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article number 401
article date 12-04-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Craving for Flight … From Da Vinci to the Wrights
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy. Many Drawings are from the 1933 book, Minute Epics of Flight by Lumen Winter & Glen Degner.

§ 1

MAN’S CRAVING to oppose gravity, to leave the peopled earth for empty space, has been, from the beginning, a craving to escape. It is essentially an anti-social desire.

It began, we may suppose, when the first human child followed, with his eyes, the bird’s flight. Perhaps even the wishful heart of the ape grew wings as he gazed up through the branches at that creature so far above him in space, so far below him in the evolutionary scheme.

So, conscious man, one step beyond, knowing that he could do with his brain what any brute of the earth, the sea or the air might do with its body, must have set to work almost before he could record his thought, to devise his wings.

But the desire sprang, certainly, from some sort of social ennui. “If I could do that,” the wish moved slowly through his awakening mind as he watched the eagle, “I could escape the persecution of my fellows. I could be alone when I wanted—perhaps forever, if need be.”

Thus came the association of wings and immortality, echoed by the poets from Homer to Shelley. As men encountered the difficulties of imitating the eagle or the lark, the anthropomorphists endowed their gods with wings. So, for many millennia, to fly was superhuman, wings were a property of deities and their messengers and thus man’s effort to fly became sacrilege.

As a large part of the civilized world became unified under Christianity, good churchmen came to believe that invention in the direction of flying would surely incur God’s wrath.* This belief is still held by many persons with, at the moment, considerable plausibility.

* “God would not suffer such a machine to be successful, since it would create many disturbances in the civil and political governments of mankind,” Francesco de Lana, Prodromo, etc., Brescia, 1670.

But the fancy persisted, indomitable, and it presently acquired an additional anti-social color when it began to concern itself more directly with the wrath of man than with that of God.

The man who could fly would be superior to the man who could not. He would not only escape from persecution but he might, once in the air, devise some means of getting even with his persecutors. If society harassed him, he might, from the air, destroy it.

The thought must have been immediate and overwhelming at the very inception of what, today, we call “air-mindedness.” “If I could fly, I could kill.” It was the way of the eagle, to be sure, yet with a subtle difference introduced by the theme of vengeance.

There was little thought of a community of the air in the human concept. The social purposes of the migratory birds are difficult to discover in the history of aeronautics. The craving of the individual to fly could be answered in full only if other individuals were unable to do so.


This may be an explanation of why, in a century and a half, the practice of aerostation remained almost wholly in the realms of sport and war. It may be an explanation of why, in 1940, with aviation in a high stage of development, its visible social effects spread so little beyond the effort of man to dominate his fellows on the field of battle or to spread fear among his human enemies.

This statement will be subject to criticism unless the limitations of its definition are kept clearly in mind. Scientists will point to results in pure science attained by means of the balloon, the airplane or the rocket. We must refer them to the sociologist to explain, if he can, what visible social effects have come from the application of any of these discoveries.

Aerial photography may hold rich promise but it has not visibly altered the relationships of mankind except in war. Metropolitan planners will describe the alteration in the design of cities as a result of aviation, but as we examine these changes closely we find that they are largely measures of defense.

Its sporadic use in forest patrol, the study of flood prevention, insecticide spraying, topography, the control of volcano eruptions and hundreds of other matters have not yet produced visible results in the relationships, organization or work of any large human group.

Its use as transport may have quickened the tempo of life, but with what benefit will be problematical until a need can be shown for such quickening—until, as the wags say, we find out what we want to do with the time we save.

Except in war, population has not been dispersed, industry decentralized, congestion relieved to any visible degree by aeronautics. The airplane and the balloon have never been mass-produced* and have therefore played no such democratic role as that of the automobile.

* War brought an approach to mass production in 1939 and 1940 but not for democratic reasons. See Scientific American, July, 1939.

Except to a handful of the population, they have never even been instruments of freedom corresponding to the bicycle or the automobile. It is reasonable, therefore, to state that the social effects of ascension and flight apart from war are, as yet, invisible and lie, if at all, in the future.

This confinement does not, however, justify us in ignoring the invention, because we cannot ignore war. The social effects of aircraft as a weapon are inestimable. Already they have somewhat altered the social geography of the earth and they bid fair, in the next score of years, to alter it almost out of recognition.

Probably no inventions since that of gunpowder have spread more terror through the world or engendered in each human heart a more profound distrust of its fellow. They have emboldened men to lie, hardened them to hate, glorified their theft.

With aircraft under their control, traitors to civilization have become supermen, competent to break the laboriously constructed morality of human society. Thus mankind, whose component units had hoped through endless millennia to reach heaven by flying, now finds itself in hell as the result of a highly scientific invention.


Surely, in 1940, the old thinkers who held that the wrath of God was forever imminent would have ample justification for a belief that that wrath was loosed upon the world almost from the first moment that men successfully imitated the bird.

Such a solution, however, of the world’s depravity is a little too simple. At many points in the story of technology we see new inventions as instruments of good and evil, depending upon the human hands into which they fall.

The radio will multiply, and the disc record reproduce, the sound of lies with the same fidelity with which they treat the sound of truth.

The film will not jam in the camera because it is made to photograph a falsehood.

The automobile will give the same performance in the pursuit of a criminal as in the flight of a fugitive from justice.

A high-explosive charge will destroy a hundred lives with much the same exactness with which it cuts a path through a mountain to the benefit of peaceful transportation.

So far, men have flown to their perdition simply because it was their disposition to do so. The disposition was there before the wings.

There is, however, behind the flying machine, the subtle factor which we have indicated and which is not present behind most other inventions. The anti-social intent was there uncounted ages before the means evolved.

Airships and flying machines answered no social necessity but only the lonely, individual yearning for escape and superiority. Even the bow and arrow, the spear and the gun supplied community needs. The balloon and the airplane did not. To some extent, then, the evil (socially speaking) was inherent in the invention.

We like to think that such dispositions will, in time, be overcome by the operation of those forces in human nature which differentiate us from the animals out of which we evolved. If the evil ambitions of mankind in general are to be overcome, the airplane may find brilliant opportunities in more beneficent social fields.

But, whatever these may be, the fact will remain that, technically, the instruments of aeronautics have developed through their war uses. But for the World War of 1914 and the military incentive it bred, the airplane might have remained a plaything, its main use a dangerous sport.

Because its military value was so great, governments throughout the world have heavily subsidized its costly technical development. Because of these subsidies great transport lines today cast their shadows over the entire earth. Because fighting is the most difficult exercise in which a plane may engage, extraordinary mobility has been produced.

While the use of the airplane may be held partly responsible for the 1939 European conflict, it is certain that extremely rapid development in technic will be a direct result of war aviation as it was in the years of the craft’s infancy.

Indeed the future of aviation will be so largely conditioned by this new war that prophecies are, in general, unwise at the moment.


The whole subject must be approached with caution lest our words be obsolete by the time they achieve the flesh of print.

Aviation, at the moment, is in the midst of a transitional stage. The entire trend, technical and social, may change within a few years. We will do well, then, to confine ourselves largely to past history. It is fascinating enough.

§ 2

Before we begin any technical investigation into the past, it might be well to define a few terms.

The word “aeronautics” has been used to cover the entire field of air activity. More properly, it should be confined to the use of navigable craft.

“Aerostation” usually means the use of free or captive balloons not strictly navigable.

“Aviation” applies only to the use of heavier-than-air craft.

Because the bird flew constantly over his head, the mind of man concerned itself, first, with heavier-than-air flight. Until past the middle of the eighteenth century, this sort of thinking continued; then some of the thinkers branched off in another direction.

Serious reflection began, at this point, upon the fact that certain things rose without wings. The smoke from a fire, for example, indicated such a rising. The particles which formed the smoke might, themselves, be heavier than the air, but, obviously, they were carried upward by something that was lighter.

So, it was thought, was the water in a cloud. If this lighter-than-air matter, whatever it was, could be captured and stuffed in a bag, perhaps it could be used to lift heavy weights such as a man against gravity.

The first inventors who made this thought fruitful were the French Montgolfier brothers, Joseph Michel and Etienne Jacques. They made a bag out of silk, held a lighted paper under the opening and, presently, up went the bag to the ceiling.

Some seven months later, in June, 1783, the brothers, in a public demonstration, caused a paper-lined linen bag of 23,000 cubic feet capacity to rise to a height of 6000 feet.

Apparently the Montgolfiers thought that they had discovered a mysterious new gas produced by combustion. The mystery was given wide publicity. It has been stated by eminent authorities that this view was universal and that “all contemporaneous accounts of the Montgolfiers’ work . . . give the credit for the ascension to ‘Montgolfier’s gas’ or, as it was likewise called, l’air alkalin.”*

* The celebrated Encyclopedia Britanica, 13th ed., I, 262, has fallen into this same error.

This is not strictly true as two contemporaneous letters from Benjamin Franklin testify. “Some suppose it,” he wrote on August 30, 1783, “to be only common Air heated . . . and therefore extreamly rarified.”

In November he wrote after witnessing a spectacular ascent of a Montgolfier balloon: “The Air rarified in passing thro’ this Flame rose in the Balloon, swelled out its sides and fill’d it. This American observer, whose comments have been ignored by several historians, was not so easily fooled!

This November event seems to have been the first man-carrying, free balloon ascension in history. The heroes of the occasion were François Pilatre de Rozier (who had just previously attempted the sensation of going up 84 feet in a captive balloon) and the Marquis d’Arlandes.

The safety of leaving terra firma in this manner had already been demonstrated by the Montgolfiers to their king, Louis XVI, when, in September, a sheep, a duck and a rooster had risen and descended without serious injury.

A sheep, a duck and a rooster had risen and descended without serious injury.

In the gallery of the improved man-carrying November balloon was a small furnace which the two aeronauts were expected to keep alight by throwing straw and wool upon it and thus renew the heated air. The voyage was about nine thousand yards long, lasted between twenty and twenty-five minutes and ended safely.

The Montgolfiers were aided by tremendous popular publicity. Enormous crowds gathered for the demonstrations (as, indeed, they did to see any marvel of science), and from the spectacular nature of the ascensions, their fame spread far and wide.

It was, of course, a great era in France. Benjamin Franklin’s presence there symbolized the birth of democracy coincident with the awakening of scientific consciousness among the masses.

