Early thoughts on aviation

by on December 10, 2017 at 2:26 am in Books, History, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

There was the ever-present worry that aircraft would make war even more horrific.  Some called for the international control of aviation to prevent its misuse.  A few even advocated the complete destruction of all aircraft on the grounds that even civilian machines could be adapted for war.

…At the opposite end of the spectrum were the enthusiasts who expected that soon everyone would be able to fly their own personal aircraft…As early as 1928, Popular Mechanics predicted a car that could be turned into a helicopter, but most commentators thought the autogyro was a better bet — although it did need a short horizontal run before take-off…As late as 1971, Isaac Asimov was still expecting that VTOL [vertical take-off and landing system] machines would eventually take the place of automobiles.

That is from Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G.Wells to Isaac Asimov.

One thing I learned from this book is that “money crank” Frederick Soddy was an early prophet of nuclear power, before many others understood the potential.  I am reminded of how “socialist crank” [oceans of lemonade with ships pulled by dolphins] Charles Fourier once prophesied that all of Europe would be tied together by railways.

1 Sandia December 10, 2017 at 2:47 am

Meh. Where’s response to Sunsteins bullshit Bloomberg piece on regulation.

2 Anon7 December 10, 2017 at 3:04 am

If only benevolent Brazil (where Alberto Santos-Dumont beat the Wright Brothers in inventing the airplane) had been given exclusive control of aviation, the history of aviation would have turned out much better.

3 A Truth Seeker December 10, 2017 at 4:54 am

Santos Dumont wanted airplanes to be used for peace and brotherhood, he donated all his blueprints to mankind. The so-called Wright Brothers believed greed is good and stole the airplane because they wanted to sell it to foreign armies, to make money through the deathes of the innocent, even their own young countrymen!!

4 dearieme December 10, 2017 at 7:54 am

Neither party “invented” the aeroplane. What they did was produce successful practical designs that actually worked.

WKPD tells me that the first powered flight might well have been by neither party but by the Bavarian who went under the anglicised name Whitehead. There are other contenders.


It seems to me that the Wright Brothers’ claim is pretty good, which is not all that usual for American claims to “firsts” from the 19th and early 20th century. (The most priceless of which was O’s claim that the motor car was an American invention.)

5 clockwork_prior December 10, 2017 at 9:21 am

Well, yes, that was pretty stupidly formulated, though it helps to be familiar with how the history of Ford and the Model T are taught in America. It isn’t that Americans invented the car per se (nor is that claimed in any American source I have ever seen – and there were American cars before the Model T, obviously, such as the Stanley Steamer), it is that Henry Ford is the one that enabled a mass market in automobiles to come into existence in the U.S. – which is fairly accurate, actually, even when one looks at the world, instead of just the U.S.

The part concerning the assembly line is more complicated, but the Model T did enable the age of mass automobile ownership, and was the first car that affordable to anyone other than the rich.

6 A Truth Seeker December 10, 2017 at 9:40 am

They tried to sell an “airplane” they wouldn’t show to buyers. Their “invention” only made an appearance after Santos Dumont showed his invention to all mankind. As Santos Dumont ponted out, if Edison had refused to show his bulb, would renown have been accorded to him?

7 Mark Thorson December 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm

What the Wright brothers invented was the first controllable aircraft. Prior to that, there were hoppers that could fly short distances in a straight line. The Wright brothers invented wing-warping, which allowed for making controlled tuirns. Along the way they also invented the wind tunnel and an engine with a very good power-to-weight ratio for its time.

8 A Truth Seeker December 10, 2017 at 6:34 pm

No, they didn’t. Their “controllable aircraft” was a farce.

9 Zach December 11, 2017 at 1:57 pm

You should read the Wright Brothers’ patent sometime. (Seriously — it’s interesting reading). They didn’t patent powered flight, they patented a system for controlling a flying machine by altering the pitch, roll, and yaw axes.

This is borne out by their experimental history — they spent several years working on controlled glider flight before they even bothered to attach an engine, and their first instinct was to buy an off the shelf automobile engine.

