Thursday, April 25, 2019

Breakthrough, episode 2: “The Airplane” (PBS-TV, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. last night I switched away from MS-NBC to watch the second episode of the PBS series Breakthrough, “The Airplane,” which wasn’t as interesting as the first episode, “The Telescope,” but like “The Telescope” it made the important point that human progress occurs in small but steady leaps. It’s the point Cory Doctorow made in his recent speech at the San Diego Central Library when he argued that the concept of “intellectual property” has its limits and doesn’t really analogize well to physical property because when physical property is stolen, it changes hands, so the thief owns it and its rightful owner doesn’t. When intellectual property is appropriated, both the original owner and the one who comes after it have possession of it — and, this show argues (and Doctorow would agree), there need to be restrictions on copyrights and other intellectual property laws because each new writer, artist or researcher builds on what others have done before him or her, and unless we allow that process to happen we don’t have progress. The show began with a 9th Century Arab whose name escapes me (and PBS has become woefully deficient on documenting their programs — their Web site is designed more for people who want to stream the program than for those who’ve already seen it and want to know who made it and who their sources were), who threw himself off a cliff and actually flew (he basically invented hang gliding), landing more or less safely after the wind no longer held his wings aloft. “The Airplane” discussed the various technologies for heavier-than-air flight that were either confined to the drawing board (like Leonardo da Vinci’s, which might have worked if the technology of the time had had an engine capable of supplying motive power for it) or didn’t work, largely because for centuries humans had the misconception that the reason birds could fly was the energy they created by flapping their wings.

One of the heroes of this show was Sir George Cayley, a 19th century British polymath who was actually called “the British Leonardo,” who not only realized (by observing seagulls and the long glides they make without flapping their wings) that flapping is not the way birds generate lift, but the trick is they angle their wings so they can catch the air currents and not only propel themselves forwards in the air but also steer. The show also noted that there was a competing technology for human flight — balloons — which already existed by the end of the 18th century, well over 100 years before powered flight in heavier-than-air craft, and for quite some time, until the disastrous crashes of the U.S.S. Shenandoah in 1925 and the Hindenburg in 1937, it was unclear whether the future of human flight lay in lighter-than-air dirigibles or heavier-than-air planes. One of the quirkier figures mentioned is the German glider designer and pilot Otto Lilienthal, who spent his family’s fortunes devising more and more sophisticated gliders until in 1896 he crashed and was killed in one. The show mentions the Wright Brothers and treats them in an unusual way; a really hot-looking blond British inventor (whom Charles thought looked oddly like a priest, to which I replied, “Only if there’s a church out there that dresses their priests in leather”) reconstructed not the Wright Brothers’ first powered plane in 1903, but the glider they tested at the same location — Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — in 1902, on which they figured out the “wing-warping” system that enabled them to steer. (Oddly, one aviation pioneer the show did not mention was Glenn Curtiss, who improved the Wright brothers’ design by inventing the aileron, the flap on a plane’s wing that provides a more effective and reliable way to steer it than warping its entire wing. His contribution was so important that when his and the Wright Brothers’ companies merged, he got top-billing and the combined company’s name was Curtiss-Wright.)

The show took a detour to Isombard Kingdom Brunel, who had nothing to do with aviation but who built the first ocean-crossing ship made of iron, and the researcher who figured out how to navigate that ship by putting a compass inside water and suspending it with a gyroscope, since magnetic compasses didn’t work with all that iron around attracting their needles and sending them haywire — the significance of this invention for aviation was it provided a way for airplane pilots to navigate by instruments without necessarily being able to see where they were going (although not all pilots possess this skill — Buddy Holly and John Kennedy, Jr. both died because they flew in conditions that required navigation by instruments with pilots that didn’t know how to do that — in Kennedy’s case, himself). The show then went on to cover later developments in aviation, particularly the pressurized cabin system invented by Wiley Post (who, ironically, would die in a plane crash in the Arctic in 1935 while flying with the entertainer Will Rogers) and the jet engine, which they credit to a British researcher named Frank Whittie who apparently worked out the basic principle in 1928, though he wasn’t ready to deploy it until 1941 — which makes it really ironic that the British did not build jet planes for use in World War II, while the Germans (using a similar design by Hans de Ohain from 1936) did fly jets (though by the time they started making them their production infrastructure had suffered so much from Allied bombing they weren’t able to make very many, and by 1944 Hitler was more interested in using jet engines to power the V-1 drone bombers than building and deploying jet fighters). The show ends on a futuristic note, suggesting a revival of interest in supersonic commercial airliners as well as offering a design for an all-electric plane (one which would use electricity, rather than combustible fuel, to power a jet). Though not as compelling as “The Telescope,” “The Airplane” was quite a good program and once again made the point that scientific discoveries are made by one researcher building on the work of his or her predecessors, and another researcher building on that work, and so on in a kind of invention daisy chain — and while patents can encourage invention by promising the inventor a chance at a monopoly and the income deriving from it, they can also discourage invention by keeping one researcher away from a topic that seems to be “owned” by another.