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No. 1680:
Another First Airplane!

Today, not another first airplane! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My producer rolls her eyes when I bring in yet another program on early flight. I try to explain: This isn't really about flight or priority. This is about Zeitgeist; it is about the spirit of the times.

cross-section of an annular jetPerhaps I can make my point by recalling some research my student and I did back the 1970s. We created a new kind of water jet. It emerged from a circular annular slit instead of a hole, and it had some remarkable properties. Left alone, this moving annular sheet drew back into a simple jet at some distance beyond the slit.

If we pressurized the air inside the annulus, pressure, inertia and surface tension combined to create remarkable shapes. The moving water would even form sharp corners. The student's analysis explained this weird behavior, and we were about to publish our work. Then we found a Russian paper that told our story exactly. The Russian had got there first, and we had nothing to publish.

It was a crushing blow. We both felt as though we owned the discovery. What had this Russian to do with our genius? Some years later another American paper appeared. Same discovery, same analysis, no mention of the Russian; one could only curse.

With that in mind, I'll list some early claims to the invention of the airplane: In the Texas hill country, one Jacob Brodbeck experimented with models, and, in 1865, he actually flew an airplane. The flight ended when he crashed into a chicken coop.

John Montgomery built gliders in southern California between 1883 and 1911. A great deal of legend surrounds his work and even credits him with powered flight. Glen Ford portrayed Montgomery as the inventor of the airplane in the 1946 movie Gallant Journey.

There's good evidence that Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut, flew his Number 21 airplane over a mile in 1901. We also have photos of several Whitehead flying machines -- all on the ground. There's a lot more: Maxim flew, and Ader flew. Santos Dumont flew after the Wrights, but his flight attracted a great deal of early attention in Europe.

In aggregate, these airplanes include all the elements that came together so beautifully in the Wrights' airplane -- cambered wings, internal combustion, even controllability.

Now, a new one on me: a listener just wrote to tell me about the New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse. Pearse built an airplane with all these features and moveable ailerons to boot. He flew over a hundred yards in 1902 and then crashed. He also built an early motorcycle and attempted other airplanes.

So: who invented the airplane? Well, it was the same Zeitgeist that set us all to working on annular jets twenty-five years ago. Invention is a drumbeat that draws us in and carries us on, a relentless flow veering here and there. How often do we hear of inventor A reaching the patent office scant hours before inventor B! Just as flight was, dare I say, "in the air" a century ago, so too every good idea touches many people -- in that moment just before it comes to light.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I am grateful to Connecticut listener Peter Andrew for triggering this episode. 

A photo from a 1901 article shows a man riding in a large kite

A photo from a 1901 article shows a man riding in a large kite