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’.

Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.