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Welcome to the Watson Scrap Book page. Here you will find pertinent information about various items relating to Preston Watson and pioneering aviation. Letters, articles and newspaper clippings will be posted to enable a better understanding of Preston Watson and what he achieved.


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Prominent aviation author reviews The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson, by Alistair W. Blair and Alistair Smith.


For those who have researched aviation to any degree will be familiar with Philip Jarrett's work. In Issue No.17 of The Aviation Historian magazine, Philip has some less than complimentary comments to make about this publication.


With Philip's permission, here is the full review: 


"Just when we thought that the claims regarding alleged powered flights by Preston Watson of Dundee in 1903 had been laid to rest, this small volume regurgitates all the old worn out arguments. Unfortunately it is so full of errors regarding the work of Watson and other pioneers that it is grossly misleading. as far as Watson is concerned, the authors give prominence to the facts, opinions and reports, which favour their hero, much of which is extremely unreliable and invalid belated testimony.


"It is very wrong to "invite readers to arrive at their own conclusions" after presenting an extremely biased and misleading case. Where is the evidence that "Watson and the Wrights may have been in touch with each other" (p136)? The Wrights meticulously kept all their correspondence, but the authors have found none. There is only a very vague second hand rumour from the 1940s that Orville spoke of Watson (p29).


"It is certainly wrong to state as fact that "it is known, for instance that at some point he was in correspondence with the Wright Brothers." Yet, on page 103 they again assert the link, stating: "Watson was known to the Wright Brothers, suggesting he had been in correspondence with them, but at what date and on what subject is not known." - an outrageous leap of assumption.


The authors are clearly out of touch with current understanding of other pioneers' achievements. The accounts of the work of "Cody" (actually "Cowdery", not "Chowdery" as the authors have it), Roe and Mozhaissky are sadly awry. Nor are they very well informed with regards to precedents.  The first control column to operate rudder and elevators in the manner now accepted was incorporated by Penaud in his prophetic 1876 design for a full size aeroplane. That was the first "Joystick". They also go to some lengths on the origins of laminated propellers, but seem unaware that those on the Wright's 1903 Flyer were laminated.


"The postscript overflows with unjustified assumption and unfounded claims. For example, Watson's rocking wing was totally different from the fixed parasol wing, apart from the fact that they both employed pendulum stability. Watson might have been the first to conceive the rocking wing system , but there is no evidence that anyone else was inspired or influenced by him to take it up. Similar systems were subsequently adopted by Spratt in the USA with his "control-wing", and much later still by the hang glider fraternity, but there is nothing to suggest that Watson's work inspired either of these developments.


"Nonetheless it is said that Watson's rocking wing system "must have enlightened and informed the field of aviation", but where is the evidence? There is none. To say that wing warping "certainly waned after Watson's invention" is simply silly. There is nothing to show that Watsons system had any influence on the way things developed. This is not "a matter of opinion"; it is a matter of fact.


"The authors' assertions that Watson made "lasting contributions" and deserves "a more prominent place" in aviation's early history is nonsense. He was just one of a great many who pursued their own notions with little or no effect on anyone else. That is why his name does not appear in the authoritative histories, something that seems to baffle the authors.




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In a piece with two revelations of interest to us, the year of construction of Watson's first aeroplane is confirmed, and Watson was hoping to enter the Lanark Airshow held in August that year - only the second international flying meet in the United Kingdom by that time.


Within the first couple of paragraphs is the following statement regarding Watson's No.2 aeroplane, which we read flew for the first time in August 1910, regarding its completion date, mid July 1910 and Watson's plans to enter it at the Lanark Airshow:


"Dundee will be represented at the forthcoming aviation meeting at Lanark. An enthusiastic airman, Mr Preston A. Watson, The Retreat, Dundee will compete with an aeroplane which is being built in the city and the construction of which new ideas have been introduced. The Tay Motor Boat and Engine Company have been entrusted with the building of the airship [sic]. This is the second aeroplane which has been built by this firm for Mr Watson.  


