"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids


“I am convinced that human flight is possible and practical.” –Wilbur Wright, 1899

Since earliest times, people watched birds soaring overhead and wished they could fly too. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, artists in ancient Egypt painted pictures of men with wings. Ancient Greek myths tell about winged gods and flying chariots. Arabian legends speak of princes riding on magic flying carpets.

In the Middle Ages, “birdmen” strapped wings to their arms and leaped from high places, flapping as hard as they could. Most of them suffered death or injuries, but a few achieved partial success with their glides. Later inventors designed flying machines called ornithopters (bird wings), which had wings that could be made to flap. However, no one was able to make one that could successfully carry a person.

The first truly scientific study of flight was made in the late 1400’s by the Italian artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo realized that human arm and chest muscles were not strong enough to operate a pair of wings. But he made detailed drawings of ornithopters, helicopters, and parachutes. The notes and sketches that he left show that Leonardo had a good understanding of the principles of aerodynamics. But historians are not sure whether he ever built and tested his inventions, and his works had little or no influence on the history of flight.

The glider, pioneered by Otto Lilienthal of Germany in the 1880’s, was the first successful heavier-than-air craft. Although it could not really fly, it could coast on air for many miles. The wonderful sensation of flying on currents of air has made gliding a popular sport. Other inventors tried adding propellers and engines to gliders, but were unsuccessful at getting off the ground. Finally, it was the Wright brothers who came up with a better aircraft design.

It's been over 100 years since the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It all happened on the beautiful shores of the Outer Banks at Kill Devil Hill on the morning of December 17, 1903. The Wright brothers designed and built both the biplane and its motor. Orville piloted the first powered flight. At 10:35 am, the Wright brothers' flyer lifted into the air for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 121 feet. For the first time, a manned machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started. Later that day, Wilbur made a much longer flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Wilbur Wright was born in 1867 and Orville Wright was born in 1871. The sons of a minister, the two brothers grew up in a rich home learning environment in which they were encouraged to explore whatever interested them. They spent much of their time inventing mechanical toys. As young men, they opened a bicycle repair shop. They also designed and built bicycles. Since childhood, both had been interested in the possibility of man’s being able to fly. They read all they could about aviation and taught themselves aeronautics (the science of flight). Around 1898 they began to experiment with kites and gliders. They made the first wind tunnel so that they could test their inventions, several of which were used on the plane they flew at Kitty Hawk.

In the beginning, few people believed reports of the Kitty Hawk flight. Then Wilbur started giving flying demonstrations in Europe, and their achievements became known throughout the world. In 1908, he stayed in the air for 2 hours and 20 minutes on one flight. The brothers continued to improve their airplane design and they built several more biplanes. At first, they made a good profit using airplanes for entertainment. When the U.S. Army purchased a Wright biplane in 1909, this marked the birth of military air power.

The Wright brothers formed their own company and began manufacturing airplanes in New York City. Before long, airplanes were being built in France, England, Germany, and Italy. Airplane makers continued to try new designs and build better models. Small companies that had been building planes slowly, by hand, began to speed up production. They hired engineers to develop airplanes that were safer and more practical.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid in 1912. Orville Wright lived until 1948, long enough to see airplanes used in both World Wars. After World War I, the surplus war planes were disposed of at very low prices. Many former war pilots bought these planes for exhibition purposes. Daredevil pilots called barnstormers traveled all over the country performing stunts at county fairs. Some of the more brave members of their audience would pay for a private ride after the show.

The first airmail service was established between New York and Washington, D.C. in 1918. Coast-to-coast airmail service was offered starting in 1924. In the 1930’s, air transportation companies were formed to take passengers on short flights, and regular passenger service was established. Also in the 1930’s, the first practical helicopter was developed.

More rapid advancements took place in the aviation industry after World War II, beginning with the first jet-propelled airplanes. Commercial airlines were using jet planes by the late 1950’s. Like man’s dreams, the aviation industry went beyond the atmosphere into space. Space planes are being developed to fly as airplanes in the air and as spacecraft in space.

Aircraft and its related industries are some of the major employers in America. Thousands of companies are involved in aviation, which has been expanded to include aerospace. Ranging from the man who rents his small airplane for crop dusting to the giant Boeing company, and including many other companies that make parts for airplanes and spacecraft, they employ millions of people across the nation.

The site of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is now preserved as the Wright Brothers National Monument. The Wright brothers had big dreams, but the decisions leading up to their amazing accomplishment were based on sound research and careful planning – which, combined with imagination and dedication, is what helped to make their dreams a reality. For more information about the Wright brothers and flight, visit www.wright-brothers.org.

