Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2649

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the also-rans. 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.

Antonio Salieri Neither classical composers nor WW-II airplanes get treated fairly. Who'd ever heard of Salieri before the movie Amadeus. And it left us with a pretty poor opinion of a great composer. Salieri was formative in the evolution of Italian opera. Mozart really wasn't the only fine composer of the latter 18th century.

It's like that with airplanes. The movies leave us thinking that the B-17 Flying Fortress was the-great-heavy-bomber of the war. In fact, the later B-24 Liberator carried a bit more load a bit faster and further.

But one defect doomed it on the civilian public stage. It was not beautiful. The B-17's big thick wing gave it muscle and presence, while the B-24's thin wing looked anemic. Never mind that it was better aerodynamically and in structural design. Also: fewer B-24s survived to pose for the cameras.

B-17 and B-24

Same story with the Hawker Hurricane and the Spitfire: Make a movie about a British fighter pilot, and you put him in a Spitfire. That's the rule. The Spitfire was the more modern airplane, a bit faster but otherwise a statistical tossup. The Hurricane actually shot down far more enemy airplanes. Two reasons for the Spitfire's stardom: Once again, it was more elegant looking. And three times as many Spitfires survived to take up acting.

Ruggero Leoncavallo Of course, if history regularly drops one of two top contenders, how much more does it drop the also-rans -- in music or airplanes. Leoncavallo was barely saved from oblivion by one remarkable opera, Pagliacci. The rest of his works include some good stuff that languishes all but forgotten. Our classical listening would be much more fun, if we heard more of that forgotten music.

I feel that way about airplanes. What a delight to visit some off-the-beaten-track air museum and find an airplane I'd never heard of -- some configuration totally new because it's old and forgotten. Take the Messerschmitt 323.

That airplane was called Gigant (or Gigantic) by the Germans. It originated as a huge troop-carrying glider with a wingspan nearly that of a Boeing 747. Two hundred were made and used in Russia. But it had the limitations of any troop glider. It was towed through the sky and released over a landing zone. It got one shot at landing; then its service life was over.

Messerschmitt 323 Gigant

So the Germans built 200 more and put six engines on the wing. They kept the name Gigant, and used it in Russia and North Africa. It was useful up to a point, but it was defenseless. They'd all been shot down by 1944. So consider this strange situation: The largest land-based airplane used in WW-II is now as forgotten as Leoncavallo's version of La Bohéme, or Salieri's Falstaff.

Still, we can look at all this in another way. You and I work hard, do so much, and none of it will make the history books. All our efforts will do is serve those around us as best we know how. And maybe that's the best bargain after all.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Outro Music from the Overture to Salieri's Falstaff)

See the Wikipedia entries on Salieri, B-17, B-24, Hawker Hurricane, Spitfire, ME321 (the glider), and ME323 (the airplane).

The outro music is from the Overture to Falstaff, Antonio Salieri: Symphonies, Overtures, and Variations. London Mozart Players, Matthias Bamert, Directors. Chandos Chan9877, 2001.

B-17 and B-24 photos by J. Lienhard. All other images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.