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Winter 2004 | Volume 19 |  Issue 3

The Wrights’ Stuff

PERHAPS ONE OF THE most amazing statements in the chronicle of aviation development (and for that matter modern technology in general) is a quote made in the summer of 1901 from the discouraged Wilbur Wright (“The Wright Brothers: How They Flew,” by Richard P. Hallion, Fall 2003) to his brother that man wouldn’t fly “for fifty years.” We marvel at such quotes as they reveal the frail humanness of the very pioneers of modern technology. Inventors are real people too. Inventors fear. Inventors struggle with depression. Inventors often sacrifice their sweat and their creative energy in exchange for seemingly meager tangible results. Moreover, prolific inventors face both triumph and setback at prolific levels. Ironically, that somehow makes them even more real, more human, more like us, reminding us that even they wondered whether their pursuits would ever yield anything lasting. In so doing, they inspire us to persevere, against whatever odds oppose us, and to press on when lesser men might walk away.

Imagine for a moment a world in which the Wright brothers walk away from the challenge. Right there, in August of 1901. They return home to Dayton and wait for someone else in another age, with better tools, or more money, or more education, or higher self-esteem, or a clearer calling, or a stronger yearning in the soul, to be the first. Perhaps they subscribe to the notion mentioned by a prominent aviation innovator, which also appeared in the Fall issue of Invention & Technology , that “if you don’t make a contribution by age 30, forget it.” If 1901 had been the sum total of their achievement, it’s true they would still have learned some novel concepts while applying their innovative mechanical minds to the enigma of the flying machine. Perhaps their work would even have earned them some measure of notoriety or personal gratification. Yet they would never have known what they might have achieved if they had only had the moxie to overcome.


Fortunately for us, we need not imagine such a thing, for within 28 months, they had done it, 48 years sooner than the discouraged Wilbur in his darkest hour predicted. The Wrights, along with so many others, whether they be champions of innovation from the pages of history or vivid personalities from our modern engineering labs, basement workshops, or daily lives, belong to a special group of those who set an example of what might be. They demonstrate the potential of the human mind and the tenacity of the human character to persevere; and to do so even when the outward signs and internal fears might indicate we should cut our losses and quit. I propose that it is precisely at that moment, in the crucible, that the true inventors are made.


Rich Simmons

The Wrights’ Stuff

ONE THING ONLY BRIEFLY mentioned in Richard P. Hallion’s excellent article is the Wright brothers’ writing ability. As pointed out, neither of them attended college, and technically neither even graduated from high school. Yet all one has to do is read excerpts from The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright to see that the quality of their writing would put many a college English major to shame. Of course the Wright brothers were highly intelligent and well-read young men. However, I would venture that if they had been processed through our modern public school system, they would have been just about as marginally literate as all too many of today’s high school graduates. While aviation has made undreamed-of advances since December 17, 1903, the teaching of the basic three R’s, alas, has not.


Edmund H. Dohnert

The Wrights’ Stuff

IN HIS EXCELLENT ARTICLE, Mr. Hallion says, “The older brother took a cardboard box and demonstrated how one could twist it so that the top and bottom surfaces, representing the top and bottom wings of a flying machine, would flex.” This experiment can be recreated with any slender box such as those used for aluminum foil or plastic wrap (Wilbur Wright used something the bicycle shop had plenty of—an inner-tube container). Remove the ends and tape the main lid closed, creating a hollow tube of approximately square cross section. If you grip both ends and torque them in opposite directions, the box will firmly refuse to twist in the expected manner. Squeezing both ends across the same diagonal merely flattens the whole container. But if you lightly squeeze the two ends across opposite diagonals, an amazing thing happens. The box obediently deforms into a twisted cylinder, with practically no resistance and with barely any input torque from your hands.

This unexpected result must have delighted the brothers and appealed to their engineering instincts. They quickly realized they could twist the biplane structure at will simply by rigging control cables to differentially alter the lengths of the diagonal braces at the wing tips.

Jeremy M. Harris

The Wrights’ Stuff

AS AN AERONAUTICAL engineer, I really enjoyed the issue, but I have one question. On page 37, Mr. Hallion writes that the Wrights designed their propeller “carefully varying the blades’ angle of attack from eight and a half degrees at the tip to four degrees near the root.” I always thought the angle of attack at the hub of a propeller was greater than at the tip because of the lower relative velocity of the air at the hub. The tip is moving faster, thus it will have a smaller angle of attack. Am I wrong?



The editors reply: Mr. Miller and the author are both right. Airplane propellers are generally shaped so that they are more nearly perpendicular to the plane of rotation near their hub and more nearly parallel to it at the tips, for the reason Mr. Miller gives. However, the propeller on the 1903 Flyer twisted the other way. The Wrights switched to the now customary shape in 1905.


