In the depths of the winter of 1951, a frail, elderly man with long white hair and an unkempt moustache was helped from his home in Woolston, Christchurch, and taken to Sunnyside Hospital, a psychiatric institution in the city’s south-west. Weak and distraught, he muttered about attempts being made on his life. People were out to steal his inventions, he said.
His background was a mystery. About all that could be deduced was that he was a retired farmer, of Irish extraction, unmarried and with no known relatives in New Zealand.
On the afternoon of June 30, the day of his admittance to Sunnyside, the muddled, disoriented old man, who gave his name as Richard William Pearse, was subjected to a clinical examination.
“He knows his age and year of birth but does not know what year or month it is at the present time,” recorded the examining doctor. “His spontaneous conversation is jumbled and largely incomprehensible. He jumps from speculations about planetary collisions and vague ramblings about astronomy to fragmentary accounts of his everyday affairs.”
The diagnosis was arteriosclerotic psychosis, a common ailment among the elderly. Pearse wasn’t insane, just confused, hard of hearing and no longer able to care for himself.
The 73-year-old soon grew accustomed to Sunnyside life, liking the food—or at least eating without complaint—and taking part in basketmaking and other occupational therapy classes Yet the paranoia persisted, and at times drove him to distraction. His inventions were at risk. Schemers plotted even now to snatch them away. The Wright brothers had illegally used his ideas, as had American helicopter designers. He fretted over his Australian patent rights and told the medical superintendent that he wanted them extended.
Talk of patents was news to the superintendent, as was the discovery by the Public Trust Office that the apparently impecunious Mr Pearse owned three houses in Christchurch, all of which he had built himself, and that he was collecting rent from each of them.
A property inspector was sent to investigate complaints by tenants at the Woolston house where Pearse had for years slept, cooked and lived in a small front bedroom. On the other side of the door to that room something, perhaps leftover food, was decidedly off. The inspector entered, but found nothing untoward, and little of worth: a gas cooker, a cycle lamp, a cased cello. Out in the locked garage, however, he came upon something unexpected. There, among the tools and farm implements and an odd homebuilt powercycle, were a set of wings and the assorted fabric-covered parts of what the Public Trust man construed to be an “improvised autogyro.”
Richard Pearse, self-taught inventor, trailblazing aviator and eccentric visionary, was about to be rediscovered.
In the half-light of an early autumn morning I arrived at the home of South Canterbury farmer Evan Gardiner, which rests on a spur overlooking the valley of the braided Opihi River. Eighteen kilometres east is the old ceramics town of Temuka, and 25 km or so south-east lies Timaru, picturesquely elevated about Caroline Bay. The Opihi valley itself is hatched with straight businesslike roads that connect a scattering of homesteads with Waitohi and the small service town of Pleasant Point on the far bank, near a fork in the river.
I had come here to learn more about the retiring and enigmatic Pearse, who left few clues to his life and even fewer about his lifelong pursuit of the Grail of flight. No diary, no journal, no personal letters or scribbled memos survive. Not even a photograph of him beyond 1917. Gardiner, Pearse’s great nephew, had offered to fly me over the countryside Pearse grew up in, and which, if the claims are true, he snatched tantalising glimpses of in a few brief airborne moments early this century.
For a big man—he stands a solid 190 cm tall—Gardiner’s choice of aircraft is surprisingly compact: a Dacron-skinned microlight, housed out in a shed alongside the farm tractor. I had seen a reconstruction of Pearse’s first flying machine in Auckland’s Museum of Transport, Technology and Social History, and couldn’t help thinking the microlight was a perfectly fitting vehicle for the journey back into history. Pearse’s contraption, the creation of a young man just into his 20s, bears an uncanny resemblance to the early microlights, those volkscraft of the skies that first began labouring across the country’s beaches and fields in the 1970s.
Gardiner swung open the paddock gate and we got down to business, taxiing into position, then, with a surge of power, belting along the grass strip for a few seconds before leaning back into the pale autumn sky. Farmhouse and shed, field and fences all dropped effortlessly away, leaving us an infinity of South Canterbury sky to roam about in.
It was so easy I felt like a cheat. Pearse had worked tirelessly to get his machine built, making countless trips to Temuka along the once-dusty straights we now drifted over, his pushbike laden on the return ride with bamboo and other materials. Putting together a makeshift engine from odds and ends he found about the farm. Forgoing settled family life, and for years enduring the ridicule of uncomprehending neighbours, the more charitable of whom dismissed him as merely eccentric.
“Mad” Pearse didn’t fit in. An indifferent farmer, he let his property go while toiling at his workbench or making complicated calculations at the kitchen table. Much of the farmwork, such as crop harvesting, he contracted out, and when he did venture into the paddock on farm business he invariably carried with him some book of a technical nature to pore over.