The first was finished about a year ago and has given entire satisfaction after a protracted series of trials in Perthshire.


The second vessel, now nearing completion, is designed on a larger and more powerful scale and in it will be seen the outcome of months of experimenting and exhaustive calculations."


This piece confirms that I was right in my estimation of the completion date of his first aeroplane - 1909, which puts things into perspective. The rest of the article is worth including here since it gives a description of his second aeroplane and a simple overview of the rocking wing concept.


"Mr Watson's airship is neither a monoplane nor a biplane. It is a compromise between both. It is designed on the 'bird' plan, with two wide out stretched wings from the centre where the motor is placed, and above is a plane of smaller dimensions than the wings. By this plane the inventor will steer his vessel in flight through the air.


At the back of the machine is a boxplane for raising and lowering the ship. The frame work is of bamboo and light wood, while the wings are of canvas. When preparing to rise, wheels and runners give the necessary motion that the aviator requires to create flight. The motor engine, which is of 30 hp propels the screw-tractor that drives the machine on its course.


In accordance with the rules of the Lanark Aviation committee, the machine is of British materials and workmanship throughout. When completed the machine will probably be conveyed to Forgandenny, where trials will take place."


Regarding Watson's first aeroplane, since we know that its first trials began in November 1909 at Forgandenny, reference the 2 November issue of The Aero, see the Aviation History page of this site for text from this article, its completion date can be estimated as being around October 1909 and that it was built by the Tay Motor Boat and Engine Company. This also denounces any suggestion that it was built and flown any earlier - of which there is much!


The text above nicely describes Watson's No.2, specifying that it was fitted with wheels and was powered by a 30 hp engine, of which Watson's No.1 was not. The most significant part regarding the No.2 is that it had to be of all-British manufacture, which makes the selection of a British engine, the three cylinder 30 hp Humber natural.


My guess is that the machine was built specifically with display at the Lanark air meeting in mind, as well as to fulfil Watson's desire to continue research into the rocking wing concept of control, especially since his first aeroplane did not fly. It's sad that Watson did not get to fly at Lanark, as in a later article in the Dundee Courier of 29 July 1910 states that during its first engine runs, its propeller disintegrated.


I will be making alterations to this site and the Wikipedia page on Watson to incorporate information from these newspaper columns.





Watson's No.2 at Errol awaiting its first flight trials in August 1910. When Watson began testing the aircraft, he must have felt a little cheated that he did not get to fly the machine at the Lanark Airshow, taking place by the time he had the machine moved to its testing site from Dundee.


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On the Preston Watson Wikipedia page, which is based on the text on this site is a correction to the entry about Watson's second aeroplane, stating that it first flew in August 1910.


The Wikipedia entry reads "First flown in August 1910", with a link to the heading above, which alludes to Watson making his first flight in his second aeroplane in the first half of August 1910. This is a rather stunning piece of information and is concrete evidence as to when Watson flew his No.2, placing his achievement into perspective and putting him firmly among the first Britons to have made a powered flight in an indigenous aeroplane. I have made alterations to entries on various pages regarding the No.2's first flight.


Unfortunately I do not have a copy of the clipping from which this wee gem comes from, therefore I cannot comment further on the article. I am hoping it provides further information on what was essentially Watson's first powered flight in one of his own aircraft, that is, unless there are earlier such headlines hidden within the archive of the Dundee Courier. Aside from the alteration previously mentioned, the Wiki Preston Watson page is also now linked from an entry on James Manson (see below on this page), although there is no information provided on him and clicking on his name links directly to the Watson page.


I would however like the anonymous individual who altered the Wiki entry to contact me... If it isn't too much trouble...


Sere here for the Wikipedia entry on Preston Watson:


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The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson, by Alistair W. Blair and Alistair Smith Reviewed.

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When I first heard of this book, I was hoping I’d be wrong about what I thought it might contain, but alas, I am not.

The first issue I have with it is that it presumes that Preston Watson made a powered flight in 1903. This has been widely proven to be false, yet, within its pages are the same eye-witness accounts and anecdotes that have been doing the rounds for over fifty years now as so-called ‘proof’ that it happened. Unfortunately for the authors and supporters of the Watson legend and indeed the eye-witnesses themselves, the individual who collected the accounts, James Y Watson (JY) denounced his original claim that his brother made a powered flight in 1903, thus leaving the eye-witnesses without the support of the very person they entrusted their versions of the tale to in the first instance.


Despite the intent of the book’s authors, their text is fundamentally lacking in several key areas that they should have picked up on during their research. The first of these is their lack of understanding of what it takes to design and build a successful powered flying machine from scratch. Their definition of what constitutes ‘flight’ is vague and follows similar interpretations by others attempting to justify successful flight before the Wright Brothers. The definition of flight by a powered aircraft is simple - sustained, controlled and powered - every heavier-than-aircraft in the sky follows the same principles indisputably uncovered and revealed to the world by the Wrights, no less. The execution of it in the early 20th Century when pioneers had so little understanding of aerodynamics was not and this raises the question as to whether any of the notorious claimants to powered-flight-before-the-Wrights really understood what was required to achieve successful flight in a competent aeroplane at all.


One fact that many authors, including good ones often overlook is how much effort and time the Wright Brothers spent experimenting with gliders before they built the 1903 Flyer, and indeed afterwards. By the end of 1903, no one had spent more time in the air in heavier-than-aircraft than the Wrights, not Otto Lillienthal, nor Percy Pilcher. The very first aircraft capable of being fully controllable about all three axes of movement of an object in the air was the Wrights’ 1902 glider. By the end of 1905, the Wrights had flown more than 100 flying hours in three different powered aeroplanes, the last of which, the 1905 Flyer was the very first aeroplane capable of carrying a load greater than just its pilot. These are indisputable facts that the authors steadfastly ignore and claims by them and others that Charles Gibbs-Smith and Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian simply refuse to acknowledge any different claimants to powered flight other than the Wrights are hollow when these facts are considered.


Concerning aerodynamics, the authors do not mention Watson’s 1908 book Power Necessary in Flight once. It has also escaped them that Watson’s wildly off the mark 1907 patent demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what constituted a successful aircraft, yet they believe he had still managed to build an aeroplane and make a successful powered flight in 1903? Then, a year after the 1907 patent Preston published Power Necessary in Flight, then another year later, produced his 1909 patent for a rocking wing aircraft. Clearly in the space of his 1907 patent being approved and the issuing of his 1909 patent, much had changed in his mind of what a successful flying machine was. Regarding his indigenous aeroplanes, the authors’ assessment of them follows the same range of dates and anecdotes produced by the various eye-witnesses; inconsistencies and all.


The greatest flaw the book suffers from is the unswerving belief by the authors in the evidence uncovered by JY; particularly the eye-witness accounts. Any first year psychology student will advise that the human memory is fallible and individual memories can be manipulated by differing external factors and therefore cannot be relied on as competent sources of historical fact. These eye-witness accounts are quite different from one another and vary in consistency - also JY himself changes his story on numerous occasions, often in the same publication - see the two articles in Aeronautics magazine in 1954 and 1955 submitted by JY himself where he claims the aircraft flown by Preston in 1903 was a glider - not mentioned in the book at all. The authors denounce Gibbs-Smith’s assessment of JY’s evidence by claiming he sounds like a grumpy old man refusing to accept anything other than what he believes is simplistic considering that JY repeatedly changed his story, and that Gibbs-Smith knew he was telling fibs. In JY’s differing accounts one begins to wonder whether he isn’t indeed making it up as he goes along.


This is all unfortunate and the book probably does more harm than good in attempting to inform the public of what Watson actually got up to, despite the authors’ intent.

The suggestion that Watson's aeroplane be manufactured under licence by Lithuanian born Leo Jouques within his aircraft firm is revealed in letters written by Watson and published within the book are insightful, but lead to nothing. Reference to this has been made within the text on this site.

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Wikipedia page on Preston Watson updated.

Preston Watson's Wiki page has been updated with passages from this website in an attempt to accurately inform the public of his aeronautical achievements.

The continuing support for the claim that he made powered flights in the summer of 1903 has had a detrimental and arguably harmful impact on how Watson is perceived publicly and completely overshadows his aeronautical work, to the extent that few have any real understanding of what he achieved in his lifetime. Hopefully this might prompt a greater awareness and understanding of what Watson was attempting to accomplish with the patents and aircraft he constructed and steer focus away from the erroneous claims of powered-flight-before-the-Wrights.

Wikipedia's Preston_Watson Page

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New book on Preston Watson published.

The Pioneer Flying Achievements of Preston Watson, by Alistair W. Blair and Alistair Smith. Published in late 2014, the following is an extract from an advertising blurb about the book:

"Preston Watson was born in Dundee in 1881 and from an early age showed an innovative interest in developing a flying machine which could take off and  land under its own power. While records are incomplete, many believe  that Watson beat the Wright brothers into the air by a margin of months in 1903. His wood and wire machine was hoisted by ropes and weights into a tree and catapulted, with the engine running. He flew 100-140 yards before landing. His subsequent two machines aimed to improve this performance. He is credited with inventing  the joystick – the idea is still in use in every aircraft  today.

Whoever was the first to fly is not the object of this book but to record the hitherto unsung efforts of this son of Dundee whose short life – he died at the age of thirty-four –  had a marked influence on the history of aviation."

Before even having received a copy of the book, my first criticism is that it presumes that James Watson's assertions that his younger brother built and flew a powered aeroplane in 1903 are accurate, which, has been conclusively proven to have been a fabrication - see The Watson Controversy in the links above. Bearing in mind the fact that his first aeroplane was not likely to have been completed until around mid 1909 and the fact that it did not get airborne under its own power makes the premise that he had "a marked influence on the history of aviation" a fallacy.

Further comment on the book and its contents will follow on review of it.

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The Watson myth of Powered-Flight-before-the-Wrights debunked on BBC Scotland.

In April 2004 BBC Radio Scotland broadcasted a programme (Thought for the Day?) which featured the Watson claim of Powered-Flight-before-the-Wrights. The following is an abridged transcript of the broadcast:

Broadcaster Paul Mitchell: " Now, Scotland, as everyone knows is the land of hard work, ingenuity and inventiveness.  Two million tea towels can't be wrong. We can lay claim justifiably to the pneumatic tyre, the steam engine, even the world wide web, but can we put dibs on flight too?"

"The first powered flight is always attributed to the Wright Brothers at North Carolina on 17th December 1903, but we got a call from Bill Pratish who reckons that a Scot, Preston Watson got there first. He says it was six months before the Wrights and it took place at Errol, near the Tay. I've got Grant Newman on the phone now from the RAF Museum at Hendon. So Grant, is it true, can we claim the first powered flight for Scotland?"

Grant Newman: "No, unfortunately not. I'm sorry; it's a great little story, it's something I've spent a little bit of time researching, but it is very much an unequivocal 'No' in spite of what most of Dundee will have you believe."

Paul Mitchell: "So, what are the facts about Preston Watson, then?"

Grant Newman: "One of the main facts about Watson is that little that he did prior to 1910 can actually be verified, so it's quite easy for somebody to say, 'well, yes, of course he did', without producing any evidence. He's relatively unknown outside of Scotland. The first inkling that he flew a powered aeroplane in 1903 came about in 1953, fifty years since the Wright's first powered flight, when Preston's brother James claimed that he and Preston had built and flown a powered aeroplane in the summer of 1903. Later James changed his story stating that it was just his brother who did this."

"At the time there was a prominent aviation historian called Charles Gibbs-Smith, who refuted the claim and pressed James to provide more information. James eventually changed his story again in an article in the December 1955 issue of Aeronautics magazine stating that Preston's first aeroplane was without an engine. And then he goes on to say that these trial flights took place in the summer of 1903.  Now, before his death, James then wrote a letter to Gibbs-Smith stating that, and I quote; 'I make no claim that the machine that Preston used at Errol in 1903 was a powered machine.'"

