Today, the airplane speaks. 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.
During so-called Bloody April, in 1917, Germany's
aeroplanes outclassed and outnumbered the allies. For every German plane shot
down, the Allies lost four. The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, then doing
his worst, claimed nine percent of the Allied losses.
A month later, Captain Horatio Barber published his book, The Aeroplane Speaks.
Powered flight was less than fourteen years old, and Barber was now lecturing on
flight to students at the Royal Flying Corps School. Those students were preparing
to fly against the Germans and the light-hearted tone of Barber's book is marked
contrast with the desperate situation they would face in France.
Barber's frontispiece sets the tone. We see sixteen
very diverse characters in a drawing room. The names of a tall skinny man and short
squat man are High-Aspect Ratio and Low Aspect Ratio. A heavy old man solidly plopped
in a chair is Grandfather Gravity, and so on. Efficiency is a pretty lady with a winged
hat. These characters, and many others, speak to us throughout the book. Here's the
kind of dialog you get:
"Ha! ha!" shouts the Drift, growing stronger with the increased
Angle of Incidence. "Ha! ha!" he laughs to the Thrust.
"Now I've got you. Now who's master?"
If that sounds just too cute for words, the book itself is very solid. As we keep
reading; we find an amazingly complete picture of the aeroplane of WW-I. We learn
how struts were anchored, how guy-wires were tied and tensioned, how the complex
shapes of wooden propellers were carved. We see how surfaces of those delicate bamboo,
canvass, and wire structures were bent -- just so -- to achieve controllable flight.
In his introduction, Barber thanks one Charles Grey for help and support. Grey turns
out to've been a very important player. As new technologies come into being they need
champions, and Grey was the British champion of aeronautics. England had been slow
to develop an enthusiasm for flying. After Grey visited the first Paris air show
in 1908, he set out to awaken his country. For his bully pulpit, he created a
magazine called The Aeroplane. There he tirelessly advocated for flight.
And he did far more for Barber's book than just offer moral support. He also provided
36 elaborate plates, each displaying aeroplane
designs by Bleriot, or Curtiss, or Voison, or Wright, or Nieuport,
and others we've hardly heard of. Grey turns The Aeroplane Speaks from a merely
interesting book into a rare treasure, with that vast inventory of pictorial information.
My father flew the next generation of Nieuports. Now I can now trace the texture of his
cockpit, the sailing-ship rigging of the wings, the bounce of wheels grass. Books are
strange: Some buffer you -- provide psychic distance from their subjects. Others -- and
this is one -- manage to create an unearthly intimacy with an almost-vanished past.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
H. Barber, The Aeroplane Speaks. (New York: Robert McBride & Co., 1917) (All images
are taken from Barber's book.)
Click on the thumbnails below for a large images of the Frontispiece (left) and
for one of Grey's plates showing a variety of Morane airplane designs:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.