From 50 m up, Waitohi is a place of modest dimensions. It doesn’t take long to get from the rolling hills down to the flats with their patterned fields of animal feed. Partway along Main Waitohi Road is the site of Pearse’s farm, a satisfying 40 ha rectangle of land backing up to a ridge of higher ground beyond. Here, Pearse was said to have made his historic first flight, wheeling his home-made machine out past the schoolhouse and taking off noisily along the road. He was airborne for 100 m or so, if witnesses are to be believed, before crashing unceremoniously into a tall gorse hedge.
We skimmed the road, lined at this time of year (it was the season of Pearse’s early flight attempts) with cylinders of cut hay, and overflew the monument put up belatedly in the aviator’s honour—a scale replica of his machine on a steel post, set off by a half-circle of white stone. From the driving seat of a passing car it has a momentary presence, but seen from the air it appears as flimsy and insubstantial as a wind-blown seed. All around was brown earth turned by the plough.
Some eight kilometres south-east, on the terrace overlooking the Opihi River—no one knows exactly where—Pearse is said to have made another, more spectacular, attempt at flight. He somehow managed to get his small machine, with its iron frame and cloth-covered bamboo wings, from the farm all the way down to this stretch of land, some nine metres above the bed. There, after an abortive first try, and watched by half a dozen eager lads, he succeeded in launching himself off the terrace. A kilometre upstream, the machine came to grief on the rocky riverbed, and Pearse was seen to scramble up the bank among the blackberries.
His plane was eventually removed, and very likely repaired, but though rumours persist of further attempts, there was to be nothing as dramatic again. The machine had already made its most indelible mark. Many years later its rusting remains were found a few kilometres away in a tip.
We flew on upriver, then cut across in the direction of the monument to the lip of a river terrace. Here, in tree-studded grounds decked out with a tennis court and a long birch-lined drive, is Trewarlet, the old Pearse homestead.
Gardiner circled once or twice to let me admire the solid building, now much enlarged, where Pearse spent his dreamy youth. Magpies lifted lazily into the air as our shadow flickered across a field of kale. Sunlight glanced off the white stone walls. Pearse’s parents, Digory and Sarah, bought land here in 1865 and built Trewarletnamed for a family estate in Cornwall—from local limestone around 1888.
It must have been an entertaining childhood. There were peacocks and pheasants at Trewarlet, as well as a parrot that would greet the day by screeching: “Time to get up and get the breakfast!”
There were also guineafowls, goats, ferrets, various dogs and a monkey which lived in a box on top of a pole. The creature had been bought from an organ grinder in Temuka, and on the way to the homestead had grabbed at the reins of the gig and steered it into a ditch.
And there was an intriguing landscape for young legs to explore: the river terrace with its speargrass and thickets of flax and toetoe, limestone outcrops, the countless streams descending from the hills, in summer the shingled bed of the broad Opihi.
The Pearse family was uncommonly musical, even for an age when self-amusement was the norm. Richard’s brothers and sisters—he had four of each—all played instruments: some, violins, one, Margaret, a harp. Richard mastered the cello. It accompanied him throughout his life, and he often sought relief in its mellow tones from the unending work of invention.
The family not only fielded a sizable orchestra, but if pressed could also put together a powerful tennis team. Digory played enthusiastically into his 70s, and the grass court at today’s Trewarlet is a legacy of the game’s grip on the family. At harvest time, when normal folk laboured in their fields until dusk, the Pearses would sometimes call a halt at four in the afternoon for a few sets. Their neglected hedges grew to be the highest in the district, and when they were “trimmed” it was with matches rather than shears. “Gentlemen farmers,” neighbours called them.
Richard, who was less farmerly than most, achieved some notable successes at tennis, and could perhaps have done more if the siren of flight hadn’t claimed him utterly. Once, when he failed to show for a tournament, he was found hammering determinedly in a shed. His brother Warne was more devoted to the sport, and achieved a national reputation, winning the South Canterbury singles title a dozen times, as well as other provincial contests. Once he cycled all the way to Nelson for a tournament, then, when it was over, cycled home again—a round trip of 1100 km.
Warne’s grandson, Jeffrey Pearse, owns Trewarlet now, and keeps the flame of tennis alive by playing once a week in Temuka.
I had arranged to meet Jeffrey at the homestead, and having cased it from above, drove to the house across the flats. The 200 ha property is run as a deer farm, and as we talked, Suzie, a three-month-old doe, wandered through the house, delicately nuzzling papers on a sideboard and taking a passing interest in a television programme watched by Jeffrey’s childrenfifth-generation Pearses.
Despite the alterations, the original dimensions of the homestead can still be traced, its modest rooms enclosed by weighty 380 mm limestone walls. In Richard’s childhood, Trewarlet was a plain home, austere even, with low-silled windows and a scatter of shrubs out front to keep the ragged grass at bay.