"Furthermore, Preston Watson himself also stated in an article in the May 15th 1914 issue of Flight magazine, which I have in front of me here, says that these gentlemen, the Wrights, were the first to fly in a practical way, and throughout his short life never made any claims that he flew before them."

Paul Mitchell: "When you say 'short life', I take it he didn't live to a ripe old age and die in bed?"

Grant Newman: "Sadly no, in 1915 he enrolled in a flying school down here at Hendon and he paid for himself to fly aeroplanes and then he enrolled in the Royal Naval Air Service and shortly after he got his flying ticket, his aeroplane disintegrated in mid air and crashed and he died, which is rather sad. He was only 34 when he died."

Paul Mitchell: "Grant, I can't remember the last time a myth was so comprehensively debunked, or indeed with such authority. Thank you very much for talking to me."




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James Manson Interview

The following is taken from an interview with a Mr James Elder Manson, who as a youth worked on and flew Preston Watson's third aeroplane, which was published in a local newspaper. The clipping was supplied by James Manson's grandson Mr Colin Connelly. Apart from the error of Watson's second aeroplane having been built in 1908 according to Mr Manson (Watson's first aeroplane was not completed until late 1909), his recollections add a personal touch to the Watson story without reference to spurious claims of powered flight in the summer of 1903. It was also refreshing to find out that Mr Connelly was not aware of the controversy surrounding Preston Watson. Most interesting is Mr Manson's recollections of working with Watson in France during the Concours de La Sécurité en Aéroplane competition in 1914. Abridged text from the interview with James Manson:


James Elder Manson, son of the local cobbler was born in the tiny Caithness fishing village of Lybster. At 19 he moved to Dundee and took a labouring job with Messers Watson and Philip food producers; he became a store foreman.  During this time he watched the experiments of the "boss's" son - Mr Preston A. Watson. When the latter prophesied that man would one day fly like birds, everyone laughed, everyone but Mr Manson. He often watched the inventor dropping cardboard "aeroplanes" over the bridge at Ninewells.


Watson soon found that Manson was a handyman and often invited him to Errol to repair his second aeroplane, built in 1908. One of Mr Manson's greatest moments came when he was released from warehouse duty to build Watson's third aeroplane in 1913. He worked in the boiler shop of the old Gourlay Foundry on Dock Street.  The plane was made from duraluminium tubing, a substance so light and flexible that it could be waggled like a fishing rod. The wing coverings were of canvas. Borrowing his wife's sewing machine - and carrying it to the boiler shop on his head, Mr Manson put the canvas together himself. He made bags, rather like pillow slips and drew them over the wing framework.


This machine was built to take part in a Paris competition in 1914.  "I was in France with Preston Watson from March until July" he recalled. "The plane was in my sole charge during most of our four month stay. Mr Watson could only spare the time to visit occasionally to interview pilots. A pilot jumped in at a wage of 3 quid a week then."  

"The one we started with was a Londoner. He was an absolute dud so we sent him home. We got a French pilot who flew very well, but the French army stepped in to prevent him flying a foreign machine."


During the trials, the fastest speed any flier could reach was about 80 mph. "Because of its moveable top wing, Mr Watson's plane was dubbed the "Wiggle Waggle". It took third place in the competition for an invention to counteract sideslip." "The plane was broken up when war broke out; it was purely experimental and no use for this."


Only once in those early years did Mr Manson have a crash. "I felt pretty safe, but I made a mistake one day. I didn't have enough practise with the machine and crashed her in a 300 foot dive at  Bleriot's aerodrome. However, I had her fit for the air again within seven days." "After the smash I had to take it easy for awhile - a day because I was a bundle of nerves. I didna ken [did not know] where I was; I wasn't physically hurt, not even a scratch. It was just nerves."


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Letter to George Bolt from Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith.


Dated 19 December 1959, this letter was written to Mr George Bolt of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd of New Zealand who wished to bring to Gibbs-Smith's attention the activities of New Zealand pioneer aviator Richard Pearse, who, like Preston Watson has had dubious claims of powered flight in 1903 made about him in absentia. In the letter, Gibbs-Smith refers to the claims made by James Watson and supporting eye witness accounts of flight in the summer of 1903 and states that these accounts cannot be relied on for an unbiased point of view. The following is an abridged version of the letter:


Dear Mr Bolt,


I hope you will not mind my writing to you direct and also frankly about the Pearse claims. I am sorry that these come just a little too late for inclusion in my large official book, which I have written for the Science Museum entitled The Aeroplane: an Historical Survey, which HMSO will publish next spring. I hope you will not think that I am either flippant or cynical from what you read in my letters in Flight [magazine]. I am, for my sins, in this history game professionally and I have had to deal on and on with claims for years. To say that I am browned off is putting it mildly, but I try and bring whatever brains I have to bear on every new claim. I am, very seriously, extremely pleased that you are investigating the Pearse claims. As I expect you know, I am on the committee of the new history group of the Royal Aeronautical Society, so I shall be in the thick of it when you turn in your report.


The reason I am browned off is that those advancing claims seldom have either the intention or the means by which to establish facts. In my experience you find a claim put forward with the intention to demonstrate it to be true far in advance of any wish to demonstrate facts and assess the claim. For example, it took me from 1953 till 1955 to explode the Preston Watson claim: after my friend Oliver Stewart had rather naughtily published both the claim and the so-called 1903 photo without letting any of us know, the first thing that struck me was the completely non-1903 configuration look of that machine in the photo. The rest was plod, plod, plod until the late J.Y. Watson admitted that his great edifice was false, and this after producing eye witnesses to the actual event. The eye witness who tells you what he saw fifty or more years after is, as often as not, completely unreliable, and this was driven home forcibly in the Watson case. People simply do not remember without prejudice.


Even A.V. Roe before he died had his solicitors issue a statement on his behalf stating that at no time did he ever use the "pull-up" slope at the end of the Brooklands finishing straight, either in gliding or powered tests in 1908; yet we finally dug out a photo in a French paper dated bang on the spot, which showed him right at the top of it. So, I pray you, beware of eye witnesses.


Next, it often strikes me that it is highly peculiar that these claims are made, they are so often for 1903. Since the Wrights did not fly until December 17th, any claim would fairly certain fall before that. But you notice these claims are seldom for 1902, or 1901 and never for 1904 or 1905! The year 1903 has a mesmeric attraction simply and solely because it will ante-date the Wrights, if proved...


These old men should not blow off to the press unless they are prepared to stand by what they say. This is what [James] Watson did and even tried to gate-crash the Wrights dinner at the Dorchester on the strength of the claims he had to admit years later were spurious. If what the reporter reported was inaccurate, Pearse should go for the man who wrote it. At present, on the quotes I have before me the whole idea of a 1903 test is a mess and not worth anything as it stands...


I would also like to know everybody's age at the times in question; also why Pearse left the act of patenting so late, if, that is to say, the control system in the patent is similar to that in the alleged 1903 aircraft. I found that the rocker mechanism which [Preston] Watson was claimed to have incorporated in 1903 in his machine was actually suggested in his mind as a result of having learnt of the Wright's method in 1908 and was not patented until 1908 - 1909. I would also like to know if there was any contemporary newspaper account, any diary entry or what have you, of the Pearse test. 


As you will see from my latest letter in Flight [magazine] published before your last leter, the Library of Congress aeronautical experts can find no trace of material which the present Mr Pearse [Richard's younger brother Lawrence]specifically claims existed.... But once again, be extra careful about eye witnesses: they are often not worth the paper they are written on, if that paper is not contemporary or near contemporary.


Yours truly,


Charles H. Gibbs-Smith.


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This page will be regularly updated, so keep coming back for more.