Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Smithsonian Celebrates Orville and Wilbur Wright

Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
One great thing about Washington, DC is visiting all the various Smithsonian museums.  They feature one-of-a-kind artifacts and world-class collections and make them available for free to all visitors.  Add a heavy concentration on scientific exhibits, and you have the perfect organization for supporting citizen science.

One thing they also do well is telling the story of science and the people behind important technological advances.  Nothing illustrates the story-telling, and the power of citizen science, better than the "Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age" exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.  So when you help support the Smithsonian you help tell the story of how two bicycle mechanics with a vision changed the world and created the era of powered flight.

While much has been written about the entrepreneurial spirit of Orville and Wilbur Wright, and about their place in history, much less has been written about the duo as citizen scientists.  But the James Tobin book "To Conquer the Air" does a great job of it.  The book is also the story of competition between the scientific "establishment", personified by Samuel Langley and his attempts to build the first powered airplane, and that of the Wright's. For despite the resources Langley had at his disposal they were never enough. In fact, he spent over $70,000 (a huge sum at the time) on his own flying machine while the brothers spent just under $1,000 in materials and travel to Kitty Hawk by the time of their first sustained flight.

It is also a book about experimentation and challenging assumptions that have never been tested.  For example, pioneering scientist Otto Lilienthal had created a series of tables on lift that helped define how wings should be built and dictated the size of potential planes.  Everyone followed these tables except for the Wrights.  Through work with hand-constructed wind tunnels they re-wrote these tables and used the calculations to design their own flying machine. 

Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute had warned that any glider with wings longer than twelve feet was inherently dangerous, since it could not be controlled by shifting one's weight. Will had never made a free flight in a glider. Yet ... he chose to defy the world's only authorities on the basis of only his own calculations and preliminary experiments. 

Replicas and examples of these are showcased at the Smithsonian's exhibit, so you too can perfrom the same tests and learn more about the dynamics of flight.  But despite this success the book also describes the less-glamorous side of citizen science and the experimental method.  In one memorable passage, Tobin writes:
"[Learning to fly] was going to be an athletic endeavor, and its principal goal would be proper balance, as in skating or bicycling or gymnastics. When first mounting the parallel bars or the bicycle seat, you simply tried it, expecting to fall.  So it would be with this.  In the instant of the fall you might have an idea about how you could have turned your body differently or placed a hand elsewhere.  You tried again, fell again, considered, adjusted.  In this way he would learn new things.  He would attempt to build on others' successes, paricularly [Otto] Lilienthal's, with the aim of  answering the question he an Orville apparently had discusse off and on for years."
Wilbur Wright also dealt with the problems of how to become a voice in the growing field while being a non-degreed amateur with bright ideas.  Despite his personal confidence and the important insights being developed in their Ohio bike shop, he needed the intellectual and emotional support of the scientific community.  So they continued to blaze forward, even sharing many of their insights with famed Octave Chanute who took them under his wing for a time.  In a letter to Chanute he wrote:

I make no secret of my plans...for the reason that I believe no financial profit will accrue to the inventor of the first flying machine, and that only those who are willing to give as well as to receive suggestions can hope to link their names with the honor of its discovery.  The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret. 
Of course this part wasn't exactly true.  There was money to be gained...not just by the sale of patents and the Wright's sale of planes to the military but also in the many prize purses offered by countries and foundations to stimulate flight.  Everyone had an interest in those days and wanted to see powered flight.  So flight challenges and races were a popular way to move the field forward.  These would be the precursor to bounties won by Lindbergh when he crossed the Atlantic, and which organizations like Innocentive and XPrize use to stimulate citizen science today.  But the love of science for its own sake still remains, as Tobin summarizes the brothers' efforts over the years:

In 1899 and 1900, Wilbut Wright had pursued the problem of flight as a diversion, a hobby, a sport, with only a distant glimpse of the possibility of fame and fortune.  His brother had joined for the fun of it.  In 1901 and 1902 the hobby became a hermetic scientific quest.  Orville joined in earnest, and all the brothers cared for was to solve a mystery that obsessed them.
All of this is shown, and told, at the Smithsonian.  The story is fascinating and the exhibit is open to anyone, free of charge.  All this wonder and excitement, and a piece of history, made available through the generosity of James Smithson and the American taxpayer.  But won't you help them out?  Keep this exhibit and all others promoting citizen science by making a donation to the Smithsonian today.  I've set everything up for you on the right hand side of my blog, and I'll donate $5 of my own to every person who contributes.  Together we can preserve these stories for the future and encourage a whole new generation of groundbreaking citizen scientists.


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