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Tags airplanes , lord kelvin , scientific american , Wilbur Wright , William Thomson

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Old 11th April 2008, 07:39 AM   #1
Rodney
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Scientists and Engineers Who Thought Heavier Than Air Flying Machines Were Impossible

In this thread, Robin argues that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." However, according to -- http://technology.newscientist.com/c...ref=specrt15_p --

"The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that 'heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible', only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later."

Further, as late as January 1905 -- more than a year after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight -- Scientific American magazine expressed skepticism about whether they had flown. An article titled "The Wright Aeroplane and its Fabled Performance" states: "If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face--even if he has to scale a fifteen-story sky-scraper to do so-- would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?" See http://invention.psychology.msstate....ightSiAm1.html

So, prior to the Wright Brothers flights being confirmed as fact, how many well-known scientists and engineers questioned whether heavier than air flying machines were possible?

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Old 11th April 2008, 07:41 AM   #2
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Wilbur Wright, 1901: "Man will not fly for a thousand years!"


Of course, he wasn't a household name, then. Does it still count?

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Old 11th April 2008, 07:48 AM   #3
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We're lucky that impossible heavier than air flight is not part of religious dogma or we would still be told to believe that heavier than air flight is not possible.

.
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:23 AM   #4
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Since birds are heavier than air, I can't imagine how anyone observant could have concluded that such machines are impossible. Maybe they thought angelic assistance or a pinch of pixie dust was necessary?

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Old 11th April 2008, 08:28 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by bokonon View Post
Since birds are heavier than air, I can't imagine how anyone observant could have concluded that such machines are impossible. Maybe they thought angelic assistance or a pinch of pixie dust was necessary?
I wonder if any engineers were ever misquoted. That is, did they throw down a wrench one night and yell in disgust, "*******, this ******* thing'll never work in a thousand years!" , when what they really meant was, "I can get this thing working tomorrow, if only I can figure out this problem. I need a drink."?

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Old 11th April 2008, 08:36 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
In this thread, Robin argues that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." However, according to -- http://technology.newscientist.com/c...ref=specrt15_p --

"The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that 'heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible', only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later."

Further, as late as January 1905 -- more than a year after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight -- Scientific American magazine expressed skepticism about whether they had flown. An article titled "The Wright Aeroplane and its Fabled Performance" states: "If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face--even if he has to scale a fifteen-story sky-scraper to do so-- would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?" See http://invention.psychology.msstate....ightSiAm1.html

So, prior to the Wright Brothers flights being confirmed as fact, how many well-known scientists and engineers questioned whether heavier than air flying machines were possible?
I think there is possibly an error with your question. First note that manned balloon flights had been going on for several centuries, and at least a century of parachute jumps from them. Second, note that everybody knew about rockets, birds and bugs flying. Manned gliders had been around for what, two or three decades.

What they were skeptical about was a propulsion system that would enable manned heavier than air flight using machines with wings. So their skepticism may have been rightfully based on extrapolating from the capability of the steam engine to power such aircraft.

Problems with geometric scaling were well understood, as an example a boat twice the size weighed eight times as much and needed way more than twice as much sail. Etc. They probably thought that scaling from small known flying things like birds was impossible, and on good reason.

The Wright brothers invention was predicated on a new gasoline powerplant and then and only then, could their engineering skills produce success.

"We are always propulsion limited".

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Old 11th April 2008, 08:38 AM   #7
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I always thought it was in reference to powered heavier than air flight.

Engines were mostly large, heavy and low powered and it was reasonable to assume that it would be impossible if a little short-sighted.

I've never bothered to check and that hasn't changed.

.

ETA: mhaze obviously has checked and posts quicker than I.
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:43 AM   #8
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Kelvin's quote is quite an interesting case. He made it in 1895, four years after Otto Lilienthal had started making regular heavier-than-air flights in his glider. I haven't seen the quote in context, but I wonder if he meant "not practical" rather "not possible".

Interestingly enough one of Kelvin's own students was killed in a glider accident (i.e. a heavier-than-air machine) in 1898. He was planning to fit a Daimler engine to it and could have pipped the Wright Brothers to the first powered flight by a good few years had he successfully done so. He was inspired to work with gliders by Lilienthal, who had also been killed in a glider crash a couple of years beforehand. None of this would have helped to persuade Kelvin that he was far wrong, I suspect.

And if he was wrong, so what? Nobody's right all the time and besides, looking at the state-of-the-art in motors in 1895 wouldn't have been very encouraging.
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:48 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by mhaze View Post
The Wright brothers invention was predicated on a new gasoline powerplant and then and only then, could their engineering skills produce success.
Some contemporaries whose name escapes me were doing some interesting work on an aircraft powered with a steam engine.

It didn't work, but it was interesting!
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:55 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by bokonon View Post
Since birds are heavier than air, I can't imagine how anyone observant could have concluded that such machines are impossible.
Robin made this same point on the other thread, but as the newscientist link that I cited notes:

"The problem was set out in 1716 by the scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in an article describing a design for a flying machine. Swedenborg wrote: 'It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body.'

"Swedenborg's design, like so many, was based on a flapping-wing mechanism. Two things had to happen before heavier-than-air flight became possible. First, flapping wings had to be ditched and replaced by a gliding mechanism. And secondly, engineers had to be able to call on a better power supply the internal combustion engine. Ironically, Nicolaus Otto had already patented this in 1877."
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:01 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
And secondly, engineers had to be able to call on a better power supply the internal combustion engine. Ironically, Nicolaus Otto had already patented this in 1877."
Why is this ironic?
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:03 AM   #12
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I wonder if any of the scientists would have agreed that it is impossible in principle. As pointed out, gliders had been around for some time. I assume that many of the scientists would have understood it was just a question of an engine powerful enough to produce the 'headwind' to lift itself and an aircraft off the ground.

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Old 11th April 2008, 09:10 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
"The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that 'heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible', only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later."
Lord Kelvin was a smart guy, so this quote is certainly taken out of context. At the time he said it there were already man-made gliders, and the existence of flying animals makes it obvious that heavier-than-air flight is possible.

I would guess he was referring to the possibility of steam-powered flight (and if so he was correct). He probably did an estimate of how heavy the engine, fuel, and water would need to be and concluded it wasn't possible. To be sure, we would need to know what came before and after that that phrase, but I'd actually be willing to bet on it.

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Old 11th April 2008, 09:12 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
Robin made this same point on the other thread, but as the newscientist link that I cited notes:

"The problem was set out in 1716 by the scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in an article describing a design for a flying machine. Swedenborg wrote: 'It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body.'

"Swedenborg's design, like so many, was based on a flapping-wing mechanism. Two things had to happen before heavier-than-air flight became possible. First, flapping wings had to be ditched and replaced by a gliding mechanism. And secondly, engineers had to be able to call on a better power supply – the internal combustion engine. Ironically, Nicolaus Otto had already patented this in 1877."
Hm, I think this quote by swedenborg is exactly on the money. He's basically saying he needs an engine with a better power to weight ratio than a human using his pecs to fly. I'm not sure what early 'otto motors' did in that respect, but I gather they might not have been that great.
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:32 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by H'ethetheth View Post
Hm, I think this quote by swedenborg is exactly on the money. He's basically saying he needs an engine with a better power to weight ratio than a human using his pecs to fly. I'm not sure what early 'otto motors' did in that respect, but I gather they might not have been that great.
Well, at the era in question, the dynamics of gliding were pretty well understood. Propulsion by flapping wings was not well understood, and isn't too well today either. In the transfer of momentum to an air mass by flapping it's easy to observe that the speed of the flapping wing goes down as one moves from insect to large bird. Drawing a chart of that curve, and/or looking at the speed vs the flying (bug/bird) weight, the conclusion that men were not going to fly by flapping would have been logical and inescapable.

Flapping has inverse characteristics to the required propulsion system. As the object doubles in size, it likely increases in weight by the cube factor, but the flapping surface is 2 dimensional geometry, and that surface is seen in nature to go down in speed of operation, when to maintain the scale relationships the speed should go up. Some other mechanism is required for propulsion. Propellers do this by movement limited to speed of sound at the blade tips, or in water by the cavitation issues.

The two innovations required were
  • the gasoline engine
  • the adaptation of ship propeller to air propeller
Other issues, which were plaguing the early aviators, were control and stability, but those were not central problems. Unlike today, these people were not risk averse, did not have a TV telling them everything they needed to worry about, etc....

