Preston Watson
Collection of Paul Dunlop, 8-23-04
     This picture was taken after Watson's first aeroplane was modified as a glider by the Dundee Model Aero Club in1910. It had refused to leave the ground under power in Watson's hands. The man, I suspect, is a member of the Dundee Model Aero Club.
Identification by Grant Newman, 5-30-05

via email from Grant Newman, 5-30-05
Hi Ralph,
     The sites your page links to continue the myth that he flew in 1903, but this has already been discredited by aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith. In his book, The Aeroplane, its origins and history, he states that the claimant, Preston's brother James, admitted that the aircraft Watson flew in 1903 was a glider. This also appears in the December 1955 issue of the magazine Aeronautics. James wrote and submitted that article himself. He was the origin of the "Powered Flight Before the Wrights" myth in 1953.
     The actual date of Watson's first powered flight has not been established, but evidence shows that he could not have made it earlier than 1910, the construction date of his second aeroplane based on its engine type, a 30 hp Humber - first produced that year. The story of him acquiring an engine from Santos-Dumont could not have taken place earlier than 1909, since the engine fitted to his first aircraft was a 1909 - 1910 Dutheil Chalmers four cylinder 20 hp engine. The Curator of Aviation and the French Musee de L'Air at Le Bourget in Paris verified this from photographs of the engine fitted to his first aircraft.
     As far as what can be verified, Preston Watson built three aeroplanes, in 1909, 1910 and the last in 1913, of which only the last two got airborne under their own power. The earliest pictorial evidence showing one of his aircraft in flight are two grainy images in the May 15 1914 issue of Flight magazine. These show his second machine in flight at Errol in Perthshire in 1912. There is no substantial evidence to support the claim Watson flew anything in 1903, the eyewitness accounts cannot be relied on for accuracy or consistency since they were made at least fifty years after 1903. He was only 22 years old at the time, and never made such a claim himself. There is a three page article in Flight magazine that he wrote about his flying experiments.
     I hope these facts help give you a little more info on Preston Watson, there is much untruth out there, and sorting it out can be problematic.
Grant Newman
An amateur researcher

     If you search for "Preston Watson +aviation" using Google, (3-17-04), you will find about 31 links. Among the most helpful are the following:
Did He Fly Before The Wrights?
by J.F. Riley
     This article, which is found on the Homepage of Chris Brady, London, England, offers a very complete and interesting biography of Preston. Evidence is presented which serves to confirm the claim that he flew before the Wrights. Included is a photograph of his plane and a plan which shows how he used a catapult to launch his glider. To access the site, click on the title above.
     On the Homepage, you will find a link to the website of Richard Pearse of New Zealand. From the evidence, it appears that he also flew before the Wrights. You can access a page for him on my website by clicking on:
Richard Pearse

Those magnificent Scots and their flying machines
by Gordon Casely "
     This article, which is found on the Leopard, the Magazine for North-East Scotland, offers a very complete and interesting biography of Preston. Included is a photograph of his plane . To access the site, click on the title above.
     On the Homepage, you will find a link to the website of Richard Pearse of New Zealand. From the evidence, it appears that he also flew before the Wrights. You can access a page for him on my website by clicking on:
Richard Pearse


How unsung hero Preston Watson beat the famous Wright
brothers into the skies by five months

Sep 4 2003
by Lisa Adams
     "HE rubbed his eyes in bewilderment, blinked twice and looked again. For Harry Band, a Scots soldier on leave, it was almost impossible to take in what was happening right there in front of him.
     Soaring across the blue sky high above the River Tay was a strange contraption that touched down for a second and then hopped back in to the air again."

     The excerpt above from the article introduces the story of Preston Watson and his flight in a powered aeroplane some months before the flight of the Wrights. The author, writing for the Daily Record, tells the whole fascinating story of his trials and triumphs. The eyewitness, Harry Band, was still alive in 1955 and recounted his observations of the flight and confirmed that it had been in mid 1909. To read the whole fascinating story, you can access the site by clicking on the title above.
       Most of the other links only offer a statement to the effect that he was among the first to achieve powered flight.  