It was here, among family, that Richard’s inventiveness first began to blossom. He made a needle-threader for his mother, a zoetrope for his sisters, and one day arrived at school with something he had cobbled together from a cotton reel, a nailed board, a piece of string, and the top of a herring tin cut and twisted into a propeller. He wound the string around the reel, tugged it and the thing shot off the nail and was airborne. Richard had built a copy of the earliest airscrew known, a mechanical toy first pictured in the pages of a 14th-century Flemish manuscript.
Far from being a star performer at school, the boy had just one strong suit: engineering. Unhappily, when school ended his father refused to let him hone his talent by studying at University College in Christchurch. Digory had invested in his oldest son Tom’s medical degree. Richard and his other brothers would have to work the land.
In 1898, at the age of 21, Richard took up the 40 ha on Main Waitohi Road that he was to farm fitfully for 13 years. He lived on at Trewarlet, though, converting his new property’s thatched cottage into a workshop and making himself a lathe, then a forge and bellows, from cast-offs found at the tip. There, in the workshop behind the screen of an overgrown gorse hedge, he worked into the night on his inventions and began his slow slide into seclusion.
The first fruit of that solitary toil was patent 14507, gazetted in late 1902, for a new type of bicycle. The Temuka Leader of May 21, 1903, was sufficiently impressed to find room in its pages for a mention when Richard rode to town on sale day that month. The Leader was particularly taken with the cycle’s novel driving gear. “In place of the sprocket wheel the machine is fitted with cranks about half as long again as those of the ordinary bicycle, and these go up and down in arcs instead of revolving in cycles,” the paper told its readers. “It is claimed for the invention that it makes riding easier as there is no waste of energy, the rider being able to keep a steady strain on the machine the whole time.”
The paper went on to discuss the bicycle’s unusual gearing system—adjusted by means of a pin—but not its back-wheel rim brake or its automatically inflating tyres. Through the clotted prose of a patent attorney, Pearse explained how the tyre pumps worked: “The eccentric disc [mounted on each wheel axle] is furnished with a projection or knob that engages with a stop that is actuated by the rider. By these means the eccentric is caused to remain stationary, and the pump is thereby actuated through suitable connections as it evolves with the wheel around the eccentric disc. When desired by the operator the eccentric may be released and it will then revolve with the wheel and the pump cease working.”
In an age of rough roads, when cars were rare and bicycle tyres of poor quality, Pearse’s bicycle offered genuine advances. That impractical Victorian icon, the penny-farthing, had been superseded by the safety bicycle only 16 years earlier, and pneumatic tyres had appeared two years after that. Yet the new machine was not put into production and Pearse’s bamboo prototype disappeared.
Perhaps its potential was overtaken by the inventor’s consuming fascination with flight. It is hard now to grasp the magnitude of what Pearse was about to do. Working in an isolated horse-and-gig farming community, without financial backing or technical training, and in the face of ridicule and indifference, he set out—possibly as early as 1899—to build a piloted machine that could claw its way aloft through the insubstantial air.
The earliest recorded flight in New Zealand had taken place only 10 years earlier, and that was by hot-air balloon. No one else would even attempt to build a heavier-than-air machine in the country until 1907, four years after the Wrights.
For Pearse it would prove to be a lonely endeavour.
“I don’t think his parents were interested in what he was doing,” Jeffrey Pearse’s father, Richard, nephew of the inventor, told me at Trewarlet. “They thought flight was out of his reach. He didn’t get any encouragement.” Richard, just a boy when his namesake was tinkering with flying machines, remembers his uncle as a tall, well-built man with a loud voice.
“He spoke of mechanical things. Weight-to-horsepower ratios—that was his obsession.”
As well it might have been. Unlike later pioneers such as the French aviator Louis Bleriot, first to fly the English Channel, Pearse couldn’t buy a purpose-built aero engine. When he began work at the turn of the century, most engines were massive coal burners, driving steamships at sea and hefty traction engines on land.
So he set about making from scratch an aero version of the new, though still heavy, internal combustion engines that were just then beginning to power horseless carriages. He may have read of attempts by the American Samuel Langley to construct a suitable engine for his craft, the Aerodrome, but the only expert he could turn to locally was Timaru engineer Cecil Wood—in 1895 the first person in New Zealand to build an internal combustion engine. The unstoppable Wood went on to build the country’s first motorcycle (1895) and its first car (1901).
He was invaluable to Pearse, showing him how to make spark plugs and helping design surface carburettors. It is likely that the Pleasant Point blacksmith, Billy Hayes, also lent a hand, making Pearse’s first crankshaft. Later crankshafts and some cylinder barrels were made by an engineering works in Timaru, but otherwise Pearse was on his own. He plundered metal from old tobacco tins, and fashioned his cylinders from cast-iron irrigation pipes, and made them double-acting—firing at each end of the stroke—increasing efficiency by avoiding idle strokes. It was almost certainly an idea borrowed from steam engines.
