Perhaps the easiest question to answer in the history of technology concerns who invented the airplane. Virtually any schoolchild will state that it was Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and his brother Orville (1871-1948). Most Americans also know that the brothers first flew their new machine in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This is more than just an idle recitation of historical facts, for the Wright brothers have become synonymous with the great American myth of the self-made man: the belief that, through industry, an independent man can achieve fame and wealth. In short, they are American icons. While a century of powered flight undoubtedly invites a reexamination of its origins, this must have been a daunting task for author James Tobin. To Conquer the Air more than justifies revisiting this well-known territory, if only for the skill with which its author recounts the Wrights’ inspiring story.
Nowadays it is difficult to conceive of a world without powered flight. People accept air travel as a necessity of the modern world, one that is vital to both commerce and international relations. Flight as an activity is so commonplace that airplanes have become little more than buses with wings. When Tobin’s story begins, in the year 1899, the idea of practical powered flight was deemed by most people to be folly and its proponents to be little more than crackpots. Of course, flying by balloon had been known since the eighteen century, and by the early twentieth century the first dirigibles had astonished the public with their graceful flights. These vessels, however, were lighter than air: Lift was created by means of heated air or gases such as hydrogen. The kind of travel envisioned by the Wrights was something resembling the flight of birds—a self-propelled craft that could be controlled by a pilot and that would be able to fly in a wide range of wind conditions. This may strike the modern reader as a modest, even elementary proposal, but Tobin’s lucid text demonstrates that it was a bold idea and its attainment revolutionary.
Aside from the Wrights, the leading American pioneer in aviation was Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. One of the joys of reading Tobin’s work is encountering the striking contrasts and similarities between Langley and the Wrights. Curiously, both the Wrights and Langley lacked college diplomas at a time when serious scientific inquiry was increasingly relegated to academics in specialized fields. Langley found his way into the scientific establishment through his considerable research skills and his impressive social pedigree as a Boston Brahmin. The Wright clan was not entirely unlettered, though, for their sister Kate was a graduate of Oberlin College and a teacher of Latin. Unlike the well-born Langley, the Wrights were midwesterners of modest means; while the brothers lacked formal academic credentials, they compensated for this by an unlimited capacity for hard work and a disciplined curiosity.
Surprisingly, a fairly intense intellectual atmosphere pervaded the Wright home. Milton, the family patriarch, was a pugnacious bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Pervasive factionalism within the church—mostly thanks to Bishop Wright himself—demanded well-constructed written and oral arguments. As the eldest son, Wilbur Wright was often called upon to defend his father in the aging patriarch’s numerous church squabbles, and as such he proved himself to be a keen intellect with a quick wit. Tobin liberally quotes Wilbur from newspaper accounts to great effect, carefully underscoring the subtle irony that reporters failed to detect.
Even so, the Wrights’ accomplishment is impressive when one considers their chief rival. Wilbur began serious investigations into the nature of flight in 1899. Langley had by that time been conducting his own research for some thirteen years and had the considerable resources of the Smithsonian Institution at his disposal. His experimental airplanes had evolved from small, handheld models to larger steam-driven, unmanned craft that could fly as far as a mile. By 1899 the War Department’s Board of Ordnance and Fortification had allocated an initial fund of twenty-five thousand dollars for the construction of a piloted version of Langley’s aircraft.
Unlike Langley, whose...
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