needed]

Aviation executive Evan Gardiner defended the legacy of his great uncle, Richard Pearse. In a newspaper article he emphasized that biographer Gordon Ogilvie had found 48 eyewitness accounts of aircraft work by Pearse and his attempted flights between 1902 and 1904. Gardiner wrote, "48 is too high a number for all to be misled, misinformed, over- imaginative, senile, lying or stupid."[10]


At the dawn of the 20th century, a number of enthusiasts in several countries advanced towards powered heavier-than-air flight. Pearse, as one of several designers contemporary with the Wrights, advanced some distance towards controlled flight. However, Pearse's designs and achievements remained virtually unknown beyond the few who witnessed them and they had no impact on his contemporary aviation designers.

Reconstructions and remains of Pearse aircraft are housed at the New Zealand Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT). The tilt-propeller aircraft Pearse later worked on bears a very close resemblance to his original aircraft, and the remains at MOTAT, though presented as parts of a single machine, may very well come from three separate machines:

  • The "original" March 1903 machine
  • A later version of the same with a tilt-propeller
  • The original March 1903 motor, in decayed state, along with the motor mounted in the MOTAT replica, which derived from the remains of at least two motors from the Pearse farm "dump site".

The South Canterbury Museum in Timaru includes display material relating to Pearse and to his contribution to early aviation. The South Island lakeside town of Wanaka has a line of tiles mounted on the sidewalk by the lake listing important world and New Zealand historic events. The 1903 tile says that the first powered flight in history occurred in Timaru, and at the bottom of the tile for 1903 the Wright Brothers were listed as having also flown that year.

Popular culture[edit]

Film and the stage have commemorated Richard Pearse's remarkable achievements over the years. Three plays centred on Pearse: The Pain and the Passion, by Sherry Ede, Too High the Sun by Stephen Bain and France Hervé, and Pearse, by John Leask, which was performed during the Richard Pearse Century of Flight 1903–2003 celebrations in Timaru.

In the 1970s, New Zealand's TV One produced a television movie about Pearse and his first flight. The film focused on Pearse's reclusive manner and his small town's perception of his eccentric activities.[citation needed]

Forgotten Silver, a 1995 mockumentary by filmmakers Costa Botes and Peter Jackson, purports to uncover a long-lost segment of motion picture film that, with digital enhancement of a newspaper seen in one shot, "proves" that Pearse successfully flew in March 1903, predating the Wrights' achievement by several months.

A memorial to Pearse's attempts at powered flight stands at (44°12′29″S 171°07′23″E / 44.20807°S 171.12303°E / -44.20807; 171.12303) near Pleasant Point in South Canterbury.

The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland displays a replica of Pearse's aircraft. For the alleged centenary of Pearse's flight, a replica motor was added. The two, combined successfully, became airborne. Visitors to the museum can also see his last flying machine and the remains of his first aircraft.

The Red Menace, an eight-part Doctor Who/The War Of The Worlds crossover fan fiction novella by Jeff Stone published in the New Zealand Doctor Who fanzine Telos during the 1990s extensively features Pearse as the co-creator of flying machines used to battle the returning Martian invaders. The unpublished extended version features material outlining Pearse's lonely journey to Britain to try to interest businessmen in his "aero-nautical device" designs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rodliffe 2003
  2. ^ a b O'Rourke, Paul. "Pearse flew long after Wrights". Stuff. Stuff Limited. Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b Ogilvie, Gordon (1996). "Story: Pearse, Richard William". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  4. ^ Foster, Bernard John (1966). "PEARSE, Richard William". An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  5. ^ "Fact Sheet Richard Pearse." Archived 22 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine MOTAT; retrieved 25 June 2010.
  6. ^ Rodliffe 1997
  7. ^ Ogilvie 1994
  8. ^ Duffy, Jonathan. Flights of fancy?",, 12 December 2003.
  9. ^ Pearse, R. W. (10 May 1915). "Who Invented the Aeroplance?" (15799). Evening Star. Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  10. ^ Evan Gardiner (11 May 2012). "NZ aviation pioneer was the real deal". The Press. Archived from the original on 10 September 2012.
  • Moore, Helene and Geoffrey Rodliffe. Oh, For the Wings of a Moth. Auckland, NZ: Geoff Rodliffe, 1999. ISBN 0-473-05772-7.
  • Ogilvie, Gordon. The Riddle of Richard Pearse: The Story of New Zealand's Pioneer Aviator and Inventor. Auckland, NZ: Reed Publishing, Revised edition, 1994. ISBN 0-589-00794-7.
  • Riley, Bob. Kiwi Ingenuity: A Book of New Zealand Ideas and Inventions. Auckland, NZ: AIT Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-9583334-4-3.
  • Rodliffe, C. Geoffrey. Richard Pearse and his Flying Machines: An Anthology of Research Notes, Essays and Ideas. Thornbury, UK:, 2008, First edition 2007. ISBN 0-473-12362-2.
  • Rodliffe, C. Geoffrey. Flight over Waitohi. Auckland, NZ: Acme Printing Works, 1997. ISBN 0-473-05048-X.
  • Rodliffe, C. Geoffrey. Richard Pearse: Pioneer Aviator. Thornbury, UK: 2003, First edition 1983. ISBN 0-473-09686-2.
  • Rodliffe, C. Geoffrey. Wings Over Waitohi. Auckland, NZ: Avon Press, Windsor House, 1993. ISBN 0-473-05000-5.
  • Tonkin, Keith. Four Great New Zealand Inventors. Wellington, NZ: Gilt Edge Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0-473-08812-5.
  • Williams, Tony. 101 Ingenious Kiwis: How New Zealanders Changed the World. Auckland, NZ: Reed, 2006. ISBN 0-7900-1178-6.
  • Yarwood, Vaughan. The History Makers: Adventures in New Zealand Biography. Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-1-86941-541-9.

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