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High on Flight's Golden Century

Stand by for the next new media frenzy: The glorification of Orville and Wilbur

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alexander Graham Bell (far right) strung tetrahedral cells into a range of star- and ring-shaped kites and flew them at his Cape Breton Island estate in the early 1900s. The locals dubbed them “thing-ma-jigs.”

Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum/Hylas Publishing

To fly Leonardo da Vinci's Great Bird (left), an aeronaut would need to flap a 500-pound pair of wings with his legs. To take off, he would have to jump off a cliff. The artist

advised a trial over water.

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright lay down in a homemade airplane, pulled a wire to shunt the machine forward, and slowly rose into the air as his brother Wilbur ran alongside. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered only 120 feet, “but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight,” Orville later wrote. A spectator was more succinct: “Damned if they ain’t flew,” he cried.

A flurry of books, exhibitions, and documentaries now celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Elizabeth Svoboda and Maia Weinstock survey some of the best.

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

James Tobin, Free Press, $28

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

In the race to become airborne, a number of better-bankrolled aviators nearly stole the show from the Wright brothers. Among them was Samuel Pierpont Langley, who built a “great aerodrome” with aid from the U.S. War Department. Hoisted by a 207.5-pound steel engine, it plunged into the Potomac River in a test in 1903. Langley’s friend Alexander Graham Bell led a team of engineers that designed a man-carrying kite formed of tetrahedral cells. It flew for seven minutes, then crumpled after being dragged through a lake. The secret of the Wrights’ success, Tobin shows, lay in their insight that flight required a finely balanced craft, rather than a powerful one.

The Wright Sister: Katharine Wright and Her Famous Brothers

Richard Maurer, Roaring Brook Press, $18.95

Katharine Wright gave up a career as a schoolteacher to become a secretary, nurse, promoter, and travel companion to her famous brothers, Orv and Will. Maurer highlights Katharine’s role in the Wright enterprise in this illustrated biography for young adults, written with the aid of thousands of documents from the Wright estate. A newspaper announcement of Katharine’s marriage, at age 52, to fellow Oberlin graduate Harry Haskell, described her as “one of the three members of the Wright family who made the invention of the airplane possible.” Orville was less generous: After Katharine married, he disowned her.

The Wrong Stuff? Attempts at Flight Before [& After] the Wright Brothers

Phil Scott, Hylas Publishing, $24.95

The Wrong Stuff: Attempts at Flight Before (and After) the Wright Brothers

Leonardo da Vinci filled a notebook with 500 sketches of flying machines, but his leg-powered imitation bird wings never lifted humans off the ground. Scott chronicles dozens of similar false starts from the Renaissance to the modern age, profiling such aviators as the Italian Gianni Caproni, whose 1921 flying houseboat reached an altitude of 60 feet before plummeting into Lake Maggiore. Flubbed early attempts don’t rule out future glory, though. As Scott notes, the Wrights’ craft rolled along a runway without rising an inch in its first demonstration for the press.

Writing on Air

David Rothenberg and Wandee J. Pryor, editors; Terra Nova, $29.95

Writing on Air (Terra Nova Book Series)

Air is not only the ether through which planes fly; it is also the breath of life, a habitat, and—in this anthology—inspiration for an eclectic mix of essays, poems, plays, and photographs. Painter and writer Stephen Petroff ponders Maine’s extinct songbirds, journalist Howard Mansfield recounts the checkered career of early airship pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont, and filmmaker Werner Herzog fights biting winds as he trudges across the German countryside to visit a dying friend.

The Air Show at Brescia, 1909

Peter Demetz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24

The Air Show at Brescia, 1909

Courtesy of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

In 1909 a coterie of intellectuals, including writer Franz Kafka, composer Giacomo Puccini, and poet and aviator Gabriele D’Annunzio, flocked to Brescia, Italy, to watch the world’s leading aviators as they competed for prizes in speed, altitude, and distance. D’Annunzio marveled at the ethereal appeal of flying, describing it as “divine and yet inexpressible.” Kafka (right, far left, with friends in a fairground papier-mâché airplane) was more down-to-earth: He likened a lone plane loitering on the runway to a clumsy fellow on a dance floor.

Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age From Antiquity Through the First World War

Richard P. Hallion, Oxford University Press, $35

Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity through the First World War

Wings: A History of Aviation, From Kites to the Space Age

Tom D. Crouch, W. W. Norton, $29.95

Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Wright Brothers to the Space Age

Courtesy of W. W. Norton

In his encyclopedic history of humankind’s quest to conquer the skies, Hallion begins with the ancient Chinese, who swore that their emperor Shun had made the first Asiatic flight around 2230 B.C. He also includes such luminaries as the “Winged Prussian,” Otto Lilienthal, who invented the hang glider (right) and crashed it, fatally, in 1896. Crouch brings readers through to the end of the 20th century, focusing in part on the evolution of military planes with such menacing names as Skyraider, Tornado, and Predator.

The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes

Walt Burton and Owen Findsen, Harry N. Abrams, $37.50

The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes

Flight: A Celebration of 100 Years in Art and Literature

Edited by Anne Collins Goodyear et al., Welcome Books, $39.95

Flight: A Celebration of 100 Years in Art and Literature

Courtesy of W. M. Preston/Walt Burton Collection/Abrams 2003

Venture no further than the coffee table for a look at some of the art inspired by the age of aviation. Legacy tells the history of the airplane’s creators in a series of lush sepia-toned photographs, among them the image below of a Wright Flyer training session, in which would-be aviators show off their balancing skills. The art in Flight ranges from Picasso to Roy Lichtenstein and the text from Amelia Earhart to Robert Frost. Most gripping is a description of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as viewed by astronaut Frank Culbertson from the International Space Station.

Artifacts of Flight

Carolyn Russo, Harry N. Abrams, $29.95

Artifacts of Flight: The National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Courtesy of Carolyn Russo/Abrams 2003

A splendid array of barf bags from airlines around the world is one of the arresting images in Russo’s photographic study of relics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Others include the first-ever ambrotype (a predecessor of the photograph) of the inflation of a hot-air balloon; the stopwatch with which the Wright brothers timed their landmark 1903 flight; and hard-rubber casts of Neil Armstrong’s hands—the templates for the custom-tailored silicone-rubber-tipped gloves on his moon suit.

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5. THE NEW HUMANISTS: Science at the Edge

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8. KRAKATOA: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

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Exclusive to Discover from Barnes & Noble Booksellers


Aerial History in a Hangar

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Washington Dullest International Airport, Virginia

Courtesy Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Shark-mouthed and shrink-wrapped, a Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk appears ready to pounce on visitors at a satellite branch of the National Air and Space Museum, housed in a 10-story hangar at Dulles Airport, opening on December 15. This slightly modified Kittyhawk, a cousin of the P-40s flown by the famed U.S. “Flying Tiger” unit in World War II, was part of a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron that defended Alaska’s Aleutian Islands against attack by the Japanese. The bent-winged 1940s Chance-Vought F4U-1D Corsair hovering near the Kittyhawk was among the first fighter-bombers to take off regularly from aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The more than 200 aircraft in the collection also include the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest-flying jet-powered craft, and the Cessna 180 Spirit of Columbus, piloted in 1964 by Geraldine Mock, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. A second hangar for spacecraft is expected to open next summer.

Maia Weinstock


The Wright Brothers’ Flying Machine

NOVA, PBS, Tuesday, December 16, 2003

In a film that combines the gravitas of a historical docudrama with the derring-do of a contemporary reality show, aviation buffs Ken Hyde and Rick Young set out to build and fly an exact replica of the Model B wood-and-cloth biplane that the Wright brothers pointed skyward in 1910. When the Model B hurtles into a bank of trees, leaving Hyde tangled in the branches with a broken arm, we are reminded that one uncertain tilt of the rudder during their first flight could have vanquished the Wrights’ quest for scientific immortality.

Elizabeth Svoboda


Nothing New Under the Sun

The ancient world was awash in devious weaponry

By Joseph D'Agnese

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

By Adrienne Mayor, Overlook Duckworth, $27.95

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World

In the run-up last spring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a parade of pundits appeared nightly on the news, spouting ideas honed by a century’s worth of war atrocities. Good warriors fight fairly, they insisted. Chemical weapons are the coward’s way out. Our side does research biological weapons—but only for defensive purposes. Though these notions may seem novel, they are, in fact, ancient history. The firstcentury A.D. Roman historian Florus, for example, lambasted a general for poisoning wells, while his contemporary Tacitus praised the Goths, who spurned poison and chose pitch-dark nights for attack.