Vernon R. Miller

Wing Man

THE ARTICLE ON RICHARD Whitcomb in the Fall 2003 issue (“Hall of Fame Interview,” by Jim Quinn) was especially interesting to me because I worked on the design of the first supercritical wing flown on a full-size airplane. In 1969, as I recall, Rockwell International received a contract to build the first supercritical wing to Mr.Whitcomb’s contour lines.

I was assigned to design the outboard section of the aileron control system and was told by my supervisor that it had to be a very stiff design to control aileron flutter at high speed. I found that the lever that attached the most inboard rib of the aileron projected outside the lower wing contour, because the thickness of the wing at that point could contain only some of the control parts. I designed a streamlined fairing to cover the projections, and my supervisor said Mr. Whitcomb must be made aware of the problem immediately. Whitcomb promptly flew west from Langley to look at my drawings. We held no big meeting; he sat down at my drawing board, saw the problem, and took copies of my design back to Langley to modify the wind-tunnel model and retest.

Some days later he appeared at my drawing board again to say that the tests were fine and my design was approved. In spite of his great fame, he was a regular fellow and extremely easy to talk to.

I. Douglas Alkire

Wing Man

RICHARD WHITCOMB’S CON tributions to aviation are indisputable, but I’m struck by the irony of some of his words. He seems to see no reason for restraint in the area of life sciences, almost brushing aside ethical and moral reservations in the pursuit of bettering ourselves. Yet about the SST he plainly states: “Some people think that if it’s technically possible, let’s do it. I say no way. You have to consider the costs.” Indeed, should we not consider the costs?


Michael Karlesky

Duct Tape Redux

I GREATLY ENJOYED CURT Wohleber’s piece about duct tape (“Object Lessons,” Summer 2003) but wished the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s 1990s study of leakage with the tape had been done decades earlier. In the 1960s I helped my brother reassemble an old pipe organ in the garage. Initially we were stumped by all the ducting to carry the pressurized air to the “wind chests,” the manifolds on which the organ pipes sit. We weren’t competent at welding or soldering and were at an impasse until someone suggested we use duct tape.

It seemed the perfect solution, and we soon had the whole instrument wheezing along. The problem was that one of the chief beauties of duct tape is how its adhesive remains soft and pliable. After a few months the tape joints started to slip, and then they let loose a sound like a very loud whoopee cushion. Of course at that point the joints were buried inside the organ at locations almost impossible to access. Thirty years later I still use duct tape, but only for temporary and noncritical tasks.

Stefan Kirchanski

Duct Tape Redux

IN ALASKA, WHERE I LIVED and worked for many years, the product has especially great meaning as an all-purpose repair kit. No one in his right mind would go into the bush without a roll or two. One of the more ubiquitous uses is on airplanes, as “high-speed tape.” Many of the small aircraft that fly into the bush are constructed of canvas. Occasionally, when they land on a narrow sand spit or dock on water, a tree branch or bush tears the fabric. Duct tape is often used as a temporary and effective fix until the plane returns to civilization. In fact the tape is so revered that a dinner club in Anchorage, the Fly by Night Club, features a song and skit about it. It includes a dancer in a duct-tape dress, a musical instrument using the sound of duct tape being pulled off the roll to the beat of the music, and special lyrics.


Tony Schwarz

Duct Tape Redux

DURING THE YEARS when I installed heating equipment I don’t remember anyone trying to seal a duct with duct tape, since it’s suitable only for temporary repairs. We used a foil-backed tape with a peel-off strip, which we called “heat tape.” Heat tape can withstand high temperatures and easily molds itself to any configuration. Unlike duct tape, it sticks to absolutely anything. I used it to repair a broken car window until I got around to having it fixed, and the window didn’t seem to be affected by rainstorms.


Mike Lipsey

Duct Tape Redux

I DID HEATING, VENTILAT ing, and air-conditioning consulting in Florida in the 1980s, and our specifications always included a stipulation that duct tape not be used on ductwork. This was merely a clarification, since the use of duct tape to seal ducts was commonly considered substandard work, and the general specifications prohibited substandard work. If tape was to be used to seal ductwork, it had to be aluminum tape. But I never saw a contractor actually use aluminum tape. They always sealed ductwork with mastic.


Kirby Palm

Duct Tape Redux

CURT WOHLEBER SAYS the product was originally called gun tape because it was used on ammo boxes. Fd venture the opinion that the name may have had to do with the tape’s use in vast quantities to cover gun muzzles on fighter planes in World War II and Korea and even into the jet age. The tape kept the guns clean and dry until you needed them, but, of course, it had to be replaced if the guns were fired. I’ve seen film from the Battle of Britain that shows guns firing through what looks like duct tape.

