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Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies
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Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies [Format Kindle]

Lawrence Goldstone

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Chapter 1


On August 9, 1896, a wealthy German engineer named Otto Lilienthal hiked up a hill in Rhinow, thirty miles from his home in Berlin. At the top, he crawled under an odd-looking apparatus, braced himself against a specially designed frame, and stood up wearing a set of wooden-framed fabric wings that measured thirty feet across. He paused at the crest of the incline, made certain of the direction of the wind, took a deep breath, and then began to run down.

To a casual observer, Lilienthal would have made a ridiculous sight: another hare-brained amateur convinced that man could achieve flight by pretending to be a bird. Surely, he would end his run with a face full of dirt, perhaps a broken bone or two.

But Otto Lilienthal was no amateur. He was, rather, the most sophisticated aerodynamicist of his day. For thirty years, he had taken tens of thousands of measurements of variously shaped surfaces moving at different angles through the air using a “whirling arm,” a long pole that extended horizontally from a fixed vertical pole and spun at a preset velocity, a device originally developed to test the flight of cannonballs. In 1889, Lilienthal had produced the most advanced study ever written on the mechanics of flight, Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst—“Bird-flight as the Basis of Aviation.” As Wilbur Wright would later assert, “Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the nineteenth century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important. His greatness appeared in every phase.”

In 1891, Lilienthal was finally ready to test his calculations. He fashioned a set of fixed glider wings to the specifications he had developed from his research, strapped them to his shoulders, waited for wind conditions to be right, ran downhill . . . and soared. For the next five years, Otto Lilienthal made more than two thousand flights using eighteen different gliders; fifteen were monofoil and three bifoil. He maneuvered in the air by shifting his weight, usually by kicking his feet and thus altering his center of gravity. He became so adept that at times he could almost float, to allow photographers to gain proper focus. Because dry plate negatives had been perfected in the 1880s, the resulting images were of excellent resolution and soon made their way across the ocean. Lilienthal became a world-renowned figure but he had little use for popular acclaim. Instead, he continued to publish scholarly papers and articles and in 1895 patented his invention.

But gliding was only an interim step; creating aerodynamic airfoils was only one aspect of what was commonly referred to as “the flying problem.” To achieve the ultimate—self-propelled, controlled, heavier-than-air flight—issues of thrust, force, stability, and weight ratios needed to be addressed. And certainly no sophisticated flying machine would be maneuvered by an aviator kicking his feet. Still, efficient airfoils would expedite resolution of those other issues, so Lilienthal continued to glide, kick, and measure. As sophisticated as anyone living on the vagaries of air currents, Lilienthal was aware that luck had played a role in his continued success. And luck, he knew as well, had a habit of running out.

On August 9, 1896, Otto Lilienthal’s did. During his second flight of the day, he stalled in a thermal about fifty feet off the ground, then fell, breaking his spine. The next day, Otto Lilienthal was dead. In his last hours, he uttered one of aviation’s most famous epitaphs: “Sacrifices must be made.”

Word of his accident spread across the globe, including to Dayton, Ohio, and the headquarters of the Wright Cycle Company, Wilbur and Orville Wright, proprietors. Wilbur had been following Lilienthal’s exploits with fascination, and word of his death, as later Wilbur put it, “aroused a passive interest which had existed since my childhood.” Lilienthal’s passing left a void in the struggle for manned flight and on that day Wilbur decided to fill it.

Wilbur was fortunate in his timing. In 1896, after centuries of stumbles, streams of research and data were about to coalesce to provide final focus for what was to be one of history’s most stunning achievements.

The heavens have been the home of the gods in virtually every recorded religion and not a single civilization from earliest antiquity fails to depict men and often women in flight. Sometimes these ancient aeronauts are in chariots, sometimes in other odd conveyances, and sometimes, like angels in Christianity even today, they fly by wings sprouting from their bodies. Achieving flight, therefore, might well be considered the oldest and most profound of all human aspirations.

Not surprisingly then, the science of flight has attracted the greatest minds in history—Aristotle, Archimedes, Leonardo, and Newton, to name just a few—but achieving the goal stumped all of them. Learning how to maintain a person or a craft in the air demanded more than a daunting scientific vision and meticulous mechanics; unlike many ground-based scientific enterprises, flight was almost impossible to test experimentally. Not that no one tried. In Roman times, slaves plunged to their deaths when ordered by men of science to leap from great heights with feathered wings strapped across their backs. Others throughout the centuries would fall to injury or death in a variety of quixotic contraptions.