Thus, if there is any lesson to be learned from Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs, it’s that there’s nothing new about biological and chemical weapons—or in the universal hypocrisy surrounding their use. During the Vietnam War, American forces sprayed civilians with napalm, a jellied gasoline that burned at more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, consuming clothing, skin, and bone. It was widely assumed that Harvard scientists had invented the stuff in 1942. Few people realized that liquid incendiaries—naphtha, pitch, or quicklime—were used as far back as 875 B.C. Later, in the seventh century A.D., a Syrian engineer named Callinicus invented a terrible cannon that pumped a fiery naphtha mix through bronze tubes at ships in battle. Dubbed Greek fire, it doomed its target instantly.

Mayor, a classical folklorist, recounts in lively, sometimes darkly comic detail the diabolical stratagems devised by devious warriors for tactical ends: arrows dipped in toxins; jewel-encrusted urns booby-trapped with plague-laden garments; and a host of dirty tricks involving snakes, stinging beetles, and venomous frogs. Ironically, the more humans resorted to these insidious tools of destruction, the more the concept of war became idealized. During the brutal Peloponnesian War, the Athenian historian Thucydides condemned atrocities against noncombatants and praised “courage and sheer strength” over “scientific methods.” Yet the chicanery not only prevailed but bred arms races that continue to this day. Defeated once by war elephants in the second century B.C., the Macedonian prince Perseus ordered his men to build wooden pachyderms from which musicians blew trumpets. In this way, warhorses became inured to the sight and sounds of the tusked raiders. In other battles besiegers unleashed pigs and camels to frighten elephants and horses, whereupon the generals exposed their stables to these animals and their offensive odors. By A.D. 1398, the Turkic conqueror Tamerlane had hit upon a new trick in his onslaught on Delhi: releasing flaming camels across the battlefield.

Such insidious tactics could backfire, though. As Mayor points out, biochemical weapons are the ultimate double-edged sword. Hercules buried Hydra’s head because he knew it was immortal. Today we talk of stockpiling our nuclear and chemical weapons in desert repositories. We can hide them, but we can never rid them completely of their power to kill. This is the hard lesson of history that we moderns have yet to learn: If you unleash a flaming camel, sooner or later it’ll go berserk and run straight back into your camp.


iBot Wheelchair

Independence Technology, $29,000 (by prescription only)

Photography courtesy of Van Vechten & Company

iBot riders will be able to climb up and down stairs, traverse uneven terrain, reach items on high supermarket shelves, and even catch a football without falling over. Training is required.

One morning, inventor Dean Kamen stepped out of the shower and skidded across the bathroom floor. As he flailed about and recovered his balance, inspiration struck. He realized that the near-instant feedback and control provided by his brain, inner ear, and moving body could be a model for a new type of self-balancing wheelchair. The fruit of his epiphany has now taken shape in a stair-climbing robotic wheelchair called the iBot.

Approved in August by the Food and Drug Administration, the battery-powered iBot climbs up and down stairs by pivoting two sets of wheels up and over each other. It can also balance itself on two wheels alone, elevating a rider to eye level with standing companions. Like Kamen’s ballyhooed Segway scooter, the iBot feels sturdy and surprisingly stable during a ride in its two-wheeled standing mode. The secret to its stability lies in an array of tilt sensors and gyroscopes that mimic the inner ear, feeding information to computers that in turn tell motors to make minute adjustments to the wheels to maintain balance. The iBot in fact never stands quite still. In the same way that a soldier at attention must make subtle muscular adjustments to stay balanced, a standing iBot always dithers to and fro as a rider shifts his or her weight. Rock backward and forward and the wheels gently roll back and forth with the rider’s movement. Push it extremely hard and it will drop automatically to four wheels, just as Kamen might have fallen to all fours if his bathroom slip had really sent him sprawling.

By providing access to places that were previously inaccessible, the iBot has the power to transform the lives of the disabled. In four-wheel drive, it can motor up a grassy hillside or along a sandy beach. The stairs in a subway station? No problem. Kamen has ridden the iBot up to street level from the deep tunnels of the Paris metro. He followed that feat by using it to climb 700 steps of a spiral staircase to the Jules Verne restaurant, halfway to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Jon R. Luoma

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