This is a classic tale of ‘what if?’. What if Bill Frost had proved to the world, in 1895/96, that he had indeed actually carried out the first manned flight, seven years before the Wright Brothers? The title of this book immediately captures the imagination and we are eager to find out what proof there is to substantiate such a grandiose claim.
Everyone knows that the first men to fly were the Americans, the Wright Brothers, who achieved their first recorded manned flight at Kittyhawk, USA, in 1903 or do we? At the very least, we know that they did carry out a manned flight. The question is, were they the first? The writer quite rightly calls it a rewriting of history if Frost could be proven to be the first to carry out a manned flight. Although I can hardly see that the Americans would accept this, ironically it was an American, Jeff Bellingham of Minnesota, who provided much useful ‘evidence’, including a copy of the plans for Frost’s ‘flying machine’. (That is the part I find the most compelling the plans still exist!)
The book attempts to look at all the evidence and draws on many sources. Much of the evidence is based on stories passed down through local word of mouth. It is difficult to show continuity of evidence now, as there are few left alive who actually knew Frost, or indeed anyone who actually witnessed his alleged first flight. Much is made of newspaper reports many years after the events, but nevertheless referring to Frost, quite clearly, as the man who first flew. A newspaper report in 1932 actually relates a tale of how Frost nearly took off, whilst being caught in a gust of wind carrying a large plank. And so the seeds of aviation were born.
Plans for an initial flight were 15 years in the making, culminating in a successful patent application. The Tenby and County News of 9 October 1895 reported that ‘Mr William Frost, Saundersfoot, has obtained provisional protection for a new flying machine, invented by him, and is supplying designs to secure a patent.’ There are even stories about various countries wishing to buy his patent (including Germany). The evidence, such as it is, becomes more blurred when there are conflicting dates and simply no tangible evidence of the machine having been built. Even after the machine was wrecked in a storm, nothing exists of the wreck.
Another mystery is why there were no witnesses or photographs of such a momentous occasion? One view is that it was a non-event and that any such claims of flight would be viewed as just another crank idea. However, the notion that Frost tested his flying machine in anticipation of getting a patent are not so removed from reality, and if that were the case, then there would not have been any publicity.
One of the chapters runs through the myths of flight, including references to Da Vinci and Icarus and Daedulus. Milton was even reported to have said that Oliver of Malmsbury made a flight with feathers and wings attached to his hands and feet in the 16th Century. But then this information simply emphasises the fact that there is no evidence to show that any of these events really happened.
On examination of photographs and copies of newspapers within the book (120 pages, 3 newspaper articles, 1932, 1935 and 1998, and 30 photos) there is nothing which proves the event took place beyond any doubt, but there is a rather bizarre Western Mail representation of how the machine ‘might have looked’. In the author’s words, ‘even when considering “evidence” as passed down, there may well be 10 differing stories about an event, but collectively they indicate that an event did happen.’ The author was actually in a unique position in that he had spoken to Frost, and heard the story from the man himself. In addition to this, there were local people who had ‘never, never, never’ heard of anyone who refuted the tale of the flight.
I will leave the reader to look at the rest of the evidence, but one of the most telling, and indeed poignant moments in this book, concerns an eyewitness, who said that he was talking to Bill Frost during the First World War as ‘airships’ came overhead, and ‘the poor old man’ jumped up and pointing said, ‘I said they could do it. Look, look, I said they could do it.’
The author’s conclusion is really contained in the final sentence of the narrative ‘And fly he [Frost] most certainly did.’ What is my own conclusion? Based on my reading of this book, I also believe he flew. But you must buy the book and make up your own mind!
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.