“As well as the goose”: Review of “Inventing Flight”, John D Anderson, Endeavour, 2005

The original is here – I had nearly forgotten this review and that I had written for this publication. If I was to write it today I would have mentioned Godwin Meade Pratt’s effort in Kilkenny. And poor Lord Kelvin – a biography of whom I reviewed for the TLS – was also destined to be the villian in the Jackie Chan/Steve Coogan Around the World in 80 Days.



John D Anderson

In an age of budget airlines, when flights to the other side of the world can be booked online in seconds, aviation is taken completely for granted. Even 20 years ago air travel was, for most people, a treat; now it is a nuisance, an ordeal to be endured en route to Bali or Bolivia. It is instructive to remember this fate that is seemingly inevitable for all technologies – to go from being a wonder to a mundanity.

As John D. Anderson, curator for aerodynamics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, writes in Inventing Flight: The Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors, 100 years ago this would have been scarcely believable (even after the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk on 17 December 1903 naysayers denied the viability of heavier-than-air flying machines). Not only did establishment sceptics like Lord Kelvin – who said ‘I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning’ – mock the efforts of aviation pioneers, the pioneers themselves were prone to despair: ‘Not within a thousand years will man ever fly’ wrote Wilbur Wright to his father in 1901.

Anderson begins his narrative with the contemplation of birds, gliding through the air and no doubt inspiring thinkers well before the first recorded ‘tower jumpers’ of around 400 BC. These reckless souls leapt off heights flapping their arms, to which some rudimentary ‘wings’ of wood or feathers had been attached, hoping to fly through determination and muscular effort. Although the 17th-century mathematician Giovanni Borelli proved that human musculature simply could not power wings, tower jumping persisted.

Those who realized that a machine of some kind was necessary for human flight continued to take inspiration too directly from the flight of birds. Ornithopters – machines that involve the mechanical flapping of wings – dominated early attempts at creating heavier-than-air flying machines. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketches of human-powered ornithopters were, from a purely technological point of view, dead ends. Centuries later, when the mirrored handwriting in which he wrote his notebooks was deciphered, it emerged that da Vinci had understood the principles behind the generation of lift and drag ahead of his time; however, flying machines had advanced beyond his thinking by that stage. By the 19th century, after the Montgolfiers’ balloon flight and the technological developments that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, one might think the outlook had been bright for flying machines. However, both the scientific community and the public remained sceptical of the whole idea of heavier-than-air flying machines.

In the early 1800s, a result apparently soundly based on Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica underlay much of the dismissiveness. Called the Newtonian sine-squared law, it essentially predicted that only very large and very heavy wings could generate enough lift to balance the weight of any flying machine, and that these large wings would require a heavier engine to overcome the drag created by their very size. Thus larger wings would be required to lift the heavier machine, and so on ad infinitum. Experimental evidence began to chip away at the Newtonian sine-squared law, but it was self-taught amateurs and interested engineers, rather than academics, who developed flight. Mainstream science continued to be leery of the flying machine enthusiasts and the public grew tired of the ‘wild, impracticable, unmechanical and unmathematical schemes’ that the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain lamented in its annual report of 1870. This attitude would persist throughout the 19th century, as illustrated by the remarks of Lord Kelvin.

Inventing Flight is clearly written, but also unafraid to go into difficult technical complexities. Although largely an account of practical and theoretical developments, the book does provide personal glimpses of the often-eccentric personalities involved in them. My favourite was Hiram Maxim, inventor of the eponymous gun and, in his own words, ‘a poor little bare-headed, bare-footed boy with a pair of drill trousers, frayed out at the bottom, open at the knees, with a patch on the bottom, running wild but very expert at catching fish’ during a Tom Sawyeresque childhood in Maine. Working his way through the world of engineering, Maxim hired Baldwyns Park in the English county of Kent in 1884 as a testing ground for flying machines. Declaring that ‘the domestic goose is able to fly and why should not man be able do as well as the goose?’ and with heavy financial backing, Maxim eventually proved that a large flying machine could generate enough lift to get off the ground.

In his epilogue, Anderson invokes Newton’s famous phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants when he asserts that the Wright Brothers did not invent the airplane, but invented the first practical airplane. Nevertheless, Inventing Flight provides a sense of the wonder of that moment in Kitty Hawk, as well as the formidable technical obstacles that the Wrights overcame.

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