The Century Of Flight
Two inventors from Ohio, and the epoch they launched
LOOK AT THE PHOTOGRAPH ON PAGES 34 AND 35 OF this issue. An airplane sits on an empty expanse with just two shacks and a man nearby. The airplane has never flown. No airplane has ever flown. The photograph shows the end of a period in human history, the final twilight before the dawn of aviation. It is November 1903, and the man is Wilbur Wright. In a few weeks his brother Orville will pilot the plane into the air, and the world will change.
The actual moment of the world’s changing appears in the photograph on pages 38 and 39. In this issue we look back at that epochal event on a windswept beach in North Carolina a hundred years ago this fall. In “The Wright Brothers: How They Flew,” Richard P. Hallion tells how the two bicycle mechanics from Ohio accomplished what hundreds before them had tried and failed to do, succeeding by a combination of relentless, stubborn, methodical research; repeated experimentation (which usually produced failure- but always instructive failure); acute perception of just how many and complex were the obstacles to be overcome; and genius. It’s as bracing and inspiring a story as exists in the history of invention.
The Wrights proved that human ingenuity could conquer the air around us. They did so with a machine that could barely be controlled and barely stay aloft, but it was enough to make them immortal. After that they became mortals again. As Phaedra Rise shows in her article “The Wright Brothers: How They Failed,” the gifts that enabled them to make their huge breakthrough were not what they would have needed to follow through and dominate the skies thenceforth. Almost as soon as others could learn from what the brothers had done, the lead in aviation innovation passed elsewhere.
The world kept changing. For a vivid sense of just how much, look at Jim Quinn’s “Hall of Fame Interview” with Richard Whitcomb, an inventor of our own time. Less than a decade after Orville Wright died, Whitcomb came up with an invention that made supersonic flight routine, and that was just the first of his major innovations. Today, he says, “If you want to make an impact or have an effect, don’t go into aeronautics. It’s pretty well stabilized.” In other words, he feels that the explosion of creativity was so massive in the hundred years since the Wrights it burned itself out.
Jim Quinn amplifies that view in this issue’s “Hall of Fame Report.” While telling about the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s 2003 inductees—all towering figures in aviation and aerospace, in honor of the centennial—he acknowledges a growing sense that what they achieved was so extraordinary that it cannot be significantly excelled.
Flight has progressed so fully that it is something every one of us takes for granted. Planes take us as far and as fast as possibly they ever will; they have knit the world ever closer and made us all familiar with realms above the clouds —and they have given us jet lag, airline food, and noise pollution. They have achieved that greatest technical triumph of becoming ordinary.
We don’t know what the next great field of invention will be. In recent years computer electronics and software moved to the forefront, and then biotechnology. I think it is salutary now to look back at the invention that did more than anything else to give us the twentieth century, the century that in peace and in war engendered unprecedented growth in our command over the world about us. If you have any doubt that the future can exceed our expectations or even our dreams, just look again at pages 34 and 35. Look at Wilbur Wright peering out at his Flyer, wondering if it will really fly.