Basically, everybody but the Wrights thought it was a power problem. The Wrights realized that the real problem was controlling the machine as it flew.

10 Mark Thorson December 11, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Do you know the patent number? I would be interested in reading that.

And yes, as bicycle mechanics they had a good understanding of the problems of balance and control. That was key to making a practical aircraft, and even those early ones were difficult and dangerous to fly. But you’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

11 Zach December 11, 2017 at 8:02 pm
12 Zach December 11, 2017 at 8:06 pm

“The objects of our invention are to provide means for maintaining or restoring the equilibrium or lateral balance of the apparatus, to provide means for guiding the machine both vertically and horizontally, and to provide a structure combining lightness, strength, convenience of construction, and certain other advantages which will hereinafter appear.”

13 So Much For Subtlety December 10, 2017 at 3:38 am

Soddy looks like an interesting person in many ways. I had never heard of him before.

His work and essays popularising the new understanding of radioactivity was the main inspiration for H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), which features atomic bombs dropped from biplanes in a war set many years in the future.

I like the idea of dropping nuclear weapons by biplane. However it does show the problems of foreseeing the future. Even if you get some parts right, you are unlikely to see the whole picture. The mobile phone might have been inspired by Star Trek, but not one of those writers predicted Uhura would have used it to post selfies of her on the bridge of the Enterprise or that everyone might crash because Sulu was looking at hot Gay Twin porn when he should have been steering.

While most of his proposals – “to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort” – are now conventional practice, his critique of fractional-reserve banking still “remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom” although a recent paper by the IMF reinvigorated his proposals.

It does remind me a little of the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party. So was his critique of fractional-reserve banking due to his dislike of Jews or (or perhaps and/or) is it officially part of Bernie Sanders’ political platform?

14 Steve Sailer December 10, 2017 at 4:10 am

“There was the ever-present worry that aircraft would make war even more horrific.”

Aircraft did make war much more horrific for civilians.

The surprise in WWII was not the amount of destruction bombers could deliver but the amount of destruction civilians could withstand without giving up the fight.

15 dearieme December 10, 2017 at 7:58 am

True: and the amount the civilians had to withstand was partly due to the unexpected inaccuracy of strategic bombing. (Why it should have been unexpected is a mystery to me: trials would have been dead easy. Perhaps the Bomber proponents simply lied?)

16 clockwork_prior December 10, 2017 at 9:33 am

Well, some nations were more concerned than others, as can be seen by a nation honoring Bomber Harris by unveiling a statue to him 60 years after the first 1,000 bomber raid by the RAF, a night time raid of course, on Cologne.

The U.S. strategic bomber forces, using a strategy of day time raids and the Norden bombsight, were considerably more interested in accuracy. Of course, as often happens, peace time testing did not accurately reflect combat conditions – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norden_bombsight

As for your specific point – ‘The Norden Mk. XV, known as the Norden M series in Army service, was a bombsight used by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the United States Navy during World War II, and the United States Air Force in the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. It was the canonical tachometric design, a system that allowed it to directly measure the aircraft’s ground speed and direction, which older bombsights could only measure inaccurately with lengthy in-flight procedures. The Norden further improved on older designs by using an analog computer that constantly calculated the bomb’s impact point based on current flight conditions, and an autopilot that let it react quickly and accurately to changes in the wind or other effects.

Together, these features seemed to promise unprecedented accuracy in day bombing from high altitudes; in peacetime testing the Norden demonstrated a circular error probable (CEP)[a] of 23 metres (75 ft), an astonishing performance for the era.’

17 dearieme December 10, 2017 at 11:27 am

In Northern Europe the USAAF gave up attempts at precision bombing and swapped to area bombing.

18 Nolan December 10, 2017 at 6:32 pm

US 8th Air Force (WWII Europe) averaged a half-mile bombing accuracy in good weather — and good weather was unusual

never heard of a WWII bombsight that could directly measure aircraft groundspeed

19 dude December 11, 2017 at 9:23 am

The US dropped a precision atomic bomb on all of those dangerous women and children in Hiroshima.

