View Full Version : Question on Scientific American

2006-Oct-31, 07:14 PM
I ran across this statement:

..for five years, the editors of Scientific American refused to acknowledge the aviation achievements of the Wright brothers because the magazine had been told by trusted authorities that manned, heavier-than-air flight was a scientific impossibility

Is this correct?

2006-Oct-31, 07:33 PM
Doesn't sound like it. There's a skeptical article from SciAm dated 1905 reprinted here (http://invention.psychology.msstate.edu/inventors/i/Wrights/library/WrightSiAm1.html), but the impossibility of the flights doesn't appear to be at issue.

Also a recent SciAm article here (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=000E2A9A-2E05-1FA8-AE0583414B7F0000):

Unfortunately, until they felt sure of the sale of their perfected machine, their secretiveness invited skepticism from Scientific American and other publications of the day and left them underappreciated by their peers and the general public.

2006-Oct-31, 07:48 PM
From Scientific American's 50 and 100 Years Ago column, August 1993 (http://www.sciamdigital.com/index.cfm?fa=Products.ViewIssuePreview&ARTICLEID_CHAR=2DA3AF79-988A-4E2E-8815-FDB0FC006B1), echoing August 1943,

AUGUST 1943 In a combative, newly-published book, 'The Wright Brothers, a Biography Authorized by Orville Wright,' Fred C. Kelly demonstrates what is incontestably true--that it took the editor of Scientific American a long time to come to the point of believing that claims for the early Wright flights were truthful. Nearly three years elapsed between the Wrights' first powered flight and this magazine's full acknowledgement, in the number for December 15, 1906, of 'their epoch-making invention of the first successful flying machine.' In an age of publicity writers this slowness will be difficult to grasp.

The issue appears, if you can trust Sci Am itself, to be not some authorities' claims of impossibility, but lack of publicity, lack of confirming witnesses:

The enterprising Dayton reporters obviously weren't so enterprising as our trusting editors believed. It was they, primarily, who kept the Wrights' big news in a vacuum.

Larry Jacks
2006-Oct-31, 07:56 PM
It seems unlikely but it could be true. The gliding flights of Otto Lienthal were manned, heavier than air flights, albeit unpowered. Langley failed about the same time the Wrights succeeded at powered, manned heavier than air flights. And in 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first successful manned, heavier than air flight in Europe.

Doing a little online research, I found a couple articles that seem to confirm your question. Of course, take all of these stories with a grain of caution. Without having access to century old issues of "Scientific American", I can't state for certain if the linked articles are accurate.

From Wikipedia, there's this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers):

In 1904 Ohio beekeeping businessman Amos Root, a technology enthusiast, saw a few flights including the first circle. Articles he wrote for his beekeeping magazine were the only published eyewitness reports of the Huffman Prairie flights, except for the unimpressive early hop local newsmen saw. Root offered a report to Scientific American magazine, but the editor turned it down. As a result, the news was not widely known outside of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"

In years to come, Dayton newspapers would proudly celebrate the hometown Wright brothers as national heroes, but the local newsmen's ability to overlook one of the biggest stories in human history as it was happening a few miles from their doorstep stands as a unique chapter in the annals of American journalism.

More in line with your question, I also found this (http://www.alternativescience.com/skeptics.htm):

Few examples are more striking than this one. For five years, from December 1903 to September 1908, two young bicycle mechanics from Ohio repeatedly claimed to have built a heavier than air flying machine and to have flown it successfully. But despite scores of public demonstrations, affidavits from local dignitaries, and photographs of themselves flying, the claims of Wilbur and Orville Wright were derided and dismissed as a hoax by Scientific American, the New York Herald, the US Army and most American scientists. Experts were so convinced, on purely scientific grounds, that heavier than air flight was impossible that they rejected the Wright brothers' claims without troubling to examine the evidence. It was not until President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at Fort Myers in 1908 that the Wrights were able to prove conclusively their claim and the Army and scientific press were compelled to accept that their flying machine was a reality. In one of those delightful quirks of fate that somehow haunt the history of science, only weeks before the Wrights first flew at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, the professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, Simon Newcomb, had published an article in The Independent which showed scientifically that powered human flight was 'utterly impossible.' Powered flight, Newcomb believed, would require the discovery of some new unsuspected force in nature. Only a year earlier, Rear-Admiral George Melville, chief engineer of the US Navy, wrote in the North American Review that attempting to fly was 'absurd'. It was armed with such eminent authorities as these that Scientific American and the New York Herald scoffed at the Wrights as a pair of hoaxers.

In January 1905, more than a year after the Wrights had first flown, Scientific American carried an article ridiculing the 'alleged' flights that the Wrights claimed to have made. Without a trace of irony, the magazine gave as its main reason for not believing the Wrights the fact that the American press had failed to write anything about them.

"If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face -- even if he has to scale a fifteen-storey skyscraper to do so -- would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?"

Personally, I'd take that second source with a big grain of salt. "Scientific American" magazine themselves say this (http://scientificamerican.com/page.cfm?section=history):

At the turn of the century, vehicles were of particular interest, and in 1899, a special issue was devoted exclusively to bicycles and automobiles. The editors took great delight in reporting new speed records, including a land speed record of a mile in 39.4 seconds set in 1904 by Henry Ford while driving across the ice of Lake St. Clair, Michigan.