In my time the tape was absolutely routine. The crew chiefs always knew when you’d seen action. The tape would be perforated and powder-stained.

David H. Rust

My V-16

READING “THE RETURN of the V-16,” by Brooks T. Brierley (Summer 2003), reminded me of the time back in 1952 when my buddy and I dropped by a place where they were rebuilding antique cars. I had never been in a place like that before, and my eyes were casting about like a kid in a candy store when they landed on an old green-enameled, polishedbrass engine. “Wow!” was my comment. “What a beauty.”

The owner said, “If you really want to see a beauty, come up front.”

There sat the V-16 Cadillac engine that had been shown at the 1933 Chicago world’s fair. It even had the display frame with the identifying card. To make a short story of this, I bought it for $100 and packed it home. I reassembled it and took some photos so I could offer it for sale in Road & Track . The very first caller bought it and paid for shipping, to New Jersey I think. He said he wanted to put it into a 1933 touring Caddy he owned.

The movers almost had hernias getting it out of our basement. I wonder where it is now. When I took the pictures, I had the heads on the wrong bank (not bolted but just sitting on the block), which put the distributor in the wrong place, and the carbs too. No harm done, and I hope the new owner knew better.

Bill O’Leary

Food For Thought

IT WAS A PLEASURE TO read T. A. Heppenheimer’s measured and rational article “The Growth of Genetically Modified Foods” (Summer 2003), especially where he recognizes one of the core problems America’s farmers have in telling their story. He identified a dangerous attitude, which is building a wall between modern agriculture and the rest of the world, when he wrote, “Wealthy European countries are inclined to see farming as a traditional cultural activity, like folk dancing, that deserves preservation, rather than as a productive economic activity whose efficiency should be maximized.” Anybody who has been to Europe lately knows how true this statement is.

Europeans and to a lesser extent Americans fail to understand the sophisticated scientific approach that farmers can bring to their task of feeding not just Americans and Europeans but the world. It is more than a matter of our people being well fed. It is a matter of feeding the world. There are plenty of Third World countries out there that will benefit from our expertise, new technologies, and, yes, our genetically engineered food products.

Jo McIntyre

Food For Thought

THE PICTURE ON PAGE 22 shows what the caption states are “activists” in a cornfield in France. One of them is carrying corn plants out of a breeding nursery that is obviously not his. I think he is a terrorist. A terrorist attacks people or property to intimidate a population into granting his demands. Activists give loud speeches.



Robert J. Buker

Food For Thought

YOUR ARTICLE ACCEPTS and perpetuates the hype of the biotech industry about “golden rice” and the “green revolution,” which has caused more misery to the indigenous people upon which it was foisted than you can shake a petri dish at. The whole “golden rice” propaganda effort is just a way for the biotech companies to attempt to deflect attention from the havoc they are wreaking among the agricultural systems and indigenous cultures where they are attempting to extend their corporate sway without regard for either the people or the local flora and gene pool.


Caroline Dieterle

Food For Thought

I WORK IN BIOTECHNOLOGY and have a degree in horticulture, so this is a topic that I follow closely. I agree with Mr. Heppenheimer that the science behind biotech foods is sound, and the supporting research is well presented in his article. However, I believe that the use of this technology in the field and the marketing of it are issues that really need to be scrutinized.

One aspect that I believe deserves attention is seeds. Many farmers buy seed that has been cleaned, is genetically uniform, and is tested for germination. But for some farmers buying seed is too expensive, or they’re philosophically opposed to using seed that has been genetically modified. For them, saving their seed from year to year is a measure of self-preservation. The companies that are involved with genetically modified organisms are becoming more and more pushy with farmers. I believe that for the world’s population to survive, people need to be able to produce their own food (except where food production is impossible), and saving seed and preserving regional biodiversity is one small part of that picture. Biotechnology must coexist with traditional agricultural methods to be embraced by the public and ensure that food production doesn’t rest in the hands of the few.

Rebecca Siplak

The Blick

IT WAS GREAT FOR ME TO learn more than I ever knew about the Blickensderfer typewriter (“Blickensderfer,” by Christopher Bonanos, Summer 2003). In 1927 my dad, Eskel, was working as a cabinetmaker with his father in Stamford, Connecticut, and they were contracted by Mrs. Blickensderfer to build new cabinets in her Strawberry Hill home. According to Dad, when he and Grandfather were eating lunch in the kitchen, the cook offered slices of apple pie, and then Mrs. Blickensderfer offered slices of cheese to be eaten with the pie, with the admonition that “apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.” From that day forward my dad would always want a slice of cheese to decorate his apple pie. As a boy I heard the story all too often. My sons have now heard it all too often too.


Bob Wallstrom


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