Today, a lot of people take 120 years to invent the
airplane. 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.
I've just found a trove of
early books on flight. And what a view it gives!
Let's look: A French manual from a decade after the
Wright Brothers' flight sets the stage. 900 pages
of the known airplanes, dirigibles, balloons, and
people who flew them!
It also gives a time-line for human flight. In 120
years from the Montgolfiers' balloon in 1783 to the
Wrights' airplane in 1903, the book lists 92
landmarks of flight. That cold day in Kitty Hawk
did not spring full-formed from the head of Zeus.
It was the end of a long and purposeful gestation.
As early as 1784 a book by Dr. John Jeffries
describes the first English Channel crossing in a
balloon. He and his French colleague made it only
by dropping ballast and throwing all they had
overboard. They finally had to urinate their last
drop of disposable weight into the cold forbidding
The next century saw furious aerial activity.
Here's a wild book by a French physics professor.
The year is 1804. He's designed an 80-ton balloon
-- a very overblown balloon. He means for 60
scientists to make a great Star Trek of exploration
in an airship they cannot even steer.
Down through the 19th century, the books grow more
and more detailed and serious. We read how to tie
knots in balloon guy ropes, how to generate
hydrogen, how to load ballast. Then we read about
mounting engines to drive balloons through the air.
Long before the Wrights we start reading
aerodynamic theory. Here are equations I learned
when I studied fluid flow in graduate school. The
mathematics grows formidable while the airships
themselves still seem childishly simple.
In 1912 Victor Lougheed wrote about the new
airplanes. He was the elder brother of two men who
later created the Lockheed Company. His title was
Airplane Designing for Amateurs.
Lougheed saw that anything as new as flight had to
be created by people without the blessing of a
These wonderful old books remind me of something
that's easy to forget. No great landmark of
invention is the fruit of one great person. It is
the fruit of a Zeitgeist.
The Wright Brothers were wise enough to see that.
What we seldom hear about the Wrights is how
thoroughly they knew this old literature -- this
huge record of learning through failure.
Flight had been the great craving of the ages. The
Wrights knew they were only one part of a great
whole. Kitty Hawk may've been lonely sand. But the
Wrights hadn't worked in isolation -- nor, by the
way, did they ever claim to.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Faroux, Ch., and Bonnet, G.,
Aéro-Manuel: Répertoire Sportif,
Technique et Commercial de
l'Aéronautique. Paris: H. Dunod et E.
Loughhead, V., Aeroplane Designing for
Amateurs. Chicago: The Reilly & Britton
Girard, E., and de Rouville, A., Les Ballons
Dirigeables: Théorie -- Applications.
Paris: Berger-Levrault & Cie., 1907.
Robertson, E.G., La Minerve. Paris:
S.V. Degen, 1804.
Eberhardt, C., Theorie und Berechnung von
Motor-Luftschiffen. Berlin: M. Krayn, 1912.
Jeffries, J., A Narrative of the Two Aerial
Voyages of Doctor Jeffries with Mons. Blanchard; .
. .. London: J. Robson, 1786.
Crouch, T.D., A Dream of Wings: Americans and
the Airplane. 1875 1905, Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, 1989. Chapter
Howard, F., Wilbur and Orville: A Biography
of the Wright Brothers. New York: Ballantine
Books, 1987, Chapter 42.
Siuru, B. and Lockheed, A., Lockheed: A Legacy of
Speed. Mechanical Engineering, May
1990, pp. 60-64.
I'm grateful to Nancy Boothe, Head of The Woodson
Research Library at Rice University, for pointing
out the Benjamin Monroe Anderson Collection on the
History of Aeronautics and making it available to
Century Magazine, 1896
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Century Magazine, 1896
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