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by William H. Benson

December 17, 1998


     Their father was a bishop in the United Brethern Church, and they owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.  They were Orville and Wilbur Wright, and they dreamed of flying.  Told that the winds along the Atlantic coast were consistent, perfect for testing wings, they devoted a half dozen seasons on the sandy beaches at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  And there, finally, on December 17, 1903 their Wright Flyer flew four times.  A camera snapped the picture of Orville lying prone on the wing, face forward, and Wilbur running alonside on the sand.

      What the Wright Brothers did where so many others had failed was to master the three essentials of flight.  First, they designed wings with sufficient lifting power to sustain their machine in the air.  Next, they built themselves a power plant consisting of engine and propeller capable of moving the craft through the air fast enough so that air rushing over the wings generated enough lift to keep the machine airbore.  Finally, they developed a system of controlling the movement of their machine so that one it was off the ground, they could keep it off the ground and direct its movement.

      Each of those steps were painstakingly taken in that order.  Designing the wing came first.  At Kitty Hawk atop those sandy hills, they glided the wing to the bottom, and by trial and error they came upon the warped-wing design.  Then, they fashioned and mounted a lightweight engine on the wing, hacked out two wooden propellers, and with bicycle chains connected the engine to the propellers.  They came upon control by designing ailerons, and a tail assembly equipped with rudder and elevators.

     The resemblance between the Wright Flyer and today’s sleek modern aircraft is somewhat vague and indistince, but resemblance is real enough;  for the underlying principles of flight discovered by the Wrights and applied to the design of their aircraft are the same immutable principles that apply today.

     Technological advances have appeared so frequent and at such a dizzy pace during the 20th century that their wonder becomes dimmed.  Once the breakthrough in knowledge has occurred, it becomes “achievement” which yields to “accomplishment”, and finally it is added to humankind’s wealth of ideas simply as new “technology”.  Somewhere in the process the inspiring awe and the eye-popping amazement at witnessing a human miracle is lost.  For example, the computer has become ho-hum, another office and household tool.

      For eons of ages humankind lived without three crucial elements of civilization: the alphabet, the wheel, and the base ten number system, which even school children today can understand and use.  Today we take them for granted, and yet someone (or some people) in the distant past thought of them when no else had.  No one in the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492 A.D. had thought of them, and there was no shortage of intelligent people here.  But, lacking the alphabet, the wheel, and the base ten number system had seriously undermined the progress and advancement of the major cultures in the Western Hemisphere such as the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Incas.  They were tools sorely needed and yet, never thought of.


     It makes me wonder what technological tools are we still missing today that happen to lie just beyond our knowledge horizon waiting to be found by people a lot like Orville and Wilbur Wright.