Historian Joseph Corn
Interview with Historian Joseph Corn.
At the turn of the century, what was the public attitude towards the possibility of flight?
I think the American attitude towards the possibility of flight at the turn of the century was very ambivalent, very interesting. On the one hand, Americans were so pro-technology and it was an inventive age. All kinds of new patents, new machines, new devices from galoshes to mass produced nails and bicycles were coming down the pike. And so there was a widespread expectation that well, automobiles are here, electric trolleys are here, airplanes must be next. On the other hand, flight was such a formidable challenge. So many people had tried for so long and failed.
What was the public attitude about flight when the Wright Brothers entered the scene?
When the Wright Brothers began seriously to try to build a flying machine to solve the problem of aerial navigation as it was sometimes called, there was widespread interest in the problem. There was considerable experimentation going on. A lot of backyard inventors. And that term can be seen as sort of negative. But many American mechanical inventions came from backyard or barnyard inventors. So there's nothing, no disrespect intended there. But what all of these inventors didn't understand was the physics of flying, which the Wrights despite there being bicycle mechanics really had a sense of some of the scientific challenges that had to be first solved before you could then move to designing and building an airplane.
When the Wrights finally flew in 1903 why didn't their press release cause a sensation?
One of the big puzzles is why the press release that the Wrights put out after leaving the ground for the first time in human history in a powered plane in December of 1903, why were people so lackadaisical? Why did so few newspapers pick it up? I think that the press had been burned many times before by claims of successful flights by inventors of one sort or another. and someone would go out and investigate, and the inventor had a plan or perhaps a machine in a model form, but no results. And so I think the Wrights were a victim of that. A second factor is that many people were confused. Not just lay people, by the terminology. Airship was commonly used as a term in those years to refer both to a lighter than air, gas lifted, aircraft. And to a heavier than air, true airplane or glider. And the Wright press release was picked up by a few papers and this was all jumbled. It was called an airship, the machine, and the true significance, the unusualness of what they had done was just not known.
In thinking about the response to the airplane in the early 20th century it may be helpful to remember what Ben Franklin said in response to the first balloon flight which he personally witnessed in Paris in the 1780s. And overhearing some skeptic say, "Well, what good is this," as the balloon ascended into the sky, Franklin is reported to have said, "Well, what use is a newborn baby?" And like any infant technology, anything new, what it's good for remains to be discovered, and remains to be invented.