The Wright brothers

Though he broke both legs, Eilmer the flying monk of Malmesbury is reputed to have exceeded a furlong (40 rods) in his experimental flight of 1010 AD, inspired by the legend of Daedalus — father of Icarus; artist, craftsman, and Leonardo from the age of Homer. We do not find working drawings of Eilmer’s flying machine, in the Gesta Regum Anglorum, only the hint that it might have resembled a biplane. But like the Chinese (who were experimenting with manned flight a few centuries earlier), he would have had working knowledge of kites, and other airborne mediaeval contrivances.

Children of his day played with drawstring helicopter toys, for instance; and depictions of angels in contemporary art show a growing understanding of camber in the design of wings. We needn’t assume Eilmer was naïve.

Having correctly deduced that something Newton would later analyze as gravity, could provide him with something later called momentum, if he affixed wings, he saw a way forward through the breeze. For contrary to most modern teaching, mediaeval men had also observed the wind, and were thus surprisingly familiar with the properties of air.

It started well, from the tower of the old (later rebuilt) Malmesbury Abbey, leaning into an updraft and gaining additional ground clearance from the downward slope of the fields to the Abbey’s south-west. Eilmer was sailing triumphantly along. But then he experienced certain aviatory control problems — chiefly on the pitch axis though perhaps first on the yaw — that left him lame for the rest of his life.

Witnesses there seem to have been aplenty, and doubt there is little that the flight occurred. Still, it wouldn’t be acceptable to the American authorities who credit the Wright brothers with the original manned, powered flight, a scant 993 years later. First: there was no mechanical engine. Second: Eilmer used the height of the tower for his launch, instead of the catapult the Wrights used. Third: the witnesses weren’t American.

“Engine schmengine,” Eilmer would have replied. For he realized after the flight (as William of Malmesbury records), that what he needed was a tail. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a condition to develop his invention, and perhaps short on volunteers for the next flight. (The Chinese had used death-row prisoners to pilot the kites off their towers.) Too, his Abbot had told him that, “enough is enough.”

Various further criteria are applied, to put the Wrights ahead of, say, the Frenchman, Clément Ader, whose steam-powered and gorgeously bat-winged Éole left the ground at Brie, in October 1890. Owing to an extremely poor power-to-weight ratio, it did not get very high or very far, but then, the first Wright flight near Kitty Hawk wasn’t that impressive, either.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of lawyering to establish the Wrights’ priority over, say, the Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, merrily flying his gas-propelled dirigible around the new Eiffel Tower; or for that matter the manned, steerable balloons that began littering the French skies from 1783.

Work on powered, controlled flight in the United States was far behind that in France, or England, but fell farther behind thanks to the Wright brothers. Fixated on the problem of converting invention into wealth, they pursued rival aviators around the USA with teams of lawyers. Their numerous, voluminous, cumbersome lawsuits were based on often fanciful patent claims, emerging from their own intensely secretive research.

One thinks for instance of the great aviator, Louis Paulhan (first to fly London to Manchester), who arrived with two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes to give flying demonstrations across the USA. Amazed at the workings of the American judicial system, but ignoring legal injunctions to prevent them from flying their machines, they took every prize at the Los Angeles Air Meet in January 1910, setting new records for altitude and endurance.

The Wrights were present, there as elsewhere, though never competing. They and their gaggle of lawyers followed Paulhan and the other foreigners around the country, serving them with process papers, and demanding unbelievably huge sums to call off their dogs, in vile and obvious attempts at extortion. And then they’d hit the local impresarios with additional suits to impound all the cash from ticket sales, &c. Truly: vicious and contemptible men.

To avoid fines or imprisonment in backwoods American jurisdictions, the visitors took to giving their demonstrations entirely for free, but still the lawsuits kept coming. Finally they gave up and went home.

Part of the reason for Canada’s early advances in aviation (first flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck in Cape Breton, with its ingenious ailerons, &c) was the migration of American inventors, such as the brilliant motor-mechanic Glenn Curtiss, to safe territory away from the corrupt and unpredictable U.S. courts.

This, I suspect, was among the reasons that the spectacularly inventive Scotchman, Alexander Graham Bell, re-located from his grand mansion in Washington, DC. At first he went north, back to Canada (where he had settled before), only for the summers; but soon he was staying through the winters, too. Not only in flight, but in all the many other areas of his pioneering work (he invented the telephone, &c), he was afflicted with lawsuits from American cranks, with those dollar signs twirling in their eyes and the slick lawyers lining up behind them, ready to exploit a patent regime wide open to political manipulation. For apart from the beauty of the Bras d’Or landscape, Bell was back under the protection of British Common Law.