By this time, the magazine had established its hallmark for pinpointing emerging trends before news of them reached the general population. Articles on Marconi's experiments appeared two decades before the advent of radio. Scientific American published photographs of the Wright Brothers' plane nearly two years before the successful Kitty Hawk flight.

It certainly isn't unheard of for the press to be so wrong, even for the so-called "scientific press" much less the mainstream media. I remember reading how the New York Times ridiculed Robert Goddard's idea that one day a rocket could fly to the moon. They claimed that the rocket "wouldn't have any air to push against." They later printed a correction when Apollo 11 was about to land on the moon.

By the way, I also found this fascinating account (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wright/reporter.html) of the Wright Brothers flights in Hoffman Pairie by Mr. Root, mentioned above. These were the first published accounts of the Wright Brothers flights. I'd never read them before.

Eta C
2006-Oct-31, 09:55 PM
You may be getting Scientific American confused with the Smithsonian Institution. For a long time they displayed Langley's aerodrome as the first heavier than air aircraft. Of course, the fact that Langley was also Secretary of the Institution may have had something to do with it. Orville was understandably peeved, and for a long time the Flyer was on display in London. It wasn't until the late 20's and 30's that the Smithsonian swallowed its pride, apologized to Orville, and made arrangements to bring the Flyer to where it probably should have been all along.

Larry Jacks
2006-Nov-01, 12:47 AM
You may be getting Scientific American confused with the Smithsonian Institution. For a long time they displayed Langley's aerodrome as the first heavier than air aircraft. Of course, the fact that Langley was also Secretary of the Institution may have had something to do with it.

It was more than that. The Wright Brothers had some pretty iron clad patents. Glenn Curtiss took Langley's Aerodrome and modified it so that it could fly in an attempt to show that the Wright patents could be circumvented. For years, the Smithsonian displayed the Aerodrome with a sign indicating it was the first airplane capable of flight. It was no such thing. In it's original configuration, it would not have flown. It was only after the Smithsonian backed down that the Wright Flyer was returned from England in 1948. Here's a link (http://www.nasm.si.edu/research/aero/aircraft/langleyA.htm) from the Smithsonian about this.

Of course, had the Wrights not been so litigious, perhaps American aviation wouldn't have falled behind the Europeans so badly. It was only after the Wrights were paid off (and that may have been after Wilbur's death) that American aviation could easily advance again.

2006-Nov-01, 05:33 AM
Thank you gentlemen, for the indept replies

2006-Nov-01, 06:42 PM
You may well all be wrong... The story might be that a New Zealand fellow named Richard Pierce may have been the first controlled flight. Look for it.

Larry Jacks
2006-Nov-01, 07:28 PM
There were a few people who managed to make some form of powered flight before the Wright brothers, such as Hiram Maxim and Clement Adler ( (discussed here) (http://www.unmuseum.org/flyers1.htm). However, the general historical consensus is that the Wrights were the first to make a controlled heavier than air powered flight. Control was the key factor - something that was obvious to a couple bicycle mechanics and riders.

I did a little research on Richard Pierce (Pearse?). The article I found (http://chrisbrady.itgo.com/pearse/pearse.htm) shows a picture that claims to be an accurate replica of his airplane. If it is accurate, the wing doesn't look very efficient at generating lift. I don't see much indication of control, either, but that may not be obvious from the photo. There does appear to be a crude form of vertical stabilizer and perhaps elevons.

2006-Nov-02, 09:00 AM
Control, power and lift were the key points. It was the Brothers who appear to have gotten it all together.

Their rather intelligent decision to go for control seems to have been the right one. Instead of lift and power as the other pioneers did.

Larry Jacks
2006-Nov-02, 01:49 PM
What really amazes me about the Wright brothers is their systematic and scientific approach to flight without the benefit of formal training. Being cyclists, the idea of control was obvious. After all, a bike is pretty unstable but a child can learn to ride it. They used Lilenthal's lift data but after a terrible 1901 flying season, realized it was wrong. So, they built a wind tunnel and some ingenious measuring devices to collect their own lift data. Their 1902 season was an outstanding success, so they decided to add an engine. When they found no engines powerful enough and light enough to meet their needs, they worked with one of their mechanics to build their own. Even more amazing, when they went to build their propellors, they found there was no good design formulas so they worked it out on their own. Their propellor designs were tested and found to be about 78% efficient at converting horsepower to thrust. By comparison, the best modern propellors are only a percent or two better.

So, yes, control, lift, and power - they put all of the pieces together better than anyone else at the time (at least anyone confirmed) and entered the history books. They were an amazing team and I have tremendous respect for them. Unfortunately, between their litigiousness regarding their patents and Wilbur's early death due to illness, they ended up delaying aviation development in America for many years.

2006-Nov-03, 04:38 AM
Larry, Pearse's plane did not have proper aerofoils but it certainly did fly before the wright brothers.

However control is the key. His flights were relatively uncontrolled and coming from an obscure part of the world and being rather a recluse as it was his plans were never developed further and nothing much came from his efforts.

Larry Jacks
2006-Nov-03, 02:06 PM
Not being very familiar with Pearse's work, all I can guess is that his efforts were similar to Clement Adler's. Adler's plane flew before the Wright brothers' success but was uncontrollable and an aeronautical dead end. That doesn't mean the achievement shouldn't be a source of Kiwi pride, IMO. The early history of aviation is filled with many interesting people.