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Old 11th April 2008, 10:05 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by richardm View Post
Why is this ironic?
I think the article is alluding to the fact that many prominent late-19th Century scientists and engineers were clinging to their old heavier-than-air flight paradigm of steam power and flapping wings.
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Old 11th April 2008, 10:25 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by mhaze View Post
Unlike today, these people were not risk averse, did not have a TV telling them everything they needed to worry about, etc....
Oh! Ain't that the truth? Where would private spaceflight be if it didn't matter that somebody died pursuing a dream?

(to be clear, by "didn't matter," I specifically mean that risk doesn't become an excuse NOT to pursue a dream under any circumstances. Of course, death always matters to someone)
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Old 11th April 2008, 10:25 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
In this thread, Robin argues that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." However, according to -- http://technology.newscientist.com/c...ref=specrt15_p --

"The number of scientists and engineers who confidently stated that heavier-than-air flight was impossible in the run-up to the Wright brothers' flight is too large to count. Lord Kelvin is probably the best-known. In 1895 he stated that 'heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible', only to be proved definitively wrong just eight years later."

Further, as late as January 1905 -- more than a year after the Wright Brothers' historic first flight -- Scientific American magazine expressed skepticism about whether they had flown. An article titled "The Wright Aeroplane and its Fabled Performance" states: "If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face--even if he has to scale a fifteen-story sky-scraper to do so-- would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?" See http://invention.psychology.msstate....ightSiAm1.html

So, prior to the Wright Brothers flights being confirmed as fact, how many well-known scientists and engineers questioned whether heavier than air flying machines were possible?

Haven't we been here before?
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Old 11th April 2008, 10:42 AM   #19
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A long (for me) internet search finds NO source that quotes any of Kelvin's lines except the "Heavier-than-air...impossible" partr. Would love to see the whole statement!!
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Old 11th April 2008, 11:04 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by Mojo View Post
Haven't we been here before?
Not specifically. Robin claims that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." I am trying to document who believed what with respect to the possibility of heavier-than-air flight.
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Old 11th April 2008, 11:23 AM   #21
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
Not specifically. Robin claims that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." I am trying to document who believed what with respect to the possibility of heavier-than-air flight.
No, you're not. Even if you're unaware of the goalpost moving in the first post, I am.

Every scientist who had seen a bird in flight knew that heavier than air flight was possible. There was legitimately some disagreement about whether powered heavier-than-air flight by human-built machines was possible (the power to weight ratio needed would be extremely high, beyond what 19th century science could build), but both gliders and birds were known to be possible.

The 1905 article you cite does not claim that heavier than air flight is impossible -- but it legitimately expresses skepticism about the claims by the Wright brothers that they've accomplished it (esp. in light of their refusal to conduct further public demonstrations). There's a big difference, for example, between my believing that nuclear fusion is impossible (clearly wrong) or that it is impossible to use controlled nuclear fusion to produce affordable power with current technology (a belief I do in fact hold).

if you try to conflate those two, you are at best misguided and at worst actively deceptive.

Robin was absolutely correct. No one believed that heavier than air flight was impossible -- and Kelvin was right to believe that it wasn't possible for machines built with 1895 technology.
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Old 11th April 2008, 11:55 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by drkitten View Post
Every scientist who had seen a bird in flight knew that heavier than air flight was possible . . . Robin was absolutely correct. No one believed that heavier than air flight was impossible . . .
Simon Newcomb wrote in the October 22, 1903 Independent: "The example of the bird does not prove that man can fly. The hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight which the manager of the machine must add to it over and above that necessary in the bird may well prove an insurmountable obstacle to success." See http://www.garfield.library.upenn.ed...67y1977-78.pdf
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Old 11th April 2008, 12:30 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by Jimbo07 View Post
Oh! Ain't that the truth? Where would private spaceflight be if it didn't matter that somebody died pursuing a dream?

(to be clear, by "didn't matter," I specifically mean that risk doesn't become an excuse NOT to pursue a dream under any circumstances. Of course, death always matters to someone)
For this very reason, to this day FAA regulations specifically allow you to go kill your self in, say, an experimental aircraft (or now, a rocket) provided you are not over populated areas and are not carrying passengers for hire, etc.