20 Sfoil December 10, 2017 at 5:10 pm

The “unexpected inaccuracy” had basically two sources. The first, and most innocent, is that controlled trials of bombing tactics and equipment systematically showed bombers to be more accurate than they turned out to be under combat conditions. Aside from the usual proliferation of variables in combat, the trials couldn’t replicate the challenges intelligence e.g. deciding what to actually bomb and relaying this information accurately to air crews.

The other and less sympathetic reason is that advocates of air power had (also present tense: have) an intuitive vision where targets are simply identified and destroyed from the air with impunity. Unfortunately this is much harder than it must have appeared to the early aviators for whom the vantage of their aircraft opened a completely new perspective of the battlefield.

21 Nolan December 10, 2017 at 9:46 am

>>> “Aircraft did make war much more horrific for civilians.”

…. and how many aircraft did Genghis Khan use to brutally wipe out entire cities & cultures?
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in a single day by Mongol forces.

Mass killing of civilians is routine in world history — armies with swords & spears are very effective against defenseless civilians. Ailerons were unnecessary to that purpose.

22 David Manheim December 10, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Look at bombings of Berlin, London, Dresden – the last of which killed 135,000 people in a single city over the course of a few days, and “… set the city burning for many more days, littering the streets with charred corpses, including many children.”

Mass killings by such a small group, on that scale, that quickly, was new.

23 Nolan December 10, 2017 at 5:14 pm

…the original assertion was that aircraft made “war much more horrific for civilians” — not that fewer people were needed to kill many civilians. Was dying up close under the Mongol sword less “horrific” than being in the blast of a B-17 aircraft M43 500lb bomb?

The Mongol example dwarfs the Dresden event. Mongols sometimes attacked with over 200,000 warriors, with a horrific Surrender or Die ultimatum to large civilian populations. Iranian historian Rashid al-Din (1247–1318) reports the Mongols quickly killed more than 700,000 people in city of Merv and over 1,000,000 in Nishapur. Some of these ancient cities were uninhabitable for years due to the rotting corpses an invasion of rats. Mongols were extremely good at terrorizing and exterminating mass civilian populations. Asian history is full of other examples.

24 Sfoil December 10, 2017 at 8:22 pm

Aerial bombing could have made war much more horrific to civilians than it had been before, in living memory, without it having made warfare absolutely the worst in human history. Particularly in Europe, norms had developed well before the early 20th century which made Mongol-style slaughter unheard-of. I can’t think of any exterminatory massacres that occurred after the Thirty Years War, and I think the last European city to be “sacked” in the old style was probably during the Napoleonic Wars. 19th-century armies did often destroy civilian property, infrastructure, and food stocks for a variety of reasons, and this undoubtedly led indirectly to people dying, but they never (or rarely and on a small scale) engaged in the mass killing of civilians.

Anyway, strategic bombing not only made war much more dangerous to civilians in Europe, it also made them vulnerable *even when their own national armies were still combat effective*. The latter point was the real novelty; historically you had to at least beat the other guy’s army before you killed all of their civilians.

I’d also point out that the acts you’re describing were a major part of the reason the Europeans considered themselves morally superior to Orientals. I’m not sure who you’re trying to convince of anything by detailing Tatar savagery.

25 vinny December 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm

“Mongols sometimes attacked with over 200,000 warriors”

Okay, but the Mongol hoard was so rare that we’re still talking about it 800 years later. Equivalent and worse destruction of civilians by air counts into the 100s of events in the last century.

26 clockwork_prior December 10, 2017 at 4:35 am

‘… before many others understood the potential’ of needing to store materials that will last for thousands of years without any outward indication of their deadly nature, not to mention the safe handling and storage of heavy metals that are toxic regardless of their radioactivity.

And yes, electricity really is too cheap to meter these days, isn’t it? From AEC chairman Lewis Strauss in 1954 – ‘”Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter… It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”‘

H.G. Wells looks a lot better with his take on the future, with airplanes dropping atomic bombs on cities – which did happen a generation after he wrote World Set Free in 1914.