To make the problem even more intractable, air, the medium of flight, is invisible, while for early theoreticians of flight, science was based almost entirely on sensory observation. Unlike modern scientists, they did not have the tools to deal with phenomena they could not see, hear, or touch. For inquiries into the mechanics of DNA replication or the detection of dark matter in the universe, for example, sophisticated instruments and powerful computers are routinely employed to test hypotheses. The ability to test with precision allows theory to precede observation. Einstein’s theory of relativity, first advanced in 1905, was not proven until a solar eclipse in 1919 provided the opportunity for astronomers to actually observe through a telescope light bending around a distant star.

Lacking such precision, a scientist can only extrapolate from observations in the natural world. Heavier-than-air flight was possible, of course—one need only watch a bird to appreciate that. So why couldn’t man fly as well? Yet as late as 1868, after more than two thousand years of study, the annual report of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain lamented, “With respect to the abstruse question of mechanical flight, it may be stated that we are still ignorant of the rudimentary principles which should form the basis and rules for construction.”1

Achieving human flight, then, turned out to be a giant puzzle, solved over centuries, piece by tortuous piece.

Since air wasn’t even yet understood to be an actual substance, the first steps involved fluids. In 350 b.c., Aristotle hypothesized that an object moving through liquid will encounter resistance, and a century later Archimedes developed the first theory of fluid motion. From there, it would take more than seventeen centuries until Leonardo took up the problem and fluid dynamics began to be thought of as a rigorous discipline.

Leonardo’s great contribution was based in his observation that when the banks of a river narrowed to constrict its flow, the water in the narrower area speeded up so that the movement of the river remained “continuous.” Leonardo could not quantify this function but his observation was eventually generalized into a mathematical relationship between speed and distance and eventually between speed and pressure—the faster a fluid moves over a surface, the less pressure it produces. But as Leonardo was also fascinated with bird flight, he made some effort to apply the principle to gases. That ultimately would result in a device where air moved farther and faster over the top surface of an airfoil than under the bottom, thus creating uneven pressure, which resulted in “lift.” He also understood that as an object moved through a medium, it would encounter resistance, friction between the object and the medium, which would slow its progress, later to be quantified as “drag.”

It took another century for the next tentative step forward, this in 1600 by Galileo. The great Pisan astronomer was the first to quantify certain relationships in fluid dynamics and thus began to create a mechanical science from what had previously been only speculation. His most significant insight was that resistance will increase with the density of the medium, which would eventually lead to the understanding that as an airplane cruised at higher altitudes, fuel efficiencies would increase.

But with all the advances by science’s titans, which later would include Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler, the applications continued to be solely in fluid dynamics—the resulting equations were then simply assumed to apply equally to gas as to liquid. In fact, using his equations, Newton hypothesized that powered flight was impossible because the weight of a motor needed to generate sufficient power would always exceed the amount of lift that could be supplied by airfoils that did not weigh more than the motor could support. For those who believed flight was possible, the assumption remained that humans must emulate birds—that is, develop a mechanism to allow for wings that flapped. Devices that attempted to mimic bird flight in this manner were dubbed “ornithopters.” A sketch of such an apparatus was found in one of Leonardo’s notebooks.

Aerodynamics as a separate science was born in 1799 when an English polymath named George Cayley produced a remarkable silver medallion. Cayley had observed that seagulls soared for great distances without flapping their wings and therefore hypothesized aircraft wings as fixed rather than movable. On the front side of his medallion, Cayley etched a monoplane glider with a cambered (curved) wing, a cruciform tail for stability, a single-seat gondola, and pedals, which he called “propellers,” to power the device in flight. On the obverse side of his medallion, Cayley placed a diagram of the four forces that figure in flight: lift, drag, gravity, and thrust. Although actual powered flight was a century away, Cayley’s construct was the breakthrough that set the process in motion. In 1853, four years before his death, a fixed-wing glider of Cayley’s design was the first to carry a human passenger.

Cayley’s hypotheses did not immediately take root. Not until the 1860s did his work finally spark a rush of interest. The Aeronautical Society of Great Britain was formed in 1866; another was begun in France three years later. Discussions of materials, airfoils, and resistance began to drift across borders and disciplines. Theorizing grew in sophistication and began to take in angle of incidence, the angle at which an airfoil moves through the oncoming air, now called “angle of attack”; and center of pressure, the point on a surface where the pressure is assumed to be concentrated, just as center of gravity is the point at which the entire mass of a body is assumed to be concentrated.

