Today, linger a moment -- before we get serious
about flight. 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.
It's 1911, and we've just
learned to fly -- or have we? Don't forget: A few
years later, in WW-I, nothing in the sky resembled
the Wright Brothers' airplane. The Wrights had put
the tail in the front and the propeller in the
So what was the best shape for a flying machine? It
was soon clear you could get the three essential
functions of lift, propulsion, and control in many
Now it's 1911 -- seven years after the Wrights
first flew. Here's a magazine article on flight.
The title is "A Chamber of Horrors." The writer
shows us an array of experimental flying machines.
A visitor from another planet would never guess the
common function of these mad engines of so much
ingenuity. No two are alike. One looks like a
dumbbell. Another, like your attic fan. Wings, if
the airplane even uses wings, are strewn like straw
about struts and engines. The author says,
Here is a problem for the psychologist to solve.
Mechanics alone scarcely furnish the key ... These
odd structures are claims staked ... on the hills
of golden promise ...
He shows us the then-largest plane ever
built. Two 80 HP engines sit in the middle of a crazy
frame. It has four great wings -- two in front, two
in back. He likes that one. He says,
The boldness of the ... execution, with the
great hoops and sweeping curves suggesting the
expert in Spencerian handwriting, almost disarms
criticism, numbing it with the query: Can this be
This new breed of inventors kept a crazy
pace as they sifted and sorted. They tried
everything. The mind flew, even if its fruit did not
always do so.
Ten years from now, we'd settle on two or three
configurations. In 10 years we'd be fine-tuning the
compromise between two warring virtues -- control
and stability. In 10 years, airplane building would
pass from amateurs to professionals.
But right now there are no rules. It's open season
for the imagination. We suffer a dozen failures for
each glorious success. Yet we know the game is
worth the candle.
The author ends with a list of recent fatal
accidents. Of course we'll have to quit playing
around. But not now -- not while we're having so
There was a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow
of machines. Flight developed five times faster
than automobiles did. Our madcap willingness to
fail guaranteed far faster success for flight --
than we had any right to expect.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds