Richard William Pearse was born on 3 December 1877 at Waitohi Flat, the fourth of nine children of Sarah Ann Brown and her husband, Digory Sargent Pearse, a farmer. Their property, Trewarlet, was 5½ miles inland from Temuka. They were a cultured family with their own orchestra; Richard played the cello.
By disposition quiet, introspective, gentle and somewhat aloof, Pearse was a dreamer even at school. After finishing his primary education at Waitohi in 1893 he wanted to study engineering at Canterbury College, but the family could not afford it. Instead, when he turned 21, Pearse was given the use of a nearby 100-acre farm block.
Here Pearse built a workshop, designed his own forge and lathe, and proceeded to spend most of his time inventing gadgets. His first patented invention, dating from 1902, was an ingenious new style of bicycle, bamboo-framed with a vertical-drive pedal action, rod-and-rack gearing system, back-pedal rim-brakes and integral tyre pumps.
But flying, not cycling, was his dream. Through Scientific American Pearse kept in touch with experimentation overseas. There is evidence he was working on ideas for powered flight from 1899 and had built his first two-cylinder petrol engine by 1902. He then constructed, using bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas, a low aspect ratio monoplane with relatively short, wide wings.
Of prophetic design, it closely resembled a modern microlight aircraft in appearance. After considerable taxiing on his farm paddocks, Pearse made his first public flight attempt down Main Waitohi Road adjacent to his farm. After a short distance aloft, perhaps 50 yards, he crashed on top of a gorse fence. No details of this tentative flight were recorded by Pearse or onlookers. In two letters, published in 1915 and 1928, the inventor writes of February or March 1904 as the time when he set out to solve the problem of 'aerial navigation'. He also states that he did not achieve proper flight and did not beat the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who flew on 17 December 1903. However, a great deal of eyewitness testimony, able to be dated circumstantially, suggests that 31 March 1903 was the likely date of this first flight attempt. (The year 1902 also has its advocates.) Pearse continued his flying experiments, achieving several further powered take-offs or long hops, most of them witnessed. None of them, in terms of length or control, was a true flight by any strict definition. In July 1906 he patented his aircraft.
Whether or not Pearse flew in any acceptable sense, and regardless of the exact date, his first aircraft was a remarkable invention embodying several far-sighted concepts: a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel, and a propeller with variable-pitch blades driven by a unique double-acting horizontally opposed petrol engine.
A failure as a farmer and treated with considerable scepticism by most neighbours (Cranky Dick, Mad Pearse and Bamboo Dick were three of his nicknames), Richard Pearse shifted in 1911 to South Otago, where he farmed at Loudens Gully near Milton. There he devised various pieces of ingenious farm equipment before being conscripted into the Otago Infantry Regiment in May 1917. He was sent overseas in January 1918, but illness prevented Pearse from seeing any action and he returned to New Zealand in October that year.
In 1921 he moved to Christchurch, where he built three houses. In the garage workshop of one in Woolston, Pearse in the early 1930s set about designing and building a second aircraft, his Utility Plane. He applied for a patent in November 1943 and it was finally approved in 1949. Constructed in great secrecy, Pearse's convertiplane anticipated the main feature of the Harrier jump jet and other similar aircraft with a tilting engine to allow for vertical take-off and landing. Pearse hoped this extraordinary aircraft would become aviation's Model T Ford, 'the private plane for the million', able to be flown from one's backyard.
Embittered and disillusioned by the lack of interest from aviation companies, Pearse became increasingly paranoid and in June 1951 was admitted to Sunnyside Mental Hospital. There he died on 29 July 1953, following a heart attack. He had never married.
Other (unpatented) inventions by Pearse included a needle threader, power cycle, recording machine, magic viewer, harp, power generator, potato planter, topdresser, motorised discing machine, and two sorts of musical box. His Utility Plane is held at the Museum of Transport and Technology, Auckland, and remnants of his first monoplane are held there and at the Timaru museum.
Richard Pearse died in obscurity. His secretive and solitary manner of working resulted in his genius being unrecognised in his own lifetime, and he had no influence whatever upon the course of aviation history. His posthumous reputation as a visionary inventor has been clouded by a fruitless controversy as to whether or not he flew before the Wright brothers' fully attested flights. Pearse should be remembered as an inventor of extraordinary imagination and foresight whose vision far outreached the capacity of his simple workshop technology. He was nevertheless, by a wide margin (whether in 1902, 1903 or 1904), the first British subject to achieve a powered take-off in a heavier-than-air machine of his own design and construction.