I spent a week in Christchurch,
then left on a cloudy afternoon and drove south on
Highway 1 across the flat Canterbury plains, bound for the coastal resort town
of Timaru a few hours away. On my
way to Timaru, I pulled off the highway, followed the signs down several country roads
and stopped at a memorial to Richard Pearse (1877-1953).
Pearse was a tinkerer and loner who lived in a small village north
of Timaru. He was fascinated with
air flight and around the turn of the century spent many hours building a primitive plane powered by a
2-cylinder engine that he designed himself.
Known as “Mad Pearse” or “Bamboo Dick” (a reference, I think --
and hope -- to the bamboo he used to construct his plane), he flew his crude
plane for about a kilometer in March 1902, according to several eyewitnesses.
Apparently, he then repeated the feat in March 1903 before he crashed.
About nine months later,
in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made their historic "first" flight at Kittyhawk,
North Carolina. The Wright
Brothers, of course, were a bit smarter than Pearse because they had cameras rolling to document
Ah, the power of the media...
his alleged flights, Dick Pearse faded into oblivion and died a recluse,
spending his final years in a mental hospital in Christchurch.
If Dick Pearse was indeed the first person to fly, it’ll probably --
and unfortunately -- never
The Richard Pearse memorial near Timaru. This marks the spot
where he crashed in 1903, after allegedly being the first person
to fly an airplane.
Travels (2001-02) >
Story List >
New Zealand and Cook Island Stories > Wright
Brothers, Step Aside?