27 So Much For Subtlety December 10, 2017 at 5:35 am

If nattering nabobs of negativity had not been allowed to get their way, we might have power that is too cheap to meter. We certainly have seen periodic regional famines disappear into history as Socialism slowly dies and is replaced by freedom. We do travel effortlessly over the seas – goods especially have become absurdly cheap to ship overseas. We fly at minimal cost and great speed pretty much everywhere. Flying is one of the safest ways to travel. Lives have become longer as diseases have disappeared. These days in Europe children have died of rickets because no doctor even recognized it.

All in all, this man sounds pretty spot on. A generally sound and interesting man no doubt. What we need to do is take a leaf out of Hotblack Desiato’s play book and we will have that power too cheap to meter in no time.

28 Todd K December 10, 2017 at 6:54 am

“And yes, electricity really is too cheap to meter these days, isn’t it? From AEC chairman Lewis Strauss in 1954 – ‘”Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter… ”

He was on the right track. The U.S. cost of retail residential electricity in 2014 dollars in 1960 was 21 cents per kilowatt hour and 13 cents in 2014. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=20372

29 clockwork_prior December 10, 2017 at 9:43 am

Any idea of the cost of decommissioning reactors will be? And who will pay for it?

That is actually a real question. Because the early indications coming from Germany suggest that one reason the nuclear power industry remains so desperate to avoid being shut down is that the real costs of decommissioning, the ones always being pushed off into the future, can no longer be hidden or at least put off long enough that it is someone else’s problem (though in the case of Germany, the taxpayers are on the hook for the long term storage costs – just one of those deals that the German nuclear power industry had in hand while profiting off the sale of electricity).

30 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 9:47 am

Nuclear wasn’t beaten in theory, it was beaten in practice. Old people just don’t notice.

“Research has shown that solar power would be a less costly way of generating the equivalent amount of power, and now the government’s own projections show that onshore wind too will be cheaper than nuclear by the time Hinkley is built.” … Around half of that came from on and offshore wind combined.Aug 11, 2016

31 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

A bunch of data at this link. In the US solar pv, best practices, beats median nuclear. So I say to more best practice solar.


32 albert magnus December 10, 2017 at 4:58 am

Pre-nuclear fission, nuclear power was a pretty bad idea. Non-fission Radioisotope power is good for things like space probes you are sending to Saturn, but they aren’t strong enough to turn a turbine and too dangerous for local use.

33 clockwork_prior December 10, 2017 at 5:09 am

But we have managed to create thousands of tons of high quality radioisotopes, and though locally scattered is not accurate, there are undoubtedly several hundred places in the U.S. alone where such materials can be found in quantities greater than those used by a space probe.

34 rayward December 10, 2017 at 7:02 am

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Of course, that’s the famous quip by Cowen’s friend Peter Thiel. I recently linked to an article in the NYT that Silicon Valley is being courted by the war industry, to incorporate the technology developed by the boy wonders for commerce to the war industry (big data, algorithms, etc.). Leaders in Silicon Valley have shunned efforts to recruit the boy wonders for the war industry. Those same leaders once shunned efforts to recruit them and their technology in a quest devoted solely to generate as much profits as possible. I don’t doubt one day Cowen will have his flying car, developed jointly by the boy wonders and the war industry.

35 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 8:42 am

As regards personal flight, I think the underappreciated angle is energy. It takes a lot more energy to fly than to roll on wheels. Proponents of flying cars just assumed that the energy would come from somewhere, be widely affordable.

(Supersonic flight takes horrendous amounts of energy. Same story.)

To really make a magic future we need 10x cheaper energy. Candidates? Maybe solar rooftops everywhere.

36 ChrisA December 10, 2017 at 10:45 am

“Supersonic flight takes horrendous amounts of energy” – actually not necessarily.

By Google, Concorde used 16.7 lites per passenger per 100km. This is almost exactly 1 bbl of oil per 1,000 Km. New York to London is about 5,000 Km, so the fuel use from NY to London on Concorde was about $500 in total (taking $100/bbl), a mere fraction of the cost to buy a ticket, which was around $15,000. And this is 1960’s technologies, I am sure that today fuel cost would be much lower. Most of the cost of flying supersonic was the cost of building and maintaining the aircraft, if a new version of Concorde was made that was available in large numbers, it potentially could compete on the longer routes on the basis of higher operating availability.