There are some places there ain't no nanny state.
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Old 11th April 2008, 12:37 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
Not specifically. Robin claims that "every scientist and intelligent person for thousands of years had known that heavier than air flight was possible since it was an observable, inescapable fact." I am trying to document who believed what with respect to the possibility of heavier-than-air flight.
Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
Simon Newcomb wrote in the October 22, 1903 Independent: "The example of the bird does not prove that man can fly. The hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight which the manager of the machine must add to it over and above that necessary in the bird may well prove an insurmountable obstacle to success." See http://www.garfield.library.upenn.ed...67y1977-78.pdf
Well done. You've found yet another person who believed heavier-than-air flight was possible, and yet another person who believed it possible that man might never fly.
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Old 11th April 2008, 01:49 PM   #25
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From a book on flight written in 1910: http://books.google.com/books?id=r5M...rr=1#PPA276,M1




This is referring to a flight which took place in 1894. Clearly Kelvin would not have said in1895 - as claimed by the OP - that flight was impossible, full stop.

I wonder if this whole thing is just a myth.
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Old 11th April 2008, 02:14 PM   #26
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Is this an attempt at a "they laughed at Gallileo" argument?

Linda
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Old 11th April 2008, 03:16 PM   #27
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Originally Posted by richardm View Post
Interestingly enough one of Kelvin's own students was killed in a glider accident (i.e. a heavier-than-air machine) in 1898. He was planning to fit a Daimler engine to it and could have pipped the Wright Brothers to the first powered flight by a good few years had he successfully done so. .

Percy Pilcher?

Almost. But he didn't have the degree of control that the Wrights developed with their "wing warping" system. A great pioneer nonetheless.
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Old 11th April 2008, 03:17 PM   #28
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Originally Posted by fls View Post
Is this an attempt at a "they laughed at Gallileo" argument?

Linda

Rodney's usual argument, I think.
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Old 11th April 2008, 03:32 PM   #29
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Originally Posted by bokonon View Post
Since birds are heavier than air, I can't imagine how anyone observant could have concluded that such machines are impossible.
Originally Posted by H3LL View Post
I always thought it was in reference to powered heavier than air flight.

Engines were mostly large, heavy and low powered and it was reasonable to assume that it would be impossible if a little short-sighted.
Don't simple rockets (fireworks) pretty much put both of these arguments to rest? Heavier than air and powerful enough to support the entire weight of the craft and hurl it skyward --- and not to mention, completely self contained. Sorry, but I think there was plenty of empirical evidence around (in droves) to inspire the creation of heavier than air flying machines.
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Old 11th April 2008, 03:49 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by fls View Post
Is this an attempt at a "they laughed at Gallileo" argument?

Linda
Or the "They laughed at Adam Sandler" argument.
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Old 11th April 2008, 05:02 PM   #31
sol invictus
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Originally Posted by Just thinking View Post
Don't simple rockets (fireworks) pretty much put both of these arguments to rest? Heavier than air and powerful enough to support the entire weight of the craft and hurl it skyward --- and not to mention, completely self contained. Sorry, but I think there was plenty of empirical evidence around (in droves) to inspire the creation of heavier than air flying machines.
Yeah, and (according to wiki) the first known manned rocket flight took place way back in 1633.

So for Lord Kelvin to have believed powered flight completely impossible is just not credible. If he said that at all, he was probably talking about practical steam-powered flight or something.

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Old 11th April 2008, 07:00 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by sol invictus View Post
From a book on flight written in 1910: http://books.google.com/books?id=r5M...rr=1#PPA276,M1

http://books.google.com/books?id=1AU...708,105&edge=1
http://books.google.com/books?id=1AU...756,824&edge=1

"It was not a startling announcement to the scientific world, therefore, when about three years later the news was flashed that Professor S.P. Langley had produced such an apparatus."

This is referring to a flight which took place in 1894. Clearly Kelvin would not have said in1895 - as claimed by the OP - that flight was impossible, full stop.

I wonder if this whole thing is just a myth.
Consider that Simon Newcomb began his October 1903 Independent article by stating: "Mr. Secretary Langley's trial of his flying machine, which seems to have come to an abortive issue last week . . ." Further consider that the NY Times had this to say about Langley in a December 10, 1903 editorial: "We hope that Professor Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time, and the money involved, in further airship experiments. Life is short, and he is capable of services to humanity incomparably greater than can be expected to result from trying to fly . . . . For students and investigators of the Langley type there are more useful employments, with fewer disappointments and mortifications that have been the portion of aerial navigators since the days of Icarus." See http://www.garfield.library.upenn.ed...55y1977-78.pdf
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Old 11th April 2008, 07:51 PM   #33
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On the other hand, Wilbur Wright's address of the Western Society of Engineers, in September of 1901, was well attended, and it was printed in the society's journal.
That speech was subsequently either reprinted, reported or abstracted in many science and engineering journals. Why would there be that much interest by scientists and engineers (presumably the editors have some idea of what their readers want) if it was generally considered impossible and preposterous by working engineers of the day?
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:47 PM   #34
sol invictus
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Originally Posted by Rodney View Post
Consider that Simon Newcomb...
Now that I've debunked the Lord Kelvin thing, I have to consider someone else?

