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Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith


Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith

Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith (22 March 1909 – 3 December 1981)[1] was a British polymath historian of aeronautics and aviation.[2] His obituary in the Times described him as "the recognised authority on the early development of flying in Europe and America"[3] Richard P. Hallion called him "The greatest of all historians of early aviation".[4]


  • Biography 1
  • Research and writings 2
  • Honours 3
  • Selected publications 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Charles Gibbs-Smith was born in Ministry of Information in the Second World War and conducted training in aircraft recognition for the Royal Observer Corps—this experience catalysed a deep interest in aviation history.[5][3] He authored the government's manual on aircraft recognition in 1944 as well as being a contributor to the training journal Aircraft Recognition, then became the ministry's Director of the Photographic Division in 1945.[3][6]

Between 1947 and 1971 he was Keeper of the Department of Public Relations at the Victoria and Albert Museum.[5][1][3] The department, the first public relations department of any English museum, was initially called the Museum Extension Services.[7] In this role he arranged museum exhibitions, conducted scholarly research, and wrote on a variety of topics, including a study of the Bayeux Tapestry and a centenary collection of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Starting in 1976 he had a Research Fellowship at the Science Museum in London.[5] Upon retirement, he was chosen as the first Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the National Air and Space Museum in 1978, for which he spent a year in the United States studying the papers of the Wright brothers.[3]

Research and writings

In The Invention of the Aeroplane 1799–1909,[8] Gibbs-Smith wrote a concise account of aeronautical developments which led slowly to functional fixed-wing aircraft.

Gibbs-Smith investigated the disputed subject of inventor Clément Ader's 1897 aeronautical experiments. Gibbs-Smith's 1968 book on Ader thoroughly described the documented evidence that Ader did not make a controlled flight in 1897, and only claimed to have done so in 1906, after others had already flown.

In his 1960's "definitive" work The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey Of Its Origins And Development,[5] Gibbs-Smith wrote for the Science Museum about the controversy over Henri Coandă's early aircraft—the Coandă-1910—which Coandă said was the first jet aircraft. Gibbs-Smith wrote a rebuttal to Coandă, describing how the aircraft had no injection or combustion of fuel in the air stream. Gibbs-Smith said that it would have been suicidal to the pilot to attain combustion of the turbine-compressed air as the open cockpit would be subjected to the heat of the exhaust.[9]

Gibbs-Smith also investigated reports of the paranormal, including ghosts, flying saucers and parapsychology. He defended his studies among more sceptical colleagues.[3]


Selected publications

  • The Aircraft Recognition Manual (1944) – formerly Basic Aircraft Recognition
  • The Great Exhibition of 1851 (1951). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
  • The Wright Brothers: A Brief Account of their Work, 1899–1911 (1963). London.
  • Sir George Cayley's Aeronautics, 1796–1855 (1962)[10]
  • The Invention of the Aeroplane 1799–1909 (1966), London: Faber & Faber.
  • A Directory and Nomenclature of the First Aeroplanes 1809 to 1909 (1966). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
  • Clément Ader – his flight claims and his place in history (1968), London: Science Museum
  • Aviation: an historical survey from its origins to the end of World War II (1970; 2nd ed 1985)
  • The Bayeux Tapestry (1973), London ; New York, Phaidon ; Praeger
  • The Rebirth of European Aviation 1902–1908 (1974). London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.


  1. ^ a b Charles Gibbs-Smith at Information Britain web site
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e f
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. The invention of the aeroplane (1799–1909), Faber, 1966.
  9. ^
  10. ^

External links

  • List of written works at
  • The Rebirth of European AviationReview of in Flight International, 15 May 1975 p. 806
  • , and historical surveyThe AeroplaneReview of Flight 1960
  • Gibbs-Smith on Cayley
  • "Hops and Flights, a roll call of early powered take-offs" Flight April 1959
  • Television interview with Gibbs-Smith on the subject of UFOs
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