37 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 11:08 am

“And this is 1960’s technologies, I am sure that today fuel cost would be much lower.”

No one has repealed physics, and no one has invented an airplane with “much lower” coefficient of drag.

The lower bound of CD,0 drops sharply from a value of about 0.040 in 1920 to a value of about 0.021 in the early 1930’s. A smaller reduction in the lower bound values Of CD,0 took place in the years between the early 1930’s and the years of World War II. The general aviation aircraft of today show a spread in the values Of CD,O from near the upper bound to near the lower bound. The lower bound curve shows the dramatic reduction in CD,0 that accompanied the basic change in airplane configuration from a strut-and-wire-braced biplane with a fixed landing gear to the highly streamlined, internally braced monoplane with retractable landing gear. As indicated in chapter 4, this transformation had largely taken place for high-performance operational aircraft by the early 1930’s.


38 ChrisA December 11, 2017 at 12:00 am

Drag hasn’t been repealed (although today’s aircraft could fly higher or even outside the earths atmosphere) but engines have got much better.

39 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 11:19 am
40 Mulp December 10, 2017 at 3:27 pm

Concorde was built by government, so obviously it’s costs are many times what the free market private capital cost would be.

Elon Musk will deliver faster than supersonic passenger service with BFR, which will fly into space to travel most of the distance ballisticly in near vacuum before landing on its tail like in the sci-fi movies and TV of the 50s and 60s. For short distances, Elon Musk’s hyperloop will allow travel from dense urban area to dense urban are at high speed by creating a partial vacuum to raise the speed of supersonic.

When governments the solution it’s obviously wrong.

Therefore, the return of any supersonic planes is stupid.

41 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 8:04 pm

While I would not be the first to ride a “hyperlink”, I don’t mind private enterprise trying them. And yes, vacuum is a way to beat the “drag is approximately proportional to the square of the speed” problem.

42 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 8:46 am

By the way, I got the breadmaker out of the closet(*) this morning. The breadmaker is a Good Robot. This is a science fiction future.

* – for avocado toast breakfast!

43 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 9:11 am

By the way, related on the basis of “our future” and “the [world] connected by [wires]”, Comcast has been caught injecting code into customer web pages.


Good commentary at ycombinator, the second link.

44 Jay December 10, 2017 at 2:39 pm

“As late as 1971, Isaac Asimov was still expecting that VTOL [vertical take-off and landing system] machines would eventually take the place of automobiles.”

Sorry, gravity is a bitch.

45 Mark Thorson December 10, 2017 at 3:19 pm

In the 19th century, prominent neurologist S. Weir-Mitchell was blaming the telephone for causing psychiatric disorders broadly termed hysteria. You’ve got this apparatus which can ring at anytime without warning. Surely a source of stress.

46 jorod December 10, 2017 at 10:12 pm

Check out Bucky Fuller’s book on nuclear power, Oblivion or Utopia. Prophets are a 50-50 proposition.

47 RafaelR December 10, 2017 at 11:44 pm

Actually airplanes didnt make war substantially more horrific in fact they might have reduced casualties. The reason is that the main effect of airpower on warfare is not on inflicting losses directly on the enemy (artillery strikes and mortars are much more effective means to do that) instead airpower’s main effect is on disruption of troop movement and supply lines which essentially reduce the enemy’s mobility and effectiveness. It proved decisive in Italy in 1943-44 when the allies didn’t outnumber the Germans by a margin large enough to compensate their qualitative inferiority and so airpower proved decisive in enabling allied advance in that front by disrupting German supplies and movements. In effect airpower is just a much more expensive way of sabotage behind the enemy lines. Although maybe today with laser guided bombs airpower became a more effective method of inflicting losses on the enemy than in the past. In WW1 aircraft were responsible for less than a 0.5% of all losses and in WW2 they were responsible for about 4% of casualties in Italy. I wonder what’s the relative importance of airpower for modern engagements like Iraq 2003.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: