365,249,931 Days Ahead of Schedule

In the late fall of 1903, the world was about to change. The Wright brothers were methodically progressing toward the first manned, heavier-than-air, powered, controlled, and repeatable flight. We define their world-changing success with that mouthful of modifiers not only because there were other contenders working furiously to solve what was widely known as “the flying machine problem,” but because at that point people had already been flying in one form or another for 120 years.

The Montgolfier brothers made the first manned flight in 1783 in one of their hot air balloons. In 1848, a man named John Stringfellow built a model called the Stringfellow Ariel, which made the first flight of a heavier-than-air powered aircraft, but it was unmanned and uncontrolled. The following year, a 10-year-old boy rode on one of George Cayley’s gliders, making the first manned, heavier-than-air flight, but it was both unpowered and uncontrolled. 

In 1852, a French engineer named Henri Giffard made the first manned, powered, controlled flight when he flew his steam-powered airship, which, of course, was lighter-than-air. Clement Ader made what was possibly the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight when he flew his Éole, also steam-powered, in 1890, though that flight was an uncontrolled hop of about 50 feet at less than a foot off the ground. By the 1890s, pioneers like Octave Chanute and Otto Lilienthal were regularly making manned and controlled glider flights. 

Aside from the Wrights, people like Gustave Whitehead, a Bavarian tinkerer who worked as a toymaker in Connecticut, and Richard Pearse, a farmer and inventor in Temuka, New Zealand, were actively experimenting with heavier-than-air flying machines. Brazilian coffee heir Alberto Santos-Dumont, who had stunned the world by circling the Eiffel Tower in 1901 flying a piston-engine airship, was also thinking along these lines, though he didn’t make the first flight of his airplane, the 14-bis, until 1906. 

The Wrights’ most serious competitor was inarguably Samuel Pierpont Langley, then the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He’d built and flown a powered model of his aircraft, the Aerodrome, and on October 7, 1903, his test pilot, Charles Manly, attempted the first flight of the full-scale airplane. The Aerodrome was launched via catapult off of a houseboat in the Potomac River — rather, it was launched off of a houseboat into the Potomac River. The second attempt, two months later, also failed, just nine days before the Wrights’ history-making success at Kitty Hawk. The reasons for the Aerodrome’s failure, not to mention the fact that the Smithsonian touted Langley’s attempts as a success until 1942, are an interesting topic for another day.  

In retrospect, of course, the successful invention of the airplane seems inevitable. But all of this pioneering activity happened against a tapestry of negativity woven by naysayers who were steadfast in their convictions that people just couldn’t fly.

William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and engineer who did pioneering work in electricity and helped develop a telegraph that cut transatlantic communications times from several days to mere minutes. He also accurately defined absolute zero, which is why we measure those temperatures on what’s called the Kelvin scale. 

In other words, he was a smart guy. But he didn’t put much stock in aviation. 

“I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning, or of expectation of good results from any of the trials we hear of,” he wrote in 1896. Six years later, in a newspaper interview, he said that “no balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.”

Another smart guy, a British automotive engineer named William Worby Beaumont, was also pretty discouraging.

“The present generation will not [fly] and no practical engineer would devote himself to the problem now,” he said in January of 1900. 

Even the Wright brothers’ own father, Bishop Milton Wright, was profoundly pessimistic when he said that “man will never fly because flying is for angels.” We can forgive him pretty easily, though, given that he instilled an unquenchable thirst for knowledge in his sons, and, in 1878, gave them the most important toy in history

In terms of timing, though, it’s safe to say that nobody got it quite as wrong as the anonymous author — presumably an editor — of a piece in the October 9,1903, edition of The New York Times. In response to Langley’s public failure in the Potomac, he wrote a piece called “Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly.”

He started by calling Langley’s experiment a “ridiculous fiasco,” and went on to make his case about why its failure was no surprise. To his credit, he seemed to acknowledge that Langley and Manly were intelligent, and that they had “undoubtedly worked out the equations of levitation,” but that it was simply impossible to build something with the precision that was required. 

“The difficulty probably resided in the fact that the apparatus was not made just as it was calculated,” he wrote. “This always comes between the mathematician and the expression of his results in wood, iron, and canvas, or whatever is employed in construction.” 

Fair enough.

But then he goes on to point out that birds, which, unlike machines, fly because they need to, can only do so because they’ve had thousands of years of evolution to develop the ability. And then he gets to the good part.

“Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one which started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years,” he wrote.

In actuality, it took just 69 days. A little more than two months later, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright solved “the flying machine problem” for good.

I’m no mathematician, but, accounting for leap years, that means that the Wright brothers beat The New York Times’ best estimate by approximately 365,249,931 days. 

History is full of examples of those who can’t attacking those who might. It is easier to sit on the sidelines and declare an audacious idea impossible than it is to stand up and say “But what if?” Albert Einstein understood this ugly side of human behavior as he did so many things — with great clarity. 

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds,” he wrote in a letter to a philosophy professor in 1940. “The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.” 

He was right, of course, but what about people like Kelvin and Beaumont — men whose minds were anything but mediocre, but who were still spectacularly wrong when it came to aviation? For that answer, I look to another of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers — writer, futurist, and inventor Arthur C. Clarke and the first of his three laws. 

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, he is very likely right,” he said in the August 9, 1969, issue of The New Yorker. “When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is impossible, he is very likely wrong.”

So here’s to the great spirits of history who dared to suggest that flight was possible, and especially to those who fought tirelessly to make it commonplace. We owe them a debt every time we leave the ground. 

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