From this point the technics of aerostation advanced rapidly. The gas, hydrogen, had already been produced and weighed and found much lighter than air. At the same time that the Montgolfiers were working, the French chemist, Jacques Alexandre César Charles, whom we met for a vague moment in the story of photography, was busy filling bags with this gas.

The hydrogen was made by pouring sulphuric acid over iron filings.

It may be imagined what quantities of these substances and what a time it took to inflate the bag, thirteen feet in diameter, which was used for Charles’s first public demonstration. This took place in a rainstorm before a crowd of a hundred thousand on the Champ de Mars, Paris.

The balloon, carrying no passengers, leaped up three thousand feet and came down fifteen miles away in Gonesse where it terrified the inhabitants. They thought it an evil animal and fled to the priest for comfort.

This ascension took place on August 27, 1783; four months later, Charles and a friend went up in a similar balloon. Scarcely more than a year after that, Jean-Pierre Francois Blanchard, a native of Normandy, and J. Jeffries, a Massachusetts physician, by remarkable luck managed to get themselves blown across the English channel in a hydrogen balloon.*

* The American financed the expedition.

From this moment France became air-minded. But the vogue for aeronautics spread abroad soon after. By 1790 ascents had been made in England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy and the United States, though most of the “firsts” in these various countries are claimed by the intrepid French aeronaut, Blanchard.

In 1793, President Washington instigated a subscription of $2000 to finance a Blanchard ascent from Philadelphia, and it is said that Blanchard asked for a personal letter vouching for his innocence of evil intent which he might show to the farmers among whom he should come down. His English was bad, he explained, and he might not be able to explain why he had descended thus from the skies.

Ballooning makes its debut in America.

A hundred and thirty-four years later, Charles Lindbergh, taking off for France, displayed a similar bashfulness and made his solo flight armed with letters of introduction lest he find himself alone and friendless in unfamiliar Paris.

No American seems to have made a successful ascent in America until 1830, when Charles Durant was blown from Hoboken to South Amboy in New Jersey.

By this time the balloon had begun its military career in Europe. During the French revolution, an aeronautical school was founded at Meudon. Balloon reconnaissance is said to have brought French victory in the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and Napoleon tried it in Egypt.

It is possible that the moral effect of this novel device was of more value than any tactical results. For good reasons, the captive balloon soon replaced the free one in military work. It was used in the Civil War when news of the fighting was telegraphed from it.

Free balloons returned for a brief moment during the siege of Paris in 1870 for purposes of escape and for establishing communications with the outside world.* Sometimes they carried homing pigeons, which flew back to the besieged city bringing news from without.

* This has been said to be the first use of aircraft “to carry human beings from the place where they then were to some other place where they wanted to be and which they could not reach as well by any other means.” Edward P. Warner, The Early History of Air Transportation. A lecture delivered at Norwich University, Northfield, Vt., 1938.

Captive balloons were extensively used for observation in the World War and, in the War of 1939, for air-raid protection.

The balloon first liberated the human mind from the fear that, until he achieved immortality, man could never rise from the earth. From the time of the first ascension, imaginations played with extravagant fancies. It was natural that these should reach their culmination in the grandiose America of the 1870’s.

For thirty years John Wise of Philadelphia had believed in the possibility of crossing the Atlantic in a balloon. In 1843, he had petitioned Congress for a naval appropriation for this purpose. In 1873, the New York ‘Daily Graphic’ backed him in his project and, with a balloon of 400,000 cubic feet capacity.

He got about forty miles on his voyage. After his crash at New Canaan, Connecticut, his backers withdrew. He lived, however, to be drowned at last in Lake Michigan.

From St. Louis to New York via Balloon.

Generally speaking, the free balloon only served to exasperate by granting half of the human desire. Having risen to the wanted height, men saw no practical use in it. Far from finding a new god at this altitude, they met the wrath of their old One in various forms. They found themselves, indeed, almost completely at His mercy.

Control of their travel was far more limited for practical purposes than that of the master of the sailing ship, who at least had learned to oppose the wind. The balloon could not do this with all the attempts at “oars” and wings which were made.

The aeronaut could only control motion up and down by throwing out ballast and letting out gas. As such bouncing led to no particular improvement in either social or individual condition and frequently resulted in disaster, free ballooning eventually found its level as a dangerous sport.

With the passing of the free balloon, aerostation took another technical direction. As the inventive mind moved from the vertical to the horizontal, the gas bag changed its shape. As power plants improved upon the ground, attempts were made to lift them into the air.

This led, immediately, toward lightness in engine construction. The result was the power dirigible and, here again, France led the way.

The steam engine presented a difficulty. It is extremely unhealthful to burn wood or coal directly under a bag containing inflammable gas. There was also the question of weight, for a steam engine requires water as well as fuel.

Henry Giffard, a French steam engineer, cut through these objections to the first success ever attained with a navigable balloon. His three-horsepower engine weighed 462 pounds, or 159 to the horsepower, which was light for the period, and turned a three-bladed propeller.

It was in a boat hung far below his bag for safety. He was able to travel a little more than six miles per hour when no strong wind opposed him.