For months, nothing much seemed to happen, then one evening, sleepy Upper Waitohi was ripped apart by the sound of a dozen anvils being bashed by titans, a noise like Judgement Day reverberating across the valley. It was Pearse firing up his first home-made engine, and, inevitably, provoking the ire of local farmers. One thought the Boer War had come, another contended with frightened cattle.
But Pearse was pleased with the two-cylinder engine, a horizontally opposed aircooled radial, claiming it developed 25 horsepower and weighed a mere 57 kg. It was, he said, the lightest engine in the world for its power. It is at least true that equivalent car engines of the day were four times heavier.
He tested the engine’s pull by tethering it to a post and measuring the effect of changes to the propeller’s pitch with a spring balance. After experiments with paraffin oil he switched to benzene, which he found better for starting cold cylinders.
It is impossible, from Pearse’s meagre references to his work and from the parts that remain, to piece together the exact development of his engines. No one knows which one was used on which flight attempt. And it doesn’t really matter. They were reliable, if sometimes reluctant to start, and he was happy with them all—though he eventually replaced the 25 hp engine with a more satisfactory one of 60 hp. (The Wrights used a 32 hp engine for their history-making flight.)
There is less doubt over the actual aircraft. It consisted of a tubular steel frame on a tricycle undercarriage with pneumatic tyres and a steerable nosewheel. The pilot sat on a movable saddle under a rectangular bamboo-framed wing covered in fabric. A wooden propeller “finished with glass of a broken bottle and sandpaper,” according to Warne, was fixed directly to the engine, which was mounted forward, above the pilot, on the wing’s leading edge. Other innovations included a rear elevator (Pearse called it a “horizontal rudder”) to stop pitching, and horizontal wingtip rudders to counteract rolling.
Endless trials followed.
One Waitohi local reported seeing Pearse jogging after his machine, holding the wing’s trailing edge. Another glimpsed him steering it around a paddock, using reins attached to the controls. A third witnessed the machine dragging a heavy sack about the place.
And all the while Pearse continued to tinker with his design, rounding the wings a little and attaching a new iron-framed propeller, which had blades cut from sheep-dip drums.
He found it prudent to replace the calico behind the engine with a lightweight tin plate made from flattened golden-syrup cans. The cloth had buckled up in the propeller slipstream, and exhaust sparks threatened to set it on fire.
Then came the day that was later to arouse so much controversy. Pearse wheeled his winged machine from its shelter and down to the school crossroads, watched by a few dozen locals who had got wind that “Bamboo Dick” was up to something. He and a few helpers then tried several times to get the machine going, but no amount of revving and pushing seemed to help. Farmers began drifting back to their work, and the crowd thinned.
Late in the afternoon, Pearse mounted the saddle for one last attempt, signalling to his brother when he was ready.
“I had the pleasure of pulling the propeller for starting,” Warne later recalled. “She was a wonderful engine, and started with very little bother.”
The machine lumbered into the air with a sound “rather like a giant chaffcutter” and almost immediately started to pitch badly. The climb, said another witness, was very slow.
Warne claimed his brother flew some 400 m before veering into a gorse hedge. Others estimated the distance at 100 to 150 m. Unlike the Wrights’ flight at Kitty Hawk, no one in Waitohi wielded a camera or measured airspeed. They were, however, suitably impressed—”goggle-eyed with amazement,” in the words of Mrs Inwood, a neighbour.
Pearse (family motto Cadent, porrigo dextram, “When I am fallen, I stretch out my right arm”) had injured himself in the attempt, and was taken to Temuka cottage hospital to have his collarbone seen to. All was found to be well, and he returned home the following day.
Exasperatingly, for believers and sceptics alike, nothing now exists to pinpoint the date or offer proof of the flight. The hospital records were destroyed in a fire. And a photograph of the plane resting in the hedge, taken by a professional photographer the day after the flight, was later destroyed by flood.
Pearse’s biographer, Gordon Ogilvie, assembled evidence for his 1973 book from 37 former Waitohi residents, including 21 who claimed to have seen Pearse flying. Another 22 offered information to him and fellow researchers about Pearse’s activities at Waitohi. But attempts by some to push back the date of the first flight beyond 1903 worry Ogilvie.
“I have become increasingly cautious of what is said,” said Ogilvie, one-time teacher at Pleasant Point, now living in Christchurch. “All the witnesses are dead.”
Ogilvie, who will use only the terms powered take-offs, flight attempts and tentative flights—”don’t ever say ‘flights’ when talking of Pearse,” he told me—comes down on March 31, 1903, as the most likely date of the Waitohi inventor’s farewell to the ground—fully eight months before Orville and Wilbur flew.
The monument fronting Pearse’s old fields opts for March 1904.
Muddying the waters are two letters Pearse later submitted for publication, in which he seems to deny his success. “Preeminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers, of America, when the history of the aeroplane is written, as they were the first to actually make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane,” he wrote in a letter to Dunedin’s Evening Star on May 10, 1915.
Most of the letter is taken up with the issue of the Wrights’ patented system of wing warping—a method of bending either wing tip in flight to prevent tipping. Pearse pointed out that he himself had solved the problem using “ailerons”—his wingtip rudders—which he patented in June 1906. Then comes the worrying sentence: “After Langley’s failure in 1903, I was still of [the] opinion that aerial navigation was possible, and I started out to solve the problem about March 1904.”
In a second letter, published in the Christchurch Star on September 15, 1928, he takes that date back to February 1904, saying that by 1906 his machine was sufficiently perfected to be patented. He argues that the Wrights gained a monopoly on world aviation because the ailerons later used by other designers were held to be variations of control by wing warping, and therefore infringed the Wrights’ patent.
Pearse claimed to have invented what he called ailerons in 1904, and to have patented them at the same time the Wrights patented wing warping. “So ailerons would have given me a monopoly in New Zealand if I had kept the patent covered, but I let it lapse in 1910 because I did not know the Great War was coming, and I did not see much prospect of selling aircraft in New Zealand.”
He went on to say that the size and slowness of his own aircraft made it uncontrollable. It would lift off at 30 kph, he recalled, an insufficient speed for the rudders to be effective, and would immediately begin to yaw. “So I never flew with my experimental ‘plane.” Pearse added, however, that, given his reliable motor, “I had successful aerial navigation within my grasp . . . But I decided to give up the struggle, as it was useless to try to compete with men who had factories at their backs.”
There is a scrupulous evenhandedness in Pearse’s words, tinged with an undisguised regret at a chance lost forever. However, the fact that Pearse dismissed his own early attempts should not be given undue weight. He didn’t think much of the Wrights’ first efforts either, and was critical of their later use of a “special catapult launching apparatus.”
For Pearse, “aerial navigation” meant nothing less than a powered take-off followed by sustained and controlled flight. His attempts in the Waitohi valley did not fulfil those criteria; they were merely powered take-offs followed by erratic descents. But, given his definition, he could well have “started out to solve the problem” of aerial navigation a year after his first flight attempt, when he set about building a bigger, more stable, craft.
As it was, the Wrights managed “aerial navigation” in the last of four flights, on December 17, 1903.
Former aviation engineer Geoff Rodliffe, cheerleader for the Pearse-asfirst-aviator team, has argued in favour of an even earlier date—March 1902—for his first take-off, but the evidence is unconvincing, and now, almost a century on from the event, proving the point looks like being a lost cause.
For the “young, eccentric farmer engineer-inventor,” as Auckland-born Michigan journalist Gordon Gapper later called Pearse, bitter disillusionment was to come with news of the Kitty Hawk flight.
Oddly, the event was most extensively reported in a US beekeepers’ journal, though Scientific American, which Pearse keenly devoured, carried accounts in early and mid 1904.
The Wrights’ achievement was for him, said Warne, “a sad awakening.”
After Kitty Hawk, Pearse turned increasingly to theory, refining his aeroplane controls and getting everything down on paper.
“I, Richard Pearse, of Upper Waitohi, Temuka, in the Colony of New Zealand,
Farmer, do hereby declare the nature of my invention . . .” he wrote in the preamble to his 1906 patent for his flying machine. They were the tones of a bequest, or the declaration of a fading dream.
Pearse sweetened his evenings at this time with the odd game of euchre or crib. He played draughts with one of the local lads, Jimmy Orr, or chess with Warne. Golf even, on occasion, and table tennis. He holidayed in Christchurch, visiting the museum and going to concerts and the theatre. And, of course, there was the Pearse orchestra. It had such a reputation in South Canterbury that the family was kept busy performing at parties, concerts and musical soirees.
Perhaps, as Ogilvie suggests, it was a desire to preserve the sound of this unique ensemble that led Pearse to experiment with recording devices in these years. One machine used a clockwork mechanism, barbed wire and guitar strings to record and play back tunes. Another, a phonograph and trumpet using wax-coated discs, could be heard 400 m away.
Neighbours were treated not just to music but to the sound of the inventor reciting a piece called “Professor Snuffles,” which, according to a sister, “had some tremendously big words, real jaw-breakers.” It is as close as the sober Pearse ever came to lightening up.
Then, in 1909, came glimpses of what Pearse had been up to since his first hair‑raising attempts at flight a few years earlier. In November, the Temuka Leader reported that he was about ready to trial his “airship,” made of steel-jointed bamboo and calico and powered by a 24 hp motor.
Thirty years after his first aviation experiments, Pearse was seized with the idea of a “private plane for the million[s].” Designed for vertical take-off and landing, his Utility Plane would open the skies to everyone. By the time his patent was lodged in 1943, however, many of the machine’s technical innovations had become outdated.
The brief notice was picked up by several other provincial papers, and shortly afterwards an Otago Witness reporter beat a path to the inventor’s workshop door, where he found the aircraft on which Pearse had “toiled for five long years.” Its description was so unlike the earlier machine that it must have been something entirely new.
