EETimes - June 4, 2012 - (Page 42)
Wright brothers’ story has engineering overtones
By Aubrey Kagan
It’s nearly summer, that rapturous time when it becomes socially acceptable to lounge on a beach with book—digital or print—and lose yourself for a while. So we’ve dusted off the Engineer’s Bookshelf blog, and EE Lifers are furiously holding forth on reads that have them mesmerized and inspired. Take a gander at the reviews posted at http://bit.ly/JrBz8s, and then let us know what’s on your reading list this summer by sending your book review to firstname.lastname@example.org. — Naomi Price
THERE USED TO BE A STATUE of
the Wright brothers in the main concourse at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. I first saw it when I was seven, on my first trip by air, going from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Israel. I have been fascinated by flight ever since. When I saw The Flyers at my public library, I just had to read it. Noah Adams’ biography of the famous pair is part travelogue, part historical account. It covers not only the lives and travels of the Wright brothers themselves, but also those of the rest of the family, frequently in some detail. Adams quotes a U.S. Army pilot’s observation that today, all pilots are trained by someone who has experience, whereas “the Wrights had to learn how to do it themselves. And when they crashed, they didn’t know if it was their design or their flying.” I think this is the crux of the book. We all know that the Wrights developed their plane during an age when innovation and inventors were flourishing. 42 Bill Bryson’s excellent book Made in America covers part of the period. The Wrights also hailed from Dayton, Ohio, which led the country in per capita patent grants at the time. Indeed, the notion that the Wrights might not be the first to fly appears never to have crossed their minds. They were confident that they knew what they were doing, and they tackled their challenges as engineers would, researching the existing body of work and taking a methodical, scientific approach to development. The Smithsonian had sponsored some attempts at flight, for example, and the Wrights accessed those records. In the 18th century, John Smeaton had calculated the coefficients of lift and drag, and the Wrights referenced that work, as well as the work on early gliders done by Otto Lilienthal and others. The brothers suffered numerous setbacks as they attempted to launch gliders before their powered flight. They almost gave up until they did some pioneering work with a “wind tunnel” that in fact was nothing more than a fan.
The Flyers: In Search Of Wilbur & Orville Wright. By Noah Adams. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
Adams discusses the Wrights’ travels and work at length but glosses over patent squabbles
Through that work, they discovered that the Smeaton coefficients were significantly off, and their recalculated value gave them the edge they needed. They had also figured out how to design the propeller, treating it as a rotating wing. They even had to develop their own engine. The Wrights were awarded a military aircraft-development contract that gave them $25,000 and 200 days to hit the contracted milestone. One of their early competitors was a group led by Alexander Graham Bell and Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who were at the military evaluation of the Wrights’ plane and took movies of the tests. Rumors persist today that Bell cribbed the design of the telephone, so perhaps this was an example of industrial spying. The flight test for the military ended in a disastrous crash and the first powered-aircraft fatality. Orville’s passenger, Army First Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who had piloted a Bell/Curtiss
Electronic Engineering Times June 4, 2012
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