Today, Antoine de St. Exupéry. 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.
Antoine de St. Exupéry was born in France, in 1900.
He studied architecture, then joined the Army just after WW-I. There he
learned to fly. After that, he tried office jobs in Paris. And he began
to write. In 1926, two things happened: he published his first story,
The Aviator, and he returned to flying.
He flew in an embryonic airmail service between Toulouse, France, and Dakar, Africa.
Two years later, he was in charge of a small airport in the Sahara desert. In
that remote outpost he began writing novels. From then 'til his disappearance
during a flight from Sardinia in WW-II St. Exupéry flew and he wrote.
He flew airmail in Argentina and over the Andes. He flew out of Casablanca.
He set out to win a prize for the fastest flight from Paris to Saigon, in 1935.
But he crashed his Caudron Simoun in the Sahara. He wandered for days
before a caravan rescued him.
He escaped to America after Germany invaded France. Then, no longer young, he
returned to fly with the Free French in the Mediterranean. His first flight
had been in a Sopwith biplane. His last was in a Lockheed Lightning
-- a P-38. Lost at sea, it wasn't discovered until the year 2000 when a diver
located it near Marseilles.
All that was a career in itself. But while St. Exupéry is famous, it's not for
flying but for writing. his last and most famous book was that masterpiece of
children's literature The Little Prince. It was published during WW-II.
His friend, the great André Gide, celebrated his writing, especially his writings
on flight. Twelve years before The Little Prince, Gide wrote the forward to
St. Exupéry's book, Night Flight. It leads us into the physical and moral
rearrangements of aerial perspective. He writes of two peasants in a hut below his
They think ... their lamp shines only for the little table; but from
fifty miles away, one felt the summons of their light, [like] a desperate
signal from some lonely island, flashed by shipwrecked men toward the sea.
Gide wants us to know how grounded in existential reality all this is. He quotes
from a letter St. Exupéry had sent him. St. Exupéry had just pulled off a dangerous
exploit and said he now knew why Plato ranked courage last among the virtues. He called it,
A touch of anger, a spice of vanity, a lot of obstinacy and a tawdry sporting
thrill ... Rather a pleasant feeling, but ... another feeling creeps in --
of having done something immensely silly. I shall never again admire a
merely brave man.
Many pilots wrote, many wonderfully well. But none wove the terrors and magic of early
flight so compellingly. No new technology survives on function alone. It also needs
a metaphorical place in our existence. By shaping such a place for flight, St. Exupéry
literally helped to complete the invention of the aeroplane. I doubt we ever could've
fully adopted so strange a machine without first having words, like his, to go along with it.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See any of the vast number of publications of St. Exupéry's books,
especially Night Flight (with Gide's introduction) and
The Little Prince.
See the Wikipedia articles on
and The Little Prince.
All images are courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
See also the New York Times article on the discovery of St. Exupéry's P-38.
A P-38, the Lockheed Lightning
, last plane St. Exupéry flew.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.