SEE ALSO: www.knowledgehouse.info/bio_wrightbros.html (Wright Brothers biography.)

Daedelus and Icarus

“Daedelus and Icarus” is a Greek myth. Daedelus was a master craftsman from Athens who was able to design and build nearly anything. He created many objects that figure prominently in various myths, including the famous labyrinth of the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half bull. For years King Minos demanded a tribute of youths from Athens to feed the creature. Eventually, the hero Theseus came to Crete to slay the Minotaur. King Minos was angry with Daedelus after Theseus was not only able to slay the Minotaur, but escape from the labyrinth. So he imprisoned Daedelus and his son Icarus in a prison tower. They escaped, but Daedalus decided that he and his son Icarus had better leave Crete to get away from King Minos. However, Minos controlled the sea around Crete, so Daedalus realized that the only way out was by air. Daedelus crafted some wings of wax, twine, and the feathers of sea birds. Daedelus and Icarus took flight. Tragically, Icarus was so excited about being able to fly that he disobeyed his father and flew too close to the sun. The heat from the sun melted his wings of wax, sending Icarus into the sea. Don't you wish Icarus had listened to his father?

Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) wrote The Age of Fable in 1855 to “teach Mythology not as a study but as a relaxation from study…for Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness.” His timeless volume spans the ages, from the Olympus of Zeus and the Valhalla of Thor, to the Round Table of King Arthur and the escapades of Robin Hood. You can read it online at http://www.bartleby.com/bulfinch/.

The following is the story of Daedelus and Icarus, as told by Thomas Bulfinch in The Age of Fable:

Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, but afterwards lost the favour of the king, and was shut up in a tower. He contrived to make his escape from his prison, but could not leave the island by sea, as the king kept strict watch on all the vessels, and permitted none to sail without being carefully searched.

"Minos may control the land and sea," said Daedalus," but not the regions of the air. I will try that way." So he set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his young son Icarus. He wrought feathers together, beginning with the smallest and adding larger, so as to form an increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like the wings of a bird.

Icarus, the boy, stood and looked on, sometimes running to gather up the feathers which the wind had blown away, and then handling the wax and working it over with his fingers, by his play impeding his father in his labours. When at last the work was done, the artist, waving his wings, found himself buoyed upward, and hung suspended, poising himself on the beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner and taught him how to fly, as a bird tempts her young ones from the lofty nest into the air. When all was prepared for flight he said, "Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe."

While he gave him these instructions and fitted the wings to his shoulders, the face of the father was wet with tears, and his hands trembled. He kissed the boy, not knowing that it was for the last time. Then rising on his wings, he flew off, encouraging him to follow, and looked back from his own flight to see how his son managed his wings. As they flew the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd leaned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air.

They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air.

While his mouth uttered cries to his father it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea which thenceforth was called by his name. His father cried, "Icarus, Icarus, where are you?" At last he saw the feathers floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of his child. Daedalus arrived safe in Sicily, where he built a temple to Apollo, and hung up his wings, an offering to the god.

The death of Icarus is told in the following lines by Erasmus Darwin:

“With melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and dishevelled hair;
His scattered plumage danced upon the wave,
And sorrowing Nereids decked his watery grave;
O'er his pale corse their pearly sea-flowers shed,
And strewed with crimson moss his marble bed;
Struck in their coral towers the passing bell,
And wide in ocean tolled his echoing knell.”

Several thousand years after the ancient Greek story of “Daedelus and Icarus” took place, and 100 years after the Wright brothers' first flight, a modern flying machine called the Columbia fell from the sky (on February 1, 2003). Like Icarus, the shuttle’s wings were clipped and melted by heat. Seven more of the earth’s explorers were sent to heaven in the blink of an eye.

While Icarus himself exemplifies youthful arrogance, pride and intemperance, the tale of Icarus encompasses another great truth – the higher you soar, the more risk you entail. Just like the earliest pioneers of flight, these modern explorers embrace danger, not to gain power or control, but in search of knowledge and understanding.

Through risk, and even through death, we have learned to strengthen our wings, to make them safer and surer. We have extended our domain from the earth to the air and even towards the stars. Each time we reach a new milestone, we dare ourselves to go beyond it.

From the medieval “birdmen” who jumped off towers and cliffs to try out their artificial wings, to the early inventors who bravely tested their own experimental aircraft, to the modern space pilots on the cutting edge of the newest frontier, the history of flight continues. In spite of all the dangers and uncertainties, man’s oldest dream of flying high lives on.


These pages are a continuous work in progress.
Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
All rights reserved.

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