Today, we see what happens when an old goal is
reached. 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.
Let's look at the 24-page
article on aeronautics in my 1897
Encyclopaedia Britannica -- the set I
was raised with when I was a kid. It was published
six years before the Wright brothers flew. This is
the same article that appeared in the 1878 edition.
Things were curiously on hold in the late days of
the gestation of flight.
The article recites the quasi-mythical history of
flight, from Daedalus to state-of-the-art
ballooning. As a boy, in love with flight, I would
turn pages until I stumbled on a great spray of
differential equations near the end of the article.
The writer was using the math and physics of his
day to calculate the terminal height of a rising
balloon. Today we take his math for granted, and he
just looks like an academic show-off.
But he shows great seriousness of purpose. He
begins with an insightful discussion of the problem
of aerial navigation. He points to renaissance
sketches of balloons equipped with sails. That
obviously makes no sense, because balloons move
with the surrounding air. They cannot feel the wind
For centuries we'd imagined ships in the sky. We'd
felt that flight, whether lighter or heavier than
air, should be analogous to the buoyancy of
sailing. But that overlooks the essential
difference between flight and sailing. A sailing
ship is supported by water and driven by air. A
ship can be steered because the combined force of
the wind, and the reaction of the water, can be
manipulated to drive it almost any direction.
But flight must be done in a single medium. That's
why neither a heavier-than-air bird nor a
neutrally-buoyant fish bears any resemblance to
ships on the surface of water. Before we could fly
we had to clear our minds of those old analogies.
So what happened once we'd mastered flight? I go to
my 1910 Britannica, published seven
years after the Wright brothers first flew. I find
the aeronautics article cut to only eight pages.
The mystery is gone, the legends are gone, and the
differential equations are gone with them. Only
simple formulas for lift and thrust remain.
The 1910 encyclopaedia also included an 18-page
article on Flight and Flying. That article began
with insects and birds and it ended with a gee-whiz
account of the new airplanes. Instead of
mathematics we're given performance statistics from
the first few years of flight.
These articles bracket the accomplishment we'd
sought for thousands of years. And as I look at
those first flying box kites we once called
airplanes, I think what an anticlimax a goal
achieved can become. We felt that same erasure of
mystery when, at last, we walked on the moon and
when we finally had a proof for Fermat's last
theorem. These old encyclopaedias remind us, once
more, how much more fun a goal is -- before it's
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds