The Conquest of Air

Everybody in the USA, and in fact just about everyone across the world, has heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Two of the pioneers of aviation, when their experimental biplane Flyer achieved the first ever manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight on the morning of December 17, 1903, they had finally achieved one of man’s long-held dreams; control and mastery of air travel.

However, what is often puzzling when considering the Wright brothers’ story is the number of misconceptions surrounding them. Many, for instance, are under the impression that they were the first people to fly at all, inventing all the various technicalities of lift, aerofoil structures and control that are now commonplace in today’s aircraft. In fact, the story of flight, perhaps the oldest and maddest of human ambitions, an idea inspired by every time someone has looked up in wonder at the graceful flight of a bird, is a good deal older than either of them.

Our story begins, as does nearly all technological innovation, in imperial China, around 300 BC (the Greek scholar Archytas had admittedly made a model wooden pigeon ‘fly’ some 100 years previously, but nobody is sure exactly how he managed it). The Chinese’s first contribution was the invention of the kite, an innovation that would be insignificant if it wasn’t for whichever nutter decided to build one big enough to fly in. However, being strapped inside a giant kite and sent hurtling skywards not only took some balls, but was heavily dependent on wind conditions, heinously dangerous and dubiously useful, so in the end the Chinese gave up on manned flight and turned instead to unmanned ballooning, which they used for both military signalling and ceremonial purposes. It isn’t actually known if they ever successfully put a man into the air using a kite, but they almost certainly gave it a go. The Chinese did have one further attempt, this time at inventing the rocket engine, some years later, in which a young and presumably mental man theorised that if you strapped enough fireworks to a chair then they would send the chair and its occupants hurtling into the night sky. His prototype (predictably) exploded, and it wasn’t for two millennia, after the passage of classical civilisation, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, that anyone tried flight again.

That is not to say that the idea didn’t stick around. The science was, admittedly beyond most people, but as early as 1500 Leonardo da Vinci, after close examination of bird wings, had successfully deduced the principle of lift and made several sketches showing designs for a manned glider. The design was never tested, and not fully rediscovered for many hundreds of years after his death (Da Vinci was not only a controversial figure and far ahead of his time, but wrote his notebooks in a code that it took centuries to decipher), but modern-day experiments have shown that his design would probably have worked. Da Vinci also put forward the popular idea of ornithopters, aircraft powered by flapping motion as in bird wings, and many subsequent attempts at flight attempted to emulate this method of motion. Needless to say, these all failed (not least because very few of the inventors concerned actually understood aerodynamics).

In fact, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that anyone started to really make any headway in the pursuit of flight. In 1783, a Parisian physics professor, Jacques Charles, built on the work of several Englishmen concerning the newly discovered hydrogen gas and the properties and behaviour of gases themselves. Theorising that, since hydrogen was less dense than air, it should follow Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy and rise, thus enabling it to lift a balloon, he launched the world’s first hydrogen balloon from the Champs du Mars on August 27th. The balloon was only small, and there were significant difficulties encountered in building it, but in the design process Charles, aided by his engineers the Roberts brothers, invented a method of treating silk to make it airtight, spelling the way for future pioneers of aviation. Whilst Charles made some significant headway in the launch of ever-larger hydrogen balloons, he was beaten to the next significant milestones by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. In that same year, their far simpler hot-air balloon designs not only put the first living things (a sheep, rooster and duck) into the atmosphere, but, just a month later, a human too- Jacques-Etienne was the first European, and probably the first human, ever to fly.

After that, balloon technology took off rapidly (no pun intended). The French rapidly became masters of the air, being the first to cross the English Channel and creators of the first steerable and powered balloon flights. Finally settling on Charles’ hydrogen balloons as a preferable method of flight, blimps and airships began, over the next century or so, to become an accepted method of travel, and would remain so right up until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, which rather put people off the idea. For some scientists and engineers, humankind had made it- we could now fly, could control where we were going at least partially independent of the elements, and any attempt to do so with a heavier-than-air machine was both a waste of time and money, the preserve of dreamers. Nonetheless, to change the world, you sometimes have to dream big, and that was where Sir George Cayley came in.

Cayley was an aristocratic Yorkshireman, a skilled engineer and inventor, and a magnanimous, generous man- he offered all of his inventions for the public good and expected no payment for them. He dabbled in a number of fields, including seatbelts, lifeboats, caterpillar tracks, prosthetics, ballistics and railway signalling. In his development of flight, he even reinvented the wheel- he developed the idea of holding a wheel in place using thin metal spokes under tension rather than solid ones under compression, in an effort to make the wheels lighter, and is thus responsible for making all modern bicycles practical to use. However, he is most famous for being the first man ever, in 1853, to put somebody into the air using a heavier-than-air glider (although Cayley may have put a ten-year old in a biplane four years earlier).

The man in question was Cayley’s chauffeur (or butler- historical sources differ widely), who was (perhaps understandably) so hesitant to go in his boss’ mental contraption that he handed in his notice upon landing after his flight across Brompton Dale, stating  as his reason that ‘I was hired to drive, not fly’. Nonetheless, Cayley had shown that the impossible could be done- man could fly using just wings and wheels. He had also designed the aerofoil from scratch, identified the forces of thrust, lift, weight and drag that control an aircraft’s movements, and paved the way for the true pioneer of ‘heavy’ flight- Otto Lilienthal.

Lilienthal (aka ‘The Glider King’) was another engineer, making 25 patents in his life, including a revolutionary new engine design. But his fame comes from a world without engines- the world of the sky, with which he was obsessed. He was just a boy when he first strapped wings to his arms in an effort to fly (which obviously failed completely), and later published works detailing the physics of bird flight. It wasn’t until 1891, aged 43, once his career and financial position was stable and he had finished fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, that he began to fly in earnest, building around 12 gliders over a 5-year period (of which 6 still survive). It might have taken him a while, but once he started there was no stopping him, as he made over 2000 flights in just 5 years (averaging more than one every day). During this time he was only able to rack up 5 hours of flight time (meaning his average flight time was just 9 seconds), but his contribution to his field was enormous. He was the first to be able to control and manoeuvre his machines by varying his position and weight distribution, a factor whose importance he realised was absolutely paramount, and also recognised that a proper understanding of how to achieve powered flight (a pursuit that had been proceeding largely unsuccessfully for the past 50 years) could not be achieved without a basis in unpowered glider flight, in recognising that one must work in harmony with aerodynamic forces. Tragically, one of Lilienthal’s gliders crashed in 1896, and he died after two days in hospital. But his work lived on, and the story of his exploits and his death reached across the world, including to a pair of brothers living in Dayton, Ohio, USA, by the name of Wright. Together, the Wright brothers made huge innovations- they redesigned the aerofoil more efficiently, revolutionised aircraft control using wing warping technology (another idea possibly invented by da Vinci), conducted hours of testing in their own wind tunnel, built dozens of test gliders and brought together the work of Cayley, Lilienthal, da Vinci and a host of other, mostly sadly dead, pioneers of the air.  The Wright brothers are undoubtedly the conquerors of the air, being the first to show that man need not be constrained by either gravity or wind, but can use the air as a medium of travel unlike any other. But the credit is not theirs- it is a credit shared between all those who have lived and died in pursuit of the dream of fling like birds. To quote Lilienthal’s dying words, as he lay crippled by mortal injuries from his crash, ‘Sacrifices must be made’.

The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.