Today, a parable of technical longevity. 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.
1963! My one flight in
a Piper Cub. I taught in Eastern Washington. A
colleague asked if I'd like to go for a spin.
"Sure, I'd love to." So he loaded me into the
We set out over the Palouse wheat fields. We headed
south, skimming 200 feet above what only can be
described as amber waves of grain. Suddenly, the
Snake River Canyon -- deepest in America. Earth
tumbled away. We were a mile above ground.
"Okay, you've got the stick," he shouted. It was
the only time I ever flew. He let me wander about
the sky 'til we began side-slipping. He reclaimed
control. We banked and turned and buzzed my house.
By the end of an hour, I felt like a bird.
The Piper Cub is a wonder. It celebrated its 60th
birthday in 1991. It's changed some over the years.
But the original plane looks almost like a modern
one. Both have the same broad high wing, the same
short triangular landing gear strut, and the same
Gilbert Taylor and his brother Gordon began work on
the Cub in 1928. Gordon died when an early version
crashed. Then the depression put Gilbert at the
brink of bankruptcy. That's when Bill Piper, a
Pennsylvania oilman, bought the company. He kept
Gilbert Taylor on as chief engineer.
They offered the first Piper Cub to the public in
1931. It cost $1325. Some thought it would be the
new Model-T of the sky -- cheap mass
transportation. In the end, of course, individual
airplanes never did serve the masses.
But the Piper Cub was such a safe, solid,
elementary piece of machinery that it became an
American staple. It was the Army's liaison plane in
WW-II. Eisenhower flew his own Cub. The Army called
its version the Grasshopper.
Today the price of the Cub is higher. It's $60,000.
You can also buy the Cub as a kit and build it
yourself. The kit costs only $20,000, but you have
to provide the engine.
The Cub's insides have changed some. It performs
better nowadays. The first Cub cruised at 62 mph.
Now it cruises at 115. It has 4 times the
horsepower, half again the ceiling, and 2½
times the range. But it's the same plane.
Not even the DC-3 has been around as long as the
Piper Cub. The Cub is an ageless airplane. The
design is so clean and simple that it doesn't
invite alteration. For me it's a lesson in life.
The prototype flew a few days after I was born. It
has stayed young by adapting -- by tumbling and
turning in the sky without losing its essential
simplicity. And that is what you and I must learn
to do, as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds