A history of the first-flight race documents the efforts of such Wright brothers competitors as the Smithsonian’s Samuel Pierpont Langley, motorcyclist Glenn Curtiss, and Alexander Graham Bell.
It is probably just a coincidence that two of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century were fifty years apart, more or less. Both of them celebrate an anniversary in 2003. The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA occurred in 1953 and the first flight of the Wright Brothers in North Carolina happened in 1903. James Tobin chronicles the latter event in TO CONQUER THE AIR.
The discovery of DNA exemplifies most laboratory research: safe, sterile and subdued, with no risk of personal danger. This discovery was a great intellectual adventure, but without great physical challenge. Aviation is different and it continues to be different to this day, especially given the recent loss of seven brave aviation pioneers in the skies over Texas in a manner in which the Wright Brothers could have envisioned only in their most far-flung fantasies.
TO CONQUER THE AIR is primarily a story of intellectual discovery. It follows the parallel work of the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio and Dr. Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution, all of whom were working on powered aircraft in the early days of the twentieth century. The Wright Brothers are famous but unknown; they appear together in our collective unconsciousness on one windy day at Kitty Hawk and then vanish like smoke, brothers but not individuals. Langley’s name is attached to an air force base in Virginia but is otherwise forgotten. Tobin does the reader a signal service in bringing the Wrights and Langley to colorful life and in reminding us of the debt we owe to them.
Langley’s tale is the least known. He was an astronomer who developed an interest in powered flight late in life. As the president of the Smithsonian Institution, he was perfectly placed to lead the aviation revolution. He had the scientific knowledge, the insight and the necessary funding from an Army contract to build a prototype “aerodrome”. He worked with some of the top engineers in the country to build a lightweight gasoline engine to power his craft. An unmanned version flew for about a mile in initial tests. But the great aerodrome was destined for a series of disasters, mostly in the full glare of national publicity.
The Wright Brothers had none of these advantages, but Tobin painstakingly explains how they were able to achieve powered flight when the best minds in the country could not. Their work on gliders, their research on lift and their intimate knowledge of the winds at Kill Devil Hill on the North Carolina coast all gave them an edge over Langley. One of the most memorable passages in the book describes how Charlie Taylor, the Wright’s mechanic at their bicycle shop, put together a lightweight 12-horsepower gasoline engine out of spare parts, easily outdoing the best engine that Langley could provide for his craft.
The story of the race for flight is not especially romantic at times and it gets bogged down in arcane period details. Tobin might have been better advised to leave out the endless wrangling about the position of the Wrights’ father in the United Brethren Church, or the kite experiments of Alexander Graham Bell. But Tobin tells his detailed, exacting story well and makes the mysteries of flight comprehensible. He never forgets how dangerous the whole project was (and still is, at times) and brings the Wright Brothers out of the dust of history and into the reader’s imaginations — as individuals, no less. TO CONQUER THE AIR is a fine book that provides a signal service in illuminating the discovery of flight.