Today, two founders of flight struggle to
understand it. 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.
The magazine Aviation
Week began in 1916 as Aviation and
Aeronautical Engineering. Old issues remind
us how the drama of flight first unfolded.
In 1919 Orville Wright wrote "The Future of Civil
Flying." Wright was frankly puzzled. Years before,
that old bicycle-maker had said the purpose of
flight would be sport. For him, civil flying wasn't
so much moving passengers as it was play.
He acknowledged that you can get from Dayton to New
York four times faster by plane than by train. But
that's not safe, because you pass over mountains.
You can't make emergency landings. Maybe the
government would eventually build landing strips in
the mountains. Still, he saw intercity flight as a
private matter more than a commercial one.
The most important need, Wright says, is for
airplanes with slow landing speeds. After all, the
length of a landing strip rises as the square of
the landing speed. If we can cut landing speeds to
30 miles an hour, we'll be able to fly far more
safely. Then flight will take its place as a
Two years later -- in 1921 -- we see a photo of the
giant Italian seaplane, the Caprioni-60. Its six
wings and eight engines carry 100 passengers in a
lumbering 80-mile-an-hour flight. Its range is 400
miles, and it lands on water.
By 1931 commercial flight is an established fact.
Now Amelia Earhart writes as Vice President of
Luddington Airlines. They've already flown over a
half-million passenger miles between New York and
It's only 12 years since Wright's piece. But her
message is much different. Airlines must figure out
how to keep their schedules. They'll have to learn
to manage ticket sales in a world without
computers. And they'll have to keep the price down.
She brushes off the pernicious problem of
air-sickness. It afflicts only five percent of
travelers. More women suffer than men, but they're
more stoic about it.
There's a fundamental difference between Wilbur
Wright and Amelia Earhart. Wright was still reading
a crystal ball. And he still reflected his dreams
as an inventor. Earhart was a user of the airplane.
Her dream was to extend the invention. She let the
machine work through her to define itself. Of
course she was the more accurate of the two.
Orville Wright outlived Amelia Earhart. She gave
herself over to the machine he'd invented until she
vanished in the Pacific. Wright had shaped the
airplane. She was more accurate just because she
let the airplane shape her -- and us as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds