Today, we ask why the Wright brothers flew. 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.
As the movie Star Trek
V opens, Captain Kirk is scaling the face of
El Capitán in Yosemite Park. Mr. Spock jets
up near the rock and asks why he's doing such a mad
thing. Kirk can only mutter the classic answer,
"Because it's there," and that does little to
satisfy the logical mind of Mr. Spock.
Of course, the Wright Brothers were also asked that
question. Wilbur didn't say too much in response.
Once he told a reporter that among the birds, the
parrot was, and I quote,
"the best talker and the worst flier." He was clearly more interested in
doing than in discussing. But in 1909 Wilbur did
make a very revealing remark. When he was asked
what use their new machine would be, he replied,
"Sport, first of all."
Wilbur did go on to say it might also serve
exploration and war. But the first word that came
out of his mouth was sport. Magazines
of the Edwardian era turned out article after
article on flight, and they talked endlessly about
sensation. "What did it feel like to fly?" one
writer asked an early flyer. The man answered,
"You have a sense of exhilaration -- a feeling of freedom and delight you can get in no other way."
Nine years later my father flew airplanes in France
during the waning days of WW-I. When I was a child,
he told me about Nieuports and Sopwith Camels --
about climbing and diving and pillars of clouds. He
talked about the smell of castor oil and the
existential pleasure of gliding in "dead stick"
silence. Near the end of the war, he flew one of
the new SPAD's, and it was a great disappointment.
"It was just a big powerful gun platform," he said.
"You didn't fly it, you aimed it." The SPAD may
have been superior in combat, but for my father it
spelled an end to the sensate pleasure of flying.
Early airplanes tell us so much about the creative
process -- about invention. Sport was the first
reason for the airplane, said the Wrights. Purpose
was, by implication, after-the-fact. Purpose was no
more than justification for satisfying the senses.
We were given those magnificent machines only
because they gave their inventors pleasure.
Today, American industry -- with its eye on the
bottom line -- wonders why American innovation is
slipping behind. The answer is that invention is a
kind of sensate pleasure-seeking. The promise of
money and position only draws in people who crave
money and position. Inventors demand more. They
demand pay in the coin of "freedom and delight" --
in the currency of intellectual and aesthetic
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Early Flight (F. Oppel, ed.). Secaucus,
NJ: Castle, 1987. See especially Chapter 26, The
Sport of Flying, by M. Foster.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.