Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 302:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we ask why the Wright brothers flew. 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.

As the movie Star Trek V opens, Captain Kirk is scaling the face of El Capitán in Yosemite Park. Mr. Spock jets up near the rock and asks why he's doing such a mad thing. Kirk can only mutter the classic answer, "Because it's there," and that does little to satisfy the logical mind of Mr. Spock.

Of course, the Wright Brothers were also asked that question. Wilbur didn't say too much in response. Once he told a reporter that among the birds, the parrot was, and I quote, "the best talker and the worst flier." He was clearly more interested in doing than in discussing. But in 1909 Wilbur did make a very revealing remark. When he was asked what use their new machine would be, he replied, "Sport, first of all."

Wilbur did go on to say it might also serve exploration and war. But the first word that came out of his mouth was sport. Magazines of the Edwardian era turned out article after article on flight, and they talked endlessly about sensation. "What did it feel like to fly?" one writer asked an early flyer. The man answered, "You have a sense of exhilaration -- a feeling of freedom and delight you can get in no other way."

Nine years later my father flew airplanes in France during the waning days of WW-I. When I was a child, he told me about Nieuports and Sopwith Camels -- about climbing and diving and pillars of clouds. He talked about the smell of castor oil and the existential pleasure of gliding in "dead stick" silence. Near the end of the war, he flew one of the new SPAD's, and it was a great disappointment. "It was just a big powerful gun platform," he said. "You didn't fly it, you aimed it." The SPAD may have been superior in combat, but for my father it spelled an end to the sensate pleasure of flying.

Early airplanes tell us so much about the creative process -- about invention. Sport was the first reason for the airplane, said the Wrights. Purpose was, by implication, after-the-fact. Purpose was no more than justification for satisfying the senses. We were given those magnificent machines only because they gave their inventors pleasure.

Today, American industry -- with its eye on the bottom line -- wonders why American innovation is slipping behind. The answer is that invention is a kind of sensate pleasure-seeking. The promise of money and position only draws in people who crave money and position. Inventors demand more. They demand pay in the coin of "freedom and delight" -- in the currency of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure.

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

(Theme music)

Early Flight (F. Oppel, ed.). Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1987. See especially Chapter 26, The Sport of Flying, by M. Foster.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.