Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 648:
TWO VISIONS OF AVIATION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 648.

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 widespread sport.

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 Washington.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Wright, O. The Future of Civil Flying; Earhart, A., Putting Air Travel into Mass Production; and other reprinted material from older issues of Aviation Week and Space Technology, Vol. 135, No. 6, August 12, 1991. See especially p. 61 and pp. 108-111.

Angelucci, E., World Encyclopedia of Civil Aircraft (English Language Edition). New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982. See especially p. 100.

For more on Wilbur Wright's attitudes toward flight, see Episode 302. For more on Earhart see Episode 1057. For Lindbergh see Episode 1062.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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