Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 569:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 569.

Today, we go from organs to airplanes to diving suits. 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.

Edwin Link was born in 1904. He was six when his father formed the Link Piano and Organ Company. They produced the new hi-tech music makers of 1910 -- player pianos and theater organs. Edwin joined the firm when he was 18. First he did repairs. Then he competed with Wurlitzer, installing theater organs.

But the new airplanes had caught his fancy. Link wanted to learn to fly. That was expensive business. Lessons cost $25 to $50 an hour, back when the dollar was worth more. He helped barnstormers as a mechanic in exchange for lessons.

Sometimes the fliers let him taxi airplanes on the ground for practice. Link found he could sharpen his responses to the controls without actually flying. With that, he gave birth to a great idea. He put his knowledge of organs and pianos to developing an airplane flight simulator. In 1929 he filed a patent.

You may remember his Link Trainer. It was a stubby little powder-blue box. It's tiny fake wings and tail were bright yellow. If you read Life magazine during WW-II you saw a lot of it. It played a big part in training Air Corps pilots.

Of course it took the Link Trainer time to reach that point. Link made his first sales to amusement parks. That's where people learned how good the machine really was.

Two things made his Trainer very effective. First, he'd made full use of organ and player-piano technology -- complex pneumatic systems and controllers that respond to manual input.

Second, he'd worked back and forth between real airplanes and his Trainer. He'd adjusted the response 'til it mimicked real flight very convincingly.

In 1934, the Air Corps realized they had to give pilots a safer way to practice flying on instruments. They ordered Link Trainers. But so did the Germans and Japanese. By 1941, all our fliers had studied in Link Trainers. But so had the pilots who bombed London and Pearl Harbor.

Our jet pilots today still learn in advanced Link Trainers. But Edwin Link retired from that business in 1954. He turned his creative genius on the ocean. He went on to 20 years of inventing advanced undersea technology -- diving chambers, submarines, and more. When he died in 1981, he was as famous for that work as he was for the Link Trainer.

So the omnivorous nature of inventive minds plays out in the wondrous course of Link's fascinations -- from organs to airplanes and finally to means for living in the ocean deeps.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Killgore, J.I., The Planes that Never Leave the Ground. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Fall 1989, pp. 56-63.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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