I don't understand what you're driving at. Sure, many people were skeptical about powered flight. They had good reason to be - after all, people had been trying and failing to achieve it for millenia.

So what?
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Old 11th April 2008, 08:53 PM   #35
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I always get a kick out of people who try to make the argument that science has been wrong before in regards to things we thought were possible, etc. The inference being that they could be wrong now about a great many things as well.

And they could be. But people who make this kind of argument seem to overlook some things:

1) While science has been wrong, it's usually right. No one ever seems to remember where things are correctly predicted and later proven correct in relation to the very few cases where they were wrong. They far outnumber the "mistakes".

2) We understand alot more about the world, time and space and the universe now than ever before. Not that we understand everything, but we know one hell of alot more than we did even just 50-100 years ago. We are in a far better position now to be able to say, with some level of certainty, that certain things are possible or impossible.
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:18 PM   #36
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Originally Posted by mhaze View Post
The two innovations required were
  • the gasoline engine
  • the adaptation of ship propeller to air propeller
Other issues, which were plaguing the early aviators, were control and stability, but those were not central problems.
Control was very much an important issue. Being able to get one's machine into the air means little if it tumbles out of the air a few moments later because it can't be controlled.

My understanding is that one of the things the Wright brothers spent a lot of time on was developing a method by which they could successfully control their aircraft in flight. And it was the fact that they could successfully control their aircraft while in flight is what allowed them to prove unequivocally that they had mastered powered flight.
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:36 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by H'ethetheth View Post
Hm, I think this quote by swedenborg is exactly on the money. He's basically saying he needs an engine with a better power to weight ratio than a human using his pecs to fly. I'm not sure what early 'otto motors' did in that respect, but I gather they might not have been that great.
Indeed, I seem to recall that a key part of the Wright brothers' success was the engine design they and their chief engineer, Charles Taylor, came up with, which was exceptionally light for the time, using a revolutionary aluminum crankcase.
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Old 11th April 2008, 09:58 PM   #38
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You're both right. The Wright patents were actually based on the 1902 glider.
The Wrights built an engine because they couldn't find anyone that offered the power to weight ratio they needed at the power level and reliability that they wanted.

And for those who thought steam powered flight was impractal: a link.
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Old 11th April 2008, 11:59 PM   #39
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Bah! According to this guy, we don't even know how wings really work...

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Old 12th April 2008, 03:13 AM   #40
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Originally Posted by mhaze View Post
The two innovations required were
  • the gasoline engine
  • the adaptation of ship propeller to air propeller
Other issues, which were plaguing the early aviators, were control and stability, but those were not central problems. Unlike today, these people were not risk averse, did not have a TV telling them everything they needed to worry about, etc....
Not quite. John Stringfellow achieved the first powered flight in 1848 in Chard, Somerset, UK.

Quote:
The first result of Stringfellow's efforts was the 1848 machine shown below, which was powered by two contra-rotating propellers driven by one of Stringfellow's powerful and lightweight steam engines. The first attempt to fly the 10 foot wing span machine took place indoors, and a lack of proper balance resulted in a failure and damage to the machine. The second attempt was a rather wonderful success, for the flying machine left a guide wire and flew straight and true for about 30 feet.
http://www.flyingmachines.org/strng.html


Quote:
Stringfellow also demonstrated a steam-powered triplane at an exhibition arranged by the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1868.
When he died in 1883 he left a modest summing up of his work in these words:

"Somebody must do better than I before we succeed with aerial navigation."
http://www.chardmuseum.co.uk/Powered_Flight/

He was right and the Wright Brothers use of a combustion engine allowed this, however, heavier than air powered flight had already been demonstrated to a wide audience. I would have thought that Lord Kelvin would have been aware of this milestone. Unfortunately the Wright Brothers get the popular credit when really Stringfellow should. Perhaps it's manned flight, but I would have thought that Stringfellow would have had a go with that too.

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