The Wrights’ Stuff
Tom Crouch’s excellent piece on the bicycle’s relationship to flying and airplanes (“How the Bicycle Took Wing,” Summer 1986) is another valuable contribution to a long-neglected segment of our history. When I was a boy in the 1920s, the conventional wisdom viewed the Wrights as unsophisticated repairmen who somehow got lucky in the quest for powered flight, a notion far from the reality of their having anticipated nearly every avenue of inquiry that has since come to characterize the design and development of aircraft.
In no way to diminish their singular achievement, I wish to suggest that you at least publish the name of the pioneer who designed and built the flier’s engine. I like to think that both Orville and Wilbur would be pleased to see a bit of the credit go his way. Since the engine must have in many respects been a true watershed, the designer must have been one of those few faced with a problem that nobody had ever solved before. Those who have been in a similar situation can appreciate the uncertainties, the difficulties, and even the splendor of achievement when the lonely process of creating this machine ended with a successful first flight.
Tom Crouch replies: The engine was built by Charles Taylor, a local Dayton machinist who had worked in the Wrights’ bicycle shop, but Orville Wright did most of the designing of it. It was, in fact, not a very sophisticated engine. Part of the genius of the Wright brothers was their ability to isolate real technical problems from imaginary ones. They spent years discovering how to build a plane that wouldn’t have to rely on very many horsepower and then simply used a crude engine based on internal-combustion technology that had been around for ten years. Samuel Langley, on the other hand, exhausted a great deal of time and energy developing an engine that produced four times as much power as the Wrights’ while weighing about the same, but for other reasons his plane never flew. The Wrights’ engine weighed about two hundred pounds including its load of fuel and delivered approximately twelve and a half horsepower in flight.
The Wrights’ Stuff
As Tom Crouch pointed out, the inventors of the airplane got much of their knowledge of stability, control, and lightweight structures from the bicycle industry. He did not, however, mention the bicycle industry’s debt to aviation. The tension wheel, with its wire spokes and thin, flexible rim, was invented by the British aviation pioneer Sir George Cayley in the early 1820s, for use on gliders. This lightweight wheel design was, along with high-strength steel, what made the bicycle actually practical.
Martin R. Fink
Is It Perpetual Motion?
In “The Perpetual Search for Perpetual Motion” (Summer 1986) Ken Alder provides an amusing look at inventors who thought their machines could defy the laws of nature. I was troubled, however, by the curt treatment of Joseph Newman’s recent invention. Alder seems to have applied the same a priori reasoning in dismissing Newman’s invention as has the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
History supports the contention that monumental technological breakthroughs often force the reexamination of currently accepted natural “laws.” Newman’s engine or any other invention should not be dismissed simply because it challenges presently accepted physical laws. If Newman can force us to reevaluate our understanding of physical phenomena, then he has made a valuable contribution to science. If not, his folly will be duly recorded, as Alder has so ably demonstrated.
John S. Velte
Mooresville, N. C.
Editor’s note: Joseph Newman, of Lucedale, Mississippi, claims that his “energy machine” creates energy through a heretofore unknown unification of the gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear fields, and that if patented it “will replace all present forms of energy generation.” The Patent Office has dismissed it as a perpetual-motion machine. After several years of litigation, it was finally put to the test, under a court order, last spring. A physicist and two electrical engineers from the National Bureau of Standards employed a variety of common tests and found that basically the machine converts DC energy—from 116 nine-volt batteries—to AC. It does so at 27 to 67 percent efficiency, a far lower rate than several machines already on the market, and it never approaches efficiency of 100 percent or more, as its inventor had claimed. Newman says the test results are part of “a conspiracy against me,” and he has indicated that he plans to seek a court order to have the test equipment tested.