Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 66:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 66.

Today, we see how long an airplane can stay up. 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.

Records are funny things. Take the speed of flight: in 1880, the first primitive airships went about seven miles an hour. WW-I airplanes reached 130 miles an hour. And, in 1944, German combat jets flew almost 600 miles an hour -- just this side of the sound barrier. We'd been doubling airspeeds every nine years, and now we kept right on going. By 1967, the North American X-15A reached more than 4000 miles an hour.

But then a strange thing happened. We'd launched our first satellite in 1958, and we put a live person in one in 1961. Suddenly people were flying 18,000 miles an hour. When we got clear of the Earth's atmosphere, we could go almost any speed we wanted. Suddenly, no one gave a fig about speed records any more. The big problem was now launching and landing.

So the search for high speeds isn't fun any more. We have to look for some other sort of record. Let's try the duration of terrestrial flight. In 1903 the Wright brothers stayed up for 12 seconds. Five years later they were first to stay aloft more than an hour. In 1914 a German plane stayed up for over 24 hours. And Lindbergh took 33 hours for his transatlantic flight in 1927.

Of course, the real drive was for long distances -- not just staying up a long time. And the goal that got away from us for years was a non-stop round-the-world flight with no refueling. That's something we didn't manage until very recently. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager finally flew their experimental airplane, the Voyager, around the world, setting both distance and endurance records. They stayed in the air for an incredible nine days.

But now the Canadian government is developing a microwave-powered airplane. It's powered by microwave beams from stations on the earth. This plane could simply stay up forever. It's inventor, Joe Schlesak, says modestly, "The Wright brothers' first flight was 12 seconds. I think we'll do much better than that."

Records really are funny things. We can chase them only until we get better than the game we're playing. In all fairness, most of these record games really do seem to serve society. So we play each one for a while, outgrow it, and then go off to play some new game.

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

(Theme music)

Lienhard, J H., Rate of Technological Improvement Before and After the 1830's. Technology and Culture, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1979. pp. 515-530.

Lienhard, J. H., Some Ideas about Growth and Quality in Technology. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 27, 1985, pp. 265-281.

This episode has been considerably revised as Episode 1437.

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

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