Preston Watson died in 1915.
Personal communication from Grant Newman, 5-30-05
Editor's Note:
If you have any more information on this Early Flier,
please contact me.
E-mail to Ralph Cooper

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==================== The First "Flying Scot" Did He Fly Before The Wrights? By J. F. Riley Preston Watson was a pioneer of flight in the early years of the century. This article gives some details of his achievements, and at the head of the page is a picture of the second aeroplane he built, which made use of a method of control he invented. EVERY boy who is interested in aeronautics 'knows' that the first recognised flight of a heavier than air machine took place on 17th December, 1903, when the Wright brothers flew their powered glider over the sands at Kitty Hawk Bay in the United States of America. Yet not one in a million has heard of Preston Watson [*], a Scotsman, who came very near to sharing the achievement of Orville and Wilbur Wright. [*] Nor of Richard Pearse of New Zealand - CJB. Preston Watson was born in 1880 and at an early age declared that one day men would fly like birds. Preston and, his brother, James, were the sons of a Dundee merchant, and though Preston later became a fine athlete he never lost his interest in flight. Drawing on his observations on the flight of birds, he argued that a gliding bird turns in the air by dipping one wing by means of its muscles and allowing the opposite wing to lift. All Preston's machines embodied this basic idea. A rigid monoplane was fitted with a second, smaller upper plane - sometimes called a "parasol plane" - which could be tilted or rocked independently to either side by the pilot and so cause the machine to bank to right or left. This structurally sound method of control was much simpler than that of the Wrights, who twisted, or warped, the wings on their plane, and later it earned for Watson a French award for improved stability in an aircraft. With his method, he was able to dispense with a movable rudder to correct side-slip. The tail of the plane was fashioned like a box kite, and this also helped to support the machine in the air. Preston Watson began his experiments by building a full scale glider on the lines described above, and he attempted to fly it, first near Dundee, and later on the lonely banks of the river Tay near Errol, now appropriately enough the site of an R.A.F. aerodrome. A very interesting point was that since he was attempting gliding flight from level ground, Watson had to provide some form of assisted take-off, and his device must have been the first to be used for this purpose. His glider sat in a wooden cradle or on skids, which could slide freely on planks lubricated with lard or graphite. A rope hooked under the glider led forward to a pulley, then back under the plane, round another pulley and finally up and over the branch of a tall tree. On the end of this rope hung two 56 lb. weights and an anvil borrowed from a nearby smithy. On releasing a catch under his seat the pilot caused the weights to fall, and so propelled his machine for a short distance into the air. There are those still living who remember the crash of the falling weights as Preston Watson made his first hops around the year 1903! Watson's next difficulty was that which confronted every would-be aeroplane builder of the day - to obtain an engine light enough yet powerful enough to drive his plane. And here lies the mystery of the date on which it can be said with certainty that Preston Watson first flew. The Wrights, it will be recalled, found it necessary to design and build their own motor to achieve this end. The photograph of their first flight still exists. Now here is what is known of Preston Watson's efforts to apply power to his glider. We know that in 1906 he bought a 10-14 h.p. Duthill-Chalmers air cooled petrol engine from Santos Dumont, the French pioneer of the dirigible balloon. But did he achieve true flight before that date? Among those who believe that he did is Mr. Kerr B. Sturrock of Dundee, who vividly recalls making well over a dozen wooden propellers for Mr. Watson. These were all made before Mr. Sturrock married, that is before September, 1905. Mr. Sturrock believes that the propellers were fitted to a small de Dion motor, and that later two such motors were coupled together on the plane. The first propellers were of oak or yellow pine. They were soon fractured, and then Mr. Sturrock tried shaping them from laminated sheets of 5/8in. Australian walnut, each sheet being laid with its grain at a different angle from that of the one before it. This was so successful that it remained the method of choice for propellers generally until wood was replaced by the special alloys that became available during the first world war. Mr. Sturrock's information does not tell us exactly when Mr. Watson first flew, even for so short a time as the Wrights in their early flights. But there is also evidence from agricultural workers who are still living [in 1957 - CJB] that they heard and saw Mr. Watson's first plane making short flights over the fields near Errol in the years 1903-4. These were obtained with the aid of a single tractor type propeller and the catapult take-off I have already described. If this evidence can be relied upon in regard to dates, it is clear that Watson had flown about the time of the Wright's first powered flight, if not before. Encouraged by the success of his early experiments, and by the news from France and America that others, too, were at last beginning to lift their machines into the air, Mr. Watson built two further planes, similar to his original design but with improvements. His second had a wheeled undercarriage and was powered with a three-cylinder 30 h.p. Humber engine. In his third plane a 60/70 h.p. Anzani engine was used. These planes were often seen in flight in the years immediately before the first world war. When this broke out Watson, now 34 years of age, volunteered for service with the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service, and it was said of him by his instructor that he never had a better pupil. Barely two months after obtaining his commission he lost his life when the service plane that he was piloting exploded in mid-air. That Watson deserves to be recognised as a pioneer is certain, and whatever may have been the exact date of his first flight, he was the first "Flying Scot." The Meccano Magazine - Vol. XLII No. 6 - June 1957, pps. 284-5 Top Email: Chris Brady No. of visitors since 20-10-99: [ 91 ] Site last modified: June 11, 2002 Chris Brady Top <=Back -->