Giffard was followed by other experimenters using electric motors with batteries but, until at the beginning of the automobile era, when the Brazilian, Albert Santos Dumont, equipped a dirigible with an internal combustion motor weighing about nineteen pounds to the horsepower, no real practical future for the airship was visible.

This was in 1891. Ten years later his sixth ship won a prize by following a prescribed course over Paris, a distance of seven miles in less than half an hour.

Albert Santos Dumont flies his dirigible over Paris.

Airship invention moved, in the early 1900’s, to Germany. At this point we see metallurgy coming for the first time to strengthen the lighter-than-air inventions. Aluminum had just been cheapened by the electrolytic processes of Hall and Heroult, and Ferdinand von Zeppelin recognized that it was the proper structural material for airships.

The old invention question is revived as we review the work of this brilliant German army officer, whose early career is associated with American union.* He was preceded in the “invention” of the rigid airship. He merely made the first one that would fly.

* He was a military observer with the Union Army during the Civil War.

A rigid airship is one which will not change its shape. It has the disadvantage of retaining this shape (as well as its full size) even after it has stopped flying, unlike collapsible balloons and non-rigid airships, and it must, therefore, be housed or it will blow away.*

* Between these two classes is the “semi-rigid” which tries to keep its shape by means of a keel.

Zeppelin’s ships had an aluminum framework covered by cloth. The bags containing the gas were separate: they were within the structure but formed no part of it. The first ship, the ‘Luftschiff Zeppelin I,’ or LZ-I, had two sixteen-horsepower gasoline engines and propelled the ship at the astonishing rate of seventeen miles per hour.

For the first time, after Zeppelin’s flights had been watched, the public became interested and confident in navigable, power-driven, lighter-than-air craft and capital was soon forthcoming for the foundation of a large stock company for their manufacture.

From this time, however, the airship has had a curiously unfruitful and tragic career. Its undoubted success in the early years of the World War as the first minister of “schrecklichkeit” contributed little to the improvement of its own technology.

It did much more to improve the airplanes and anti-aircraft artillery of the terrified defenders. The terror it spread was, after all, a shock terror—a fear of the unknown, for it did little enough physical damage. But the fear of these raids was such that an immense amount of energy, men and money was spent on defense.

As the Zeppelin operated only at night, and as the only really effective defense came from airplanes, and as aviation was not yet adapted to work in the dark, casualties were not entirely the result of bombs.

Because of ignorant terror of a comparatively harmless weapon and the consequent damage to morale, England was obliged to keep twelve air squadrons in continuous readiness at home, not to mention some five hundred hit-or-miss anti-aircraft guns.

In the end, however, Germany abandoned airships except for scouting; presumably because they cost so much to build. The loss of one Zeppelin, the L-33 in 1916, brought down in an air raid over England, represented a money loss of $1,750,000.

German Zeppelin brought down.

Since the war, disaster after disaster has attended the use of airships. They have burned and they have buckled, and the causes often have been difficult to spot. The latest ships have been all-metal, of enormous size and have used helium* rather than hydrogen gas.

* lnert, non-explosive, non-ignitable.

The increase in size was an essential to speed. The use of duralumin steel in construction was expected to enhance safety, but no entirely satisfactory mathematical calculation has yet been devised for stresses in bad storms.

The lighter-than-air aircraft still has its strong protagonists. It may conceivably have a brilliant future as transport in time of peace. So far its total social effect was contained in the brief reign of terror in England from 1914 to 1917. The destruction of the Hindenburg* in 1937, after many successful transatlantic trips, was a terrible blow to public confidence in the airship.

* By fire. She was using, at the time, hydrogen gas as she was at the end of a west-bound trip. She could not obtain the inert helium in Europe.

After the disaster, the Hindenburg’s pilot abandoned transatlantic navigation though the Graf Zeppelin, which he piloted clear around the globe in 1929 had survived. His reason was that the United States had refused to sell helium gas to Germans.

In strictly military work, which we still take the liberty of distinguishing from schrecklichkeit over centers of civilians, small airships have been valuable.

They were able to cruise over the water in a leisurely manner, watching the movements of submarines and signalling the news of them to destroyers or even dropping projectiles. For such slow maneuvers the airplane was useless.

§ 3

It serves no purpose to confuse a brief history of air invention by recounting the hundreds of records of man’s attempt to fly by muscular exercise. Histories of aviation abound with descriptions and old prints of such human angels flapping their wings and becoming genuine angels only at the moment of crash.

These things belong in the lunatic fringe of invention. They are incidents of the long catharsis necessary to rid the mind of the delusion that machinery can successfully imitate the dynamic motions of nature.

Invention in any mechanical sphere may be said to begin only with the discovery of the principles employed in the machine which finally works. Several balloon experiments have been described because they achieved, in practice, the immediate purpose of the inventor or demonstrated certain technics later adopted in all lighter-than-air effort.

Hundreds of others have been omitted (as any aeronautical student will instantly observe) because they did not. A dream is not an invention no matter how many patents may be granted it; nothing, indeed, is an invention except a process or a device which works.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s vision of flight.

The first true approach to flying was made when attention was focussed on the soaring, gliding and landing of the bird rather than its flapping. For while natural dynamic motion is seldom efficiently imitable by machines, a study of shapes and balances as they exist in nature sometimes furnishes useful guides.

