Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith
Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith (22 March 1909 – 3 December 1981) was a British polymath
A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable...

 historian of aeronautics and aviation. His obituary in the Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

described him as "the recognised authority on the early development of flying in Europe and America" Richard P. Hallion
Richard P. Hallion
Dr. Richard P. Hallion is Senior Adviser for Air and Space Issues, Directorate for Security, Counterintelligence and Special Programs Oversight, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. He is responsible for analysis and insight regarding the conceptualization, evolution and utilization of sensitive national...

 called him "The greatest of all historians of early aviation".


Charles Gibbs-Smith was born in Teddington
Teddington is a suburban area in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in south west London, on the north bank of the River Thames, between Hampton Wick and Twickenham. It stretches inland from the River Thames to Bushy Park...

, Greater London
Greater London
Greater London is the top-level administrative division of England covering London. It was created in 1965 and spans the City of London, including Middle Temple and Inner Temple, and the 32 London boroughs. This territory is coterminate with the London Government Office Region and the London...

 in 1909 to a medical family which included in its line John Harvard
John Harvard (clergyman)
John Harvard was an English minister in America whose deathbed bequest to the Massachusetts Bay Colony's fledgling New College was so gratefully received that the school was renamed Harvard College in his honor.-Biography:Harvard was born and raised in Southwark, England, the fourth of nine...

, the founder of Harvard College
Harvard College
Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of two schools within Harvard University granting undergraduate degrees...

. Gibbs-Smith attended Westminster School
Westminster School
The Royal College of St. Peter in Westminster, almost always known as Westminster School, is one of Britain's leading independent schools, with the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rate of any secondary school or college in Britain...

 in central London and earned a Master of Arts degree at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 in 1932. The same year, he gained employment as an assistant keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum , set in the Brompton district of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects...

. In 1939 he organised the Exhibition of Early Photographs to Commemorate the Centenary of Photography, 1839–1939. He was seconded to the Ministry of Information in the Second World War and conducted training in aircraft recognition for the Royal Observer Corps
Royal Observer Corps
The Royal Observer Corps was a civil defence organisation operating in the United Kingdom between 29 October 1925 and 31 December 1995, when the Corps' civilian volunteers were stood down....

—this experience catalyzed a deep interest in aviation history. He authored the government's manual on aircraft recognition in 1944 as well as being a contributor to the training journal Aircraft Recognition
Aircraft Recognition (magazine)
Aircraft Recognition, subtitled The Inter-Services Journal was a British Second World War magazine dedicated to the subject of aircraft recognition...

, then became the ministry's Director of the Photographic Division in 1945.

Between 1947 and 1971 he was Keeper of the Department of Public Relations at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The department, the first public relations department of any English museum, was initially called the Museum Extension Services. In this role he arranged museum exhibitions, conducted scholarly research, and wrote on a variety of topics, including a study of the Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry—nearly long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings...

 and a centenary collection of the Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or The Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October...

 of 1851. Starting in 1976 he had a Research Fellowship at the Science Museum
Science Museum (London)
The Science Museum is one of the three major museums on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is part of the National Museum of Science and Industry. The museum is a major London tourist attraction....

 in London. Upon retirement, he was chosen as the first Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History
Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History
The Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History, also known as the Lindbergh Chair, is a one-year senior fellowship hosted by the U.S. National Air and Space Museum , to assist a scholar in the research and composition of a book about aerospace history...

 at the National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world. It was established in 1976. Located in Washington, D.C., United States, it is a center for research into the history and science of aviation and...

 in 1978, for which he spent a year in the United States studying the papers of the Wright brothers
Wright brothers
The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur , were two Americans credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903...


Research and writings

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

Gibbs-Smith investigated the disputed subject of inventor Clément Ader
Clément Ader
Clément Ader was a French inventor and engineer born in Muret, Haute Garonne, and is remembered primarily for his pioneering work in aviation.- The inventor :...

'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 1960's "definitive" work The aeroplane: an historical survey of its origins and development, Gibbs-Smith wrote for the Science Museum about the controversy over Henri Coandă
Henri Coanda
Henri Marie Coandă was a Romanian inventor, aerodynamics pioneer and builder of an experimental aircraft, the Coandă-1910 described by Coandă in the mid-1950s as the world's first jet, a controversial claim disputed by some and supported by others...

's early aircraft—the Coandă-1910
The Coandă-1910, designed by Romanian inventor Henri Coandă, was the first full-size attempt at a jet aircraft. Built as a sesquiplane, it featured an experimental aircraft engine which Coandă called the "turbo-propulseur," a centrifugal compressor propulsion system with a multi-bladed rotary fan...

—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.

Gibbs investigated reports of the paranormal
Paranormal is a general term that designates experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation" or that indicates phenomena understood to be outside of science's current ability to explain or measure...

 including ghosts, flying saucers and parapsychology
The term parapsychology was coined in or around 1889 by philosopher Max Dessoir, and originates from para meaning "alongside", and psychology. The term was adopted by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term psychical research...

. He defended his studies among more sceptical colleagues.


  • The Danish government appointed him to the Order of the Dannebrog
    Order of the Dannebrog
    The Order of the Dannebrog is an Order of Denmark, instituted in 1671 by Christian V. It resulted from a move in 1660 to break the absolutism of the nobility. The Order was only to comprise 50 noble Knights in one class plus the Master of the Order, i.e. the Danish monarch, and his sons...

     for his work on a 1948 exhibition.
  • The Royal Aeronautical Society
    Royal Aeronautical Society
    The Royal Aeronautical Society, also known as the RAeS, is a multidisciplinary professional institution dedicated to the global aerospace community.-Function:...

    awarded him an Honorary Companionship.

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)
  • 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.

External links

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