“Human flight” on the 21st-century Real World? 2. Think like the Wright brothers, not like Samuel Langley.

everything under control

Wilbur and Orville Wright lived at a time in history when inventors of every stripe were feverishly building flying machines. Americans were particularly focused on the efforts of Samuel Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was widely assumed that he and the Smithsonian, with their relatively large financial and intellectual resources, would win the world’s race – would be the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. (This despite several publicly-visible failed attempts; surely the Langley effort would ultimately win out.)

the Langley failure, nine days prior to the Wright brothers success

The key technology enabling the buzz – the widely-held optimism that the 1900’s would prove to be the historic moment – was the newly-developed internal combustion engine. Langley, the Smithsonian, indeed all active competitors for the prize and their sea of spectators, were keenly aware of the challenge to maximize the power output while minimizing engine weight.

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers were working in relative obscurity, supported by the income from their Ohio bicycle shop. They recognized the power-weight problem, but focused on an additional challenge – the control of the aircraft. One source puts it this way:

The Wrights appear to be the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve the power and control problems. Both problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest. They solved the control problem by inventing wing warping for roll control, combined with simultaneous yaw control with a steerable rear rudder. Almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine. They also designed and carved wooden propellers that were more efficient than any before, enabling them to gain adequate performance from their low engine power. Although wing-warping as a means of lateral control was used only briefly during the early history of aviation, the principle of combining lateral control in combination with a rudder was a key advance in aircraft control. While many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights’ design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes. This emphasis, as well as low engine power, was the reason for low flying speed and for taking off in a head wind. Performance, rather than safety, was the reason for the rear-heavy design, because the canard could not be highly loaded; anhedral wings were less affected by crosswinds and were consistent with the low yaw stability.

The Wright brothers would continue to work on aircraft-control for the remainder of their lives.

Which brings us to “human flight” on the Real World. You and I might prefer not to think of this as “flight,” but by whatever name our generation is living-out a great human transition – from happy-go-lucky living, to active management of the Earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere. The challenge going forward is whether we and our descendants intentionally shoulder this responsibility and carry it out well.

One way to approach the problem might be to apply technology to the threefold task of meeting resource needs, coping with hazards, and minimizing pollution. Ultimately, we might feed our (now slowly) growing numbers by “3-D printing” of food – using growing understanding of fundamental biology to manufacture food wholly artificially. We could apply other technology to desalinate seawater at massive scale. To power both these advances, we would deploy renewable energy as required. We would build resilience to natural extremes through better design and construction of buildings and critical infrastructure. We could continue to add energy capacity to minimize pollution and environmental degradation.

This is arguably the path we are on[1]. It is brute force. It seeks to make nature irrelevant. But so long as we can minimally get-along with our neighbors in the process, controlling warfare, terrorism, cyber-attacks, etc. (an admittedly big “if”), this approach can “succeed.”

This might be called the Langley approach (with apologies to the great man).

At the other end of the spectrum, we could balance such technology efforts with additional innovation in an entirely different and complementary direction –accelerating our understanding of how the Earth’s natural systems are interconnected and work together, and harnessing this knowledge to maintain Earth’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and function to the extent possible while moving to sustainability.

In short, a bit more emphasis on planetary stewardship and control. Let’s label this the Wright brothers approach[2].

(Others have suggested different terms to describe these two futures: for example, the technocene and the symbiocene. Some might consider the former too harsh; others might see the latter too flowery.)

A closing thought. You and I will not live to see any final, steady-state Langley- or Wright-brothers future scenario. Our entire careers will be spent transiting from where we are today to that future state. All the while we’ll be asked to make weather, water, and climate forecasts on every time scale, as best we can. Year after year, we’ll be daily providing impact-based decision support services – of ever-increasing consequence. (A reality that recent experience with weather extremes worldwide drives home.) But history will judge us not so much by any of this day-to-day work. Instead, future generations will ask how we helped make it possible for them to manage the planet wisely and sustainably.


[1]A possible answer to the LOTRW masthead question: what kind of world is likely if we take no action?

[2] A possible answer to one or both of the LOTRW masthead questions: what kind of world do we want? Or, What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

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