Thus a long contemplation of the form of the fish proved valuable to the designer of ships, particularly when he came to submersibles. On the other hand, the motion by which it propelled itself could not be efficiently imitated by machinery. Yet again, the means by which the fish was balanced and steered might well be copied.

The wing-flapping theory was exploded by a professor of mathematics at Pisa. “It is clear,” said Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, “that the motive power of the pectoral muscles in man is much less than is necessary for flight, for in Birds the bulk and weight of the muscles for flapping the wings are not less than a sixth part of the entire weight of the body.” In man, he explained, the “pectoral muscles do not equal a hundredth part of the entire weight of a man.

However the specific calculations of Borelli may suffer from modern analysis, he expressed a truth here which should have influenced experimenters through the centuries which followed. He summed up his study with the conclusion which later inventors should have used as a starting point that, “It is impossible that men should be able to fly artificially by their own strength.”

Wastefully, for more than two centuries, the inventors ignored Borelli and flapped miserably to their destruction. Even the educated German engineer, Lilienthal, late in the nineteenth century, could not rid himself of the error.

Yet Otto Lilienthal, in another mood, was one of the first to make a practical approach to true flying. It is an interesting fact that flying began downward rather than upward. Lilienthal carefully studied natural wing surfaces. He tried to imitate the first spring or leap by which the bird leaves the ground but without success.

He resorted, then, to gravity to supply the force for his initial effort. Equipped with scientifically designed wings, he jumped from high places or ran down hill for his start, and the wings supported him in the air. As he encountered the wind he was able to soar—to rise higher than the point of his take-off.

The same interplay of wind and plane surface, which enables a ship to sail “into the wind” at an angle with the direction of the wind, sent him upward. This was one phase of flight. But it was not fully controlled flight. When the wind dropped, so did Lilienthal, and his device, unlike the bird, contained within itself no means of rising again.

Yet this limited success marked a long step forward. It proved that a heavier-than-air flying machine must move upon and climb upon surfaces of air created by itself. Its resistance to the air forms a compactness of the air below it at the same time that its motion produces a partial vacuum above it. The vacuum tends to lift, the compression prevents falling.

Lilienthal’s device was the “glider.” It was not his original invention.

Lilienthal, the great exponent of gliding—in his birdlike craft.

German effort in this direction had been anticipated in England by George Cayley, who conceived the biplane and first stated the basic principles of mechanical flight, by Francis Wenham, William Henson and John Stringfellow.

In the United States the sensational glides with gliders designed by John Montgomery and launched from balloons did much to convince a skeptical public of the possibility of safe flight.

Lilienthal’s machines put into practice many of the principles evolved by these pioneers. The untangling of the intricate history of aviation is simplified by focussing on a few successful experimenters whether or not they “originated” the theories on which their success was based.

Interest in heavier-than-air flying in America began with the study of Lilienthal’s work; hence our emphasis upon him.

Octave Chanute, whose career in the air began at the age of sixty, was a distinguished American* engineer.

* Born in France, 1832, emigrated when six years old.

Unlike most early flyers, he brought a mature mind to bear upon invention. Flying, he said, must be approached one step at a time. Granting that a motor would eventually be incorporated in the flying machine, he did not obscure his thought by this phase.

We may mark the stage of the catharsis by the absence of flapping from his mind. He concentrated, instead, on balance, taking off here from the work of Lilienthal. Balance in the air was his first objective. If gliding was to remain a sport, the maintenance of equilibrium by shifting the position of the body of its operator (as Lilienthal had managed it) was all very well.

It was natural that such supple, acrobatic maneuvering should hardly appeal to the sexagenarian Chanute. “The bird,” he wrote, “. . . is an acrobat and balances himself by instinct, but in the inanimate machine the ‘equipoise’ should be ‘automatic’ if possible.”

He designed a biplane, with a flexible tail and a penta-plane with movable wings. He never got as far as powered flight.

His longest glide was less than a thousand feet. His importance to this history is, as an English historian has expressed it, that, in heavier-than-air flying, he “definitely transferred the ascendancy from Europe to the United States.”

§ 4

Chanute, though he objected to certain of Lilienthal’s theories, was enthusiastic about the practical work of this pioneer and included in his book, published in 1899, an appendix containing a translation of a large portion of Lilienthal’s writings.

Whether or not this book introduced Lilienthal to the men who would finally make a successful powered flying machine, there can be little doubt that it added much to their understanding of, and confidence in, the German experimenter.

Chanute’s was one of the first flying books the Wright brothers read. Another was the work on aerodynamics by Samuel Pierpont Langley. They learned much from the studies of James Means.

Chanute “Five Decker” glider, 1896.

At this point in the history of flying in America we begin to see a curious interplay between the flyers and the public. As Chanute began his work the public mind in the United States was fresh toward heavier-than-air flight or “aviation.” The only important gliding which had been seen was that with the machines of John Montgomery, a professor, and it had inspired confidence.

The many failures of European wing-flappers and half-baked gliders in Europe were largely unknown here. When Chanute, a well-known, mature, distinguished engineer, after a long career of achievement in his profession, took up flying, the public at large was convinced that there was “something in it.”

But Chanute was wise enough to leave engines out of his practical demonstrations. His belief that engines could come only after means of stability in the air had been thoroughly learned was sound. His belief that the use of small models could not fully and finally demonstrate practicability* was also sound.

* Although models in wind tunnels have made possible the accumulation of much data.

That this renowned technician succeeded, as far as he went, gave an immense boost to the faith of the people.

Drawing of truss as Chanute applied it to the glider.

But this very distinction, maturity and renown which bolstered public trust in the case of Chanute had precisely the opposite effect in the case of Samuel Langley. Langley was secretary of the celebrated Smithsonian Institution. That such a man should try to fly attracted country-wide interest. Every experiment he made was followed, especially in the press, with eagerness.

Unfortunately Langley reversed the sound methods of Chanute. He put engines into models. The models were large-scale and they seem to have flown beautifully. From this point, because he had given too little time to practical, man-carrying, non-powered gliders, he built a man-carrying machine with an engine in it.

The Government had given him fifty thousand dollars for the purpose. This award plus Langley’s renown gave the public a promise that his machine would work.

When it failed in such presumably expert hands, the public and the press swung to the conclusion that flying was forever impossible—that it was an age-old lunatic’s dream belonging in the same category as perpetual motion.

Thus, in an instant, the confidence so carefully nurtured by Montgomery and Chanute was wiped out.

Flight of the Langley monoplane ended in disaster.

Yet this very collapse gave a singular opportunity to the young amateurs of Dayton, Ohio. Because they were totally unknown, Wilbur and Orville Wright were able to pursue their methodical studies in secret. Before the final debacle of Langley, they were strengthened, in this sense, by every failure he experienced.

They were actually assisted by the gossip among the few who saw their early trials that they were lunatics and “not worth bothering with.” Even at their first demonstration of success, which occurred nine days after Langley’s ultimate failure, not a half-dozen people thought it worth-while to watch, although a general invitation had been extended to the people living within five or six miles.

After the first success, therefore, which had no publicity, they were able to perfect their instrument over a considerable period of time without the handicaps of ridicule at occasional failures or impatience generated by occasional triumphs.

When the Wright brothers first engaged earnestly in the sport of flying, they asked the Smithsonian for books on the subject. In response they got Chanute’s ‘Progress in Flying Machines’ and Langley’s ‘Experiments in Aerodynamics.’ The Chanute book included, in an appendix, the important parts of Lilienthal’s own writings. Thus the Wrights had for their study the climax of flying in Europe plus the story of how the pioneer Americans had profited by it.

The amateur status of the Wrights has been pointed out by many reporters of their work.

Their complete lack of formal technical education, or indeed of any regular education beyond the common schools, has been held up to young inventors as evidence of conquest by trial-and-error as proof that the “school of hard knocks” furnishes the only proper curriculum for an inventive career.

This is unfortunate. It dissembles the facts.

“We had taken up aeronautics,” they wrote, “simply as a sport. We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper.” By 1901, they were in deadly earnest. And by this time, also, they had begun to apply the true scientific method of invention to their work.

It is, indeed, difficult to find, in the history of invention, any more sincere, intelligent application of this method than theirs. That they were self-educated in applied science does not mean that they were not educated or that they attacked their problems with haphazard trial.

Their invention was the result of study, not of “hard knocks.”

The steps by which these unschooled young men arrived at the true scientific attitude give a remarkable revelation of the correct inventional program. As soon as their gliding graduated from the sport stage, they concentrated on books. Gradually, with great reluctance, they were forced to eliminate Lilienthal, Chanute and Langley.

“Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations. Truth and error were everywhere so intimately mixed as to be indistinguishable.

“Nevertheless, the time expended in preliminary study of books was not misspent for they gave us a good general understanding of the subject, and enabled us at the outset to avoid effort in many directions in which results would have been hopeless.”

Could there be a clearer exposition of the process of scientific approach?

The predecessor of the modern flying machine, Wright’s glider, 1903. It was from Chanute’s trussed biplane glider that the Wrights got their main ideas of construction.

They then built testing machines—not gliders, but laboratory equipment. Patiently, with repeated tests, they made their own tables of air pressures.

“We began systematic measurements of standard surfaces, so varied in design as to bring out the underlying causes of differences noted in their pressures. Measurements were tabulated on nearly fifty of these at all angles from zero to 45 degrees, at intervals of 2 1/2 degrees.” Thus they disclosed the extent to which previous tables had been based on guesswork or assumption.

The results were revolutionary. “One surface, with a heavy roll at the front edge, showed the same lift for all angles from 7 1/2 to 45 degrees. A square plane, contrary to the measurements of all our predecessors, gave a greater pressure at 30 degrees than at 45 degrees.”

Only when their tables were complete did they begin the serious building of gliders for practical tests.*

* The two they had already built belonged to what might be called their amateur period.

Octave Chanute, the thoroughly educated and trained engineer, watched these performances with amazement. He eagerly conceded their results to be in advance of any that had preceded them. “Too much praise,” he wrote, “cannot be awarded to these gentlemen.” He continued to give them his unselfish, zealous support.

Yet the Wrights reversed the theory of Chanute as they had the data of Langley. They abandoned his automatic stability idea ‘in toto.’

