Skip to comments.Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly
Posted on 12/17/2003 1:52:41 PM PST by Verginius Rufus
The ridiculous fiasco which attended the attempt at aerial navigation in the Langley flying machine was not unexpected, unless possibly by the distinguished Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who devised it, and his assistants. Prof. MANLY, who undertook the voyage, prudently clothed himself in a cork jacket--doubtless because cork is a good non-conductor and would tend to keep the wearer warm in the rarified strata of the upper atmosphere in which he perhaps expected to cruise. However, as the machine was to be launched over the Potomac, it appears, as matters eventuated, to have been a wise precaution for other reasons.
At the supreme moment the device was shot down the incline from which it was to derive, by gravity, its initial momentum. When the instant came when it was to defy gravity it behaved very much like a card skillfully scaled by an expert. But for its wings and aeroplanes it would have dropped from the end of the shoot by a very short trajectory, upon whatever might have been under it. As it was, it described a relatively long and very graceful trajectory, the chord of which was about a hundred yards, and when its impetus was exhausted, gradually curved downward until it disappeared, "plunk," as the small boy would say, into the river.
Thanks to his cork jacket, Prof. MANLY came to the surface thoroughly wet, but smiling, explanatoyr, and delightfully confident that the principle of the Langley device is all right, and eager to make a report to this effect to his principal, who had prudently remained in Washington.
The proverbial proneness of the unexpected to happen, especially in the case of flying machines, has been demonstrated too often since the days of Icarus to leave room for surprise that gravity was too much for the Langley mechanism. That it ought to fly as well as the average hen hawk is probably true. Prof. LANGLEY and his assistants are very learned men. Not one of them is an empiric in science or in the least hazy as to exact mathematics. They have undoubtedly worked out the equations of levitation, so to speak, with infinite patience and infallible exactness. The difficulty probably resided in the fact that the apparatus was not made just as it was calculated, and considering the limitations of the mechanic arts and the variableness of materials, this alwasy comes between the mathematician and the expression of his results in wood, iron, and canvas, or whatever is employed in construction.
In most things the variation permissible from plans and calculations is not fatal to utility, and in any other form of flying machine than a balloon the least margin of variation permissible in exact mechanics is probably much too wide to warrant the expectation taht the results sought will be attained. Nature is more successful in applying the law of compensations to the correction of errors of design or development than man has ever been or is ever likely to be.
The bird which cannot fly at all, or not very well, usually does not need to; but if the time ever comes when it does need to, its differentiation is gradually but certainly effected along natural lines.
It should be remembered, however, that the bird successful in flight is an evolution. It has taken a great many generations of his kind to develop his muscular system in just the right way for flying purposes, and very likely the process has consumed many centuries of time.
The mistake of the scientist would appear to be in his assumption that he can do with much less suitable material by a single act of creative genius what nature accomplishes with such immeasurable deliberation. It may also be that he has failed to recognize the difference between matter which is passive and must be differentiated and matter which may be said to co-operate with the creative purpose and to assist the process of differentiation by effort.
The bird that wants to fly and feels the need of flight tries to fly, and keeps on trying until it can fly as well as it needs to. The machine does only what it must do in obedience to natural laws acting on passive matter.
Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird with 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--provided, of course, that we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in organic materials. No doubt the problem has attractions for those it interests, but to the ordinary man it would seem as if effort might be employed more profitably.
I have inserted some additional paragraph breaks--the original is three long paragraphs.
Engineering school or no, they were very much engineers in the modern sense of the word, and careful theoreticians as well. Though they did not invent the wind-tunnel, they put it to much better use than any of their competitors. Their greatness lay in their ability to separate the various parts of the problem of powered flight, and solve them separately. lift is a separate problem from drive, and both are separate from control. Their careful (and extremely courageous) glider tests revealed the necessity of three axis control. Yaw and pitch were already understood; roll was not. By separating the problems of lift, drive, and control they were able to concentrate themselves on the parts of the problem they understood best (lift and control) while hiring out the problem of drive (build a powerful and light weight motor) to a friend who understood that issue.
To call them "bumpkins" is to greatly misunderestimate them...
This is believed to be the first and last time...
There is no better time to kick someone that when he is down. Maybe they should leave aeronautics to the experts.
New York Times Editorial, 1920
As a method of sending a missile to the higher, and even to the highest parts of the earth's atmospheric envelope, Professor Goddard's rocket is a practicable and therefore promising device. It is when one considers the multiple-charge rocket as a traveler to the moon that one begins to doubt ... for after the rocket quits our air and really starts on its journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left.
Professor Goddard, with his "chair" in Clark College and countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react ... Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react --- to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
It took until 1969 for them to issue a retraction.
some just faster than others.... ;-)
Good to know that some maintain their standards. The NYT editorial staff is just as knowledgeable now as then.
I remember this being alluded to in a Heinlein novel, about rocket travel, written in 1946. I thought it was a joke. Good lord. That's the best thing I've read all day. Thanks for posting that.
I did find a more complete version at http://it.is.rice.edu/~rickr/goddard.editorial.html .
Don't kid yourself. The Wrights did benefit from Langley's work. For one thing, they learned what didn't work. As you can see from the description, the Langley machine was a decent glider, it glided almost as far as the Wright machine flew under power on that first flight. The Wrights were engineers, despite not having gone to engineering school. (Not all that uncommon in that day) If they couldn't figure something out from first principals, as a physicist would be wont to do, they experimented until they found what would work. The built wind tunnels to determine the best shape for their wings. They flew large "kites" to learn still more about what would work.
They also knew that weight was as important as power in the selection of their engine. They chose a very low speed prop, which could get by with a very light drive mechanism. But saying they did it "all on their own" is to misstate the history of the effort. They, like all pioneers in such areas, benefited from the previous work of others, and also from work in unrelated fields, gasoline engines, driven by automotive needs, in this case.
That is of course not to say they don't deserve lots of credit for perseverance and ingenuity, they do, boy do they.
Now that is hitting below the belt...well maybe not the best metaphor since I'm not certain they have anything of importance below their belt, be "they" male or female.
Well, it a great "Zot" anyway.
The real mystery is why anyone continues to listen to them.
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