As the body of aerodynamic knowledge expanded, serious experimentation grew along with it. By the time Lilienthal strapped on his first set of wings, movement toward human flight seemed to be nearing the inexorable. But if the process was to move forward with any efficiency, experimenters would need some means to separate what seemed to work from what seemed not to—data and results would have to be shared. The man who most appreciated that need was someone who, while not producing a single design that resulted in flight, was arguably the most important person to participate in its gestation.

Octave Chanute was born in Paris on February 18, 1832. His father was a professor of history at the Royal College of France but in 1838 crossed the Atlantic to become vice president of Jefferson College in Louisiana. The elder Chanut—Octave later added the e to prevent mispronunciation—moved in 1844 to New York City, where Octave attended secondary school, and, as he put it, “became thoroughly Americanized.”2

Upon graduation, he decided to study engineering. As there were only four dedicated colleges of engineering in the United States, most aspirants learned on the job, as Chanute chose to do. In 1849, he asked for a job on the Hudson River Railroad at Sing Sing and, when told nothing was available, signed on without pay as a chainman. Two months later, he was put on the payroll at $1.12 per day and four years after that, completely self-taught, was named division engineer at Albany. But with immigrants pouring into Illinois to buy government lands at $1.25 per acre, Chanute instead went west. He gained high repute on a number of railroad assignments and eventually submitted a design for the Chicago stockyards that was chosen over dozens of others. With the successful completion of that project, Chanute was asked to attempt a traverse of the “unbridgeable” Missouri River. Chanute’s Hannibal Bridge at Kansas City not only successfully spanned the waterway but elevated the city into a center of commerce, and its designer to national acclaim.

For the next two decades, Chanute continued to push forward transportation engineering. He also perfected a means of pressure-treating wood with creosote that remained state-of-the-art for more than a century. When he retired in 1889, he did so as the foremost civil engineer in the United States and a very wealthy man. For all his personal achievements, however, Chanute never wavered in his commitment to a cooperative approach to problem solving. He attained leadership positions in a number of professional organizations and became active in civic groups in the cities in which he lived. As a result, which might be considered surprising for one so successful, Chanute had no real enemies and was well liked by virtually everyone who came in contact with him.

By 1890, he relocated to Chicago, but he wouldn’t pass his remaining days sitting back with his feet up, and gazing out over Lake Michigan. His retirement had been prompted not by a desire to stop working but rather by the intention to pursue a passion that had been percolating for fifteen years. Chanute intended to bring the same skills and approach that had served him so well in his own career to the quest to achieve human flight.

It was not his intent initially to design aircraft but rather to serve as a catalyst, a focal point for the growing streams of theory and data then being generated about “the flying problem.” The engineering methodology, he was convinced, the rigorous, thoughtful, step-by-step approach that created a bridge from the idea of a bridge, could be equally applied to heavier-than-air flight. Ideas therefore must be evaluated by peers and, if they showed promise, tested and incorporated in a body of knowledge available to all. Innovation should be rewarded, certainly, and inventions patented, but the process would be best served openly and collegially. Achieving flight for the advancement of humanity must always retain predominance over achieving the goal merely for profit.

Revue de presse

“A meticulously researched account of the first few hectic, tangled years of aviation and the curious characters who pursued it . . . a worthy companion to Richard Holmes’s marvelous history of ballooning, Falling Upwards.”Time
“The daredevil scientists and engineers who forged the field of aeronautics spring vividly to life in Lawrence Goldstone’s history.”Nature
“The history of the development of an integral part of the modern world and a fascinating portrayal of how a group of men and women achieved a dream that had captivated humanity for centuries.”The Christian Science Monitor
“Captivating and wonderfully presented . . . a fine book about these rival pioneers.”The Wall Street Journal
“[A] vivid story of invention, vendettas, derring-do, media hype and patent fights [with] modern resonance.”Financial Times
“A powerful story that contrasts soaring hopes with the anchors of ego and courtroom.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A riveting narrative about the pioneering era of aeronautics in America and beyond . . . Goldstone raises questions of enduring importance regarding innovation and the indefinite exertion of control over ideas that go public.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A superbly crafted retelling of a story familiar to aviation buffs, here greatly strengthened by fresh perspectives, rigorous analyses, comprehensible science, and a driving narrative.”Library Journal (starred review)