A proper flying machine, they contended, must not right itself; equilibrium must be maintained by the conscious control of the operator. Their machines justified this conviction and, for the first time, the subtle tricks of the air were successfully combated. Then, after exhaustive trial with the wind glider, they slowly, carefully added its power plant.

They were amazed to find that marine propellers were still “after a century of use,” largely the product of guesswork. Observe here the scientific method coming again to the fore as a measure of economy. “As we were not in a position to undertake a long series of practical experiments to discover a propeller suitable for our machine, it seemed necessary to obtain such a thorough understanding of the theory of its reactions as would enable us to design them from calculation alone.”

Having done this, they report, succinctly: “Our first propellers, built entirely from calculation, gave in useful work 66 per cent of the power expended. This was about one-third more than had been secured by Maxim or Langley.” Their eight-horsepower motor brought the total weight to 600 pounds, including the operator.

All the world knows the story of the trial at Kitty Hawk (now a national shrine) just a week and a day after the unbalance of Langley’s “aerodrome” had given what seemed the final blow to aviation. It is almost universally believed that then, for the first time in history,* a machine, carrying a man, had risen from the ground under its own power and flown.

* There is, however, another claimant for this honor. A book, containing affidavits, etc., was recently published describing the flights in Connecticut in 1901 and 1902 of Gustave Whitehead. Stella Randolph, The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead, Washington, 1937.

Artist, Lumen Winter’s tribute to the Wright brothers’ first flight.

But, on the day after the trial, only five people besides the inventors were aware of this remarkable event. The Wrights had spread an invitation over the countryside. The day was cold and the wind was blowing at twenty-seven miles per hour over the desolate stretch of sand dunes.

It was scarcely worth venturing out on such a day to see one more lunatic crash. If the great Professor Langley could not fly, what could they expect of a couple of lads whose careers had begun in a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio?

Thus were the Wrights saved by obscurity and the suspicion of madness for the full development of their invention.

To us today Orville’s first little flight scarcely suggests a magnificent spectacle. The machine was in the air only twelve seconds. It did not rise more than ten feet above the earth.

A great deal of perfection was necessary.

Two years later, the American public being inert to flying, the news filtered through it to France where there was an “Aero Club.” The club started an investigation to see if it could be true. Witnesses were rounded up and cross-examined.

Farmers were found who had seen later flights by the brothers near Dayton. “I just kept on shocking corn,” one of them said, “until I got down to the fence, and the durned thing was still going round. I thought it would never stop.”

Another told how a city man, getting off a trolley car, had been stupefied to see a machine fly over the car. “Whazzat?” he is said to have shouted in terror to the farmer. But the farmer was bored. “Just one of them crazy boys. . . . Both crazy and always was. Y’can’t go agin nature.”

Three years later Wilbur gave exhibitions at Le Mans, France, which surprised the French so that they lost no time in spreading the Wright fame over the world.

Six years after that, the new invention was dropping implements of destruction over Europe.

Twenty-five years after that it was regularly carrying passengers across the Atlantic.

It seems a far cry from the cat’s cradle “crates” of the first World War which terrified their own pilots no less than the enemy soldiers or civilians below to the multi-motored, all-metal giant monoplanes which fly in 1940 in storm and fog and night and can release a two-ton bomb with reasonable certainty of hitting their target, or, in happier times will ride along a radio beam to land a precious cargo in safety.

Boeing YB-17 bomber.

Yet the basic principles of flight have not greatly changed since 1903. The delicate mechanisms which “warped” the fabric wings by bending their edges have been replaced on rigid metal wings by hinged ailerons.

The little automobile engine of the Wrights bears a faint resemblance to the two-thousand-horsepower eighteen-cylinder radial engine which propels an American army plane in 1939, nor do the little twin two-bladed propellers, run from the same engine in the Kitty Hawk plane and working in the rear, look much like the great three-bladed hydromatic, full-feathering propellers which meet the varying air conditions of modern flight.

Yet power is power and performs the same function. The difference is that there is more of it per unit of weight so that other loads may be increased. A few automatic stabilizers have been added (notwithstanding the Wrights’ objections) and a plane can keep on its course while its pilot sleeps.

Light, durable metal, whose development will be discussed elsewhere, has made these changes possible.

Though most basic advance seems to have been inspired by military needs, remarkable progress was made in the inter-war years. Between 1920 and 1938 transport cruising speed has been doubled, power-loading decreased by one-third, which means an increase of 50 per cent in power per unit of weight.

Average wing-loading has increased 160 per cent. Passenger capacity has quadrupled. Today there is in transport planes an engine rating of 125 to 160 horsepower per passenger as opposed to one of about 50 per passenger in 1920.

These technical advances have been made possible, not by the growing number of people wanting to fly, but by government subsidies, direct in Europe, indirect (mail contracts) in the United States. In the background of all commercial flying is the dominant military necessity.

It is a curious reflection upon the intermittent progress of the human race that the safety of aviation today is a by-product of the effort to make it dangerous. The survivors of the airplane’s destruction will, therefore, be able, eventually, to fly in it without a tremor.

