Just over a century ago there was a race on…
It was won on this day in 1903 by two bicycle makers from Ohio. And not with a bicycle. Although that does matter and I shall get onto why later.
I could write (!) a lot on this but sometimes a picture says a thousand words…
This is Samuel Langley’s “Aerodrome” about to take an early bath in the Potomac around Quantico, VA in front of the World’s press… And perhaps more importantly, the US War Department in the form of Teddy Roosevelt who must have concluded that wasn’t $50,000 well spent - I mean I could go further through the air on a skateboard. There were journalists there with (relatively) new-fangled magic picture boxes (can you imagine the embarrassment!). Oh, and they also managed to nearly drown the pilot, twice - they tried again later. Samuel Langley (who wasn’t the pilot but was director of the Smithsonian) got his deputy to fly that contraption and that was into a river in VA in autumn - that’s gotta be ball-shrinkly cold. That was on October 7th 1903 (a follow-up with similarly dismal results occurred on December 8th of the same year - with the same pilot who must have been getting really narked by then).
On this day though, 109 years ago (and shortly after Langley caught the drink - or rather his poor “pilot” did (twice!)) this happened on Kill Devil Hills, NC…
Like I said about pictures…
I saw a documentary about the Wright Brothers a couple of years back. Marvelous stuff! Unlike the $50,000 of “government” money Langley spent the best estimate on what the Wright’s spent is $1,000 which is I suppose the cost of a decent camera these days which is ironic because that image is for me the image of the century of my birth (I happened a mere 70 years later) and you wouldn’t want it caught on your ‘phone. Also I have seen the Wright exhibition in the Smithsonian of which (at the time of the first flight) Samuel (putting a bloke in the drink, twice) Langley was director. When I visited the Smithsonian NASM I saw the ephemera of the Wright Brothers including Will’s pocket watch with which the dream of time immemorial was finally recorded upon - less than the wing-span of a 747 - 12 seconds. I also (it’s right at the entrance) saw the Apollo capsule that took Neil and Buzz and Mike safely home a mere 66 years later. Chuffed would be one way of putting it but I was utterly beside myself. I was seeing for real things I’d dreamed about since reading Bill Gunston as a little kid! It was superlative. Epic beyond my own dismal comprehension.
But there are unleft issues are there not?
Langley managed to panel his ‘plane and pilot into the Potomac. He had not thought of control. You see the thing was the Wright’s knew bicycles and I assume most readers can ride a bicycle. Odd things bicycles. I don’t think I have been on one since 2007 but I know I could ride one right now. Dead easy. Except it isn’t, is it? Langley attempted stability, the Wright’s attempted control. Most early attempts at heavier than air flight (including Langley’s) were based upon the idea that we would “sail the skies” with positive stability rather than metastatic stability (consider a pencil - easy to stand on it’s end - tough to stand on the point even though the symmetry suggests it should do just as well - that’s the difference - the point is meta-stable like the co-linear Lagrange points - it has no come-back from a minor perturbation like someone sneezing in the next room). So you need control because stability is undoable.
When you ride a bike you don’t think of it but you make minor adjustments all the time utterly unconsciously. Flight needs a pilot in much the same way. Orv and Will got this key point. Langley was trying to make a flying ship that would sail the friendly skies and remain stable without control input. Don’t work. That is how he wrecked his craft and almost drowned/froze his “pilot”. Because he wasn’t a pilot. What the Wright brothers figured was that control was more important than stability.
Many people think it remarkable that mere bicyclists first flew a controlled, powered, human-carrying aircraft. I don’t. They were well set-up for it.
But also, think on this… The bicycle was a huge invention. It enormously enlarged human freedom. It was the dot.com of it’s day (read late C.19th stories if you don’t believe me). It was the first time really that the likes of a nanny or accountant’s clerk could go on a trip. It was the automobile, indeed the aeroplane of it’s day. It probably did more for female (and male) emancipation than voting rights. It wasn’t exclusive or high-tech - that is my point - and that is why it caused a revolution. So it is fitting, sweet, and obvious (if you think about it) that bike makers invented the aeroplane off their own bat rather than a civil servant. They had the know-how and they also realised not so much the aeroplane (flying machines of sorts were not exactly new) but the conception of the pilot and the idea that control was the key. And that came from the bicycle. Now we all know the old saw about how you never forget how to ride a bike. What is hidden in there is the idea that no adult ever actually really recalls how they learnt. That is why the Wrights were utterly brilliant. They saw what other’s didn’t. They didn’t so much invent the ‘plane but the pilot. Now that is clever.
And also think on this. As I said the Wright’s spent 1/50th of the monies Langley got from the War Department. His attempt ended in dismal failure (at least partly because he was obsessed with stability rather than control) but the private enterprise model worked instead because…
Well, of the $50,000 Langley spent attempting to drown a man (twice) $10,000 of that was spent on his launch catapult. The Wright’s launched from a wooden rail that by all accounts was bought from a local timber yard and cost the princely sum of $4 - you can’t get a Happy Meal for that these days! Unlike Langley with his enormous ($50,000 was a lot of money back then!) funding the Wright’s were on a shoestring. Their “Flyer” was spotted (I hope you know what I mean by that?) by the local life-savers on the beach and a “curious teenager”. I assume from the timing the kid was on his way to school. I bet nobody believed him when he gave his excuse for why he was late!
Flick forward over a hundred years now. We have SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Not NASA as much (who are still expanding into space - office space). I saw a documentary about Burt Rutan recently. Utter gonzo-spacing - excellent stuff! I might get to the methane seas of Titan after-all.
The state didn’t make people fly and it won’t take us to Mars or the stars.
I think we can all take comfort in that.