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Kill Devil Hills 17/12/1903.

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 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.


  1. Dizzy Ringo says:

    The second step for emancipation for women was the bicycle. The first was the brassiere. Which enabled women to take part in sport without doing themselves a nasty injury.

  2. NickM says:

    I think the bra came after the standard bicycle. Oddly enough… My lab partner (female) as an undergrad nixxed my idea of studying bras. I wanted to computer model the bounce and she was to provide the experimental test. She told me to ‘eff off. A few years later Loughborough Uni did it. And got a patent for a new sports bra. She just thought I was a prevert. I was serious. We did something on radio auroraes instead. Nah!

  3. RAB says:

    You and your Lab partner were both right Nick… You are a serious prevert :-)

    Talking of Airplanes, didn’t the designer of the Spruce Goose also design an underwired bra for Jane Russell? There was a man with a fine tuned appreciation of aerodynamics and control !

    And just how would you have gone about computer modelling the bounce then?

  4. NickM says:

    Because I had access to 486s at the time and they were seen as OK. And Maple and stuff. I am not a prevert! I thought it would make money! Most bras aren’t well engineered. D’oh! Still aren’t!

    I am a prevert, but not on that score!

  5. RAB says:

    Because I had access to 486s at the time and they were seen as OK.

    What kind of cup size is that! (and you also know I’m just riffing).

  6. Laird says:

    If I can steer the conversation back to the Wright Brothers, I’ve been to Kill Devil Hill and it’s fascinating to see the little hill and long field they flew in. The launch track has been rebuilt (it’s very short) and there are markers showing the distance of each of their four flights that day (each one farther than the last, but the longest only about 100 yards as I recall). Even the little shack they lived in is still there. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in just over a century.

    And as to control, they made a very serious study of it, with detailed and elaborate scale models of their various designs and even a wind tunnel (probably one of the first). Wing flex was a crucial element. Those were two smart guys!

  7. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    Top quality post and a great story to be added to the collection of why the state sucks.

  8. NickM says:

    Yes, and if I recall rather than moving ailerons and flaps and the like people are now considering going back to wing-warping! If Orv and Will are looking down on us (which other way could they look) they’d be having quiet smirk over that.

    Exactly. If it was all left to the state we’d still be in the stone-age. But there would be a Department for Rocks that would “produce” employment. Can you imagine their lack of gruntle when someone first smelted copper. It’ll never catch-on! It can’t be safe! It must be banned! Think of the jobs(worths) here it’ll put on the dole etc.

    I was very serious about the project. I have lots of whacky ideas and for various reasons don’t follow them up then I hear of someone doing it and they’ve got the IP and are having Umbrella drinks on private Carribean Islands with dusky maidens etc..

  9. RAB says:

    I know you were serious, I was just joshing, and it’s well worth still doing you know. Ness bought what is supposedly a state of the art bra the other day and it is seriously crap.

    But back to the Wright Bros and curiously a link to your Sir Patrick piece. When Sir Patrick met Orville, Orville told him of his great sadness that he and his brother’s invention had been used for warfare. The likes of HG Wells saw that coming immediately of course as far back as 1898 with the Time machine and War in the Air, 1904.

  10. NickM says:

    Now Orv died in 1948 so he knew of the worst of aerial bombarment but he never gave up his dream that the ‘plane would be an instrument of peace rather than pieces. I would argue time has perhaps proved him correct. Think EasyJet et al. Also think that no developed countries have fought an air-war since 1945 with each other. The nearest being the air/sea stuff with Argentina in ’82. Orv grasped that nukes made the whole thing too terrible and I think he was correct there too.

  11. Tim Newman says:

    That rail is still there, or at least a replica. I’ve been to the exact spot a few days after I myself went to the NASM in Washington. Not that I did it especially, it was part of a trip down the Outer Banks, but it’s nice to engage in a bit of blog comment one-upmanship. :)

  12. John Galt says:

    Yes, and if I recall rather than moving ailerons and flaps and the like people are now considering going back to wing-warping!

    It gets better still. It is possible that our next generation of interstellar craft (after Voyagers I & 2 and Pioneer 10 & 11) will be solar sail ships. To collect sufficient sunlight to push them on their way at reasonable speeds the solar sails would need to be square kilometres in size.

    Rather than using lines to control the attitude of the craft during acceleration and deceleration phases it might be simpler (thus less prone to failure) to use wing warping techniques to effect control.

    If Orville and Wilbur are looking down when the first of these ships start the slow spiral out to Alpha Centauri A/B then I hope it raises a smile.

    We need to start soon, otherwise the Vogons will be upon us.

  13. RAB says:

    We need to start soon, otherwise the Vogons will be upon us.

    Poetic Justice?

    I’ll get me coat…

  14. Sam Duncan says:

    “You see the thing was the Wright’s knew bicycles and I assume most readers can ride a bicycle. Odd things bicycles.”

    Very. There’s an fascinating article on two-wheeled vehicle dynamics in this month’s Racecar Engineering magazine (essential light bedtime reading – I only bought it for the Adrian Newey interview). At speed, wheels function as gyroscopes; that’s why it’s harder to balance a bike standing still. You have to shift your weight constantly to counterbalance the fall, and that’s hard. At speed, you’re only making tiny steering adjustments in the opposite direction to the wheels’ gyroscopic precession (the way a gyroscope tends to turn when tilted). When you want to turn, you shift your weight to induce precession, and only use the steering to limit it, so you don’t fall over.

    Everybody who rides a bike does this, and as you say, most of them don’t even realise it. Hell, the RE article was in response to a bloke who’s building a bike: he didn’t know. But the Wrights did.

    “Power is nothing without control” – Pirelli advertising slogan.

  15. RAB says:

    Do you remember the feeling of exhilaration that you got when riding your bike as a kid and finally got up the bottle to take your hands off the handle-bars, and found that you didn’t instantly crash and burn, but serenely soared on, steering by just shifting your weight?

  16. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Nick –

    The bicycle angle to the Wright Bros.’ success is something I’ve never come across before. It’s an important insight that really should be worked up into a journal article.

    Are you familiar with John Dos Passos? An interesting guy who had a complicated intellectual journey. He started as a communist but ended up as one of us. Anyway, in The Big Money(1936), part of his U.S.A. trilogy, he has an account of the events at Kill Devil Hills that is nothing less than sublime. It’s well worth hunting down.

  17. John Galt says:

    Must say that I haven’t cycled for years, but when I moved to Penang managed to wangle having a “B2″ (Motorcycles not exceeding 250 cc) classification added to my drivers license.

    Subsequently bought a local 2008 100cc Honda Boon Siew New Wave motorcycle.

    Bloody exhilaration I can tell you, racing up and down the island at 100 kmph.

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