To what extent war uses of aviation have confused the public mind about the safety of transport is difficult to ascertain. If such confusion exists, it is highly unreasonable because an economic necessity forces a nation at war to make its military machines as safe as possible and if technic can be advanced sufficiently to provide a reasonable index of survival under the terrific strain of fighting, an immense advance in transport safety can be secured.

It is logical to assume, therefore, that the nation which emerges from the struggle of 1939 with the largest air fleet still intact is the one which may be counted on in the post-war era to provide the safest transport.

The figures which show the increase in passenger miles since air transport began show also the growth in public confidence. Yet this confidence is obviously far below that in other means of transport.

If we now set against these figures the low indices of accident per passenger mile of aviation, it becomes evident that some other factor is operating in the mind of the potential traveller. Perhaps this is the spectacular nature of the crashes which still occur. Perhaps it is the unreasonable association of the airplane with appalling war disaster.

Whatever may be said of the uses of aviation in contemporary society, there can be little doubt that the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine is one of the most astounding if not indeed the greatest of all products of the human mind to date.

Its beauty is reflected in the characters of the heroes of its invention. Almost without exception they have been selfless, pure-purposed men, fitter perhaps for schoolboy worship than any group in the history of invention. No slur, as far as we know, has ever been cast upon the careers or intents of Lilienthal, Chanute, Langley or the Wrights.

Douglas DC-3 modern comfort for the traveller.

§ 5

The practice of aeronautics and the technics of aircraft have profoundly affected the study of science and the development of other technologies. The exploration of the stratosphere may approach completion with rocket development.

The study of weather has already entered a new phase. Airplanes have been used in botanical and geological research. They have aided both the practice and theory of medicine and physiology. With them photography has found a new use. With them, polar, desert, volcanic phenomena have been abundantly investigated. Their construction has helped to revolutionize technics of metallurgy and power efficiency.

Social promises are visible. The use of planes by individuals and “the family plane” must await new advances in vertical flight and descent as well as drastic reduction in cost.

Experts at present refuse to comment extensively on the future of what might be called a “fordplane,” which must employ a helicopter principle of vertical ascent and descent. At present it may be said that aviation has scarcely impinged upon the masses (except to kill or scare them).

When it does, we may expect dispersion and the relief of congestion. Such dispersion so far has been a negative and artificial result of aviation—astonishing in the extent to which it has been carried in war-troubled Europe.

Air-mail has catered to impatience engendered by the impulse of speed. Its benefits have been sporadic. Transport must carry goods in large quantity before it will have social consequences.

One promise in this direction is striking. In Canada, New Guinea and South America, mines, inaccessible to other transport, have been exploited, machinery and ore being taken in and out by airplane. Here the prohibitive initial capital expense of building roads or railroads through difficult country has been entirely eliminated.

On the other hand, operating cost of the air transport is extremely high. Whether roads or railroads, difficult as they might be, might turn out cheaper over a long period in which overhead could be spread over continued less expensive operation is still an economic question. In these cases, the fact is that the mines remained unexploited until air transport arrived.

But a probable answer in the future will be a lowering of the cost of transport by aviation.

Already costs are being materially reduced, notably by Diesel motors using crude oil. So far planes using these engines have been capable of longer non-stop flight at a somewhat lower speed, but with considerable saving in both weight of fuel per horsepower and fuel cost. A prominent English aeronautical engineer has gone so far as to prophesy that in ten years the fare for a fifteen-hour transatlantic passage will be as low as fifty dollars.*

* Personal interview. We have thought it wise to withhold the name of the prophet.

As this estimate includes a reasonable profit over and above operating cost and overhead, it seems like a highly optimistic prediction.

Douglas DC-4E. Prophesy of future travel.

Almost the entire ancient art of war has been upset by aeronautics. Secret massing of troops has become impossible except when observation planes and balloons can be annihilated. Since the arrival of the air arm, the new technic of camouflage has become a necessity.

New tricks of propaganda from the air have aided in demoralizing reserve forces and breaking civilian morale. Machine gunners, infantrymen and spies may be landed by parachute in any part of the enemy country. Bridges, railheads, roads, communications, trenches may be destroyed without the operation of ground forces.

Troops may be “strafed” by low-flying machine gunners. Civilian populations must be evacuated from towns. Factories, supply dumps, munitions supplies have become vulnerable.

The cost of such attacks and of the effort to disperse populations in danger of them is out of all proportion to the cost of maintaining the air arm. The result is a revision of wartime economy as well as a change in field maneuvers.

The question whether the organization of society popularly known as “civilization” can survive another war would scarcely have arisen without the presence of the air arm. In these years it is trite from repetition.

It is our suspicion either that “civilization” will survive or that it will not be worth the salvage. War, as we have suggested elsewhere, contains today all the elements of its own defeat.

Electric communication between flying persons eliminates the possibility of wires. Aviation has therefore been a great boon to the advance of wireless telegraphy and its successor, radiotelephony. This, in turn, has become an arm of war. In the new international conflict, every overtone of war is audible.

Whether this newest of all arms will bring the ultimate victory or the ultimate stalemate is not yet predictable. In any case it is a powerful instrument of the new war. It may shorten the social lag which causes it and so bring us peace.

However this may be, there can be no question that, in less than a quarter century, it has deeply affected all human relationships.

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