Birdmen is so much more than the story of man’s leap into the clouds. Exhilarating, exasperating, and inspiring in equal measure, the Wright brothers’ tale is a parable for modern times, told in fascinating detail and gripping prose by Lawrence Goldstone.”—Dr. Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“Meticulously researched and illuminating, Birdmen unveils the forgotten flyboys who gave America an invention to win wars, spread peace, and advance her destiny—air power.”—Adam Makos, internationally bestselling author of A Higher Call
“The history of human flight goes way beyond the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Lawrence Goldstone skillfully tells the rest of the story about the dreamers history has forgotten, and it’s a helluva story superbly told. Birdmen is a wondrous journey from takeoff to landing.”—Bill Griffeth, author of By Faith Alone

“With riveting prose, rich research, and an uncommon talent for weaving heroic and tragic tales of complex persons with accounts of invention and institutions, Lawrence Goldstone reveals the human dimensions of the birth of modern times in this exhilarating book.”—Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
“Lawrence Goldstone offers a beautifully written account of the dawn of powered flight. It’s a great story of technical innovation, fierce competition, and powerful personalities. Goldstone provides a vibrant narrative of the Wright brothers battling Glenn Curtiss over government contracts, patents, and prizes, and describes issues pertinent to today’s business professionals and military personnel alike.”—Colonel John Abbatiello, PhD, USAF (Retired), author ofAnti-Submarine Warfare in World War I: British Naval Aviation and the Defeat of the U-Boats

“Goldstone provides a fresh, engaging, and compelling narrative that significantly enhances our understanding of one of the most remarkable stories in American history. He expertly documents the achievements and frailties of the Wright brothers as they pursued manned flight and attempted to profit from their breakthrough ideas. This well-written book is a pleasure to read.”—Tom Nicholas, William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

“The first aviators took to the skies with amazing courage and ingenuity, but, it turns out, also fighting like warbirds. None of these dogfights was was more epic and vital to flying’s future than the one waged by Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss. Beautifully told, Goldstone’s book gives full vent to the action, while in the process weaving a compelling and sophisticated narrative of aviation’s earliest days.”—Robert O’Connell, author of The Ghosts of Cannae

From the Hardcover edition.

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.4 étoiles sur 5  129 commentaires
17 internautes sur 17 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Fascinating early aviation history comes to life 7 avril 2014
Par Q. Publius - Publié sur
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Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, I knew the story of their aviation endeavors and I have visited the sites in Dayton where they worked (including their bicycle shop) and the Huffman Prairie where they tested their flying machine. But I was not that familiar with their patent legal battles with Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle racer who became known for his innovative aircraft and whose name today is primarily associated with being an American aviation pioneer and founder of the US aircraft industry. This book deals with the early years of aviation, lives and inventions of the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and also colorful personalities associated with the times such as Tom Baldwin, inventor of the parachute, John Moisant, the celebrated daredevil, Harriet Quimby, who became the first woman to fly across the English Channel and Lincoln Beachey who was known for his air stunts. The long legal battles between the Wright Brothers and Curtiss are adequately discussed. This well researched volume is a wonderful book depicting those wild early years of aviation and it has something for everyone interested in the topic of early 20th century history, aviation and invention. Highly recommended.
27 internautes sur 32 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 So So Much Here 6 mars 2014
Par Rick Mitchell - Publié sur
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If you get through this book you must really really love aviation. The book started with so much promise but then got bogged down in too much detail. Once the Wrights got up into the air, virtually every flight and aviator was chronicled for the first several years of flying. Not only are the details of the flights given, but every corporate structure is examined and every organizational facet of every exhibit provided. It just got too much.

There are some very good aspects. The analysis of the early development was captivating. In a truly different world, inventors and aviation enthusiasts shared information - until the Wright brothers. That is another captivating aspect of the book. The brothers, particularly Wilbur, were terribly litigious and protective of everything about their planes. They early on filed patents and then spent years and countless dollars defending them on weak legal grounds. This alienated virtually everyone else in the field.

There is a lot of good information in this book. Unfortunately, it got bogged way down in details. I found myself skimming (do we really need several pages of the theatrical bio of one of the first female pilots?) and then losing interest, then flipping through looking for some pearls of interest. For enthusiasts, this is the mother lode. For the casual history buff, this is too much.
10 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Detailed history of the early days of human flight 3 avril 2014
Par Edward Durney - Publié sur
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Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone gives us a detailed history of the Wright Brothers and the early days of human flight. And I mean very detailed. In fact, probably for many readers, too much detail. Keeping track of all the characters described can distract from the story. But for me, having read different histories of that era, that level of detail was fine.

Lawrence Goldstone focuses on the "battle to control the skies" that was fought between the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. After the Wright Brothers flew their historic plane on Kitty Hawk, they went into stealth mode to try to sell their technology, relying on their landmark patent to give them a monopoly on flight. The problem was that as the Wright Brothers shifted their focus from flight to the patent fight, their unimproved technology became dated and their lawsuits hampered their competitors like Glenn Curtiss from making improvements as well.

The upshot was that the United States got left behind in the aviation industry. In fact, when airplanes took to the skies over the battlefields of World War I, the airplanes were made by Germany, France and Great Britain. None were of American design and none, with a minor exception, were of American manufacture. The blame for that shameful showing lies, it seems, squarely on Wilbur Wright's shoulders, whose overwrought overwork in the patent wars cost him his life (according to his sister Katherine).

In telling that basic story, though, Lawrence Goldstone gives the stage to many other characters as well. That's where the book has its weaknesses. The story line jumps around a lot. Indeed, at one point in the story, Wilbur Wright dies, but then a few pages later we are back hearing about when he was alive. People come in and out of the story at odd moments. If read as a narrative work, from first page to last, Birdmen does not read very well. Too jumpy, too busy, and too detailed.

I liked the book best by jumping around myself. I didn't read it from cover to cover, but dipped in here and there. Eventually I read it all, but it worked fine for me to read the stories out of sequence, since they are largely self-contained.

Nothing in Birdmen surprised me. Many of the stories were new to me, but those that were new were minor. Everything major I already knew. Still, I've never seen a book like this one that blends factual history with narrative history in quite this way. I liked the result. Hope you do too.
9 internautes sur 10 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Barnstorming and legal wrangling (3.5 stars) 13 mai 2014
Par J. Green - Publié sur
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The Wright brother's flight at Kitty Hawk was a monumental triumph. Wilbur's (and Orville's) genius at solving the problem that had stumped so many others for so long was truly remarkable. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of his legal battles as he sought to patent and monopolize the invention with a broad "pioneering patent" that would have required licensing fees of all those who soared on his coattails. And even though Glenn Curtiss soon improved upon the methods of control (developing many of the improvements that are still in use today), he became an especially hated rival and target of the Wright's attacks. And the legal storm that erupted cast a constant shadow over the aeronautical industry when the public's thirst for air shows and events was at it's highest, making stars of the daredevils in the barnstorming circuit (really, most of them just wanted to see crashes). And it is widely felt that his focus on protecting his patents that caused his early death.

This is an interesting chronicle of the early years of aviation, from Kitty Hawk through the first World War. The Wrights and Curtiss are profiled, along with many other prominent but largely forgotten individuals: visionaries who put their faith in balloons such as Thomas Baldwin; scoundrels like Augustus Herring, who mostly made their fortune by deception; and daredevils such as Lincoln Beachy, who thrilled audiences with his death-defying stunts (as well as his own death) are included in this wide-reaching history.

While it's an interesting chronicle, I felt it suffered from a too-wide reach of history. Curtiss never became more than a cardboard figure in the history for me, despite his amazingly prominent role in nearly everything. The Wrights are generally cast as greedy villains who eschewed further development in favor of making "lawsuit[s] as a feature of [their] general business." And this serves to make it a pretty unpleasant read - not to say it's not true (and I found his conclusions very insightful - but slogging through the legal wrangling just didn't make for compelling or enjoyable reading. I'm not saying exposing the ugly truth isn't reasonable (and I'm not questioning Goldstone's facts or motives), just that I found it distastefully enlightening and a bit burdensome at nearly 400 pages.
7 internautes sur 9 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Hung Up in Court 4 mai 2014
Par L. M Young - Publié sur
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At the turn of the century, not only the Wright brothers dreamt of the sky. From Otto Lillenthal and his wings to Octave Chanute, Augustus Herring, Samuel Langley, Louis Bleriot, and the man the Wrights considered their greatest rival, Glenn Curtiss, men on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean wrestled with the problem of heavier-than-air travel. BIRDMEN chronicles the steps—and often mis-steps—in the efforts to fly.

I have to be honest; it's my husband who's the aviation buff, but I've visited so many aviation museums with him I've taken a liking to the early aspects of aviation, including ballooning and the career of the Wright brothers. I thought this book would be more enjoyable than it was; it's a very knowledgeable, but I also found it very dry, especially the parts devoted to the Wright brothers' efforts to slap lawsuits on anyone who seemed to be copying their patented wing-warping innovation. The book is at its best when it chronicles the groundbreaking flights and the dismal failures, the air races, and the structural innovations. The legal aspects are otherwise rather tedious.
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