Gary's Picks

By normal standards, our library is tiny. It contains material from four books and a couple dozen articles. It wouldn't take long to read it all. Yet few will have the time and inclination to do that, so here are some suggestions that may help your exploration.

-- Gary Bradshaw

Background Material

With history on our side, we know airplanes can be built. Yet at the turn of the century, most 'sensible' people believed the enterprise was as crazy as we now view efforts to build perpetual motion machines. The barrier to developing heavier-than-air craft was as much psychological as technical: the ancient Egyptians had the necessary skills and technology to develop Wright-style gliders. Yet the secrets of flight remained hidden for thousands of years.

Reading Is the Airship Coming? by Professor Simon Newcomb, a distinguished scholar with both a Doctorate of Philosophy AND a law degree, helps understand the intellectual climate faced by those who sought to invent airplanes. Newcomb argues from 'physical principles' that the first airplane would be made by a watchmaker and only be large enough to carry an insect. It mattered little that larger and more capable craft had already been flown. Sensible people knew better.

In contrast, the hope and glory of flight was well-captured in an inspirational discussion of bird flight by Mouillard in Gliding Flight.

Even people who heeded the siren call of birds in flight had little good information go on, and usually copied the flapping-wing method of birds. Until Sir George Cayley. His triple paper On Aerial Navigation argued against the ornithopter tradition, and set forth the idea of a fixed-wing craft with a separate system for thrust. Arguably the most important material we have online.

Finally, Octave Chanute provides a nice historical perspective on efforts to conquer the air in his book Progress in Flying Machines. In particular, the first section on Wings provides an excellent history of early attempts.

Inventing the Airplane

I wish there were more contemporary accounts of the invention of the airplane, especially by the Wrights. Yet Wilbur left behind few published works, and Orville was only a little more productive over his far longer lifespan. Most of the writings by the Wrights were defensive, written to protect their role in the invention of the airplane, rather than explanatory, to describe what they did and how. Accordingly, my suggestions are fewer in number and lower in quality than I'd like, but these are the best I can do. I hope to have some French translations online in the not-too-distant future, which will add an important depth to our library.

One of the best pieces was written by Wilbur Wright. Some Aeronautical Experiments came at a pivitol time in the Wright's work. Their second glider, built and tested in 1901, was not as successful as expected. The two brothers were questioning all the assumptions they used to develop their craft. In particular, they suspected Lilienthal's data about the lift of wings. This suspicion led them to develop their wind tunnel­a vital step in making further progress. Indeed, collecting their thoughts and ideas for Wilbur's speech could easily have played an important role in making this step.

Off site, you will find another important document­a deposition made by Orville Wright in the case Regina C. Montgomery et al. vs. the United States. Orville provides one of the most comprehensive personal descriptions of the two brothers' work. The piece suffers from hindsight bias, and obviously Orville had an investment in preserving his place in history, but it is still a great personal account.

We are QUITE SLOWLY putting the correspondence between Octave Chanute and the Wright brothers online. This correspondence contains most of the historical material of the Wright brothers' efforts.

Of course, much of the best material was written more recently than 1922, and so is covered by contemporary copyright. Our Bibliography contains a larger list of books and articles that you should be able to get from your local library, assuming, of course, I haven't borrowed it myself.

Back to Library Comments and suggestions about this list are especially welcome.