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
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