Not wanting to be outdone, the Temuka Leader reporter now also paid a visit, finding the machine to be “nothing at all like what we expected . . . there was nothing to be seen but the skeleton framework and that looked much like an enormous spider’s web, with the engine taking the place of the spider in the centre of it.” That four-cylinder opposed engine, now at Auckland’s Museum of Transport, Technology and Social History, was proving underpowered, however, and Pearse told the reporter he intended developing another. He also claimed to have made several short hops in the plane.
This sudden interest in Pearse—the only attention in relation to aviation he was ever to get from the press—may have been a byproduct of the great airship scare of 1909, when for some six weeks beginning in mid-July, astounded witnesses in Dunedin, Geraldine, Temuka, Timaru and elsewhere reported strange aerial happenings (see “Crowded Skies,” New Zealand Geographic, April 1997). Having indulged in flights of fancy during the flap, provincial reporters with time on their hands may have followed any and every subsequent “airship” lead.
Not that the attention did Pearse any good. The Temuka Leader reporter in particular seemed to know little about flight, or about Pearse’s previous attempts, and filed a confusing story.
There was little excuse for such ignorance. By this time there had been well over 70 powered take-offs in the world, Bleriot had in July crossed the English Channel—his overheating engine cooled by a fortuitous shower—and the United States government had awarded the Wrights $30,000 for breaking the 40 mph (64 kph) barrier.
The accumulation of those successes, and the rapidity of the advances, must have bewildered Pearse. It is likely he realised by now that, having got off the ground in a shaky fashion in 1903, and then having worked for five years on something bigger and more stable, he had come to the end of what could be achieved.
It was useless to try to compete with men who had factories at their backs.
The young South Canterbury farmer of modest means—withdrawn, isolated, working with cheap materials and rubbish dump pickings, and limited to an airstrip of rough road or, when the crops had been harvested, uneven field—could have little impact.
I decided to give up the struggle.
Late in 1910 Pearse fell seriously ill with typhoid—the disease that was to kill Wilbur Wright two years later. Unlike the American, Pearse recovered. When he felt strong enough, he went south to Dunedin for a holiday, and on his return announced he was leaving Waitohi. On impulse, he had bought a 75 ha farm outside Milton, a sheep and dairying town 55 km south-west of Dunedin.
He took a wagonload of things with him to the new Loudens Gully property: reference books, lathe, phonograph, tenths racket, golf clubs, bicycle. A few tools. His aeroplane. Earlier engines and bits of aeroplane he left at his Waitohi workshop.
As it turned out, Milton was to be an earthbound interlude. The land was less suited than Waitohi for launching or landing aircraft, and Pearse had left behind the more satisfactory workshop. Perhaps Waitohi had just become too claustrophobic, too resonant with failure and hemmed about with parental rebuke. Loudens Gully may have been poor flying country, but it was good for the spirit.
Pearse may have tried once or twice to get airborne, but soon dismantled his plane and locked it away. Other projects vied for his attention. He bought a second bicycle and motorised it with the cylinder from an aero engine, using a greenhide belt to drive the rear wheel. The vertical exhaust pipe rose above his head and without muffler the four-stroke engine made the indescribable din that was his signature tune. He was sometimes seen on the country roads in the evenings, coat flapping, sparks spouting wildly from the high exhaust.
The powercycle was useful for getting to the reading room of the Milton Athenaeum, where Pearse could often be seen on a Saturday evening lost in a book. It was also handy for getting to tennis, which he continued to play with relish, and to club dances.
Pearse arrived at one knees-up wearing hobnail boots, but danced readily enough. The women liked this farmer with no gift for small talk, but early on seem to have classed him as a career bachelor.
He also threw himself into golf, at one competition winning a pipe—he didn’t smoke—for his putting. Toward farmwork, however, Pearse continued to be indifferent. He retained his Waitohi habits, hiring others to plough the lower fields, sow turnips or harvest oats. As for the sheep, Loudens Gully was a sentence of death. The pastures were overstocked and the animals underfed. Lambs rarely survived.
“He just didn’t know any better,” said one local. “He should never have touched animals.”
To the detriment of his farm stock, Pearse’s attention was easily diverted by engineering projects that seemed to spring up about the farm unbidden. There was the device with angled discs that he contrived for making turnip ridges, and the fertiliser applicator with its steel worm. Then there was Pearse’s crowning folly, an automatic potato planter with mechanical arms fixed to a plough. These arms were each induced, through an ingenious series of levers, sprockets, wires and plungers, to lower into a tray of potatoes as the plough went along, spike one, then swing out and knock it free.
It is hard to think of a more complicated way of putting a vegetable in the ground, though the attraction of the challenge to Pearse is obvious. The labour of untold workshop days to make, it lasted under an hour out in the world. Pearse did a few circuits of a paddock under the scrutiny of a neighbour, and the mighty contraption seized up. He abandoned it.
More successful was a motorised plough he created using a modified oat cutter and the 16-cylinder engine taken from his forlorn aircraft. The engine had grunt enough to carry Pearse and a neighbour up a 13 m ridge, but he had skimped on materials and everything else was too flimsy. He was soon forced to replace a bicycle guide wheel with a more solid iron cutting blade. But when the shaft broke on a steep piece of ground, the machine’s fate was sealed. Pearse removed the engine and left everything else on the hillside to rust. He lacked the money to persevere.
As it was, the shadow of war soon fell on Loudens Gully and put an end to all his activities. On May 10, 1917, the Bruce Herald announced that his name had been drawn for active service in Europe. Pearse pleaded for an exemption, explaining that there was no one to look after the farm while he was away—his inventions, he said, had been aimed at freeing him from the necessity of contracted labour.
The plea fell on deaf ears. So he sold off his stock, locked the place up and in August left for camp. No one farewelled him. It was a sad close to what were probably the most tranquil years of his life.
Private Pearse was overseas for a year, though recurring illness, possibly stemming from the earlier typhoid, left him unfit to fight. He arrived back at Milton in November 1918, aged 40, not particularly fit, his hair greying, and with few prospects. No one was at the station to meet him, and when he reached the farm he found his house and workshop had been broken into and many of his tools taken.
Pearse tried to settle back into his old farm routine, but he was weary of the land. Wool prices were plummeting, and thistle and gorse had even more of a stranglehold on the property than when he had first bought it. A year after returning, he sold up and, without a word to anyone, quit Milton for good.
He went to Christchurch, where he bought a 0.1 ha section to the east of the city at Wainoni, then a sparsely peopled stretch of dunes covered in lupin and broom. On it he built a house, carting the timber—mostly secondhand—to the site in typical fashion on his bicycle. He tenanted the house, and within four years had built two more in nearby Woolston. These were better than the first, but still no works of art. The rooms were at best approximately square—Pearse used neither ruler nor spirit level—and the yards were without paths or garden of any sort.
Pioneer aviator George Bolt rescued Pearse and his relics from almost certain oblivion. This four-cylinder engine and propeller, salvaged from a rubbish dump in 1958, were initially thought to be Pearse’s first, but in 1971 another search unearthed the twocylinder engine described in his 1906 patent application.
He lived in the Dampier Street house, where he became even more reclusive, accepting an occasional cup of tea from neighbours and returning the empty cup to their lawn, but otherwise shunning almost all social contact. And he neglected himself, subsisting largely on bread and cheese, and wearing a hotchpotch of clothing—long trousers tied at the ankles, shoes without socks and, in bad weather, a coat secured at the throat with a nail. It couldn’t last, and in January 1927 he was hospitalised for three weeks, suffering from malnourishment and fatigue.
The following year he shifted back to the second house at Wildberry Street, where he lived for 23 years, until that ominous knock on the door on the last day of June, 1951, and the journey that ended at Sunnyside.
Sad to report, he became even more isolated and obsessed by thrift in the Wildberry years, mixing together cheap house paint, which rain eventually washed off the weatherboards, chastising a tenant for buying a newspaper when one could be had at the library for nothing, and refusing to get his teeth seen to.
Yet, now and then, a touching thoughtfulness showed, as when during the Depression he dropped the rent for tenants unasked every time their wages were cut. “Whatever the result of his labours,” declared one, “I will always regard him as a gentleman and a credit to New Zealand.”
The Wildberry Street house no longer remembers Pearse. On its neat lawn, bordered with pinks, gladioli and nasturtiums, stands a child’s swing. The garage, with its secretive high fence, has made way for a subdivision. At one boundary is a Montessori preschool.
After his death at Sunnyside in July 1953, an auction firm was instructed to sell Pearse’s shedful of junk and, if necessary, dump the “aeroplane contraption.” This was the “improvised autogyro” first sighted two years earlier by the Public Trust’s property inspector.
Thankfully, another idea occurred to the thrift-conscious auctioneer, and Richard Pearse was rescued from certain oblivion. The auctioneer wondered whether the local aeroclub might be interested in a piece of machinery “more like a windmill than an aeroplane” in a shed out at Woolston.
One member was, so Pearse’s frail device was wired up to keep it together and carted to the club at Harewood. There it sat in the back of a hangar for two years until March 1956, when an agent of history in the form of George Bolt turned up following a tip-off in Auckland.
Bolt, Tasman Empire Airways’ former chief engineer and a student of ancient flight, had himself been one of the country’s pioneering aviators, setting several distance and altitude records and carrying the country’s first airmail (see “Wings of Desire,” New Zealand Geographic, October 1998).
His curiosity was instantly aroused by the odd relic, and he had it airlifted to Auckland, where it now resides in company with Pearse’s powercycle and other products of the inventor’s restless imagination in the Museum of Transport, Technology and Social History.
