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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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PEARSE, Richard William


Farmer and pioneer aviator.

A new biography of Pearse, Richard William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Richard William Pearse was born on 3 December 1877 at Waitohi Flat near Temuka, the son of Digory Sargent Pearse, a local farmer, and of Sarah Anne, née Brown. Pearse early showed a gift for mechanical experiments, and in 1900 made his own lathe, and afterwards designed and built his first aircraft in a workshop on the family farm. The machine was of bamboo construction jointed with aluminium for lightness, and had an eight-bladed sheet-steel propeller made from cut-down sheep-dip tins. As this first engine lacked sufficient power to lift the plane, Pearse designed a larger model which he completed towards the end of 1903, making his first two flights in the following March. Eye witnesses who saw these at Waitohi Flat recalled that the plane climbed slowly, pitched badly, and veered to the left before coming to rest on top of a 12 ft hedge. The flight covered about 150 yards. The wing designs of this plane are preserved in the New Zealand Patent Office, for he patented his controls in 1907. These revealed several notable features, the control services all being attached to the wings. He also designed a tricycle undercarriage with a steerable nose wheel. He constructed the smaller engine parts himself, but had the heavier cylinders and crankshafts made by Parr and Sons of Timaru. Another notable feature of the plane was the pilot's seat, which was set on a movable base, thus enabling him to withstand a crash landing at 100 miles per hour. Pearse's patent was No. 21476, and was gazetted on 8 August 1907.

After the war Pearse built himself a second aircraft – recently discovered in a locked shed on the farm where it had rested forgotten for over 40 years. A third plane combining the principles of a helicopter and winged aeroplane is known only by drawings and a few photographs. Its remarkable engine, which Pearse designed, possessed six cylinders and could be made to operate either as a six-cylinder two stroke, or as a four-cylinder four stroke.

Pearse, who never married, died on 29 July 1953 at Sunnyside Hospital, Riccarton, and was cremated at Bromley, two days later. From all accounts he was a dour, taciturn man, but he was undoubtedly a mechanical genius. His work closely paralleled that of the Wright Brothers, with whom he corresponded, and he was unfortunate in that their first successful flight on 17 December 1903 at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, preceded his own by a mere three months. Much research, however, remains to be done before Richard Pearse's contribution to aeronautics can be adequately assessed.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Evening Post, 16 Sep 1959, 17 Sep 1959, 11 Mar 1960, 30 Apr 1960
  • Press (Christchurch), 21 Sep 1959, 19 Oct 1959, 28 Mar 1960
  • New Zealand Herald, 27 Jan 1961.


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.