Today, we come to an end of record-setting. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Records are funny things.
Take the speed of flight: in 1880, the first
primitive airships went about seven miles an hour.
WW-I airplanes reached 130 miles an hour. 1930s
racing planes reached 300, and in 1944 German
combat jets flew almost 600 miles an hour -- just
this side of the sound barrier. We'd been doubling
airspeeds every nine years, and we kept right on
going. By 1967, the North American X-15A reached
more than 4000 miles an hour.
Then a strange thing happened. We launched our
first satellites in 1957, and we put a live person
in one in 1961. Suddenly, people were
reaching 26,000 miles an hour. Once clear of
Earth's atmosphere, we could go almost any speed we
wanted. Suddenly, no one gave a fig about speed
records any more. Henceforth, the big problem would
no longer be speed, but launching and landing.
When the search for high speeds stopped being fun,
we had to look for some other kind of record. Try
the duration of terrestrial flight. In 1903
the Wright brothers stayed up for 12 seconds. Five
years later they were first to stay aloft more than
an hour. In 1914 a German plane stayed up for over
24 hours. And Lindbergh took 33 hours for his
transatlantic flight in 1927.
Of course, the real drive was for long distances --
not just staying up a long time. The goal that got
away from us for years was a non-stop
round-the-world flight with no refueling. That's
something we didn't manage until 1986.
Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew their dainty
experimental airplane Voyager around the
world, setting both distance and endurance records.
They stayed in the air nine days and did so before
anyone accomplished the centuries-old hope of
ballooning around the world. The Brietling
Orbiter 3 balloon finally landed safely in
Egypt in March 1999, after a nineteen-day trip
around the world.
But two things were already undercutting both those
records. For decades, the Air Force had been able
to indefinitely refuel B-52 bombers in flight.
Then, during the 1980s, the Canadian Research
Council funded work on an airplane powered by
microwave beams from stations on the earth. This
unmanned airplane was also designed to stay up
indefinitely. It was called SHARP, an acronym
standing for Sustained High Altitude Relay
SHARP's longest flight before funding ran out was
only 95 minutes, but the point was made. One of the
developers said modestly, "The Wright brothers'
first flight was 12 seconds. I think we'll do much
better than that." Duration was clearly no longer
Records are such strange things. We chase one until
we get better than the game we're playing. We play
the game until we outgrow it; then we go off to a
new game. But don't think I'm being cynical here.
The payoff is often enormous. These games really
are worth the candle.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lienhard, J H., Rate of Technological Improvement
Before and After the 1830's. Technology and
Culture, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1979. pp. 515-530.
Lienhard, J. H., Some Ideas about Growth and
Quality in Technology. Technological Forecasting
and Social Change, Vol. 27, 1985, pp. 265-281.
For more on the round-round-the-world flight of
Voyager, see Episode
For more on the Swiss/English flight of the
Breitling Orbiter 3 flight around the world, see
Wikipedia article about Voyager/
For a subsequent development along the lines of
SHARP see Episode
This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 66.
For a large (but
slow-loading) version of this Voyager photo,
click the picture above.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.