Encouraged by Pearse’s surviving sisters, who had read of the find in a newspaper, the indefatigable Bolt set out on his trail, later followed by Ogilvie and others. There were bits and pieces of the first aircraft in a rubbish tip at Waitohi, and any number of elderly witnesses to interview. The powercycle was tracked down in Taitapu, south of Christchurch, and a handful of papers were to hand.
The formidable English aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith was unmoved by claims for Pearse predating the Wrights, however, and when Pearse’s own letters to the press were found, seemingly, to assert that he didn’t start flight experiments until early 1904, Bolt lost heart.
This was a pity, as it seemed to suggest that Pearse was only of interest if he could be shown to have flown earlier than the Wrights. Yet what Bolt discovered about the last aircraft was truly astounding. Built of steel tubing and wood, it was a high-wing monoplane with a span of 10.5 m and a tail that could fold back over the body for storage. Its wing fabric was calico, hand-stitched to the frame and treated with silver dope. Most unusually, the water-cooled engine pivoted, and with the pull of a lever from inside the cockpit could be swung up from its normal position some 80 degrees. The aircraft had obviously been designed to lift off and land vertically.
This was confirmed by the propeller, a curious arrangement of two blades superimposed over a ring of fans, creating what was in effect a hybrid propeller-rotor. A small tail rotor, fitted to counteract the torque, was driven from the engine via a steel rod connected with universal joints. Both main and tail rotors were variable-pitch, and the engine itself could, with a few adjustments, be run as either a two-for four-stroke. Carbon deposits showed the engine had done a great deal of experimental running, and Pearse seems to have decided that it worked most effectively as a two-stroke.
All up, the machine as it stands today is itself an appropriate monument to the man. Crudely finished and looking like an enormous baroque moth, it is more a sculptural sketch of his philosophy of aviation than a finished product. As such, it is a curious mix of the prophetic and the outmoded. He could not get anyone to fly it, not even experienced aviators (perhaps that should read “especially” not experienced aviators). Yet at least one person saw the plane in a trial, tethered and with the engine running, its front wheels 30 cm off the ground. The engine, which more than once attracted the attention of the local council, at least had muscle.
It is likely that Pearse first began pencilling the design of what he was to call his Utility Plane in the late 1920s, but he could not have begun making it until 1932, when the garage at Wildberry Street was built. At first, he wasn’t even going to roof the garage, which backed onto an earth-floored workshop. The machine was to take off vertically, after all. But he thought better of this, perhaps when the rains came.
Pearse had great hopes for his Utility Plane, which was to be the Model-T of the airways—compact enough, when folded, to fit in a suburban garage. The plane was to “solve the problem of the private plane for the million,” he wrote in his patent specification, by being able to take off and land “vertically on rough ground or limited areas.” The spectre of his Waitohi experience lurks behind the words.
By now in his 60s, Pearse soldiered on, trying to get legal protection for his machine. Between 1943 and 1950 he wrote 24 letters to the patent office in Wellington and 19 to Canberra, all in his big, round hand. He heroically battled official complaints about the size of the paper he used, his method of drawing, the width of margins, the colour of the ink he used. Finally, in June 1947, his patent was approved.
It was worthless.
In his eagerness to cover everything, Pearse had bundled all the Utility Plane’s various innovations together in one patent. Anyone with a mind to copy his ideas only had to leave out a minor detail to avoid infringement. As it was, no one bothered. In the years Pearse had spent hunched over his machine behind closed garage doors, progress had marched past Wildberry Street. Helicopters were a thing of fact and the jet engine had been developed. He wrote to leading aircraft companies, explaining his design. None was interested. Fifty years of devotion to flight had reaped . . . nothing.
Pearse had lived and worked for the most part in the remote valleys of a small country, seas away from the world’s technology centres and outside the humming circles of scientific debate. He had no impact whatsoever on the development of aviation.
And yet, in some ways Pearse led the pack. He was the first aviator in the British Empire to make a powered take-off and, if Ogilvie’s March 1903 date is right, the fifth to do so in the world. His Waitohi plane was far ahead of its time.
In years to come, the world’s aircraft would in almost every particular mirror its design in preference to that of the Wrights. Single wing as opposed to biplane, wheels in preference to skids, propeller at the front, not the back, movable wing panels, not wing warping. The Wrights got the recognition, Pearse the legacy.
“There seemed to be an element of Greek tragedy in the man. Even the gods were against him,” says Ogilvie. “He was an inventive phenomenon in a small community where farming was everything. If you couldn’t farm, you were an idiot. And yet he chose to do the unthinkable—to fly.”
Now a descendant, Evan Gardiner, talks of importing a new aircraft into the country. A high-tech microlight, the Ban-Bi, built of space-age materials and with wings stressed to plus and minus 12 Gs-12 times the pull of gravity. It is so new that he will have to test-fly it to get type approval from the Civil Aviation Authority.
Where will he test it?
Just down the road, at Timaru’s Richard Pearse Airport.