“To Conquer the Air” by James Tobin


This was a great read – I found myself cheering at the triumph of Wilbur Wright as he navigated the Flyer around the Statue of Liberty in 1909.  That’s what is depicted on the book cover, and was a great place to wrap up the book.  Wilbur (not to knock Orville too much, but per Tobin it was Wilbur who was the driving force) definitely deserves his place in the pantheon of engineering heroes.  His life was a little bit aimless or off course, due to protracted illness and some family considerations.  But then he got interested in the problem of manned flight, had a novel idea (wing-warping, from observations of birds), and went to work in his quiet, focused manner in spite of the derision or disbelief of others.

In those early days, manned flight researchers were almost universally regarded as crackpots.  Occasionally, it even diminished the reputation of those more established in other fields, such as Samuel Langley or Alexander Graham Bell.  The Wrights built upon the foundation of those who came before, but it might be hard for us now to comprehend the diversity of approaches to the problem of manned flight that they had to wade through.  Dirigibles?  Ornithopters?  Kites?  Fixed-wing gliders?  Wilbur obviously ended up in the glider camp, and then correctly focused on the problem of balance and control.  Only after the glider was controllable did he think about adding an engine.

1900-1902 – autumn glider tests at Kitty Hawk.  Construction of homemade wind tunnel and methodical testing of wing shapes; verification of Lilienthal lift tables

1903 – glider + engine test at Kitty Hawk

1904-1905 – continued powered glider experiments at Huffman Prairie near Dayton

1906-1907 – incredibly, the Wrights locked up their Flyer and conducted no flights!  I can’t really believe it.  Tobin surmises they were trying to secure government contracts and thought that secrecy and exclusivity would work in their favor, but I don’t know.  Part of it was the Wrights’ stubbornness – they felt like they had shown their best to the world and had been ignored; now the world would have to come to them begging for forgiveness…

1908 – exhibitions in France

1909 – triumph in New York


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